Recognizing the Power of Memoir: A Discussion of Craft and Content with Sarah Hepola

Sitting in a red, cushioned chair in a crowded auditorium, I recognized the story being read aloud as a better-written version of my own early college years. There was the added flair of 90s grunge and a dark humor I’ve never managed to achieve in my own writing, but as Sarah Hepola read excerpts from her New York Times Bestseller, Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to Forget, I felt a connection with the work as a drinker, a woman, and a writer. The experience reminded me of the struggles and rewards of writing within the genre of creative nonfiction as a memoirist.

A couple of weeks ago, the 1966 staff had the pleasure of attending a Q & A with and a lecture by creative nonfiction author Sarah Hepola. Sarah Hepola is best known for Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to Forget, but her writing has also appeared as essays in the New York Times, Salon, The New Republic, and several other magazines, newspapers, and journals.

Trinity University hosted the two events, starting with a personal Q &A in a borrowed classroom filled with current and prospective writers, journalists, and publishers. Our conversation immediately turned to questions of craft. Creative nonfiction presents particular challenges unique to the genre. Most prominent in my mind are the worries of what people will think of you and how your family and friends will react, especially if they appear in your work. Sarah Hepola shared the ways she coped with these issues. Unexpectedly, she cited the advent of the comment section in how she learned to cope with negative reactions to her work and to herself. She explained that internet comments made it hard for her to maintain the idea that everyone would think her writing was great, and she learned to develop a sense of detachment from the negative comments. Hepola also explained that she allows those people in her pieces to preview the portions in which they appear; this practice allows her to address some of their concerns and give them some warning.

Later that night a large crowd filed into Laurie Auditorium to see Hepola lecture. She focused on the content of her book, and in between readings she explained blackouts, the importance of drinking responsibly, and the issues surrounding consent. With each topic I remembered my own experience with these difficult issues, recalling that the second CNF piece I wrote was on my own desire for alcoholic blackouts. Our stories diverge in our reasons for drinking, in our feelings toward our blackouts, and our recovery, but in her story I felt a validation of my own. Hepola shared that after her book, women and men thanked her for sharing her story, often a story similar to their own. This is the power of memoir: in telling your story, you validate other people’s struggles. In telling your story, you can become an advocate and a critic. In Sarah Hepola’s words, when it comes to creative nonfiction “the rewards outweigh the challenges.”

*

Ileana Sherry works with students of many ages to improve their skills in writing and reading in addition to her work as Managing Editor and Senior Reader for 1966. Her mission is to excite the same passion she feels for writing, reading, and literature in her students. She believes in order to be a great English teacher you must strive to write every day. As a writer, Ileana works in creative nonfiction, writing memoir. She takes inspiration from great writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, and Mary Karr.

What We Write about When We Write about Each Other

“My neighbor shot his friend and then shot his dog in the head and then shot himself and no one cares.” This violent incident and the apathy that followed it disturbed Sarah Carson and inspired her to write “Aftermath,” a haunting essay made up of nineteen short scenes in which she searches for her neighbor’s dog. Carson discusses the piece and examines the ethics of writing about real people and events in the post below.

Aftermath” can be found in our Winter 2015 issue. 

 

Long before I’d even considered writing my first essay, I remember being struck by hearing David Sedaris talk about his family’s reactions to the stories he writes about them.

In an episode of This American Life, Sedaris described a conversation with his sister this way: “She’s afraid to tell me anything important knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junk man building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there. But my family started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up. And they’re sick of it. Conversations now start with the words, ‘You have to swear you will never repeat this.’”

I was still an undergraduate when the story first aired, and I remember thinking, “Ha! He sure got them!” — as if writing about other people was some sort of practical joke or an episode of Punk’d.

Since then, I’ve come to take the responsibility of publishing work about other people more seriously. But to avoid writing about the people I know has never seemed like an option. Writing about them seems natural. Or perhaps I should say, writing about my experiences with them seems natural. And necessary. After all, what is literature for if not to share our experiences — if not to say to a reader, “You also find this thing that happened terrible or hilarious or frightening or sickening, right?”

