How to Write an Essay

June 15, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Amanda Smera

Inspired by Sonya Huber

  1. Enter the blank page with your anxieties crumbling up inside you. It’s the healthcare crisis, the meaning of a word that doesn’t sit well with you, the cat that fell from a four-story building and didn’t land on its feet.
  1. Write about the answers you seek, the ones you don’t already have. Walk into the unknown armed with your doubts. Let the words pour out of your fingertips in a magical inquiry, in desperate need to find the ones who are losing sleep over the same ifs.
  1. Write about where it hurts. Write until it hurts.
  1. Find it in the pain of a sprained ankle, of a mysterious pressure on the bladder, in the frozen leaves in winter, in the cry of an infant moments before latching on the breast, in the cry of a kettle that has reached boiling point, in the break of your own heart.
  1. Promise the process will be messy and confusing. Promise it will lead to nothing. But might lead to everything.
  1. Be enraged with your premise, make love to your discoveries, punch the certainties right in the face.
  1. Get lost in the tangents, throw a metaphor in there for flavor, quote the birds chirping by the window, use the spin of the Earth to guide your every word.
  1. Swallow everything you can find, let it drool down your chin, pick it up with your finger and lick it clean.
  1. Scream “Eureka!” from the top of your lungs, jump out of the bathtub, run down the streets naked and euphoric.
  1. Be smug, know-it-all, be barely there and hesitant.
  1. Be the hero and the savior, be the villain, the secondary character no one remembers the name of.
  1. Be the moving force that defies the rules and laws of physics.
  1. Be the first to notice, be the last to realize.
  1. Be the one who dared to write.

    ___

Amanda Smera is an essayist and journalist from Brazil who is currently obtaining a master’s degree in writing at Rowan University.

Disability as Nuance, Disability as Craft

September 16, 2020 § 3 Comments

In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.

Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!

You can read the full discussion here.

And access our special issue, “Experiences of Disability.”

Our Newest Issue: Experiences of Disability

September 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

We’ve posted our new issue this morning and we couldn’t be more pleased. The brief essays in this guest-edited special issue consider all aspects of illness and disability: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of disability is changing. The issue’s authors explore how disability is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of disability shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
Our anchor author is novelist and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang, author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. Other authors featured include Barbara Lanciers, Meg Le Duc, William Fargason, Ona Gritz, Kelly Weber, Maya Osman-Krinsky, Tiffany Promise, Ellen Samuels, Laura Brady, Jeanene Harlick, Amie McGraham, Katie Schwarz, Caroline Bock, and Erin Vachon.

The “Experiences of Disability” issue is guest edited by Keah Brown, Sonya Huber, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Artwork by Jill Khoury.


Read the new issue here: https://brevitymag.com/

How Can Writers Confront Privilege? Read (and Write and Teach) About It

May 6, 2019 § 20 Comments

By LaRue CookLaRueCook_ATL2018_089cropped

I’m a cisgender, heterosexual white man who was raised in the South, a tick below middle class and near the second notch of the Bible Belt. Don’t worry. There is no but. I just think more people like me ought to own their privilege up front, outright. That’s kinda what my debut collection of essays is about: owning up to privilege as opposed to ignoring it or—worse still—apologizing.

Man in the (Rearview) Mirror is about leaving my job as a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine in Connecticut and moving back to my native Tennessee to become a full-time driver for Uber. All of this began in January of 2016, when I was thirty and had no idea that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. So, yeah, it’s about that, too—how my silence and ignorance borne out of privilege renders me as culpable as anybody for this current American predicament, to put it lightly.

Three book readings in, and I’ve introduced myself this same way—more or less—to an audience of mostly white people, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Portland, Oregon, the latter at an off-site event during my first-ever AWP conference. The following day I spent an hour signing books at my press’s booth as part of AWP’s humbling-ly massive book fair. To help funnel potential buyers to the table, my editor greeted people with a short pitch. (He’s a naturalized citizen from Trinidad, for the record.) Meanwhile, I was busy with my own PR song-and-dance when I overheard him say, “No, that’s the author. Wouldn’t you love to meet him?” I turned to see a young woman of color, whose seeming interest quickly drained from her face, upon seeing me. She said, “I’m sorry. I don’t buy books by white men.” Then she smiled and continued down the aisle. Nothing malicious. Very polite, in fact.

For the rest of my stint in Portland and since returning to Atlanta, where I’m a PhD student at Georgia State University, I’ve recounted that anecdote to fellow writers—of all identities. Some have scoffed, even rolled their eyes at the reductive logic. Most of the eye-rollers, admittedly, have been men. As for me, I’m not offended, didn’t even roll my eyes. Hell, first thing I thought: Now that’s an essay! Besides, I knew about this trend in theory, just had yet to experience it in practice. Which is why I’d like to consider seriously the implications of what that young woman said.

