Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Diverse Voices in a New Anthology
May 4, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Rachael Hanel
After years of teaching media writing to undergraduates, I received the opportunity this semester to teach creative nonfiction to MFA candidates. Ever since I learned that Debra Monroe had published an anthology of creative nonfiction in 2020, I knew I wanted to use that book in a class.
What excited me most about the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, was Monroe’s clear intent to new, diverse voices among some of the CNF stalwarts we’re used to. Of course there are many great CNF readers out there, Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay being one of them. Others on my shelf include In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism: A Reader, and The Literary Journalists.
These fine volumes do what any CNF reader should do: present diverse offerings in terms of subject matter and form. Beginning and practiced CNF writers alike can learn a lot from them.
But they don’t always represent a wide diversity of voices. When I teach media writing, I primarily use examples from the world of literary journalism. Those anthologies rely heavily on the New Journalists of the 1960s that broke with the traditional journalistic form and made themselves part of the story: Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Hunter S. Thompson. No comprehensive study of literary journalism is complete without reading works by these trailblazers.
But it is 2022, and so many skilled CNF writers from traditionally underrepresented groups are contributing mightily to the diversity of voices. Monroe put together her collection precisely with an eye toward diversity, and the result is splendid and rich.
My students are responding positively. Not only do they like the variety of form and subject, but they see themselves in the writers. Says one: “I’m rarely exposed to writers who come from the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background as myself, so it was interesting this week to read two essays from Mexican American writers.” I was thrilled to hear that, but also a little sad: He’s a graduate student in his mid-40s, and this is one of the few times he’s been exposed to writers who share his background.
Monroe’s book, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology, is also helping me diversify other examples I use in class. I’m not going to throw away some tried-and-true essays that stand the test of time: “The American Male, Age 10” by Susan Orlean and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. But when I wanted to find examples of long-form journalistic profiles, I turned to my collection of The New York Times Magazine and chose a profile of Gayl Jones, a Black writer who seemingly disappeared from public view, as well as a profile of Questlove—both modern examples from 2021 that showed so well what a good profile can do.
I asked Monroe some questions about her anthology via email.
RH: What was the impetus in creating this anthology?
DM: As my friend, a poet, said: It’s the genre where the most is happening. It’s in an exciting state of change—open to influence, so suited to this era. Existing anthologies were already fifteen years old, with traditional essays. Do you remember when creative nonfiction used to be described as “like fiction only true.” I wanted an anthology with experimental essays and lyric essays, too.
And my campus is minority-white. Ten years ago, I ordered an anthology people recommended, and when I saw the table of contents, I thought: OK, I’ll photocopy essays by writers of color. But I walked into my class and saw my students. I didn’t like implying that writers of color were special status: photocopy-only. So I photocopied every reading assignment, aiming for variety. I discovered that many creative nonfiction teachers were photocopying for similar reasons. Sometimes, I’d order a few essay collections by single authors but didn’t get the sampler effect, the big range. And my craft lessons were a disorganized amalgamation. I wanted craft lessons in one place, synthesized in an accessible but not reductive way for readers just encountering the genre.
RH: There are so many excellent essays spanning centuries. How did you choose which ones to include?
DM: I’m indebted to Sarah Einstein for suggesting that the turn of the century is a good cutoff date for “contemporary.” I tried to stick to that. There are 48 essays in the anthology—500 pages of essays!—and the oldest, just four, by writers everyone considers essential, were published in the late-1990s.
Being inclusive affected decisions, too. Every campus isn’t as diverse as mine, but the country is. I used demographic percentages from the U.S. census as benchmarks. After that, I selected for variety in forms, styles, subjects. I consciously included well-known writers as well as writers who should be known.
RH: The release of this book got caught up, like many others, with the arrival of COVID-19. What was it like promoting a book during lockdown?
DM: I’d asked the textbook publisher to rent a booth at AWP—before the pandemic, prelapsarian times. My publisher does a lot of English titles, but was new to creative writing. When I sent a follow-up email asking for rented space for an off-site reading, explaining that this is how writers launch books—readings in bars—I never got an answer. So I rented, out of pocket, a private room in the Liberty Bar, a PA, a lectern. Four contributors agreed to read: short, sweet readings, five minutes each. Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Dungy, Sonja Livingston, Sayantani Dasgupta, Bonnie Ilza Cisneros. I sent invitations and had so many RSVPs I worried about the space being too small. You recall the slow-fizzle confusion as AWP had trouble deciding whether to cancel the San Antonio convention. As COVID news got worse, my readers began to cancel, and then I canceled. The only other publicity has been me posting on social media and one interview in Assay. Promoting the anthology has been like everything during COVID, subdued and solitary.
RH: It’s a large book with heft and depth. You told me that some people have commented about the size, but it’s comparable to fiction and poetry anthologies. Do you think the size signals that CNF is as worthy as other genres of a large reader?
DM: Yes, this magical genre deserves a big anthology! As teachers, we dip into big anthologies again and again, in different ways for different students or courses. Students find themselves seduced into reading essays not on the syllabus, and they keep these anthologies long after the semester is over, as resources.
RH: From my experience teaching out of this book, students are responding positively. You told me in an earlier conversation that one writing instructor reported a student said the anthology opened the world of CNF to her. Can you expand on that conversation? What else are you hearing from students or instructors?
DM: I recently taught out of it for an undergrad literature class that also included fiction and poetry. Students, nonmajors who’d never heard of the genre, loved creative nonfiction the most. On their evaluations, they said things like: These essays are about life now. These are the most relevant readings I’ve been assigned in college. That was a literature class, but their remarks remind me of what someone teaching creative writing in Oklahoma said. She sent this note:
It’s an amazing anthology, a game-changer. It makes a case, without being didactic, that we are in this together. One of my students said, “‘For the first time ever, I feel like I am living in the middle of history and my experience matters.” You do realize that the whole anthology, with introduction, headnotes, prompts, constitutes a radical pedagogy?
I included over a hundred writing prompts, and I’ve heard from people teaching graduate classes that the prompts have generated great essays. Writers gravitate toward their most unsettling experiences, and these experiences bubble up into even innocuous topics in interesting ways. I think how, in medical terminology, to “express” means to release something trapped, swollen. But the direct approach doesn’t always make for an artful release. Prompts help students make inroads into otherwise daunting or overfamiliar topics. Essays in the anthology cover many subjects, but those that cover dark subjects approach these sideways, as if by stealth. A student said to me last week that a few essays clarified for her that trauma isn’t always compelling, but, she added, “our imperfect buoyancy afterward is.” She’s already such a good writer. She put that well.
Rachael Hanel teaches media writing and creative nonfiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book of narrative nonfiction, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to Symbionese Liberation Army, is coming out in December from the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013.
A Review of Randon Billings Noble’s A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays
March 21, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Celia Jeffries
When I first taught the essay, it was in the form of five paragraphs: a nice model for young writers used to counting on their fingers.
When I taught high school English, we pushed beyond five paragraphs to more formal essays: persuasive, descriptive, narrative, and expository, all of which may be as necessary as learning table manners, but each of which sometimes felt like writing with one hand folded in the lap.
In college I taught the requisite freshman composition essays: analytical, argumentative, compare and contrast, and, if the school was progressive enough, the personal essay.
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in a literary arts center, working with adults who had survived the five-paragraph essay and all the proscriptive forms handed out in English classes across the land, but each of whom sensed there was another—perhaps better—way to present their thoughts on paper.
I went back to some of my favorite essayists: Joan Didion, John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, and M.F.K. Fisher. They weren’t arguing or persuading or comparing and contrasting. Or if they were, they were not following a rigid formula to do so. They were simply speaking their mind—on the page. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with rage, but always with their own engaging voice. I kept reading, moving through the “new journalism,” the “nonfiction novel,” reveling in how writers were pushing the boundaries and playing with form. Along came “flash” pieces and “hermit crab” essays and prose that looks and feels like poetry, and essays that break out of academic labels to make the reader see and feel the world in new ways.
Finally, along came Randon Billings Noble and her anthology A Harp in the Stars, An Anthology of Lyric Essays. Acknowledging that there is no widespread agreement on what it is or what to call it, Noble has gathered the slippery term lyric essay and folded it into the warm arms of four different forms: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. In her introduction she refers back to mythology, to Orpheus playing the lyre. “His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.”
Lyric essays, Noble says,
have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome. Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.
Noble says she came to define a lyric essay as “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”
Thank you Randon Billings Noble. This anthology is a treasure chest of daring ways to take one’s voice to the page. It opens with two stunning flash essays (defined by Noble as one thousand words or fewer) by Diane Seuss and Jericho Parms, and then off the page flies Sarah Minor’s segmented essay “Vide” that literally must be seen to be believed. “Apocalypse Logic” by Elissa Washuta and “Woven” by Lidia Yuknavitch offer startling braided essays, while Sarah Einstein offers the laugh-out-loud (well, parts of it made me laugh out loud) segmented essay “Self-Portrait in Apologies.”
It’s hard to highlight just a few of the forty-four essays in this collection, each of which “stands out” and offers the reader an idea in an “unexpected way.” Noble has said she’s fond of the six craft essays included because they are “lyric essays about lyric essays; they do what they’re talking about as they talk about it.” As if forty-four outstanding essays and six craft essays were not enough, Noble closes out the anthology with a section titled “Meditations” where she gives the authors the last word: each contributor adds their own short meditation on the lyric essay.
My copy of A Harp in the Stars is already dog-eared and covered with post-it notes and will be at top of my syllabus.
Celia Jeffries is the author of Blue Desert, a finalist in both the 2021 IPNE literary fiction awards and the 2021 Sarton historical fiction awards. Her prose has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Solsticelitmag.com, Mom Egg Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals.
The Ultimate Guide to Not Letting the AWP Do You
April 2, 2015 § 6 Comments
(A note on this Blog Classic Repost: I wrote this tongue-in-cheek survival guide two years ago on the eve of AWP 2013 Boston, after my first AWP sent me into an agoraphobic tailspin. Here’s what I know going into this year’s AWP: leave some room in the suitcase for books and “Write Like a Motherfucker” mugs from The Rumpus, everyone feels awkward while networking-as-a-verb at the bookfair, and if you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not doing AWP correctly.)
I arrived in Chicago last year for my first AWP with a hazy plan and a suitcase that weighed too much and cornered poorly. I packed stilettos, cigarettes, scarves, and lipstick, but forgot my laptop, cotton swabs, and new business cards stamped with a retro typewriter logo. Forgetting cotton swabs on a trip is a bad omen indeed. My plan was breezy and vague: oh, I dunno—find some authentic deep-dish, go to a few panels, say smart things, be charming, and have literary types fall in love with me. If there’s time, wrangle a book deal.
I’ve never been comfortable networking-as-a-verb, but my skills in this area hadn’t evolved since my 20s — awkwardness masked by flirtation. Incidentally, I gleaned this approach from an Anne Sexton biography that I read over ten years ago and interpreted not as a cautionary tale but as a primer on sex and dating.
I managed to get my AWP tote bag and lit swag, grab a slice served in a cardboard triangle, and check-in to my hotel room, all without incident. But it wasn’t long after I had gotten to my room, scarfed the pie, and lined up my little sentry of toiletries by height, that I found myself overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The conference hadn’t even started, and this was not my usual existential panic, but an actual can’t-leave-the-room-and-function-in-public panic.
With nothing to do but strip down to my underpants and smoke in bed, I flipped through the 10-pound conference tome and tried to dam the tears with self-ridicule. I’ll spare you most of the rest of my mega-conference meltdown, but I accomplished little and went home an exhausted rube. Unable to navigate logistics capably, I ended up in the wrong panel at least a half-dozen times (each in the wrong genre and with a title more obtuse than the last); told Sven Birkerts his book The Art of Time in Memoir was “cool”; skulked around the book fair like a nervous woodland creature; collected business cards that would ultimately flounder in the bottom of my tote bag; and shouted “Hi!” to Cheryl Strayed in an elevator. (That’s it—just “Hi!” followed by a pregnant ellipsis. I should’ve told her I loved her or thanked her for “writing like a motherfucker”…something memorable.)
On the last night, I got invited—by way of the etiquette equivalent of the service elevator—to a VIP reception. Laureates, Pushcarts, NEA fellows, and National Book Award winners would be there: I was going to that room, the Gatsby room. Once there, however, I bored of the pomp and circumstance and sulked in a corner, popping cheesy poufs and getting hit on by a grandfatherly poet who mentioned his “new and selected” no fewer than eight times.
It’s redemption time now—a new year, a new me. I can do AWP: I just need a better plan.
First, a pep talk. Having spent much of my later childhood and high school years in Boston, I know the language, the land, the people, and customs. Home turf advantage. Also, I come from a military family—my husband, brother-in-law, and father—all no-nonsense types. This can-do competency must live in my muscle memory, right? Early wake-ups, hospital corners, overnight hiking trips in rugged New Hampshire mountains, extensive travel, and scrapping for respect in a big Catholic family: this was my childhood training. Dad was a recon Marine, for chrissakes; I can’t get pummeled by a writers’ conference.
Next, a plan and some rules of engagement. Instead of waiting until there, I grab my planner and Ned Stuckey-French’s “Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels,” and I highlight. I highlight like a motherfucker. I pick two panels per day and write them into my planner in tidy block print. Anything extra is gravy, but these two are non-negotiable. My schedule is set and reconnaissance complete.
The rules of engagement are simple: no side trips to Fenway Park; no hesitant lollygagging at the book fair (get in, get out—with solicitations and business cards); no window shopping on Newbury Street; no improvised chit-chat with famous writers; no panel reconnaissance on the fly, flipping through maps and schedules while bent over a subway grate; no sulking or crying; and no reading of panelist bios until I am safely extracted and home.
If I seem a little more serious this year, that’s my plan. I am on a mission: do AWP, don’t let AWP do me.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog, where she serves as an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. She lives in Vermont, and you can find her at alexispaigewrites.com.
Come see Alexis at AWP 2015, at the Revising the Personal Essay panel with Penny Guisinger, Sarah Einstein, and Sven Birkerts, on Friday, April 10th, at 10:30 AM, in Room M100 D&E on the Mezzanine Level.
Iota: Short Prose Conference
March 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
A note on the upcoming Iota Conference from Penny Guisinger and a reflection on the event from Sven Birkerts:
Iota: Short Prose Conference is a place that celebrates the small in a world often ruled by heft. Participants gather at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, near Maine’s easternmost tip, for a long weekend of writing, relaxing, and learning. We also do a lot of talking, mostly about books. This year’s conference is July 23 – 26. Applications are due by June 23, but apply by April 15 for an early-bird discount!
The focus is on short works: essays, flash, fiction, micro-everythings, prose poetry. And the definition of “short” is up for grabs. If you can write it, or even get it started, in a morning, you can workshop it that very afternoon. This year’s faculty will be Brevity Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein and Richard Hoffman, and every participant will workshop with both of them. We’re thrilled to welcome them both!
This will be Iota’s third summer. The following is a reflection on the experience of teaching at Iota by Sven Birkerts, a faculty member from the conference’s first year:
I was invited to be an instructor at the very first staging of Iota, Short Prose Conference, which was held late in the summer of 2013 on Campobello Island off the northern coast of Maine. For once it was easy to tell people where I was headed: to the easternmost point of the continental United States. That struck an original note. As did the conference, start to finish.
I love the early days of things, the premieres, trial outings—love that improvisatory freedom of action before things crystallize, as they invariably do, into ‘this is how we do things.’ Small by design, it had the energy of first formations. Here were seventeen students and three faculty, gathering for the first time in a grand lodge. The first night we dispersed ourselves about the big room, the windows giving onto a prospect of tall pines and distant ocean. There were introductions, instructions, the usual business of first nights everywhere. But I also felt the almost immediate emergence of a distinct group spirit, which I can assure you is not the usual business. This had much to do with Conference Director Penny Guisinger and her associates at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, who between them had found exactly the right note. How to describe it? Expectant yet relaxed, exuding an improvisatory confidence. Which proved to be justified. Penny had brought together a diverse group of students and instructors who wanted nothing more than to talk about books and writing.
This came clear the next day as we dispersed to our various workshop locations, none without some view of pointed firs or distant water. The sizes were right, and—certainly in my case—the interactions were right away both lively and exploratory. Getting down to business, exchanging manuscripts, we knew that we were inventing much of the business as we went along. How like writing! The balance of activities was also smartly considered. Workshop time, writing time, down time, and in the evenings after dinner a wonderfully varied set of offerings: readings by instructors one night, students another, with musical guests bringing something original and briny into the mix.
Another of the day’s activities, one of the best, was a late-morning to-and-fro in the big room—instructors informally conversing about various craft-related topics and then students joining in with their own thoughts, questions and war-stories. Again, that sense of converging intensities.
