AWP 2014: Planning for Surprise

March 7, 2014 § 2 Comments

awp xrayA second and very brief take from Ann Beman on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:

Last day of AWP, afternoon session. Panel title includes the words “surprise” and “unexpected.” I’m hoping for cake or cosplay characters or unfurling tooty horns, at the very least. I have failed to note the apple symbol next to the event description. Apple = pedagogy. Pedagogy = the least likely event type to feature cake or cosplay characters or tooty horns. Just goes to show. Expect one thing, and you will get something entirely different. Something unexpected.

For instance, there’s the woman in the second row. She distracts me from the authors — Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, Desirae Matherly — at the front of the room. I’m digitally recording the panel, so I cease taking notes and become obsessed with describing the shade of purple illuminating this woman’s long hair. The hue reminds me of Twilight Sparkle, of My Little Pony fame. Which is odd, because I don’t recall where this imagery could be coming from. I don’t even have children. I take a different tack, deciding it’s a brave purple. Better yet, a Radiant Orchid, the color of 2014, according to Pantone. Yet another association out of left field. Where am I getting this stuff? Further examination is in order.

Oddly enough, these surprising associations feed into what panelist Desirae Matherly is saying about subtext. She talks about the surprises in finding something to write about and encountering the “aha”, or “whatever underlies the piece we sit down to write.” She talks about learning to recognize and work with the unexpected material generated in an essay.

Similarly, Tom Larson speaks of outlines, of making plans where none existed. “The shitty first draft is the plan,” he posits. “And the outline it manifests is the surprise.”

Yes, I think. Sound the tooty horns. All hail the shitty first draft. Let it go where it wants, and see where it takes you. All hail the purple hair in the second row.

PS: After the panel ends, and I literally bump into the cosplay Ork with the battle axe coming off the escalator, I am only a little surprised.

Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.

AWP 2014: Planning for Surprise

March 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

fire retardant

Jody Keisner guest-blogs on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:

Panelists: Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, and Desirae Matherly. *Note: Patrick Madden was unable to attend. His work was read by Thomas Larson.

In short, panelists cited examples from their personal essays and discussed the surprising ways their essays have evolved. Ideas for their writings-in-progress came to them when they were jogging, at the bus stop, showering, engaged in conversation about something else, and sleeping. Writing begins with thinking, and to some extent, obsessing about subject matter. Let the brain turn an idea over and over, they coached, and let the story tell you where it wants to go. Be especially open to essay writing—the exploration of an idea or a question (versus memoir writing—the exploration of an event that has already been experienced and thus, has some predetermined finality).

Things They Said: In 13 Tweets #AWP14

  1. I’m teaching gorilla English. *Attributed to Alex Pollack
  2. Teaching is a subversive, humanitarian act.
  3. Assigning personal narrative requires the instructor to witness.
  4. My writing time is spent mostly not writing, but searching.
  5. The hard part about writing isn’t the writing, it’s the thinking.
  6. The great joy of writing is getting my mind to do something it hasn’t done before.
  7. Give yourself time to re-see.
  8. Dream and imagine in alien shapes.
  9. Write to generate, not to confirm, a purpose.
  10. Hunters and members of the Rodeo Club know how to be close observers.
  11. A careful first draft is a failed first draft.
  12. The book and I co-partnered.
  13. Your prose begins at the first moment you startle yourself.

Two exercises for disrupting traditional, linear narratives:

  1. Begin by writing about something seemingly quite boring, like grocery shopping, sleep habits, or bathing. Keep writing and then write some more. Your mind will be forced to move sideways and out of narrative mode.
  2. Write on any subject of your choosing and then switch your paper or laptop with another writer. Pay attention to the subject matter selected by the other writer. Now write on the emerging themes, and write creative nonfiction. Switch again. Once your paper is returned to you, marvel at where your subject went when it was let loose and into the wild.

Jody Keisner teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama; Third Coast; Women’s Studies; Brain, Child; and elsewhere.


On the Origin of “Girl Fight”

February 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

Joey Franklin discusses how his recent Brevity essay “Girl Fight” came to be:


As a child, and even into my teens, I was what you might call a crier. One day in little league I got hit in the crotch by a ball while running from first to second base, and I cried myself off the field, pretending I was hurt to mask the shame of getting out on an interference call.  On the high school football field, I once let a goliath from the opposing team scare me so badly at the line of scrimmage that I jumped off sides twice in a row and then broke down in tears during the next huddle with my frustrated teammates. I cried during snowball fights and games of tag. I cried at the chalkboard when I didn’t know the answer, at the bus stop when the big kids pulled my ears, and at home when I didn’t want to vacuum the living room or help with the dishes.  I cried when a girl no longer liked me, and once, as in the case of “Girl Fight,” because a girl still did. One of the most persistent emotional memories of my childhood is the frog-throated sensation of heat that rose to my ears right before I melted into sobs.

And even though at thirty-three I don’t cry much anymore, I still suffer from acute moments of shame that haunt me for days, sometimes years after the fact. I second-guess what should be simple conversations with colleagues in the hall, I wonder what people really think of me, and wish I could take words back. And even in sports, I haven’t escaped it. I play basketball twice a week with other faculty at my university and if I have a particularly bad day on the court—miss a lot of shots, make some bad passes, foul somebody harder than I intended—I begin to wonder if I should play at all, if I’m ‘that guy’ everyone hopes won’t show up.  And, of course, recognizing my own self-consciousness is an exercise in embarrassment itself—the very act of worrying about what others think quickly becomes another source of shame.

Emmanuel Levinas writes that shame is the “pure essence of being”—that moment when we can no longer stand the reality of our own existence, but find ourselves inextricably bound to the source of our own nausea. It’s that sensation of wanting to escape our own skin, but realizing that like it or not, we are stuck with ourselves.  Certainly shame is partly about being naked in front of the world, but more importantly it’s about being naked in front of ourselves.  And I think it’s for this that essay is so well suited. When we cannot turn away from ourselves, we can, hopefully, turn to the essay, and in some ways project that shame onto the page. When we wrestle honestly with our naked selves, we begin to mitigate the effects of shame—we begin feel, as Lopate put it, “a little less lonely and freakish.”

And this brings me to “Girl Fight,” an essay born a few years ago from a writing prompt in Jill Patterson’s CNF workshop at Texas Tech. We’d read Sonja Livingston’s short fragment, “Thumb-Sucking Girl,” and then Jill asked us to explore a traumatic childhood memory using a child’s perspective. I wrote about 75% of the essay in one sitting, and felt pretty pleased with how easily I’d worked through this moment of childhood shame. But that first draft focused too much on what I remembered (feelings of embarrassment and humiliation), and not enough on why I remembered it (it was one of the first times I failed to honor a friendship). I discovered that accessing the emotional significance of the moment meant I needed to include not only the voice of the memory, but the voice of the remembering as well. It took several more drafts, but what eventually emerged were a few moments of adult-voiced reflection on my unwillingness to put Heather’s friendship first.

In The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson refers to this multi-voiced approach as a “layered simultaneity,” and believes the tension between the remembered voice and the remembering voice constitutes the “primary compositional conflict of a memoir.” Larson writes: “Those voices, collected over time and spoken now, may best reflect how we perceive ourselves, having lived with ourselves as long as we have.” In other words, if the essence of being is shame and our inability to escape it, then perhaps the essence of memoir is memory and our ability to reflect on it. And if that’s the case, then for those of us who feel so bound by our own shame, memoir may be our best hope for salvation from ourselves.

Thomas Larson’s Heart and Soul

January 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

A Guest Book Review From Richard Gilbert

As long as humans feel threatened and helpless, they will seek the sanctuary that illness provides.”—Dr. Robert R. Rynearson

larsonOne evening, as he teaches his Monday night memoir class in San Diego, Thomas Larson, age 56, feels his throat burn with acid. He’s sweaty, breathless, confused. In rising panic he flees to a bathroom, then dismisses his students and races to an emergency room. Prepping him for the angioplasty and stenting that will open two blocked arteries and save his life, a nurse peels off his clothes: “They’ve been stuck on me like a soiled diaper for half-an-hour. My body is leaking its insides. It’s not the soul coming out, wet and furious. It’s my skin, like packaging, trying to strip itself of the invader.”

Larson, author of The Memoir and The Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” depicted this March 2006 attack in a Brevity essay, “One Way It Happens.” His new book, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman, January 15, 2014), relates his experience of three heart attacks and their aftermath. Though it spans six years, the book is stunningly concise, 128 pages.

Half a million Americans die from heart disease a year, one-third under age 65, Larson tells us, four in five felled without any foreshadowing pain, dead as quick as 51-year-old James Gandolfini on the bathroom floor of his hotel, and “swoosh—it’s time to update the Wikipedia page.” Dire statistics are one thing, but living through Larson’s ordeal is jolting. Here he riffs, having arrived for his first post-infarct stress test:

Right off, the waiting room strikes me—purgatory’s nursery. On the tight-weave chairs a dozen of us heart patients sit, mid-afternoon. . . . In the ward from which the attendant will come, I imagine the smell of catheters, tubes stuck in flesh, the caustic stink of a draining infection under the scrub-brush sparkle of this cardiology wing, computers on wheeled platforms, the weight scales, the boxes of purple gloves, the plastic holders where my file goes on the outside of the door so Dr. J can, in seconds, scan the chart of whichever room, like rowed animal cages in a zoo, he enters.

Larson’s season in hell has just begun. Genetics partly explains it, his father dead at age 61 from a massive infarction; his older brother, morbidly obese, dead of the same at 42. Larson had been a vegetarian for 25 years, so was trying. But he was middle-aged busy and had become obese himself on a diet rich in cheese and eggs. And even his veggie dishes contained artery-clogging oils.

The Sanctuary of Illness is structured in four equal parts, as balanced and sturdy as our own four-chambered hearts. Within Larson’s dramatic foreground narrative, jump-cutting forward or patiently retracing, he grapples with himself, heart and soul. Amidst his despair over his damaged pump, he confronts baggage: his upbringing, his first, unhappy marriage, the weight of his illness on his relationship with his partner, Suzanna. Slowly he takes control of his health; slowly he sees that his heart crisis happened not just to him but to Suzanna as well. He admits herfear, sees her being forced into a caretaker’s role, imagines her likely early widowhood. He recalls his depressed mother, marooned by male cardiac failure.

In compassion and in love for Suzanna, Larson grows, with great effort, beyond his genetics and history. Beyond the refuge of machismo that tells him to suck it up and die—alone. “The sharing,” he writes, “of what is ultimately not mine but ours creates the sanctuary.” In a book rich in metaphors, this redemptive repurposing of another’s bleak metaphor delights.

Living on the brink of death for six years informs and provokes Larson’s writing; as his journaling grows into the memoir you’re holding in your hands, you glimpse a heartening synergy. “No wonder I love the form,” he writes. “It has my back. The story, ever unfinished, will take me where I would not have gone without it.” Indeed, The Sanctuary of Illness—a model of the memoirist’s art—also feels like an instrument of personal discovery and healing. And it meets the test Larson posits in The Memoir and The Memoirist: self-disclosure rather than event sequence is memoir’s reason for being. Intimate, searching, vivid, Larson’s story is also a cautionary tale that if heeded might prolong your life.


Richard Gilbert’s interview with Thomas Larson about writing memoir, heart disease, and a healthy diet appears on Gilbert’s Draft No. 4 blog. The author of Shepherd: A Memoir (Michigan State, May 1, 2014), Gilbert’s essays have appeared in many journals, including “Kathy” in Brevity.

Kindle Publishing: A Brief, Encouraging Guide

September 9, 2011 § 8 Comments

Have you considered putting your own craft essay, brief memoir, or other shorter work out in an inexpensive Kindle edition?  It’s easier than you think.

Two months back, we featured a brief excerpt from Thomas Larson’s craft e-book  What Exactly Happened: Four (Excellent) Essays on the Craft of Memoir.  This week, we asked Larson to tell us how he did that, why he did that, and whether, in his opinion, we all should be doing more of it.  Here is his excellent response:

To do an eBook with Amazon, go to the bottom of the homepage and, under “Make Money With Us,” hit “Self-Publish With Us.” That link, Kindle Direct Publishing, begins the journey. I won’t detail the steps; Amazon will show you. But you may want to buy a cheap guide to formatting your work for Kindle—here’s one and another—which you do in Word, and is easy. Your MFA has, at least, prepared you to follow instructions.

What to publish? That depends on how you conceive your audience. I define my audience as the memoir community, which buys my book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, and my short eBook, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir. (Reader feedback from the latter work tells me such craft talk is needed and appreciated.) Who is your audience? Figure it out. Our literary/monetary future as writers depends on audience and how we link to them.

Why do I like the eBook format so much?

Unlike lit journals, that may take a year for your work to appear, an eBook is published right away. Direct publishing (let’s quit using “self-publishing”; its vanity stain belongs to a bygone generation) offers us the journalistic equivalent of making our writing news.

An eBook can be read on a laptop, iPad, iPod Touch, or any eReader.

If you make mistakes, you can change the contents, make a new cover, raise/lower its price. Try doing that with a traditional book.

If you price it between 2.99 and 9.99, you get 70% of the sale.

One downside, since anyone can put up anything, is who will judge the content? We need aggregators, critics, if you will, who will sort the good eBooks from the bad ones.

Take a look at the stunningly well-done site, the Atavist, “a boutique publishing house producing original nonfiction stories for digital, mobile reading devices.” Its technology costs are high, so it’s unclear how the writer makes much money having to propose, research, and write the product.

Meanwhile, I continue to put up new work at Amazon Kindle. “We Are Their Heaven: A Family Memoir” is a 7600-word piece that tells one story of how those I have loved live on in me. Since it’s $1.99 (below the threshold), I get only 35%, $.70 per unit. Now all I need to do is sell a thousand of them. Wouldn’t that be nice?

What Exactly Happened: Four (Excellent) Essays on the Craft of Memoir

July 8, 2011 § 5 Comments

Thomas Larson, author of the  indispensable The Memoir and the Memoirist, arguably one of the two or three best references for those who teach and write nonfiction, has just released a new book, and there are a few interesting details.

1.) The new book  costs only $2.99.  2.) Delivery is free  3.) You can only read it on your Kindle, or on the Kindle software you can download to your PC, iPad, or other device, and 4.) It offers more of Tom Larson’s intelligent, accessible insight and close-reading of essayists and memoirists.  It is the latter that makes Larson’s writing so valuable.  No platitudes or pronouncements, but instead practical, meticulous examination of what works on the page.

The new book, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir includes (of course) four essays, exclusively available in the eBook format: “The Narrative Elements of Memoir,” “Four Writers’ Openings,”  “The Plot of the Memoir, The Emotion of the Author:  On Kathleen Finneran’s The Tender Land,” and “A New Kind of Narrative Truth.”

We’ve asked Tom to visit our blog in a month or so and discuss how this eBook publication process works, what sorts of success he has with it, how the reader feedback develops, and other issues.  Let’s hope he accepts the invitation, because these are new days, and despite the various forms of hand-wringing about the demise of all that Gutenberg wrought, up here in the Brevity corporate penthouse, we’re interested and excited about how the eBook format might open up new markets, new genres, new forms, and new opportunities.


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