But of course, writing about the people I know can — and should — be tricky.

Sometimes the line between what can be said and what needs to be said is obvious, but often it isn’t. When my most recent book was being published, I culled through its pages deleting anecdotes I’d shared about family and friends that they likely wouldn’t want people reading.

My editor protested. “But this is your art,” she urged.

“But this is also my life,” I replied.

Now I am constantly sending emails to people saying, “Hey, I mentioned you in this thing; can you read it, and let me know if you’re OK with it?”

Usually they are. I think the experience of being asked — of being invited into what is being communicated — makes people excited to be a part of the process.

The essay I wrote for the Winter 2015 issue of 1966 — “Aftermath” — tells the story of the six weeks following a murder-suicide in my condo building. Most of the essay is about my search for the dog who lived in the condo, about my own personal struggle to make peace with the situation by locating the animal.

But the essay also details my own struggle to connect with someone who might also acknowledge the awfulness of the situation. Everyone — the police, the pound, the animal hospital, even my best friend at the time — seemed to be saying, “Get over this. Move on.”

Writing about the incident begged a question: do I mention this best friend of mine? Do I tell this story even if it includes unflattering images of her? Does a reader need to know the things she said in order to understand how desperate I was for someone around me to recognize the terrible, awful truth of what happened in my neighbor’s condo that day?

Ultimately I decided that what was being communicated — my own desperation to find someone to grieve with — required some vague details about this very real person in my life.

And, as the essay implies, my friend and I don’t talk anymore, so I didn’t ask for her permission. I have no idea if she ever read the essay, if she cares that I wrote it or if she even knows that it’s about her.

But what I’ve learned about navigating the pitfalls of writing about other people is that before I decide whether or not to write about a friend, a family member, or someone who cut me off in traffic, I first have to ask myself, “What can writing about this accomplish? Is it just meant to help me get something off my chest? Or is it meant to open a dialogue about something important?”

I can probably survive without telling the world about the things my friends do that annoy me. I don’t think I can survive without finding a way to discuss the terrible, amazing, exhausting, surprising world in which I live.

So if you’re out there, and I’ve written something about you that I shouldn’t have, I’m sorry. Let’s talk about it. You can even write something about me if you want to.

But let’s agree that we’ll write about each other with the doors and windows open, that we’ll only do it if it continues a conversation, if it investigates who we are and how we can be better.

We’ll only write about each other if our writing and our hearts and our lives will be better because we did.

*

Sarah Carson was born and raised in Michigan but now lives in Chicago. She is the author of three chapbooks and two full-length collections: Poems in which You Die (BatCat Press, 2014) and Buick City (Mayapple Press, 2015). Sometimes she blogs at sarahmycarson.com.

Looking Back and Looking Forward with Lee Martin

In the first CNF course I took, reading assignments came from the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. By the end of the school year, few books were left on my shelf; the free reads were returned back to the library, while the vast majority of the class texts were sold back to the bookstore. Touchstone held on, one of the few survivors. Most of my friends had gone back home, and I had a couple days to kill before I did the same. So what’s a guy to do but read a lot of CNF?

That’s how I first encountered Lee Martin. The anthologized essay was “Sorry,” a slice-of-memory about coming of age on a southern Illinois farm. If the territory sounds familiar, the narrative perspective is anything but: when Martin remembers events, he remembers every layer — the way he saw it then, how he internalized the events over the years, why his father or neighbor may have acted in a certain way. He remembers always with compassion and sometimes with a tinge of regret. Even when he recalls a person’s harshness, he considers their inner vulnerabilities. What Martin conveys so well, as well as any writer I’ve come across, is how actions take on different resonances in light of a person’s inner longings and insecurities. He may not have access to his subjects’ psychological workings, but he has his empathy and sensitivity to what makes human beings tick.