This is a blog called Brevity, so I hope you’ll excuse my lack of an exhaustive history on gender and racial inequality in literature, other than to cite a stat by essayist Sonya Huber, who is also the director of Fairfield University’s low-res MFA, of which I am an alum. Since 2000, only two of The Best American Essays have featured more women than men: 2011 and 2017. In ’07, ’08, ’10, and ’12, less than thirty percent of the writers were women. However, those numbers don’t take into account race or ethnicity, or how each individual woman identifies their gender. But I’m not certain those numbers alone can truly contextualize the lack of institutional inclusion in our industry: That series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is run by a guy named John “Jack” Lynch, a man who looks an awful lot like me. Same as Brian Murray (HarperCollins) and Markus Dohle (Penguin Random House) and John Sargent (Macmillan) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). My point isn’t lost on you, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure you understand that it’s damn near impossible–if you’d like to sell even a couple hundred books as an indie author—to outrun the shadows of Jeff Bezos and Leonard Riggio. I can’t help but wonder if those men would consider their positions products of privilege, or of bootstraps being pulled up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to that young woman, to ask her if she only buys books published by Simon & Schuster, which is headed by Carolyn Reidy (a white woman, for the record). I would’ve liked to know that young woman’s thoughts on how we reconcile these white men and me, a person who simply enjoys telling stories, as I’m sure she probably does too. I imagine the ultimate question is: Should I be writing at all, or just reading and listening? How do white people write about privilege if their very words hold that privilege?

These questions loom large and are virtually unanswerable, but to censor them from being asked in these forums by the people who hold the power is to risk confining them to eye rolls or to echo chambers, where we can “unfriend” or “unfollow” those who might challenge us. And, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, once we’ve done that, then, as writers, we’re finished, we’ve lost. Because we actually believe we’ve figured out the world.

So, later that day in Portland, after that young woman had said what she said, I visited the famous Powell’s Books. I bought a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’m ashamed to say, at thirty-four years old, I have not yet read. But I will this summer, as well as C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. And I’d say if there is anything remotely resembling an answer to the question of how I confront my white male privilege, then it is that, to personally seek out the experiences that are not mine and to bring them into the classroom.
__

LaRue Cook is the author of the essay collection Man in the (Rearview) Mirror and a PhD student in creative writing at Georgia State University, where he teaches composition and intro to fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in such publications as ESPN The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The Bitter Southerner, while his fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review and Barely South Review, among other places. Find him at laruecook.com or on Twitter at @larue_cook or on Instagram at @cook.larue.

A Review of Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

March 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

huber_frontby Vivian Wagner

This is a book about pain. Chronic, searing, never-ending pain—a pain that’s shaped Sonya Huber’s life for years. It’s also a book about the language of pain, the discourse of pain, and her gradual movement toward being able to talk and write about her experience with this mysterious thing that dominates her life.

As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is fragmented and disjointed, much like pain itself. She circles around her subject, assaying it, exploring it. Reading the book, therefore, offers an almost visceral experience. To shape this experience, the essays are filled with metaphors. In the first essay, for instance, “Lava Lamp of Pain,” pain is compared to “evil pink evening gloves,” a predatory bird, and a criminal.

Pain, though, exceeds the boundaries of metaphors and, ultimately, language itself. Huber wants to describe and delineate this experience, but it always escapes her grasp. Chronic pain, we learn through these lilting, lyrical essays, remains mysterious, even though it’s indelibly and inescapably connected to her body and sense of self.

Huber also emphasizes that eventually, pain is part of most of our lives. It is, in this way, more constant and reliable than a lack of pain. In “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick,” she examines and interrogates the constancy and steadiness of pain. The essay opens with the following line: “When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is of comfort.” The kingdom of the ill, she says, is paradoxically more predictable and grounded than the kingdom of the healthy:

What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible.

In other words, far from being illusory, the kingdom of the ill is, in a way, more “real” than the kingdom of the well. As she says “We are real, and only illness reveals the true bedrock of illness. It is not imaginary. This land is the most reliable and most vast of the human experience.” As she grapples with feeling abnormal for being in chronic pain, Huber comes to realize that there’s nothing more normal, ultimately, than pain.

The arc of this collection moves toward the final essay, “Inside the Nautilus,” which is a moving account of Huber’s introduction to the McGill Pain Questionnaire. Unlike other pain rating systems, she finds that this questionnaire gets closest to providing a language for describing pain. It asks, for instance, “what does your pain feel like?” and then offers what she calls a “transfixing list of words.” Under the category of brightness, it suggests “itchy, tingling, smarting, and stinging.” Elsewhere, the questionnaire allows the respondent to choose from the following descriptors: “punishing, grueling, cruel, vicious, and killing.”

Immediately, Huber loves this questionnaire, because it provides a language for expressing her pain. During much of her experience with pain, she describes feeling marginalized and shunned, but when she discovers this questionnaire she feels validated. The questionnaire provides a kind of poetry of pain, and it lends a sense of reality to her experience. As she says, “I savored the form with a quiet outpouring of affection one reserves for sensitive thinkers and researchers whose work plumbs the core of human experience.”

Finally, it’s not so much the questionnaire, but this essay collection itself that allows Huber to develop her own pain discourse. Through these essays, she speaks the unspeakable. She gives form to the formless. She shapes the difficult reality of her daily life into a narrative that ties her experience with the broader human condition. And ultimately, through writing, she finds what she calls at the end of her final essay a “poetry within.”

A few weeks after finishing the book, I had surgery to remove a spot of cancer from my nose, and in the temporary pain of the recovery process, I found myself thinking of Huber’s essays. I caught a brief glimpse of someone I’d gotten to know through her writing—someone who will, most likely, become a more constant companion as I age. And this, ultimately, is Huber’s gift with Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She recognizes our shared frailty, and she offers compassionate encouragement to tell its story.

___

Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and a poetry collection, The Village.

Race & Gender: New Kickstarter Rewards

March 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

two spec

We are Happy to Announce New Backer Rewards!

Our Kickstarter campaign is going wonderfully, and we are touched by all the support for Brevity. It’s been going so well, that many of the premiums have already been snapped up, and so now we are bringing new ones!

We have some exciting new rewards for backers, and we are incredibly grateful to the community of writers who have donated them. Help us out, and grab yourself some of the best possible literary swag.

GENERATE SOME NEW WORK! Brevity author Chelsea Biondolillo has generously offered a seat in an upcoming generative online workshop to one of our lucky backers! The date of this is open, so if you can’t make the next one, don’t worry! From the Apiarylit.org website:

The Generative Writing workshops emphasize the production of new work. Each week an optional prompt and maximum word count will encourage you generate up to 4500 words of new nonfiction. These can be individual flash essays, a connected series of vignettes or lyric fragments, or the building blocks of a single personal essay, literary journalism feature, memoir chapter, or hybrid of one or more CNF forms. You are welcome to share your responses with the class, or not, as you choose.

Biondolillo is a frequent craft essay contributor to Brevity, as well as one of our authors. She’s a smart, thoughtful essayist and a great teacher. We think you couldn’t do better than to take this workshop, and we are grateful to her for donating this incredible prize!

GROW YOUR PLATFORM! Does the word “platform” make you shudder a little bit? Are you feeling a little gobsmacked by the way publishers increasingly expect writers to have a strong social media presence in order to market their own work? Us, too! Well, all of us but the excellent Allison Williams, our social media editor!

For a hundred dollar donation, Allison will give you two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of social media advice, including a one-hour Skype or phone consultation on how to build your specific brand as a writer. She’s done amazing things for us—really, she’s grown our blog audience exponentially—and we think she could do wonderful things for you, too.

A SPECIAL REWARD FOR WINE LOVERS, a SIGNED copy of Brian Doyle’s THE GRAIL: A YEAR AMBLING & SHAMBLING THROUGH AN OREGON VINEYARD IN PURSUIT OF THE BEST PINOT NOIR WINE IN THE WHOLE WILD WORLD. You will also get our gratitude, your name listed on a thank you page associated with the special gender issue, and a rock solid excuse to purchase and consume numerous bottles of opulent wine with dark cherry back notes.

THERE ARE TWO OR THREE THINGS WE KNOW FOR SURE, and one of them is that Dorothy Allison regularly delivers heart-breaking, hilarious, essential stories. So we asked her to sign us some books, and she said, “Fuck yeah.” Reward yourself with a SIGNED copy of Dorothy Allison’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE. You will also get our gratitude, your name listed on a thank you page associated with the special gender issue, and a book that will kick you in the ass. The good way.

WE WILL ALSO BE ADDING NEW BOOKS BY BREVITY AUTHORS OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, including work by Sonya Huber, Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Gary Fincke, and Lori Jakiela.

You can see all of the Kickstarter campaign awards here. We are incredibly grateful for the response so far, and excited about the things will be able to do as new backers continue to join us. Thank you, all. We are deeply grateful.

Arrrrrgggh! I’ve Forgotten How to Write

February 6, 2015 § 5 Comments

sonyaFrom the brilliant and funny Sonya Huber:

Setting the Bar Low

I haven’t been able to write lately due to disrupted mornings, which has thrown me off and made me rusty. I have spoken and written about the hour-a-day writing routine, and I want to admit here in the privacy of the Internet that the bar is super low for that hour. Here’s a chronicle of real writing as it just happened:

MY HOUR OF WRITING THIS MORNING

8:30 reply to 2 urgent emails.

8:31: Oh my god this morning pissed me off so much. The battle with my son over his iPod. The freaking diabetic cat. The illnesses. The …whatever. Arrrrrgggh. I haven’t had time to write in days and I think I have forgotten how. Arrrrrrgggghghg.

8:32: Send an essay to be read by one of my writing groups. Stare at my folder of stuff in progress and nothing looks interesting. Resign myself to starting this document. Hating everything including writing.

8:34: Move two folders from “in progress” to published to clean up a bit. Then move one more. Then add a pub to the file of my list of publications.

Read the whole post (and the full hour of writing time) here.

How Do I Write a Book?

December 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

817404680Here at Brevity, we adore straight talk, honesty, shrimp and grits, and common sense. One of our favorite writer/teachers Sonya Huber provides most everything on our list in her recent blog posting entitled How to Publish Your Book.  Good, gritty common sense, honest and straightforward.

Here are the questions she is so often asked:

Question 1: How Do I Get My Book Published?

Question 2: How Do I Write a Book?

Question 3: How Do I Write MY Book?

Question 4: Are you asking me how I became a writer?

Question 5: How do I get an agent?

And here are excerpts from a few of her answers.  But read the entire posting, really.

… I’m trying to figure out and express exactly why the question is so agonizing. I think it boils down to my own inadequacy. Here’s my batting average (for real). About 1 hour a day since I was 23, minus the weekends and sick days. So we’ll say 5 days a week, 18 years… that’s 52 x 5 x 18 (at the bare minimum)=4680 hours. If I add in a few half hours here and there and a bunch of manic proofreading and revisioning, it’s close to 8,000 hours pretty easily (not to mention reading time, which should be added in, I suppose). That is a lot of waking time of life. To show for it, I have 3 books. And I can only tell you that I have no idea how to write a book, much less how to publish one.

… If you saw a welder working and said to the welder, “I want to build a battle ship,” what would his response be? He would sigh and say, “Okay. Maybe you should learn to weld first.” The obvious next thing is to say, Just write your book. Or just find an MFA program. And I hate myself for giving that kind of flippant advice.

… I wrote every day for an hour on the subway to and from work in Boston, and then I kept writing and I wrote a bad novel. Then I was hooked into it, and I subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine, read it diligently, learned about writing and the writing and publishing industry, and sent my work out to many small and large magazines and anthologies. I gradually got published in small magazines and anthologies and got rejected a lot. It took a loooooonnnnnggggg time. it took an astounding amount of patience and still does.

… I wrote so much bad, bad stuff. I still do, and then I sit and revise. That’s the only difference: the amount of time you are willing to put in to revision. If you are brilliant on a first draft, you should not be asking me for advice, because I don’t know what it’s like to live the life of a savant and I would not be the one to guide you. I am what they call a “grind.”

Montaigne’s Kidney Stones: An Appreciation

December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

For anyonecasabamelon who has had trouble loving Montaigne’s essays as much as modern essayists are supposed to love them — because come on, he does get pedantic at times — here is a fine appreciation — with important distinctions — from the sharp pen of  Sonya Huber over at ‘Her Kind,’ the VIDA Blog. We think she has nailed it.  Montaigne himself has yet to weigh in.

Here’s an excerpt:

 As I made it past the 1300-page mark, I was glad to get to this sentence: “I am not excessively fond either of salads or fruits, except melons. My father hated all sorts of sauces; I love them all.”I sighed with relief when Montaigne stopped quoting Seneca and turned toward his real body, even when he dished about the details of his agony with kidney stones. Give me melons, give me sauces—just give me something specific, something with taste and smell and heft.

I had already been told that Montaigne taught himself to write as he wrote, developing his skill over time; nobody explicitly told me to avoid two-thirds of his work, but I should have. I didn’t hear, however, that Montaigne’s decaying body was also his writing teacher. As he ages and becomes ill, he becomes vulnerable and specific. Melons and kidney stones give me something personal, something that reminds me of Montaigne as a corporeal being. Montaigne’s kidney stones bring him back to himself and make him strangely most alive.

Jump here for the entire Montaigne assay d’appreciation.

Reality is Sly, People are Complicated: The Facts of the Matter (Part Two)

November 20, 2012 § 9 Comments

This is the second, and last, installment of our roundtable on the essay “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous and published in both TriQuarterly and  Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. The Anonymous author is joined by author/scholars Sonya Huber, Matt Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French.  (If you missed the first installment, or the essay in question, you can catch up here.)

Last Roundtable Question:

Moderator:  In “The Facts of the Matter,”Anonymous writes, “It is interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining.” I’d like to close by asking you all to engage with this larger question of the argument about fact in nonfiction.  Do the choices we make as artists (and consumers of art) influence or intersect with larger societal issues such as those cited by anonymous? Does the comic notion of “truthiness” attach to both John D’Agata’s About a Mountain and to the Bush administration’s misleading information on WMDs in Iraq, or is that just a hyper-hysteric exaggeration? Is there more at stake here than a genre of writing privileged in the academy but not so much on the radar of the average American or international citizen, or are we jousting at windmills that don’t really matter in the larger scale of humanity?  Finally, where are we as a genre? Are we really comfortable with lying, or have most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction?

SH: Well, I guess I’ll start this off… I’m going to take on the quote at the beginning in conjunction with the last question; I have more to say about “truthiness,” which I think is an important and dangerous gray area. I want to start with an honest question for my esteemed table mates. The quote at the beginning of the question posits “many” nonfiction liars. In the piece Anonymous implicates three by name: John D’Agata, David Shields, and Robert Atwan. Shields first: I’m actually not 100% sure that Shields’ position is represented clearly in the piece; the quote included seems to be observation misinterpreted in the piece as edict. Second: as far as John D’Agata goes, Ned already broke up with him. A major move! Tears were shed! Many of us talked and talked, were sick to our stomachs about someone treading all over a genre we care about, and we mulled it over and gnashed our teeth in continuous conversations and panels.Yes, this stuff will sell books, but that’s beyond our control. Just about anything flashy sells a book. Third: as for Robert Atwan, if he made a troubling comment, someone should ask him to clarify and respond directly. Are there many more? The numbers might be more obvious to someone like Ned who screens submissions at a major nonfiction journal. There’s much lumping of like and unlike here (rape vs. lying, D’Agata and Shields and Atwan vs. “many”), and I need to first understand what is actually being asserted. I did not understand why all these wrenching machinations were necessary to get to a point that seems so obvious; for me, the ends did not justify the means. Lying is wrong in our genre. Either I am missing a raft of semi-fake meta-essays (thankfully), or this piece is saying something that many people in the nonfiction community already know and believe. Or are we also to revisit the well-trod ground of faked memoirs? Let’s not. Liars will continue to get tons of attention, then will get praise for being “bold” and “controversial,” and the rest of us will just have to continue doing our work and calling them out on it. Or?… Enlighten me.

ANONYMOUS: Despite its dismissal as mere entertainment, it seems to me that art is still the compass of culture, so David Shields’ glib claim that “facts are irrelevant” in creative nonfiction seems to me gravely consequential (not surprisingly his assertion arises roughly coincident with a shift in our political discourse from disagreeing over interpretations of facts to a disagreement about what the facts are…not to mention fictional WMDs, Jayson Blair scandal, etc.). I think the fashionable disregard for “the facts” in nonfiction reflects a broader willingness within our culture to disregard inconvenient facts–whether for political advantage or for the so-called sake of art or to meet a newspaper deadline.

I wish this were limited to a few flamboyant rhetorical works by Shields or D’Agata or a single speech by Mr. Atwan, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Viz Pam Houston’s introductory remarks to Jill Talbot’s anthology, in which Houston argues–as many recent graduate and undergraduate students of mine have done–that, given the subjective nature of perception, it’s meaningless to talk about facts in nonfiction, since it’s all interpreted anyway (such illogic has, alas, become a commonplace): http://www.hungermtn.org/corn-maze/ . One might hope that my essay’s point were as obvious as Sonya suggests, but sadly we seem to have lost our collective conviction regarding facts, and whether they matter. Hence, this piece.

But for me, the heart of “The Facts of the Matter” is not its account of a sexual assault or its invented persona but its summary of the 18th-century Stamp Act–which distinguished fact from fiction about forty years before democratic revolutions flourished. That historical fact is not one that we talk enough about, as far as I’m concerned, or think enough about. I believe that what we do narratively does inform what we do actually (neuroscience increasingly suggests this is so): which is why I’m grateful to the thoughtful commentators whose effort to meaningfully parse this question gives me hope.

MF: I’m going to address the elephant in the room, instant replay in sports. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the larger cultural impulse that best intersects with our own artistic considerations of truth, fact, creative nonfiction, memoir, essays, composite characters, artful bending, and all of that. As anyone with even casual experience in televised sports viewing knows, instant replay offers a constant interruption to the flow of games, with the presumed benefit of objective truth.

In football: the head referee goes under the black hood to parse an apparently infinite number of variables (did the ground cause the fumble or was the hand moving forward and does the plane of the endzone extend infinitely skyward even as it is contained within the framework of blaze orange pylons?).

In baseball: line calls can be reviewed, to know whether the triple just inside the bag is actually a foul ball just outside the bag.

In basketball: exciting “buzzer beater” shots are automatically reviewed, holding the frenzied masses in a state of suspended animation — did we win, did we lose? — until the swish can be corroborated with the hundredth-of-the-second.

In tennis: the technological Hawk-Eye camera/computer wizardry (fascinating article here) extrapolates ball trajectory to create a definitive call of in or out and, apparently, make it clear which player tirades are justified and which aren’t.

In cricket (shit, cricket, has instant replay): various incomprehensible things are made clear through the intervention of technology. If you clicked the link above you know that Hawk-eye, in fact, was designed for a fairly specific problem in cricket that I will not pretend to understand.

I hate instant replay or, rather, the impulse that makes instant replay a desirable (even if detested) aspect of contemporary sports. We demand instant replay because we favor the concrete over the ambiguous, wish to pretend that subjectivity is non-existent, remain steadfast in a commitment to a delusion of the absolute. Instant replay exploits our discomfort with judgment, valuation, and nuance. Instant replay makes us feel like truth has been served, because we have verifiable technological proof that something happened in a precise way.

But, let us then ignore for a moment that the very act of measuring something affects its outcome (so sayeth Heisenberg, who might not actually have been talking about the infamous NFL “tuck rule” but might as well have done so). And let us also ignore the prevailing wisdom of beloved post-structuralist French theorists like Derrida and Foucault and Althusser and, my personal favorite, Baudrillard, who all rise up to more or less say, truth is not true. Or knowable. Or is always in negotiation. Or something like that.

Thus I find it completely unsurprising that the growing use of instant replay coincides with a growing clamor for the “absolute” knowledge that a college football playoff will bring coincides with the use of remote-controlled drone strikes in Afghanistan that appear simultaneously true and video gamey coincides with the strategic disinformation of WMDs and the invasion of privacies under various un-truthfully named artifacts like the Patriot Act coincides with the rabid de-truthification of presidential campaigns coincides with the growth industry of on-line fact-checking sites coincides with our own conversation about how sacrosanct the Truth is when writing creative nonfiction.

Goodness, even rodeo uses instant replay.

“It’s a category mistake to think of memoir as belonging to journalism; it belongs to literature,” David Shields writes in “What We’re All Looking For: Notes On Our Reality Hunger”. “I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal. We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir.”

I wonder if part of the reason that the contemporary creative nonfiction of right now keeps circling around the limits and validity of truth-fidelity correlates precisely to the growing lack of clarity we experience in our world. Ours is a regrettable time of fundamentalism, when the discomfort of an ambiguous world blows so many toward the rigidity of dogma and the drawing of lines in the sand. Indeed, creative nonfiction is a genre that relies very much on the usage of truth, but I think we’re disingenuous at best when we pretend that truth is something we ever quite fully understand. In fact, since I think most people really do understand how untenable truth is (has always been, will always be), many turn to nonfiction as a quiet refuge away from the storms of postmodern confusion.

They shouldn’t.

To me, fundamentalism marks one of the chief problems of the current state of creative nonfiction, which frequently seems to be almost indistinguishable from the notion of the memoir, even though the latter is a certain subset of the former. Instead, because popular nonfiction has been dominated for a decade or so with the kinds of memoirs that Shields identifies as “a summing up of life,” we have come too quick to think of that mode as a preferred aesthetic of the genre. But I consider the memoir (as most know it) to be the least interesting of the nonfiction out there, or at least the most limited. The memoir seeks to recount or reconstruct some aspect of life that was lived, and in practice that often results in a preference for memoirs of interesting lives that have been lived. So when we limit ourselves to a genre of memoir, we limit ourselves to a genre of gossip: consider how much memoir relies on the melodramatic, on essentially the same kind of subject matter that has long been fodder for supermarket paperback romances and mysteries and thrillers. I fear that a rigid desire for a certain kind of (falsely) absolute truth supports a vision of our genre as one predicated on hyper-dramatic subject matter. Melodrama is not known for nuance. A lack of nuance can too easily appear to be Truth, nuance too easily considered misleading.

Art, of course, is the desire to press against the thick skin of life. Art is the line call. Art enters when we can’t quite make heads nor tails of the situation (What? Now even competitive coin-flipping has instant replay!?). Art revels in ambiguity, and I think we do a disservice to the artistic potentials of creative nonfiction when we are too quick, as Shields argues, to epistemologize ourselves as journalists who write with a bit more flair, use the first person a lot, maybe get a little crazy from time to time and write in the second person.

One of the horrific consequences of our contemporary spin toward a world defined by technology and economy is the marginalization of art. I fear that when we become too absolute about truth and do not acknowledge the potential truth of truthiness, when we do not recognize the fluidity of our genre and how the motion between the real and the twisted is, often, hard to know (like, what did I have for lunch yesterday? And if I write that it was tuna fish when, in fact, it was lutefisk, have I committed a sin against truth that both disqualifies me from the genre of creative nonfiction and links me irrevocably with depraved and wanton liars?), we are committing a blow against literature. Creative nonfiction is not about the telling of facts. It is about the shaping of facts in a quest to probe the questions that lead us to truth. No, it’s not the same thing as fiction, even if it sometimes appears on the page as a similar animal. But neither does slippage in “factuality” immediately disqualify something as nonfiction. As with so much (everything) in the world, there are gradients and spectrums and matrices and complicated venn diagrams to nonfiction. Instant replay is only one sort of truth, and it’s not the truth I believe lies at the heart of creative nonfiction.

SH: Good points, Matt. I think the two questions of most consequence for our genres and for the question of truth in literary writing–as you point out–are not the absolute decision on “truth vs. lying” but the question of humility (having your limitations be blind spots or explicit and acknowledged) and the question of motive. We can tend toward truth; that’s the best we can do, if truth is something we care about. We are limited by our humanity and our subjectivity. I think John D’Agata in his D’Agata-way loves truth enough to rumple it, though I personally don’t think it should be rumpled. I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer. That might be a high standard to hold, but it is mine. At the same time, we have to be humbled by truth, by the unknowability of the universe. I can barely get a handle on where I left my car keys. Keeping multiple fake universes running is not one of my gifts.

At the same time, one key political point is that “truthiness” matters in different ways depending on the voice and the aims. Motive is key. In politics, for example: Propaganda is lying or exaggerating for the sake of trying to make change in the world through a somewhat despotic manipulation in order to coerce an audience to believe something you believe. It’s often done for fervently noble reasons. Propaganda can even be aesthetically brilliant in a Leni Riefenstahl way, but it is usually dangerous and it hurts people. What’s more, it robs them of their dignity through stirring up emotions and then using the power of those emotions as a stand-in for rational thought. Hence the WMD fervor, the blind spots, and the unknowable question of whether those people believed what they wanted to believe or whether it was calculated manipulate, or both. This is part of what riled me up about the Anonymous piece; in one sense, it’s literary propaganda, designed to make a noble point–but those are practices and an entire genre I ran from and I want no part of. The distinction between propaganda and polemic, I believe, is the distinction between engagement of the animal-guts and the mind.

The good news is that there is nothing new about propaganda. It’s something that has been long discussed and analyzed. Truthiness in politics is kin to propaganda. The only antidote is a fearless recording of our actual minds, our real lives, our less-than-magical daily details. In essays, I believe you can fearlessly imagine, and it’s easy to do so. All you have to do is to start with “I imagine” and then to share your brain. Then tell the reader why that was relevant to your real life. That’s my suspicion even with the aesthetic use of “improvement” of truth without the vulnerability of “showing your work” (I stole that from Bob Cowser, who I think was quoting someone else): it’s the loss of contact with our messy reality. But the opposite challenge is the inherently impossible nature of portraying messy reality through a single subjectivity. Those are two very different “truth” challenges. They should not both be simply put under the umbrella of lying.

I’m a current and former political activist. Anyone with strong political passions who also writes has to admit that they have contemplated using their writing skill to write the heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative tearjerkers or brain-bakers. As a journalist, I’ve done that. And I’ve been asked to do that and refused. Over time, my moral compass developed to the point that when I was treading anywhere close to that territory, I got a little queasy. I don’t do much journalism anymore because some of what I was asked to do (particularly as a freelancer) tread into those accepted categories of sensationalism: Generate Shock! Outrage! Sadness! Joy! It’s funny that we think of journalism as somehow immune from those propagandistic templates.

I’m essaying toward my point here, which is that genre doesn’t give us a corner on truth. We can’t protect ourselves from the lying that surrounds us except on a case-by-case basis. Whenever something outrages our senses of decency, we have to speak out. We also have to speak out in a grounded way that risks something: our real identities, our reputations and our jobs, our lives and our friendship networks, even our “likes” on the Internet. If we don’t have real people willing to stand up for even a limited and local form of truth, we have lost the main strand in our genre that matters to me, which is the confrontation with what is beyond and around us.

ANONYMOUS: It’s false to oppose truth and fact, or journalism and literature, distinct as each is (Didion’s Salvador, for one, encompasses all of the above). The whole point of CNF is to acknowledge the writer as lens, to render the actual through a particular mind, and many of the best memoirs (as well as literary journalism and essays) make use of the gap between what happened and what is recalled (McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for one). The problem arises when we pretend to render facts when we’re writing fiction–not recording memory’s delightful mishaps or employing invention for meaningful effect (and signaling reader of same as Hong Kingston and Slater and Ondaatje, among many others, do) but lying to the reader because it’s easier or more expedient or from laziness or a desire not to consider the facts too closely.

I, for one, love to invent and do: in fiction. When claiming the heft of fact, I stick as close as I can to same, while acknowledging slippage, memory’s gaps, signaling where certainty fails and guesswork or invention of necessity begin, as I work my way toward understanding. It’s silly to pretend that personal truth is at odds with facts: think of Hong Kingston’s brilliant rendering of whole scenes she had no part in to convey the “truth” of her childhood ! But she levels with the reader and let’s us know what is invented. Not to do so is to lie. And should disturb the reader as my bit of invention in “The Facts of the Matter” has done.

To suggest that we ought to let the reader know when we embark on invention in nonfiction is hardly fundamentalism; it’s common sense. That it’s necessary to have this conversation at such length suggests to me how uncommon such sense has become.

NED S-F: I like “truthiness” and don’t like “trickiness”; that is, I like truthiness as practiced by Stephen Colbert when he, as “Stephen Colbert,” uses the concept to undo the trickiness (aka the “truthiness”) of George Bush or James Frey or David Shields, all of whom he has exposed on his show.

Maybe I’m feeling too damn sunnyside-up because of the results of the recent election, but I don’t agree with Anonymous’s assertion that “writers of creative nonfiction have become…at ease with lying” and “uninterested in truth.” Why else would so many of us have been so up in arms about A Million Little Pieces? And in response to Sarah’s final question, I would say that no we are not “really comfortable with lying” and “most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction.”

Which means that we understand what Stephen Colbert means when he talks about truthiness and that finally we don’t fall for the trickiness of Bush, Frey, Shields, and D’Agata. Or, if we do fall for it, we get as mad as Oprah when we find out that we were tricked. Or, as mad as I was at Anonymous when I found out that I had been tricked and that he was a she and not a rapist.

(Which is not all that mad. Indeed, I hope to give my old friend Anonymous a hug, buy her a beer, and have a chat when next I see her, which I suspect will be at AWP in Boston. I will not be mad at her, just as I was not really mad at John D’Agata when I “broke up with him” at the last AWP.)

I agree with Anonymous when she says that we can make shit up as long as we signal that we are making shit up. But I don’t think James Frey signaled that he was (as Colbert put it) “making up his past,” or that Bush signaled when he sent Colin Powell to the UN with all those charts, or that D’Agata signaled when he played the asshole to Fingal’s overly earnest fact-checker, but neither do I think Anonymous signaled when she pretended she was a rapist and I don’t think she’s signaling now when she insists that she must still be anonymous (though you can be in on the joke if you buy Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot (University Of Iowa Press) 242 pages, $39.95). I know, I know, she’ll say she signaled after the fact, but to me that just puts the piece in that particular subgenre of trickiness called gotcha.

And I think that Sonya is absolutely right when she suggests that distinction between “truthiness” and “trickiness” has to do with the humility. LIke Sonya, “I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer,” and that motive and humility make such communication possible. Humility comes from recognizing that we often lie to ourselves in our writing, or to put it another way, we don’t always signal to ourselves when we are making shit up. Part of my quarrel with both The Lifespan of a Fact and “The Facts of the Matter” is that while I think they are both smart, I also think they are too clever by half. It is easy, indeed inevitable, to screw up, lie to ourselves, slip into denial, lose our humility, posture toward our readers, and as a consequence, not get it right. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is very hard to come by. Reality is sly, people are complicated, and truth is slippery, or as Matt nicely put it, instant replay isn’t enough. I think Montaigne had it right when he recognized that you get it right by recognizing that you can’t get it right, even if life consists of trying to get it right. You keep listening to yourself and your reader. You keep revising by only adding, never subtracting, and you doubt everything, even yourself, especially yourself, in that never-ending attempt to answer the question “Que sais-je?”

But hey, what do I know?

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