I know enough about these kinds of events to know that success is not guaranteed, that it depends on the coming together of innumerable factors—from personalities to organization to leadership. Planning takes you only so far and then the inner life of the thing asserts itself. Or–where things are too programmed, too this or too that– doesn’t. Here it did with great energy, humor and grace, and for this I thank the enthusiasm and fresh directorial instincts of Penny, who knew when to say “let’s try that again,” and “that was amazing!” and when to just break it all up and start laughing. Serious or antic, underneath it all we felt her literary devotion; we knew that this undertaking was the product of literary passion, not some market calculation. She was right there with us, arguing her views, reading her work, and making us feel like we were taking part in something really good. Which we were. The conference was engaged and purposeful, offering a craft-savvy jump-start to those who needed it and an invigorating tune-up for those whose engines were already running.
If you want a long weekend to work on your short forms, join us!
(Oh, and there’s always lobster. And Peruvian chocolates. Just sayin’.)
For more information, contact Penny at: email@example.com .
Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.
Brevity Kickstarter Launches Today
March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
This blog post is, really, a confession of love, though I suspect it’s not much of a confession… that you all already know that I love Brevity. I love it as a reader, because it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers, many of whom are just beginning their writing careers. I love it as a teacher of writing, because it allows me to build and rebuild my syllabi every semester around new and compelling works that lead my students toward a better understanding of both the art and the craft of creative nonfiction. And I love it as a person who cares about literature, because it fosters a community of readers and writers alike who are passionate about and dedicated to the transformative power of good writing.
I’m writing this to ask you to join me in supporting this thing that I—that we—love. We’re launching Brevity’s first fundraiser today; a Kickstarter campaign to fund our special issue on gender and some of the journal’s operating costs. (Which, for the most part, have throughout its history been funded from Dinty’s pocket. I think it’s time to say both “thank you” and “hey, why don’t you let us pitch in?” I’m betting that you think so, too, and that’s why I talked him into this Kickstarter.)
Many, many of Brevity’s authors have contributed exciting rewards: signed copies of books, essay critiques. We are also offering the usual postcards, bumper stickers, and mugs, because Brevity is nothing if not aware of genre conventions, and this IS a Kickstarter, after all. Heck, you can even join us at #AWP16 in LA for “Brunch with Brevity,” where we promise you can order both the bacon AND the sausage while talking shop with Dinty and the editors. We think our swag is the best swag, and we’re proud to bring it to you.
But, mostly—like Brevity itself—this Kickstarter is about the love of good writing, and about supporting the things we love and find important. I hope you’ll agree with me that Brevity is worth supporting, and contribute. The campaign runs through April 23rd, but don’t wait. We have some great rewards, but not many of most of them.
View the Kickstarter Here, and Thank You,.
Sarah Einstein, Special Gender Issue Co-Editor and Huge Brevity Fangirl
Brevity Issue Focused on Experiences of Gender
February 18, 2015 § 3 Comments
Brevity is excited to announce that it’s 49th issue will focus on experiences of gender. We are looking for work that considers gender: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how gender is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of gender shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
This special issue will feature new work by Kate Bornstein, the original gender outlaw. Ms. Bornstein’s books include Gender Outlaw, My (New) Gender Workbook, and Queer and Present Danger. In her long career as an author and activist, she has been at the forefront of the revolutionary changes to our understanding of what gender is, what it isn’t, and why it matters.
This issue will be guest edited by Silas Hansen and Sarah Einstein. Silas is an assistant professor at Ball State University and has published personal essays that explore his experiences as a transgender man in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Sarah is the past Managing Editor of Brevity, author of the upcoming book Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015), and a queer writer whose work explores the murky spaces between formal identity and lived experience.
We are looking for flash essays (which we define as 750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of gender, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open from Feb. 20th-April 20th and the issue will be published in mid-May.
Stay tuned to this channel — the Brevity blog or the Brevity Facebook Page — for notification when the Submittable queue is open for special issue submissions.
Brevity Staff Heading for the Italian Riviera
April 30, 2014 § 2 Comments
As we do every year, starting tomorrow, May 1st, the Brevity editorial staff will be closing up shop and heading to the Italian Riviera for a few months (where we are quite anxious to see firsthand the stunning engagement ring our pal George Clooney just gave Amal).
Today is the last day for submissions, though we will be leaving our Managing Editor behind to work her way through the queue. If you’ve submitted in the last two months, don’t worry, an answer is on the way.
(Don’t worry about Sarah either — she’s paid $2.35 an hour, lucky gal! And we promised her she can join us when the work is done, if she can float her own airfare.)
Awp 2014: Flash ‘Em
March 20, 2014 § 5 Comments
A belated AWP panel report from Alle C. Hall, on the panel “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Discussion”:
The place was packed.
Kelly Sundberg opened the panel with words worth my conference fee. She made the case that flash is too often and not thoughtfully enough categorized by length. Sundberg delineated four qualities differentiating flash from short fiction or nonfiction:
Flash lacks space for explanation and multiple characters. Image is the way into the emotional experience.
Nix grammar & punctuation. Fragment good.
Flash connects emotionally. Intuition is stronger in than in a longer piece. There, lean on structure.
Don’t just label it. Make those words do double duty.
Speaking next, Sarah Einstein, managing editor of Brevity, justified hotel costs by laying out what makes a submission work for the magazine
- Brevity leans toward memoir over thinky.
- For thinky-er pieces, try Slate.
- “We are not the edgyist journal on the planet. Brevity is not usually shocky—raw sex and drugs.”
- Sex and drugs? That would be a Pank piece.
Moving to what she sees too often, Einstein said, “Ten – 15% of submissions are set at a funeral or doctor’s office.”
- “Those are the moment that hit the writer in gut … (but they do not necessarily) hit the reader in the gut.”
- If writing about the loss of a loved one, write “the moment that you get it, that they are gone for good, and what you will miss. Write what you are doing at the time.”
Then came Creative Nonfiction’s Hattie Fletcher. Although CNF recently published several two-page essays, their tweet feature is where they do short. In the name of parallel structure, I thank Fletcher for covering my coffee expenditures.
Fletcher summarized a CNF certified-good tweet:
- Tell a story.
- You don’t have much room for reflection, but you must have a “my take.”
- Find meaning.
- You see a crazy person on the bus, and then another person says this.
- Use the juxtaposition to convey observation.
- Too many read like jokes, observations or description.
- Or settle for describing a character.
- The biggest challenge:
- Get outside your head.
- Don’t make your tweet cryptic.
The final speaker, Chelsea Biondolillo, posted a summation of her presentation here. Astoundingly, it includes a list of magazines accepting short nonfiction. To be clear, she is sharing what must have been hundreds of hours of research.
With this post, she is saving us all that time and all that rejection heartbreak.
The more I sift through the gifts of the panel, the less I want to poke fun at monetary value or highfalutin’ academia. I’ve been to plenty of commercial conferences. Not once did a writer make as selfless a gesture as Biondolillo’s. Not once did editors give as much submission information about a competing magazine as they did about their own.
AWP is a special experience. Thank AWP. Join. Return. Thank the presenters. Subscribe. Buy books. Donate. Today.
Alle C. Hall won The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition. Favorite publications in Creative Nonfiction, Bust, Literary Mama, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (Contributing Writer). She blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Stop by. She’s happy to talk your ear off.
The Reluctant Memoirist: Jay Roberts Interviewed
November 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
In late September, Jay Roberts’ insightful, haunting essay “Center of the Universe” was published in Orange Coast Magazine. This essay explores seduction, sexuality, and self-awareness through the unlikely frame of a chance encounter with a serial killer. Like many readers, I first discovered it at the end of October, when it was republished by Thought Catalog and began showing up on Facebook. I was so struck by the voice that I went looking for other work by the author, and discovered that “Center of the Universe” is his first published piece, so I used my magic Brevity talk-to-writers-I-admire card to ask him to discuss the process of creating this work and how he feels about it’s reception. He graciously said yes. – Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor
SE: For me, one of the most compelling elements of your essay “Center of the Universe” is the way in which you use this event to examine yourself and your reactions to Randy Kraft. As Andrea Denhoed of the New Yorker says, “This story could have been told very differently. It easily could have been angled for a ‘Whoa, that’s insane’ effect. What’s truly remarkable about Roberts’ s account is how honest he is about his own reactions to Kraft–how pliantly he responded to his requests, how hungry he was for his attentions.” Can you talk a little bit about your choices as a writer in this piece, and about what you wanted the reader to understand after she had finished it?
JR: My immediate reaction was just as Ms. Deanhoed suggests this story could have been. I was clicking around the web, recognized Kraft, and nearly fell out of my chair. And the next day or two, I related it that way to a couple of friends, my role in it exculpated by the denial and revisionism that I still allowed myself to believe.
Even with that context, I was just floored to have had something like that touch my life. It was just beyond belief and I was pretty distressed. Nonetheless, I attributed it to the “whoa, dude” aspect of it.
A very close friend of mine from my Navy days responded to an email with comments along the lines of, “What a scumbag. I bet you were happy leaving that room.” I quickly and without much reflection wrote back, that no, you don’t understand, I really liked this guy.
Rereading that reflexive reaction amid all the distress I was feeling made me think I really had to get to the bottom of this. It was bothering me a lot more than simply a near death experience should seemingly do. I’ve had a few close calls, but there was something different here.
So I set out to uncover what was different and began writing, peeling away layers of the onion. This began with a bare facts recounting, retracing the afternoon, then filling in what I was thinking and feeling at various points through a number of revisions. In retrospect, I can see it was like a moth tentatively approaching the flame.
During this process I was confiding with an old girlfriend with whom I was discussing my thoughts and what I was writing. At one point, she remarked, “Oh, you were in love with the guy.” My reaction was that you are beyond nuts, that is the craziest girly sh*t ever. Tough former Marine, right?
But she had a point, it was starting to sound an awful lot like a love story. And the more it developed in that direction, not the events, but what I thought about them, the more I knew I was getting things sorted out.
And I was immediately aware when this process was done, that I had gotten to the truth about myself. I had been at the keyboard almost non-stop for a few weeks and I just walked away from it.
So for choices, I didn’t make any other than my goal of understanding why this new information about an old event was so disruptive to me. As for the reader, I wasn’t writing for public consumption. I had no intentions whatsoever of publishing this when originally writing this
That being said, beyond the story itself, I learned something that I hope a reader does as well. That one’s past is as much of an unwritten story be as is one’s future.
SE: Orange Coast also published the Fact-Checker’s findings on your essay. I particularly love his line, “Roberts conceded that he’d identified the building using 33-year old memories and Google Earth, and could have been wrong about the motel’s exact site.” I think for many people who write personal essay, this need to recreate a demonstrably true set of events from scraps of old memory is one of the biggest challenges we face. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about recreating such a detailed account of that evening, what challenges you faced, and how you overcame them?
JR: First, though I never raised the issue with Orange Coast, I have a little bone to amicably pick about “conceded”. My original draft was very detailed about using Google street view for reconstruction. “Conceded” could be interpreted a little like “admitted” or “confessed”, that I had hid this fact.
When I first started reading about Kraft, frenetically really, I was actually looking for something that would rule him out. Something like this couldn’t possibly have happened, it was so far off the charts. I scoured the Web, even reading scattered, obscure comments on obscure forums, that sort of thing.
But everything matched, would be an extension of what I remembered, or didn’t conflict.
For instance, my impressionistic memory of the first beer he handed me. I compared my memory with pictures of Heineken bottles, just a guess, but it didn’t match. At some point along the way, I read that, when arrested, his car was littered with Moosehead bottles. Several other accounts/memories mentioned that he was quite fond of this.
So I looked up Moosehead, specifically from that era and bingo, that was it. That was a chilling moment and I had more than a few like this.
Very early on, I became aware of the pitfalls of this exercise, that what I was learning could, even unintentionally, get subtly incorporated in to what I truly remembered. I decided that I would pay unfailingly attention to this, down to little things like the beer label. Sometimes when you pay attention to the little things, the big things take care of themselves.
You may not consciously notice, but when in sections recounting events, I never refer to Kraft by name. That is because I didn’t remember his name. I’m horrible with names even after a brief period, much less 33 years. So it is all “this guy” and “that guy”. In retrospect, it seems a nice literary device, but when I wrote it, it was for an entirely different purpose.
Both never having spoke of this for 33 years nor returning to San Clemente since I left the Corps in 1980 probably worked to my advantage in this exercise. It was all frozen in amber, not clouded by later discussions or events. And likewise, that afternoon and the aftermath, wondering about sexuality, made a vivid impression; it was unique, disturbing, and out of character for me at the time.
SE: In response to praise on the Orange Coast site, you mention that you worked closely with editor Marty Smith on this piece. Can you talk a little bit about the process of that work and about how working with Mr. Smith helped to shape and inform the piece?
JR: I connected with Marty Smith via Dennis McDougal, who wrote a book that has become a major reference piece about Kraft. At that point, I was hoping to track down that photo and figured that Dennis, despite his book being 20 years old, would have connections and/or advice about how to do this.
I wasn’t looking to get published but I attached my draft story as a calling card, to further explain why I was seeking this.
He referred me to his old friend Marty, who immediately responded, asking if I would be interested in publishing this. I thought about it, including some hesitation about letting the world, or Orange Coast at least, read something like this about me. I had shared it with a few friends by way of discussing the incident. They all loved it, said I should publish it, but they are, ya know, my friends.
But here was this Chief Editor of an established print magazine saying the same thing. I explained my hesitation and Marty suggested we start working on it, see what happens, without any firm commitment on my part.
Were I looking for irony in this, it somewhat paralleled my experience with Kraft, a completely inexperienced guy being drawn into another world.
I learned a lot working with Marty, the first being that one’s writing becomes something bigger, with other stakeholders in it. Marty knew what was going to work for both him personally and his audience.
Technically, it was mostly a matter of removing areas, not drilling so deep into various issues and thoughts. The narrative and style remained unchanged, Marty’s job was mostly extractive. One element, the only one I remember, where he wanted me to change things, add something, was about what I’ve done since then. While Kraft is, oddly, virtually forgotten almost everywhere, he remains at least somewhat well know in Southern California. So there may be readers who wouldn’t believe that I had never heard of Kraft. Frankly, I think Marty was a little surprised himself.
It was a long editing process, though. My goal was to ensure that things didn’t become fictionalized or sensationalized. I was probably quite an annoyance in this, getting pedantic about the meaning of a certain word and such.
Beyond that effort, though, Marty’s real job was to convince me to actually go through with this. I nearly bailed, one time going off to play fiddle tunes w/friends under the moon and stars in Virginia and just think about this, the story itself and then now the telling of it to the world.
Even up to the last day, Orange Coast’s print deadline, long after we had a finalized version, I almost bailed, but my wife brought me back to earth, reminding me what a horrible person I’d be letting everyone down now. She’s Japanese, they are really big on teamwork and thinking about others and does a lot to balance my self-centeredness.
Really, it doesn’t feel fair at all to others. Recently, I’ve visited some writers forums, filled with people anguishing for years over getting published, sweating over dialogue, pronouns, pacing. And me a non-writer, dash something off and get this sort of reaction; the gods must be crazy. Not that my experience is unique, but definitely not the usual course.
Then there is my wife, Yukari. By way of background, Japanese folks tend to be much more of a show than tell bunch, especially with regard to feelings, compliments, advice, personal stuff about which they can be very elliptical.
This summer even, we had a discussion about how an American movie with the line “I love you” was translated in the Japanese version as “the moon is beautiful”. It has become a running joke with us; sometimes when I come home and tell her that the moon is beautiful.
The other day, we were skyping about the reaction this piece is getting and some of my trepidation about it. At one point, she texts me the simple line, “Your writing is beautiful”. I stared at that for a while, sort of processing it, so long that she even repeated, “Did you see where I said your writing is beautiful?” Not a casual thought, she was sending me a big message that I’m still thinking about.
I do have other thoughts and I’ll close my long winded response to this interview with what I sent to a very established journalist. He had sent me a long and thoughtful email encouraging me to write more.
Here it is, somewhat expanded:
When in Okinawa, I was what you would call a marksmanship instructor, but the Marine Corps calls a rifle range coach. All of us were given this as a temporary, 6 month to 1 year assignment away from our regular units because of our superior shooting scores.
The hardest position to shoot is the one you most commonly think of with shooters – standing up (offhand position). It is a very unstable position, notoriously so, compared to lying down, sitting, or kneeling, the other positions in the standard course of fire.
Hence, in this training/qualification, you only shoot offhand from 200 yards and even then shooters universally shoot their worst scores in the 200 yard offhand.
The farthest distance you shoot from is 500 yards. During the course of our duties, I once claimed to my fellow coaches, again, all pretty crack shots, that I could hit a bull’s eye from the 500 yard line in the offhand position.
They ragged me on this for a week or two, it got to be a bet/dare situation and, frankly, inside I was actually quite unsure I could do it. But finally, I attempted this, asked to use the rifle of one of my shooters who I knew had well adjusted sights (you know this when you are a coach…).
Everyone is watching, 200 eyes, the whole firing line and trainees, this is very unusual, almost unheard of on a USMC range. It also was against every rule in the book, we virtually never fired our trainee’s weapons. And then we needed a valid reason and get permission from the safety officer. So I aimed and fired rather quickly. I didn’t want to get the inevitable order to cease fire before I got the shot off.
Bang, target goes down, and, you know the answer already, comes up in the black. But not only that, it was a luscious dead center bullseye, the kind that just thrill you when shooting. F*ck yeah!
Being young and cocky, I was like, “see, told you, pay up”, but it was false swagger. I knew that it was luck and skill combined, luck the far greater part of it. And, of course, there was the audacity to even attempt the stunt, to break the rules.
I never tried this again, despite considerable further egging. For one, probably the only reason I didn’t get in trouble was because I actually got the bullseye and such a beautiful one at that. It was a remarkable shot as well as making the range staff look so studly to our shooters, both things even the officers appreciated. Had I missed, or maybe even had it not been such a perfect bullseye, the hammer likely would have been brought down upon me.
So the risk of getting in trouble were I to falter in a subsequent attempt forestalled me. But mostly, I just didn’t want to ruin the magic of that moment.
And, now, I’m afraid I may feel the same about this story & writing in general.
SE: I was really struck by your ability to create the character of Kraft as you encountered him, without letting the media reports and what you came to learn later about him overtake your memories. You make him so compelling that you even defeat the reader’s tendency to overwrite your piece with her own knowledge. Can you talk to us a little bit about the craft of capturing him, as a character in this essay?
JR: In the previous question, I addressed how I approached memory, forgetting, and overdramatization/fictionalization. I’d sum it up as just being scrupulous. Were I to give advice to one embarking on a memoir, it would be to do what I accidentally did to a great degree in this piece. That is, write up every darn thing one remembers about an event before looking into things that may create false memory issues. That becomes a later reference as one learns more from outside sources.
It is true that I read the basic facts immediately, Wikipedia article and such. But then I laid out everything I could remember, I just had to know. It was only later that, trying to reconcile glimpses, mental photographs, I dug into details like beer labels, car colors, posture, mannerisms, and so forth. And again, at first this was just to find out if this could actually be true.
I don’t feel like I took any conscious effort to develop Kraft as a character, just recalled what I remembered. Since writing this, I’ve discovered that a piece like this is in the creative nonfiction genre – facts recounted with a literary flair. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, I strove to not include anything that was truly creative.
Reading this, Kraft comes across as a bit of cipher, albeit a pleasant one. Again, that isn’t a conscious effort on my part but, given the nature of the story, seems to make a strong impression on readers. But without the serial killer aspect, which the reader knows going in, he’d just be another guy, nothing especially remarkable about him. He was intelligent, warm, friendly, that sort of thing, but not in any way that he was the brightest or warmest or friendliest guy you ever met.
On Writing and Anger: Laura Bogart
August 6, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am a HUGE Laura Bogart fangirl and have been for a while. But when her essay “I choose to be fat” appeared in Salon two weeks ago, I stopped being a silent fangirl and wrote to tell her how much I admire her work in both craft and content. What impresses me most about Bogart’s work is her ability to speak with a very focused and productive anger about her own life and experiences. Often, we as essayists and memoirists get the advice not to write about something until we are past our anger, and her work made me think of how much we could never write about if we took that advice… and how much we would lose if we never heard people speaking that anger. I wanted to understand how she was able to put that emotion on the page in such a reasoned and well-spoken way without losing any of its immediacy… so I used my Magic Brevity Get To Talk To Writers I Admire card and finagled this interview. I hope you find it as useful and enlightening as I do. ~ Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor
SE: In both your fiction and nonfiction, there is often a strong insistence on the value of anger as a necessary, even generative, component to survival in a violent and difficult life. It strikes me that this is a very considered anger, and I’m wondering how writing about it has shaped the way you experience it now?
LB: In some ways, anger has been my saving grace. The ability to get good and pissed-off at the ways I’ve been mistreated—and not just by my family—is life affirming. The whisper of my roiling blood tells me that I matter, that I don’t deserve what I’m getting (or not getting). My current therapist actually has made a very potent distinction between anger and rage. Anger, she says, is that affirming force. Rage, she says, is a kicked dog that bites the first person that tries to pet her. My work in nonfiction and fiction examines the often hairline difference between the two, which has made me very aware of whether what I’m experiencing is anger or rage. That is to say, whether what I’m feeling is a legitimate reaction to a genuine slight, or just an excuse to bare my teeth.
A perfect example: So, I’ve moved below a woman with a teenage son, and on occasion, they can get a little loud. I’m a quiet-loving introvert who, if I had my preferences, would live inside a hermetically sealed bubble. My initial reaction to the first bit of dubstep (and why is it that the people with the worst tastes always blare it the loudest?) was to become a human volcano. How dare they intrude on my solitude? Don’t they know I need quiet to write? So I got out my broomstick (if I’d had curlers in my hair and pink fuzzy slippers, my transformation into cranky hausfrau would have been complete) and I banged on the ceiling like I was trying out for a job as a sound effects specialist in the new Thor movie. The woman came down, immediately apologetic, almost tearfully apologetic, and told me that her son was just sharing his new favorite song with her. That’s when I what our lady of Oprah would call a “light bulb” moment: The music hadn’t rattled the cupboards; it had only lasted a moment; and, oh yes, other people have a right to enjoy life in their apartments.