It’s that faithfulness to communicating humanness that drives “Sorry,” and it’s also what drives “Spook,” the first piece in our winter 2013 issue. The piece lives up to its haunting title, in part because Martin never loses sight of the unknown, vulnerable interiors of the people surrounding us. Half memoir and half research-driven, the piece concerns the most extreme of outcasts, those people who are so isolated they become objects of speculation and myth. He focuses particularly on Dickie Nevers — a fourth-grade classmate — and Allen Davis, a shut-in who shot a teenage trespasser in 2006. When asked about the research process for the story, Martin stressed the importance of finding the humanity in the Allen Davis story, saying:

I’m interested in that place where the personal life meets the public story. When I first read about this shooting in Worthington, Ohio, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, nor could I keep myself from feeling it in my heart. That was the first sign that I was located somewhere inside that news story. The facts were easy to find through interviews, secondary sources, visits to the relevant sites — all the ways we immerse ourselves in an event that didn’t directly involve us. I was interested in more than the facts, though. I wanted to imagine the events from inside the main characters, and I wanted to find a part of myself in their stories. Part of the research for this piece, then, involved mining memory and finding there the facts that would enter into a conversation with the facts of the news story. My objective was to create something that would remind us of the human stories at the heart of something that the newspapers often leave to objective reporting.

In this last sentence, Martin gets at the very foundation of CNF, the idea that objective reporting leaves out that something human that fuels real-life events. It’s unsurprising, given his grasp over the CNF genre, that “Spook” was listed as a notable essay by the acclaimed Best American Essays series. I picture young writers flipping through Best American Essays 2014, much like I flipped through the Touchstone anthology, and being directed to “Spook.” While these readers might discover the joy of reading Lee Martin for the first time, the converted among us can look forward to an upcoming Martin publication this May, on which he says:

I have a new novel, Late One Night, coming out on May 10. The novel is based upon the true story of a tragic house trailer fire. As always, I’m interested in the way fact can interact with my imagination. I take the facts and then I create characters and situations that allow me to explore what it means to be human. The fire in Late One Night threatens to ruin a family. Here’s how the book jacket puts it:

“With humanity, sympathy, and stylistic brilliance, Lee Martin examines the devastating effect of loss on a small community and the resilience of one family in the face of the ultimate tragedy.”

The novel promises to be a great addition to what is already an accomplished bibliography. For more information on Late One Night and links to pre-order it, click here.

Lee Martin Headshot

*

Lee Martin is the author of eight books, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State University and lives in Columbus, OH.

Ryan Diller is the Web Editor of 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction and a writer currently residing in San Antonio, TX.  He specializes in playwriting, and his plays include Gone and the forthcoming The Fourth Commandment (working title).  The former received a staged reading at Trinity University; the latter will receive a staged reading this coming May.  

Sashaying from Fiction to Non-fiction

 

Our latest issue opened with Dawn Newton’s “Her Skin” – a sensitive and complex examination of a lung cancer case. It may come as surprising that such an assured and complete piece marks a transition for Newton: from fiction to non-fiction, from short story to an upcoming full-length memoir. In this post, Newton talks about the transition. 

You can read “Her Skin” here

 

As a trained fiction writer, I know how to write narrative.  I usually write linear narrative – nothing too fancy or experimental for me – in spite of the fact that my brain operates primarily in non-linear fashion. There are steps that I take to write a story. Introduce the characters: Bill and Juniper met on the school playground when Juniper enrolled as a new student at the beginning of their sixth grade year.  Present obstacles: Bill’s family was poor, and as the two moved through middle school, their circumstances and activities divided them.  In ninth grade, when they’d begun high school, Juniper developed a rare disease in her auditory canal that caused her to lose her hearing. Bill learned about her diagnosis and connected with her briefly, but their worlds continued to remain separate. Turn the screws on the situation: In eleventh grade, Bill was enrolled during the second half of the day at the career center.  Juniper was in the same location working on sign language skills and occupational therapy. Provide a resolution:  After two more years of spending time together, Bill and Juniper decided to create a business, and a school counselor sought college scholarships for both so they could realize their dream of helping the hearing impaired. Throughout the narrative, include distinctive sensory details.

I did not think I would ever write in a non-fiction genre.  My prose is too long-winded for journalistic pursuits, and I’ve never experienced life events significant enough to warrant writing an autobiography. However, when I was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, I decided to consider writing a cancer memoir.  I didn’t know how to begin.  But I saw a presentation on memoir given by Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, when I was at the Bear River Writers’ Conference in Michigan a few years back.  From Janzen, I learned Lesson Number One:  A memoir is not an autobiography and should therefore have a specific time frame. A second lesson arrived at another terrific regional writers’ conference – Interlochen Writers Retreat.  Anne Marie Oomen, a writer trained originally in poetry, I believe, is the author of memoirs Pulling Down the Barn and Love, Sex, and 4-H.  In her Memoir Workshop at Interlochen, I learned Lesson Number Two: It’s often helpful to find an “envelope” for one’s memoir – the container or vessel that shapes the themes and the issues.  I latched onto the word “envelope” as a concept that could help me shape the structure of my memoir.  Of course, like most writers, I broke the rules almost as soon as I learned them.  My memoir covers a three-year time frame but examines, in many ways, the entirety of my life.  And it has not one but four envelopes shaping its content.

So why did I end up with the word “sashaying” in the title of this piece?  “Sashaying” is such a bright, arguably even loud verb.  Two of the dictionary definitions I found online for the word use the adjective “ostentatious” to describe the movement involved in a “sashay” – movement from side to side, although I originally channeled the word from my grade school square dancing lessons in music and gym.  But the word “sashay” with its hint of ostentation and showmanship gives me courage.  If I want to explore the world through the lens of a non-fiction memoir, I’ll need courage to explore my subject honestly.  In addition, if the movement of my writing is from side to side rather than linear, so much the better.  It’s always good to have some freedom when you move.  There’s my sashay.  I’m sticking to it.

Dawn Newton received an M.A. in Writing from the John Hopkins University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Gargoyle, the South Carolina Review, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, and other literary magazines.  She is presently completing a memoir, Stage IV: Mother on Tarceva, and lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, three children, and gal pal Clover. 

This blog post was adapted from an artist talk she presented at The Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia in November.

An Interview with Suzanne Roberts

It’s been a busy last few years for Suzanne Roberts, contributor of “The Illuminations” to our Winter 2015 issue.  2012 alone saw the release of two new Roberts books: the poetry collection Plotting Temporality and the award-winning travel memoir Almost Somewhere.  She currently teaches at a community college and two low residency MFA programs, reads over a dozen books at a given time, and contributes to prestigious publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, the Best Women’s Travel Writing collection, and National Geographic Traveler, which has acclaimed her ”The Next Great Travel Writer.”

In this interview, Roberts discusses her latest projects, differences between poetry and CNF, the importance of reading for writers, and go-to karaoke selections. 

 

First things first: What projects are you working on right now? 

I am working on three different projects. One is a mother-daughter memoir called “Mother as Wingman,” that keeps shape shifting, so I’m having a hard time getting a handle on it—it started out as a travel memoir about infidelity and sex, and now it’s about my mother, so when I say “shape-shifting,” I’m not kidding. Writing memoir is always full of surprises. That’s the main project. The others are books of essays. One is a collection of funny travel pieces called “Bad Tourist” and the other is a book of essays about grief. I have also started working on short stories, which has come as a great relief—I have grown tired of talking about myself, and they are teaching me that sometimes you really do have to lie to tell the truth.

 

You’ve talked in interviews before about how your voracious reading has informed your work.  Who was the first CNF writer you fell in love with?  What are you reading now? 

When I was an undergraduate, I went through a Beat phase; I really loved William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I had no idea then that what they were doing was creative nonfiction because nobody called it that back then. