The Pleasures of the Personal Essay
June 28, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
There is, perhaps, no current genre of writing as misunderstood as the personal essay. The personal (or literary) essay nowadays is often dismissed as some variation on a “Freshman English” paper, dull at best, and at worst a cliché-ridden five-paragraphs weighed down by unnecessary thesis sentences. Alternately, the personal essay is confused with archaic, meandering pontifications from old dead white guys, British and effete. Or at times the essay form just gets lost in the name game confusion of creative nonfiction. What, for instance, do we call a work of scene-based memoir that runs six manuscript pages? Is it an essay, or a memoir, or a, essay-length memoir? And if it is indeed an essay, then what do we call an essay that isn’t primarily memoir?
I’m confusing even myself.
The downside of all this uncertainty is that too often we fail to recognize that the personal essay is a wonderfully flexible and creative form, as alive and inventive as the writer at the desk wishes it to be.
In its purest and most dynamic state, the essay takes flight when a writer engages a topic – any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. In the hands of contemporary practitioners such as Rebecca Solnit, Brian Doyle, Patrick Madden, or Roxane Gay, the personal essay is an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection.
I’d like the personal essay to generate less confusion, and I’d like more nonfiction writers to see how this flexible form creates opportunities to expand on our “usual” subjects, to find new life and fresh writing pathways emanating from our personal stories.
On Wednesday, I’ll explore all of this in a 75-minute webinar – The Pleasures of the Personal Essay – sponsored by Jane Friedman, examining the myriad forms that an essay can take. The 90-minute course will discuss how the essay fits into contemporary literary publishing, how understanding the flexibility of the essay form can help with “stuckness,” The role of research (and how it can be fun not work), and how to find the best markets (literary magazines and beyond). Participants will leave with useful prompts to help them determine their own essayistic opportunities.
Here are the details. Hope to see you there:
When: Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
Do I have to attend the live class?
No. Everyone who registers will get access to the recording.
A Conversation a Writer Had Late at Night with Her Evil Brain
December 4, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Margaret Elysia Garcia
Writer’s Evil Brain: What are you doing?
Writer: What does it look like I’m doing? I’m making a to-do list. There are things to submit. I kinda thought about that NaNoWriMo thing again but – I just don’t write that way.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Well you never finish those things. How about we eat something?
Writer: We just had dinner.
Writer’s Evil Brain: You only ate three pieces of chocolate today, there’s room for more! Loaf of bread maybe?
Writer: Who are you?
Writer’s Evil Brain: You.
Writer: Keep away from me. I had a good week last week.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Not so good this week though.
Writer: I had two things published. Leave me alone.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Did it come with health insurance? I don’t think so.
Writer: Who are you, my mother?
Writer’s Evil Brain: I’m waiting for you to answer me.
Writer: I worked on things today. Okay? I did. And—I didn’t play online mahjong or check social media or anything.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Really?
Writer: Only in the morning. When I was checking email. But I am working.
Writer’s Evil Brain: And yet the book still sits there only half edited. You aren’t getting any younger and must I remind you that hello THIS IS WHAT YOU SAID YOU WANTED TO DO.
Writer: It’s useless.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Like majoring in your own language?
Writer: It seemed like a great idea at the time and marketable to all sorts of low paying prestige-less jobs. Fuck. Now I’m doing it. Go away Writer’s Evil Brain! I’m doing shit. I’m just not doing it at your pace. Did you just finish a new play and a poetry manuscript? No you didn’t.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Actually you haven’t finished the edits on either of those things. Hey. What are you doing? You’re not going to. Put that down.
Writer: What this? [Writer pulls out edible gummie].
Writer’s Evil Brain: Yes that. Don’t do it. We can stay up editing till three o’clock in the morning if you want. We can crack out on twitter. We can tell your Trump supporting mother in law to fuck off on text. But don’t edible, girlfriend.
Writer: Why? Because you know I’ll go to sleep in half an hour. I have time to edit tomorrow and before the weekend is out at least one of those projects will be tackled. Why do you even care? You’ve published lots of things this year. Stop freaking out on me.
Writer’s Evil Brain: You’re going to wake up late, panic, and read the New York Times and wish you were Roxane Gay because you kind of thought those things she wrote about, and thought about writing it, but you didn’t actually write them down, loser.
Writer: I’m chewing.
Writer’s Evil Brain: I’m done with you. I’m going to go next door and bother your hack neighbor who just writes off a template. ‘Insert main character here.’
Writer: Ha! You won’t go. You hate that guy. Good night, evil brain. I’ll see you in the morning for edits. I promise.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Whatever, bitch.
Writer: Night. [yawn].
Margaret Elysia Garcia is the author of short story ebook collection Sad Girls and Other Stories, and the audiobook Mary of the Chance Encounters, and the co-founder and lead playwright of Las Pachucas, theatrical troupe. She teaches creative writing and theatre in a California state prison.
Reading Like a Writer: Sustaining an Image
June 5, 2018 § 7 Comments
“What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing?” Gabrielle Bellot asks, in her essay “Volcano Dreams,” published recently in Unruly Bodies (a web anthology curated by Roxane Gay).
“Volcano Dreams” opens with an anecdote about a sexual encounter in which the author is pursued by an old acquaintance. Though the acquaintance is clearly flirting, the author questions his seriousness, explaining that her identity as a trans woman often renders her sexually invisible.
I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood—no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano.
This connection between yearning body and volcano, is an image that drives the rest of the essay. In fact, once the encounter ends with the acquaintance’s abrupt rejection of the author’s body—only halfway through the essay—Bellot sets aside the tools of scene and story. The rest of the essay is grounded solely in image and metaphor, in volcano and sea. She develops and balances these images:
My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next… beaches of nothing but gray stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined and whole.
When I left this essay, I found myself haunted by these landscapes, as if I had dreamt them, and as if that dream had lodged itself somewhere between my conscious and subconscious.
I can’t quite explain the meaning of these images because, as Bellot says about the body, they “cannot be one simple thing.” I can tell you that the volcano conjures both anger and desire, that the sea evokes both fluidity and grief. But I can also tell you that these landscapes hold more than that.
Bellot told me these images came to her in a conversation with a friend:
We began talking about volcanoes, and then the conversation shifted, but when I went home, I began to think again of volcanoes as a metaphor for the body, and, in particular, the special, uncomfortable uncertainty and false sense of security a sleeping volcano can present. A body can seem calm and quiet, yet be roiling on the inside, ready to burst. Volcanoes destroy and rebuild. I realised that my experience of the body was connected to that sort of unstable, unpredictable imagery. (I also grew up in sight of one of Dominica’s many dormant volcanoes, and the apocalyptic tales of Mount Pelee’s eruption in nearby Martinique at the start of the twentieth century was one I thought of often as a young adult.) I’ve also long been drawn to the ocean and to the colour blue. Both have long histories for me. A family member was swept by a riptide into the ocean and drowned before I was born, a story my mother repeated to me many times when we drove past a certain white estuary that had become known for its fatal pull. And ‘the sea is history,’ as Derek Walcott put it, a place as much of life as uncountable deaths from the horrors of the transatlantic trade. So the ocean was inevitable as an image for the body as a site of contradiction and open-ended possibility.
Somehow, all of the associations that Bellot describes here reached me as a reader. In one short essay, I absorbed pieces of histories and landscapes, and connected those pieces to the author’s experience of body, of moving between conflict and fluidity.
What makes these images work? It’s not their simplicity but rather their expansiveness. Bellot does not offer simple correlations, such as heart = love or bird = freedom. At the same time, the images aren’t arbitrary or random. As Bellot makes clear in her commentary, they are carefully, lovingly chosen and rendered, and interact with the essay’s topic in meaningful ways. Like the body, these landscapes contain multitudes.
The lesson I glean from Bellot’s work is to fully commit to the images that choose me. If an image truly belongs in a work, then it deserves some oxygen. When given room to grow, the right set of images can do more than enhance a piece; they can drive it.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
When time travel isn’t possible, make a tiny roar
July 18, 2016 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Keema Waterfield:
Recently Hillary Clinton offered a personal farewell to The Toast, a website that, among other things, offered a safe haven for women-folk writing and talking about the intersection of literature and women-folk related things (e.g. everything). In her toast to The Toast, Mrs. Clinton encouraged forlorn writers, readers, and contributors mourning its loss to continue to, “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you… And if the space you’re in doesn’t have room for your voice, don’t be afraid to carve out a space of your own.”
Can I tell you something? Mrs. Clinton’s words fell on me like an ice bath during a climate-change induced mid-summer heatwave.
As a new mother, I sometimes lie awake at night overwhelmed by the odds my daughter faces in a country that still struggles to do justice by its most vulnerable. It happens all the time: victims of spousal abuse, rape, gun violence, childhood trauma and gender nonconformity and inequality, all are regularly treated like mewling kittens and swept under the rug by a culture that is discomfited by their cries. The earnest are so uncomfortable to behold.
A few special corners of the Internet make a space for those voices, and The Toast was one of them. The Toast welcomed writers of the irreverent, the raucous, the thought-provoking, and the visionary. It carved out a space for our manifold voice to manifest. Now The Toast is gone and despair seems too small a word for the loss.
It is easy to feel voiceless in that dark, lonely place under the rug, particularly when you are not rich or famous and you don’t have a Twitter following in the thousands. But I keep thinking of Mrs. Clinton’s urging: “Speak your opinion more fervently in your classes if you’re a student, or at meetings in your workplace. Proudly take credit for your ideas. Have confidence in the value of your contributions.”
When the Senate failed to make even the most basic gun reform after the Orlando shootings I huddled in bed with my five-month-old daughter for days before Tweeting:
When I was 3 a man held a gun to my head with his pants around his ankles. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence
For an hour after I posted that message my heart raced. I alternated between rolling up in a blanket, shaking, and sitting with my face pressed to the window fan. I hovered anxiously over the toilet, waiting to vomit. Then I deleted the tweet and curled up around my sleeping baby, exhausted, but magically cured of my post traumatic flu. I was relieved that I’d saved myself the humiliation of sharing that horrible, bald, truth so…truthfully.
I don’t aspire to serve as the face or voice of a cause, particularly not a heartbreaking and dark one like childhood sexual trauma and gun violence. And I don’t have enough of a following on social media to make taking a stand worth the anxiety, right? I’ve written a memoir that touches on my experience and, recently, my lyrical essay “You Will Find Me in the Starred Sky” appeared in Brevity. It is enough, I think, to have addressed it in a literary format, with context.
Still, after I deleted the message I struggled with the urge to speak up, to say something, all through the following day. Too rapey, I thought. Too raw. Too real. Too political. I don’t want to be a “victim”. It is exhausting. It is traumatic. In real life I am not all day, every day, a victim. I don’t want to center myself inside that heavy rhetoric forevermore.
I am also dead tired of the silencing and marginalization of victims. I worry that every silence increases the cultural pressure of repression by tacitly accepting that it is agreeable to be silent.
In her 2011 Rumpus essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxane Gay responded to a report on the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl that used language sympathetic toward 18 rapists and one distraught town, but barely touched on the victim. Because the truth is, real victims are hard to look at. We are more comfortable when their edges are blurred, softened, dramatized. Artistic license makes violence palatable.
“I am troubled by how we have allowed intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence,” Gay wrote. She suggested that we find new ways of rewriting rape that, “restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities.” That’s a hard one too. Take away the crush-worthy investigators and their personal stories from Law and Order: SVU and you have an unbearably painful show about gross violence.
The struggle is real: I don’t want to be a victim. I am a victim.
We badly need to rewrite the language of atrocity, repression, race, gender, trauma and yes, even hope and happiness, to look on these experiences honestly. Simply. Directly. Unflinchingly.
My silence won’t change the fact that when anyone dies at gunpoint, I am a victim again. When rape goes apologetically unpunished, I am a victim again. I fear my silence would mean I’ve accepted that those hurts are agreeable.
I do not accept that those hurts are agreeable. I’ve been silenced enough by the cultural expectation of not making other people uncomfortable with my trauma. Who do I hurt if I speak up when the need arises? Who do I help? What would happen if everyone quit keeping the peace in favor of saying out loud this is the violence you prefer not to see happening in your midst to your most vulnerable. You must not look away.
The night after I deleted that first Tweet, the sit-in on the Senate House floor turned into a slumber party and I couldn’t be silent anymore. I Tweeted again:
At 3 y/o a man held a gun to my head to keep me in line. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence #NoBillNoBreak
I couldn’t stay silent. I regret that I let my fear of being too rapey stop me from being more direct. I wish I could have gone forward in time to read this essay to help myself through the process. But if that were possible then time travel would be possible, and I wouldn’t waste time writing about being a victim now, I’d go back and make sure that particular trauma never landed me in this quagmire in the first place.
At the time, though, it felt big enough. If two people read it, two people think about it. And that is two more than before. It is a small space I may have carved out, but it’s mine. What’s yours?
The end of The Toast may mean one less forum for sharing our complex and manifold voice, but it doesn’t leave us voiceless. We can carry on the tradition, writers, perhaps even more bravely. Why save our truths for our memoirs or our deathbed confessions? With so many mediums at our fingertips we can continue to carve out space for our voices every single day. We can climb on out from under the rug together and make a tiny roar.
One thousand #tinyroars can’t be silenced.
Keema Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, Smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her work has been published in Brevity, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, The Manifest Station, Understory, and Mason’s Road. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana and is currently at work on a memoir recounting her childhood adventures performing alongside a revolving cast of folk-hippies on the Southeast Alaska folk festival circuit. She can be reached at email@example.com or @keemasaurusrex.
Brevity Special Issue: Race, Racialization, and Racism
March 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
Brevity is excited to announce a special issue to be focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism. For our 53rd issue, we are looking for work that considers all aspects of race: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how race is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of race shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
We are looking for flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open from March 15th- May 31st and the issue will be published in mid-September.
In concert with this special issue, we are announcing our first-ever student writing contest. Students enrolled at the graduate or undergraduate level will be invited to flash essays on the theme through their writing programs, and the winner will receive a $200.00 prize and publication in the issue. (Don’t send yet. There will be more details on this contest released soon.)
We are very excited to announced that our anchor authors for this issue will be Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay.
The guest editors for this special issue will be Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro.
Born in Miami, Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Recipient of an International Latino Book Award and the Nebraska Book Award and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, she edited the collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and serves as the series editor of Machete: The Ohio State Series in Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in journals including Salon, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida.
Because we are committed to showcasing a variety of lived experiences in this issue, we want to be certain that everyone is able to submit their work. If Brevity’s small submission fee of $3.00 would keep you from submitting, you may submit your work to firstname.lastname@example.org without paying the fee. (Should you take this option, however, you need to send a word doc. not a PDF for complex technical reasons too boring to describe here.)
Submissions begin today on our Submittable page.
Roxane Gay to Co-Anchor Our Race, Racism, and Racialization Special Issue
April 15, 2015 § 5 Comments
We have yet another exciting announcement about Brevity’s upcoming special issues: Roxane Gay has agreed to be the second anchor author for our Race, Racism, and Racialization Special Issue due out next March!
We are all a-twitter (and, in fact, Twittering) about this.
Gay, whose Bad Feminist has taken the world by storm and who we think is one of the most important public intellectuals of our time, writes insightfully about both key social issues and pop culture, often at the same time. Her unique mix of whimsy and wisdom has won her a unique place in the writing world—both as an author and as a public figure—and we are excited to be bringing a new work by her to our readers (again).
Gay will join Claudia Rankine, our other anchor author for the issue, and guest editor Ira Sukrungruang in Brevity’s exploration of lived experiences of race and racism. We believe that creative nonfiction, at its best, offers an opportunity for readers to expand their understanding of the world by seeing it through another person’s eyes. Gay’s writing—which is both intimate and universal—does this in ways that take our breath away. We are thrilled to have her joining this effort.
Our upcoming Gender issue, by the way, will be anchored by authors Kate Bornstein and Jennifer Finney Boylan.
And these issues are the reason behind our ongoing Kickstarter campaign. We want to pay the authors well, advertise the issues well, and keep growing so we can bring more quality nonfiction to our loyal readers. Please help, even a little bit. We are hoping to hit our enhanced goal before the Kickstarter ends on April 22nd!
NonfictioNow 2015: The Flagstaff Conference
March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:
Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?
Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.
ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?
NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”
ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?
NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.
For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.
We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.
ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?
NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)
Brevity blog readers can visit nonfictionow.org to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.
Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.
Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.
Wearing a Mask of Your Own Face: On Persona, Race, and Identity
March 12, 2015 § 8 Comments
A guest post from Michael Schmeltzer:
The blank page is the first mask a writer wears. It is so adept at concealing identity we could remain hidden for the rest of our lives. The minute we begin writing we shade in our own face.
Skin is the first mask a person wears. If you understand this statement, you understand identity in ways others do not.
Before I moved to America I thought only of white skin. I thought Elk River, Minnesota, would be filled with children as pale as paper, blank pages nearly transparent. I thought they would all be blond, with large, egg-like eyes. I thought I would be the only sheet of color in class. My thick, dark hair. My dark irises. I was wrong on several levels, but right in ways I would not understand until I was much older.
The children weren’t what I imagined; they were just ordinary children. Safety scissors and glue-skin finger tips. Blond to brown to red, green to blue to hazel; I mistook hair and eye color for diversity.
My friend, about halfway through the school year, was stunned no one even mentioned I was Japanese anymore. “They treat you like you’re normal,” he said.
Normalcy – that’s what I wanted. He could never understand, this boy who looked as if he were grown from the very soil of America, how much I desired to blend in. For a brief period I thought I could blend in, a harmless animal like all of them. Truth was I stood out like a mule among horses. How much I wanted to kick and neigh with my fat braying lips.
“I was going to be noticed even though I wanted very much to go unnoticed,” Roxane Gay writes in her essay “I Once Was Miss America.”
In the fourth grade my teacher asked me what Japanese kids said instead of cock-a-doodle-doo.
Later Gay writes, “I was a different kind of American.”
There I was in class, already different, demonstrating my rooster noise differently.
Tell it slant, says Randall Jarrell speaking as The Woman at the Washington Zoo.
Tell it slant, says Patricia Smith speaking as a Skinhead.
Tell it slant, you repeat in the mirror, a mask of your own face hiding your real face.
Some of us no longer know what the word even means. Some of us simply are. We speak slant just by opening our mouths. Or, equally accurate, we tell it straight while someone looks at us with their head cocked to the side, their ears receiving our words tilted, off-kilter.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” Oscar Wilde wrote.
In other words, persona is a lie that leads to the truth.
Smith speaking as a skinhead, Jarrell speaking as a woman. John Berryman shattering the mirror-self into songs. But none of these are the exact truth.
Which, I suppose, has been my point all along.
Persona, at its best, is a deep understanding of another that leads to a deeper understanding of the self. At worst it’s an act of ventriloquy, your lips moving while a puppet, mechanical and dead, stares into the audience. Everyone watching knows what you’re doing, but the saddest of them believe the wooden caricature you hold is an accurate portrayal.
“When they introduce Philip Levine to do a reading, they don’t say, ‘Here’s the Jewish-American poet, Philip Levine.’ They just say ‘the American poet.’ When they introduce me, they say, ‘He’s the Chinese-American poet.’” – Li-Young Lee
Poet. American poet. Chinese-American poet. Some of us walk this world like a masquerade ball, so many people eager to force us into these masks.
Which is another way of saying there are four points of entry into persona: the impression and expression of the writer interacting with the impression and expression of the audience. How we manipulate these four points will determine the success of the persona. It determines whether the world will cringe or applaud our efforts.
You’re from Japan. So you know karate? I was asked over and over until I graduated high school, the mask of a martial artist placed on my face by ignorance. There I was, walking from class to class, not knowing what mask I was wearing.
No one is that nice, we’ve all (heard) said. So we place a scowl on the accused, convinced there is something sinister that hasn’t been revealed yet, lurking behind the smile.
“I am a black woman poet, and I sound like one,” Lucille Clifton wrote, speaking brilliantly as Lucille Clifton.
“Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind,” Emily Dickinson wrote.
So we tell it slant. So we hold up masks that match our skin, or ones wildly different. So every person we see holds up the one they think fits us best, but it doesn’t always flatter. So we choose to destroy them, or don’t. So we wear them for a while but rip them off. So we use every mask, or none at all, or half of one.
All in order to shield us, to keep us from going blind. All in order to see and be safe. In order to find the one, monstrous or beautiful, the perfect one which is in fact no mask at all. To reveal our truest face.
Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. His honors include the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. He has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro and Levis Prizes, Zone 3 Press First Book Prize, as well as the OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has published in PANK, Oyez Review, South Loop Review, Rattle, and Mid-American Review, among others.
September 10, 2013 § 3 Comments
In tandem with the launch of the new anthology, Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, compiled and Edited by Travis Kurowski, Atticus Books has hosted a discussion with Richard Peabody, Steve Himmer, Roxane Gay, Dave Housley, Kelly Forsythe, Jen Michalski, and Jessica Poli on the subject of what lit mags can be and how they can prosper.
We think it is an excellent discussion (and not just because they are kind enough to mention Brevity.) Here is an excerpt followed by a full link:
Dave Housley: As a writer, I think you need to curate your own career, meaning you should be looking at the magazines that are publishing the writing you’re interested in. Where is that conversation happening? That’s where I think you want to be focused.
That might be Asimov’s or Ellery Queen or PANK or Diagram or Smokelong or Brevity. Wherever that conversation is, those are the top whatever number magazines for you at that particular moment. That’s what I always tell people in my writing workshops, at least: you can send your stuff out to The New Yorker, but especially if you’re just starting out, you should probably be looking in different places. The community you’re looking to join isn’t the Jonathan Franzen/Joyce Carol Oates community. It’s one that’s happening in a lot of different places, depending on where you are in your writing. I think if you’re smart, and really engaged and looking at this in the best possible way, then finding these places is like a life raft and it can really help carry you along.The New Yorker is not going to be your life raft, but maybe Atticus or PANK or Barrelhouse can be.
I used to play basketball, and I think about writing in the same way: if I’m looking to improve my game, I’m not hoping to hop in and play with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, or anybody in the best possible league in the world. I want to find people who are working at the same things I’m working at, who are maybe a little further along and better than me, and that’s the game I’m going to try to join.