I realized then that this playing music wasn’t something they were doing to me; it was something they were doing for themselves. This was right around the time I was working on a section of the novel that is narrated by the father character, who is sort of a manifestation (and exaggeration) of my own issues with rage; as I was skimming those pages, I saw that he has a profoundly antagonistic approach to all of his encounters with other people. Everyone is out to get him. And I saw that in my own reaction to my neighbors, and, frankly, I didn’t like it. The more I process on the page, the more I’m willing and—most importantly—able to let go of that unproductive rage.
SE: There are moments—particularly the moment when you told your father that you would kill him if he ever hit you, your mother, or your brother again—that recur in your essays. I find it really lovely that this recurrence works to establish a kind of intimacy with the reader as they experience your body of work; we start to know some things about you the way we know our friends’ most important stories. Each time I encounter this moment in your work, it retains its power and its meaningfulness because of the artfulness with which you write it into each new piece. Can you tell us a little bit about the craft of having such “touchstone” moments in the body of your work, and how having written about this moment in the past informs how you write about it in ongoing projects?
LB: Thank you so much. That moment is unquestionably the hardest moment of my life, and the most difficult memory I’ve ever set down in words. It’s the moment I’d written in and out of so many different essays until I finally accepted that this moment was, for better or worse, my great origin story.
I remember Dear Sugar’s letter to Johnny, the man who asked her “what’s this love thing all about?” She told Johnny that her mother’s last word was “love” and that this single word, and everything residing inside it, was her “genesis.” That word, genesis, has haunted me ever since. More than the word—the idea, the truth, that there are core moments and events that have defined the course of our lives and who we’ve become.
I’ve included that moment when I feel that I need to convey how extreme the abuse had gotten, and when I need to conjure the full weight of what it took to make it stop. In many ways, violence was the language my father and I shared; it was the way we understood each other. I’m careful to only bring out that touchstone moment (such a great term for it, by the way) when I feel I need to crystallize that truth for my readers.
I also include that moment because I think it says a great deal about my father. He is a grown man, a man who’d boxed and played football. I was a teenage girl. He could have obliterated me in that moment. He chose not to. He couldn’t bear to. He was able to see, in that moment, how desperate I’d become, and it stirred something in him.
That moment is the great knot of my life, really; as I undo it, I find more strands than I’d ever considered. One of the first occasions that I really described it, graphically, was in my essay about why the Hunger Games trilogy was so resonant for me. As I read the part when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the reaping, I was overcome with everything I’d experienced when I’d intervene on behalf of my mother and brother. And for the first time, really, I was able to see something heroic in it (I’d been ashamed of it for a long time. After all, who the hell threatens to kill their own father?). But in Rage, I wanted to explore the more blunt, desperate side of that threat. I’m contemplating an essay just about that moment, and how I’ve unpacked it over the years.
SE: So, my mother is fabulous. When I publish something new, I tell her whether or not I think she’d be happy to have read it, and she only reads the pieces that I tell her won’t make her unhappy. I mean, she doesn’t just pretend not to read the ones that I tell her not to read, she genuinely doesn’t read them. It’s kind of a miracle, and it has allowed me to write things I would never otherwise make public. What are your personal guidelines about what you will and won’t disclose in your non-fiction writing? Do you talk to your family about your writing?
LB: One of the best—and most ruthless—pieces of advice I’d ever gotten about writing from life came from a former professor of mine. He told me to approach it as if the people I’m writing about are dead. That was incredibly freeing. The things I’ve experienced are mine. I get to decide how and where I filter them—within reason. Above and beyond all else, I try to be fair, to be balanced. I try to show the moments of goodness and tenderness and strength in my family. I’ll never give names or detailed physical descriptions. I won’t say what they do for their livings. I try to disguise just enough so that someone who had a passing acquaintance with anyone in my family couldn’t read my pieces without context and go, “ah, that must be ::insert Laura’s father’s name here::”
I won’t lie and say that I haven’t had a lot of angst and a certain degree of guilt about being so candid with my family story. Especially since I don’t feel close enough with them to share anything (writing-wise or otherwise). They have a dim, inchoate awareness that I’m a writer, but that’s really about it. And I’m quite fine with that. One of the best—and most sage—pieces of advice I’d ever gotten about writing from life came from a dear friend. She reminded me that there’s a lovely (and terrifying) thing out there called Google, and that if my family wanted to know what I was writing about, they can find it easily enough.
SE: I know you are working on a novel. Can you tell us something about it, and about the difference between working on something book-length and working in short form?
LB: The novel, which is tentatively titled Your Name is No, focuses on Angelina, a young artist estranged from her parents—especially her tempestuous (to put it mildly) father—but must move back in with them after a car accident renders her unable to find work. And just as her broken bones knit together, however painfully, Angelina comes to understand (and even appreciate) the things she’d most hated about her father and mother.
I’ve always thought of working in short form as constructing a framework for a small house. It has to be sturdy, but it’s truncated. Working in a book-length format is more like erecting a scaffold for a skyscraper. It still has to be sturdy, but the height and breadth of what it has to support is so much more formidable. So, I’m approaching it floor-by-floor—or, chapter-by-chapter, section-by-section—knowing that there’s a peak I have to hit.
Generally, I’ll leave notes for myself (usually in all caps) as guideposts, or places to hold particular thoughts, when I’m writing a short story or an essay. I don’t generally outline them. I like to muscle through them intuitively.
However, I did draft a very broad outline for the novel, so that way I’m aware of certain events and moments I have to build toward. I also had some godsends of friends review the outline to make sure that the nuts and bolts seemed to fit together plausibly. And I try to keep these events in mind as I write, and I try to be mindful that everything I’m putting down—whether it’s a shade of characterization or a line of dialogue—are the hammer-strikes that raise the scaffold.