A Trip to the Zoo (Story)

November 30, 2016 § 4 Comments

TrueStory Issue2 Cover.jpgPeople think I’m joking when I tell them I was once a zookeeper, but I was, for one glorious summer, moving from the big cats to the zebras and gnus to the ape exhibits to the children’s zoo to the polar bears, in two-week intervals, filling in for the real zookeepers as they left for summer vacation. I loved it: every moment.

Understandably then, my enthusiasm for Creative Nonfiction‘s new venture, True Story, was barely containable when I received the second installment, Steven Church’s essay “Trip to the Zoo.”

Church’s startling piece focuses on David Villalobos, a man who leaped into a tiger cage at the Bronx zoo and lived to tell about it. “Much of this True Story, selection focuses on my trip to New York City in 2014 to try and retrace David’s trip to the zoo (or at least most of his trip), and my ultimately failed efforts to get people to talk with me; but it also contains an imagined ‘outtake’ that didn’t make the editorial cut for the final book. So while it’s an excerpt it is also its own unique piece that you can’t get anywhere else,” Church explains.

The book Church refers to, One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals is out just this month.

True Story, edited by Hattie Fletcher, will come out every month. “The True Story format lets us publish some longer pieces than we would usually be able to accept for Creative Nonfiction—and, I suspect, might have some trouble finding a home elsewhere,” Fletcher explained,”if only because there aren’t too many outlets (especially print outlets) for literary longform. And I think it’s great for readers; some of the most consistent feedback we get on reader surveys is to publish more frequently, and we hope this is sort of a hearty snack in between issues of the bigger magazine. Editorially, it’s been a lot of fun so far … though the turnaround between issues feels really fast, compared to the quarterly!”

gladysgiraffeYou can read more about True Story and subscribe for yourself at the CNF site. Might make a nice holiday gift, come to think of it.

Editor Hattie Fletcher, by coincidence, worked at the Cleveland Zoo when she was in high school, so there is some sort of convergence happening. Maybe.

Maybe not.

In any case, to reward those of you who have read this far down, here is a picture of a much younger Brevity editor and a giraffe named Gladys. She was lovely. And ate Vidalia onions whole.

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Dinty W. Moore founded Brevity in 1997. He once was best friends with an elephant named Bubbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The View from the Slush Pile, Part 1

November 9, 2015 § 10 Comments

Jen Palmares Meadows recently returned from NonfictioNOW, held this year in Flagstaff, Arizona, and offers part one of her two-part report on the panel The View from the Slush Pile:

NonfictioNOW is an international conference devoted entirely to nonfiction. Compared to AWP, which last year boasted 12,000 attendees, NonfictioNOW is an intimate gathering of about 20 journals/presses, and 400 registered attendees, almost half of which are panelists—the difference being, I think, between visiting a zoo, and living amongst the animals.

In fact, attending NonfictioNOW is a lot like visiting Alaska. The concentration of literary wildlife in one location is astounding. Moments of awe and enchantment are swift and often. At NonfictioNOW, literary beasts can be seen freely grazing the conference hall, queuing up at the local watering hole, and foraging through the modest sized book fair. In the space of a few hours, you might observe Lee Martin picking through his complimentary buffet breakfast, or be surprised by the sudden appearance of Maggie Nelson. You remain alert for a glimpse of the elusive Roxane Gay, and might even respond to the uproarious high jinx of Brian Doyle, with hyena-like laughter. Editors of your favorite journals are within petting distance (don’t) and writers of your favorite essays are within selfie proximity (ask first).

We attend conferences like NonfictioNOW to observe literary beasts, not only to admire their talent and awe-inspiring intellect, but to learn from them. Thus, I spent three days, copiously taking notes and observing writers in one of their preferred habitats—the panel.

The following are my field notes from The View from the Slush Pile, with panelists: Hattie Fletcher (Managing Editor, Creative Nonfiction), Steve Church (Founding Editor, The Normal School), Stephanie G’Schwind (Editor, Colorado Review), and Ander Monson (Editor, DIAGRAM).

Panel: The View from the Slush Pile

Panelists: Hattie Fletcher, Steven Church, Stephanie G’Schwind, Ander Monson

Date/Time: 30 October 2015, 2:30-3:45

Location: Flagstaff, Arizona, High Country Conference Center, Humphrey’s Theater

Elevation: Approx. 7000 feet

Weather: Cloudy with gentle breeze, light snow atop San Francisco Peaks

zz hattie

Hattie Fletcher

Panelist #1: Hattie Fletcher

Species: Non-writing Managing Editor

Affiliation: Creative Nonfiction (21 year old magazine, publishes exclusively nonfiction, circulation 10,000)

Further Reading: In Search of Moments of Real Connection: An interview with Hattie Fletcher

OBSERVATIONS/NOTES

Creative Nonfiction has changed over the years. In its inception, the journal looked more academic, in order to garner respect for the genre, from the academic community. Now, it is magazine sized with images. They host a regular CNF Twitter contest, and recently published a number of themed issues.

Creative Nonfiction receives over 5000 submissions a year, and accepts 1-2% of submissions.

Though Creative Nonfiction mostly publishes unsolicited work, they sometimes commission work that they need to speak to a themed issue.

Hattie Fletcher: “I rarely love a piece right away. I’m often thinking: What does it do with the theme? How does it work with the other pieces? Are people going to respond to it?

Advice: When submitting, look into all publications, not just journals that publish exclusively creative nonfiction. There is a need for nonfiction submissions in many journals.

SIGHTING: Hattie Fletcher, in a feat of essay prowess, was crowned winner of the Halloween Nonfiction Wow game show competition.

Steven Church

Steven “Nonfiction Fan Boy” Church

Panelist #2: Steve Church

Species: Writer, Founding Editor, Nonfiction Editor

Affiliation: The Normal School (founded in 2007, publishes twice a year, 10-15 essays each issue, accepts nonfiction, fiction and poetry)

Further Reading: Ultrasonic, The Guinness Book of Me, The Day After The Day After

OBSERVATIONS/NOTES:

Often considered boundary challenging, quirky, or difficult to classify, The Normal School has published a transcript from an Ebay auction, a Google maps essay, and an entire essay composed of quotes by dead wrestlers. It also publishes traditional nonfiction.

For years its website was static, but recently the online magazine has become more dynamic, and has revived some archived works.

The Slush Process: Every submission gets at least 2-3 reads, and is ranked 1-4. Works ranked 1 or 2 get rejected. Anything 3 or 4 gets printed and placed into a blue folder to be read by Church.

The Normal School has been working diligently to include diversity, to find writers who aren’t getting published as much, like people of color and women.

The Normal School’s Associate Editor has what Church calls, a “Golden Ticket,” which means they can accept any one piece they want, no questions asked, to ensure a variety of tastes.

Church: “I’m a nonfiction fan boy, and 95% comes from the slush pile, but I’ll solicit writers I like.”

Advice: Look for magazines that promote their writers, magazines that end up in anthologies or mentioned as Best American Notables. That means the magazine made an effort to put that writing into an editor’s hands—not every publication does that.

Advice: Send submissions to magazines that seem cool. You never know what might happen. Church submitted an essay to fledgling journal, The Pedestrian, which folded after its second issue. His essay, “Auscultation,” went on to be included in Best American Essays 2011.

Read PART TWO featuring Stephanie G’Schwind of Colorado Review and Ander Monson of Diagram.

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Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories.

The Incendiary Alchemy of Steven Church’s Ultrasonic: A Book Review

March 10, 2015 § 3 Comments

By Kirk Wisland:

IMG_3616Sometimes you get the essay you need.

Many people have written about Ultrasonic, Steven Church’s most recent essay collection—about the elegant soundscapes, the deep empathy, the alternating mischievousness and profundity. All sentiments with which I heartily concur—but all of which have previously been said.

What I will say is simply that this book spoke to me, that these essays, these ideas, often these individual sentences, popped off the page like firecrackers. I readily acknowledge that part of that crackling connectivity could be sparked simply by a shared frame of reference—that Steven Church and I are of the same generation, from the Midwest, came of age during the last decade of Nuclear Fear, possess similar tastes in sports and rock music. But a few common cultural denominators are not enough to explain the powerful effect of this book.

So many of the soundings in Ultrasonic pinged back ideas from the recesses of my cranium that they became a continuous echo. I could not finish a single essay without stopping to scrawl some note spawned by one of these ripples. Perhaps this inability to stay locked in these essays is just some inherent narcissism on my part, a mind’s need to inject the self into the story to stay interested. But I think the experience of Ultrasonic is so much more than that, because I have read many great books during which I engulfed chapters and stories and twenty-page chunks of text without once ricocheting out into my own sphere of thought.

What makes Church’s Ultrasonic so invigorating is the incendiary alchemy at work on these pages, a churning, visceral process that demands attention and response. This is what the best writing accomplishes. Beyond just making the personal relatable, or universal—noble achievements in themselves—the best writing sparks a conflagration of memories, welds itself to our psyche and becomes a part of our emotional-intellectual-creative forge. And this in turn is the amalgamation of culture itself, how we ingest, interpret, appropriate and re-mix the art of others into our own offering, our own limb of the cultural sculpture. “Art, while perhaps created in one, doesn’t exist in a vacuum once it is given to an audience. Once you turn art loose in the world, there’s no controlling how people interact with it, appropriate it, or abuse it.” Church wrote these words in response to his discovery that some of his favorite theme songs for writing, editing, (and strutting), were the same tracks popular with our post-9/11 torturers. But I will reclaim his sentiment for something positive, as a sounding-line for my own remixes of his inciting sentences—and as an excuse to offer up the backstory of my first encounter with Church’s essays.

In the spring of 2009 I started a yearlong stint as Nonfiction Editor at the Sonora Review. One of the first things I did after taking the reigns was to query Steven Church, this pleasant, burly fellow I’d met after an AWP panel in Chicago where he had used the most brilliantly disgusting writing metaphor I’d ever heard.

Steven graciously accepted and shortly thereafter emailed me a slice of nonfiction narrative centered on his experience as a fix-it guy in an apartment complex. The essay was pretty good. But I didn’t love it. And going against every instinct I had, shouting down my interior dialogue—which kept adamantly assuring me that declining said essay and requesting another one was not a good way for a novice editor to build healthy relationships in the world of writing and publishing—I asked for another piece. And a day later I received an email containing Confessions of a Parasite (since retitled as It Begins with a Knock at the Door), Church’s interrogation of what it means to be a writer in the world, and his worries about the constant semi-detachment of the essayist’s brain. “I was there but not there,” Church writes, describing these decoupling-mind moments. “I was often already taking an experience, filtering it, and crafting it into story.”

I was only a few months into my MFA, after a decade away from school, still uncertain of my place as a writer in academia. I was also wrestling seriously for the first time with the ethics of writing Nonfiction, struggling to forge and weld my first literary limb. “Writing isn’t really a job so much as it is a pathology,” Church’s words sparked up off the page, “a life of the mind that—if you are extremely lucky—someone pays you to indulge. It is an identity, a uniform you put on and never take off…It is a way of seeing the world.” My blind faith when I declined that original offering was apparently guided by a subconscious intuition that there was a forthcoming Church essay that would speak to me so directly. I got the essay I needed.

Ultrasonic ends up being a difficult book to read cover-to-cover, a victim of its  brilliance—the continual dithering slaps Church offers up in his essays. I offer up no over-arching thematic interpretations, or summary of the whole book. I’ll just tell you that Ultrasonic is full of alchemic prose that made me pause and re-read, dog-ear pages, highlight and scrawl immediate notes in accompaniment—that my copy of this book is now a collage of beautiful graffiti. So I guess I am writing this for those who have not yet read Ultrasonic. Like the editor of a good movie trailer, I want to entice the reader to find a comfortable chair, grab some popcorn, and experience this book. These are the essays you’ve been looking for.

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Kirk Wisland’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The Diagram, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, Phoebe, Essay Daily, and in the memoir anthology Roll: A Collection of Personal Narratives, and the Milkweed Press Minnesota Fiction Anthology Fiction on a Stick. He is a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Ohio University.

 

Toward a More Expansive Definition of Memoir

March 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop at The MoMAWriter/teacher/editor Steven Church has posted a slightly revised version of his excellent AWP panel talk on the ‘stealth’ memoir, and it is well worth the read. Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to his full essay:

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book [ The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst ] because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy. A book about that time and place needed that thread as a kind of universal touchstone, a hook for the reader of memoir who expects some personal stakes right up front; and I knew that the challenge was one of balance.

 I want to believe that we can also think of the expectations of memoir more generously, more broadly than the confessional or traumatic. I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at it’s best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow. Perhaps like all literature it is aiming to capture the sublime confluence of these and other human experiences through the synchronicity of ideas and emotions.

READ THE FULL POST HERE

AWP 2012 — The Hipster Genre and The Inside Joke

March 9, 2012 § 18 Comments

By Paul Haney

Chicago 2012 was my first AWP, and as such, by week’s end, I was pooped. All those panels, all them booths, all that cold Chicago out there to mess around in. But as one who check-boxed all the nonfiction-themed panels on the schedule, I had one more to attend in the last slot on Saturday evening: “Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms, or a Form of Collapse.” It turned out to be the most contentious panel of the week.

My girlfriend, though professedly not a writer (I would argue, Who isn’t?), came with me to the panel as it fit in our schedule between seeing the jellyfish at the Shedd aquarium and meeting friends for dinner over a Chicago deep dish pizza. As the discussion got underway, she slouched down and stared at the laces on her boots. I sat up and got out my notebook.

Wendy Rawlings posed the issue for the panel, a certain “pedagogical vacuum” she had found between narrative nonfiction and the lyric essay in which she struggled to articulate and define for her students the rules and allowances for truth, fact, and art within that spectrum.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius addressed the matter first, speaking at length about Virginia Woolf’s wandering, narrative “I,” and the slipperiness caused by allowing writers to stretch the truth, play with details, and force the reader to discern fact from fantasy. Memory is the essential self, Bartkevicius seemed to say, and the essay should mirror actual memory, like Woolf’s essays, and not fabricate details. It’s the image of the mind we’re after, not perfect prose and narrative arc.

After Bartkevicius’ scholarly approach, Steven Church drew a humorous analogy between the lyric essay, a genre that has come to be defined as a compromise between poetry and prose, both lyric and narrative, and the contemporary stereotype of the hipster. The lyric essay’s cooler than everyone, above reproach because it knows more than everybody else, like an inside joke. According to Church, at its worst, the lyric essay “dances in sequined pants” without having anything to say. At its best, it preferences subjective perception over collective, and respects the “writer-reader relationship that makes nonfiction special.”

I thought Church was forceful and funny. My girlfriend studied her fingernails.

Next Colin Rafferty spoke from personal experience as the first faculty ever hired as an essayist at the University of Mary Washington. Rafferty said that nonfiction is becoming more prevalent in creative writing departments across the country, and with the essay grabbing a place in the university, nonfictionists are having to grapple over a definition of who they are and what exactly their genre does. This is a good and necessary thing, he said. He also asserted that once an essay privileges fact and truth, it can get as lyrical as the author would like.

There seemed to be an implicit reference in Rafferty’s concluding remarks to the recent hubbub over John D’Agata’s blatant dismissal of absolute fact. Earlier, Bartkevicius had ostensibly thrown D’Agata with James Frey in the bucket of writers who fib and betray.

The final speaker, Ned Stuckey-French, directed his comments straight at D’Agata in a “Dear John letter.” “It’s over, John,” he repeated, deadpan, and used the form and tone to admonish D’Agata’s fact-stretching, adherence to the label “creative nonfiction” (“‘creative’ as opposed to what,” Stuckey-French asked, “‘destructive’”?), and deracination of essays from their original context in anthologies without acknowledging the interpretative effects of such an act. The audience chuckled throughout. My girlfriend crossed her arms.

And then it happened. In the Q&A, the first questioner spoke with such vehemence and conviction in defense of John D’Agata that the room broke into a free-for-all, the panelists scrambled to shield themselves from AWP field guides-turned-projectiles, and audience members dove into the fracas in the name of nonfiction.

Okay, so it wasn’t that intense.

But the questioner did say that to put D’Agata in the same sentence with James Frey was inane and ingenuous because the book itself, About a Mountain, points out every instance of fudging with the facts in a special notes section in the back. She accused the panel at hand, as well as all the other panels that weekend who took up the D’Agata controversy, of character assassination, of making the issue personal, of seeking to ruin a man’s reputation because of some set of arbitrary, nebulous, incipient, prescriptive rules of composition. When she finished making her objection, the questioner received a few smatters of applause from around the room.

It was a question that ended with a period.

And was followed by an awkward silence. The panel leaned forward on their elbows.

“Is there a question?” Rawlings said.

Rafferty was the first to respond and attempted an informative, cogent answer that would also pacify tempers. When he was done, others audience members from the D’Agata camp demanded more answers.

“Look,” Stuckey-French said, pulling the microphone close. “I’m not really breaking up with John D’Agata.” It seemed to me that the rhetorical moves made in the panel’s presentations—Bartkevicius’ bucket of betrayal; Stuckey-French’s breakup letter—hit a sore spot that had reached its pain threshold. But I wondered, wasn’t the panel somewhat playing devil’s advocate? Weren’t they using D’Agata not as a punching bag, but as a learning moment, a launching pad for an important discussion in a nascent genre?

As we left, I looked to my girlfriend for answers. “What’d you think?”

“It was like a giant inside joke I wasn’t let in on.”

“What about the disagreement at the end?”

“I don’t know why people care so much.”

Maybe that’s the question we should be asking.

Paul Haney is soon to receive his Master’s in Literature from Florida State University. His has a nonfiction piece forthcoming in Redividerand shudders to think of the angry horde of fact checkers waiting to dismantle it. He is originally from Orlando

… the chill of death in that deep green water …

July 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

From our pal (and darn good writer person) Steven Church:

… I’ve recently been forced to face some new realities about the publishing world. And inspired in large part by the work of my friend, Dave Griffith, I figured what better way to explore/essay into this new landscape than by “publishing” an essay of mine, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Partthat appeared originally in what may be my all-time favorite magazine for nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and was nominated by them for a Pushcart Prize and included as a Notable Essay in the 2008 Best American Essay. It’s also included in the textbook, Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction alongside many of my writing heroes. The essay is now part of a larger manuscript (very tentatively) titled Bright Orange Fear: Adventures in Adulthood, a manuscript. I’m proud of this piece and I hope you’ll read it and pass it on to others.

Extra Lives: Are Games the New Novels?

June 28, 2010 § 4 Comments

From our friend, the fine writer and editor and occasional Brevity contributor Steven Church:

I’ve just finished reading Tom Bissell’s new book, Extra Lives, and while I don’t have any real desire now to play games, I do feel like I understand them better as a truly amazing, terrifying, and sublime intersection of art, science, and entertainment. Thanks in large part to Bissell’s work, I can respect games for what they are and feel less of a need to try and justify them in comparison with other art forms. Combining personal experience, critical analysis, and interview, all filtered through a critical voice as linguistically rich, smart and funny as any I’ve read since David Foster Wallace, Extra Lives manages to teach without being didactic, to make you laugh, wonder, and even worry over your author as character. This book is no mere memoir of game-love, nor only a critical analysis of games—though it contains both of those–but also a deftly handled meta-analysis about the challenges and pitfalls of creating narrative realism in art.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve never played any of the games Bissell discusses (save for Pac Man, Tempest, and other “classic” 80’s games mentioned in the few gaming history lessons). I’ve never felt any kind of affirmation, pleasure, or sense of accomplishment from a video game. I don’t particularly care whether I win or lose or accomplish the game’s authorial goals. Put simply, video games don’t often engage my competitive engine—which at times can crank like a V-8.  But more to the point, games also typically fail to engage me at the level of art. This is essentially Bissell’s dilemma in the book, a dilemma that, honestly, I didn’t worry too much about before reading Extra Lives. I’ve had several students in recent years write compelling essays about games or gaming, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about video games mattered or not; and perhaps the best compliment I can give Bissell’s book is that I now believe they matter as much if not more than many other forms of art, and that they may be on the verge of a kind of artistic experience far more complicated and sublime than we can even imagine.

I realize that my basic problem with video games is in many ways my problem with most contemporary plot-driven fiction and film. I get bored with the plot-fueled narrative, preferring instead the imagistic, visceral sting of a short-story or the digressive, consciousness-driven explorations of an essay; and suspect this may be a big part of the reason I’d get bored with narrative video games as well. They just aren’t essayistic. Almost all action in games—even the most “open” games like Grand Theft Auto IV—appears to be fundamentally purpose and plot driven. Games are not (like Tom’s book) digressive, fragmented and irrational or lyrical. They are, by design, the product of authorial purpose, and mostly linear progression—all of which are things I can appreciate but which I don’t necessarily seek out as an artistic (or entertainment) experience. As Bissell points out, more frustratingly for me, video games are still struggling with rudimentary elements of narrative craft—flashbacks, back-story, dialogue, characterization, non-verbal communication—that any literary writer has already mastered, internalized, and, in some cases, rejected intentionally in favor of other, more nuanced, experimental, or obtuse techniques of storytelling.

Though he doesn’t say this, the implications for me of what Bissell artfully reveals in Extra Lives, is that games are the new novels of American culture—perhaps the most advanced, complicated and still-evolving form of escapism as entertainment. “Whoa!” you might be saying, “You’re making some awfully big assumptions there, Mr. Essay Pants.” And you’d be right. I am assuming that novels are essentially artful escapism; and furthermore that video game creators (not an individual, as Bissell points out, but a “guild” of creative people) are dealing with many of the same questions of novelists, in addition to a host of other technological, aesthetic, and ethical concerns that most writers never have to consider, all in effort to create a narrative experience that is very much like a real experience. Bissell focuses much of his analysis on how the newest generation of games has evolved to implicate the gamer/reader emotionally, to make them feel conflicted, troubled, elated, or frustrated, which is of course what most novelists are aiming to accomplish as well. Bissell’s analysis of the dissonance between frame narratives and ludonarratives is fascinating and compelling often because it speaks to challenges not just for video games but for writers as well; and one wonders, after reading Extra Lives, if emerging novelists are considering this question as seriously as emerging video game creators.

What I like best about Extra Lives is perhaps what will bother other critics—that it dallies and dithers around, digressing and regressing, spinning us around in a truly essayistic examination. It expounds and expands. In addition to affirming many of my concerns about video games and the limits of conventional narrative, Extra Lives also manages to accomplish what video games (and apparently, cocaine) cannot. It comes to you. Mostly eschewing any kind of heavy-handed overarching frame narrative (i.e. some kind of addiction memoir, or redundant critique of the inherent violence in games and their effect on children) in favor of Bissell’s own beautifully messy ludonarrative of consciousness, Extra Lives is an open game-field spanning the divide between audience and subject and it speaks to you. Before you even realize it, you’re engaged in a conversation and an exploration of why video games matter (a question you, too may not have considered seriously), and an exchange of ideas and journey through Bissell’s hurly-burly brain that will leave you where the best nonfiction books leave its reader and perhaps where video games cannot yet leave you—enlightened.

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, or Encounters With Steve Almond’s Annual Meat Hoard

May 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

Steven Church, editor of that waffle-rocking litmag The Normal School and contributor in the most recent issue of Brevity, discusses meat, smoke, the essayistic urge, and Steve Almond’s newest book:

A few years ago, while living for a time in Providence, Rhode Island, I met and became friends with the writer, Steve Almond. I still have a mix CD Steve gave me labeled “Providence Shuffle,” emblazoned with a quote from my son, “I made a bad choice,” written in blue Sharpie.

At the time he gave it to me, Steve had no children besides his books and the one at the moment was a collection of stories dubbed  The Evil B.B. Chow.  I’m pretty sure he and his girlfriend, Erin thought of my son mostly as a charming oddity, sort of like a snow globe from Iraq or a talking monkey. EVERYTHING he said was funny. Steve was working hard to be known as a fiction writer (he is, by the way, one hell of a short story writer) and not as much as a nonfiction writer, which is what I hoped to become, and what I now try to teach people how to become, and what I’m convinced everyone wants to become.

I happened to meet Steve during the time in his life that makes up much of the present action in his new nonfiction book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, a laugh-out-loud-on-the-airplane, smart, and sweet-sounding tribute song to the music Steve has been foisting on others for years. Though I can’t be sure, I’m fairly confident Steve made the Providence Shuffle CD for me, which includes several bands and artists mentioned in the book, after I’d just witnessed to something I will call the annual “Steve Almond Meat Hoard.”

This festival of sorts occurs just before the first really hard freeze of the year, after which grilling meat on your rusting Weber Smoky Joe becomes, in Boston, not just inconvenient but a potentially life threatening choice. At this point, his girlfriend Erin had already moved to California to complete an MFA in writing, leaving him to his own bad choices, some of which included large quantities of meat.

I’d occasionally just drive from Providence up to Boston under the some pretense or another but really just because I was desperately lonely and wanted to hang around in Steve’s apartment full of chocolate and music. It was dumb luck that I showed up for the annual Meat Hoard. Each year, just as the winter was practicing its first howling approach, Steve would load the Weber with charcoal and cook pounds and pounds of meat—chicken, sausage, steaks, and shrimp. When things got rough in the dark days of January, he’d thaw his bags of grilled meat and enjoy the taste of summer amidst the long press of winter that seemed to me to end sometime around July.

The night I was there, Steve froze everything except for a few select cuts, one celebration of his downfall—his so-called “verboten pie,” a homemade pizza no “good” Jew would eat, a pizza covered with sausage and shrimp, truly a “bad choice,” but one that tasted delicious and sacrilegious . . . but I digress into memory and story, pictures of that day, laughs and other tangents, perhaps because on some level I’m thinking like Steve.

This is what the best essayists do. They let you think like they do and allow you to watch their mind at work on the page. They create a conversational style that invites you into their thoughts. I’m not sure Steve gets enough credit as one of the best essayists working today. For years I’ve been raving publicly and privately about the genius of his Kurt Vonnegut essay in his last book, Not That You Asked—a truly stunning piece of . . . what? Criticism? Memoir? Essay. Just essay. A meandering, poignant dallying of thought, a critical celebration of Vonnegut that will make anyone want to go out and read everything the man has written.

With his new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, I’m calling Almond out as a lyrical critic, a daring poetic gadfly of the best kind who reveals both the heights and depths of human endeavors by turning a mirror upon our selves through the sort of self-reflection that essay aficionados crave. He’s like the mutant love-child of Montaigne and Mark Twain, a writer of the sort of books that (believe it or not) nonfiction patriots like David Shields should embrace. The book cannot be easily categorized or pigeonholed; it’s a meditation that moves at the speed of Almond’s consciousness–a mad, bouncing, digressive journey through his love of music.

This book is not a collection of rock star profiles or, I would argue, even a collection of essays, but is instead a book-length essay, one long talk on Rock-and-Roll. It’s neither sycophantic nor ironically distant, rarely flippant or silly but frequently hilarious. Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is not an “insider” book or tell-all memoir but still somehow deeply personal. It’s not journalism but it is journalism. It’s not a novel, not even terribly plot driven or scene-heavy, but still moves like a great blues jam with freight-train intensity. It’s a book about music, of course, but also about love, friendship, and the power of fatherhood to change forever the kind of choices you make. It is simply a damn fine book. You should read it before midnight.

In case that doesn’t convince you and you need a more personal reason to read this book, how about this: I recently shared Steve’s book with a poet friend, who consumed it in a day and, somewhat overwhelmed by the experience (evidenced by his frantic downloading of music) asked me, “What’s it like hanging out with Steve,” and I thought about all the stories, the choices I could make in what to tell him, but instead I just pointed at the book and said, “It’s pretty much like that.” And it is. Reading this book is like listening to the electrified surge and flow of Steve’s stories, hanging with a good friend as he’s turning shrimp on a grill with a salad fork, hickory smoke billowing up into his face from the wood chips he sprinkled over the fire.

Brevity’s Bright and Sunny Summer 2010 Issue

May 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

We’ve launched a truly outstanding Summer 2010 issue, featuring twelve beautiful concise essays from Fleda Brown, Steven Church, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Sarah J. Lin, John Calderazzo, Marcia Aldrich, Melissa Ballard, Erin Murphy, Danny Goodman, Lisa Groen Braner, Diane Seuss, and Jenny Spinner.

In our Craft Section, Drema Hall Berkheimer visits those moments when the muse seemingly has better things to do, and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack outlines the ways a writer can put proper flesh onto the bones of ancestral stories.

Also Book Reviews from Michelle Wittle, Kelly Ferguson, Patty Wetli, and J. Luise, and stunning photographs from Ryan Rodgers.

Come visit.

What I’m Reading: Dinty W. Moore

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

A week or so ago,  the Campaign for the American Reader asked Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore what he was reading.  His reply:

I am currently reading Philip Graham’s The Moon, Come to Earth, a fascinating blend of travel writing and family memoir set in Lisbon … Like everyone else in the nonfiction world, I’m also reading and re-sampling David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.… agreeing with about half of what he says, and disagreeing with about half … Just finished Steven Church’s The Day After “The Day After”: My Atomic Angst, a quirky hybrid memoir that chronicles a childhood spent in Lawrence, Kansas, chosen as the central locale for the iconic 1980s apocalyptic TV movie, “The Day After” … and finally, I’ve just started re-reading Lauren Slater’s Lying, a book I was determined to hate but which still fascinates me.

Full story here:  Campaign for the American Reader

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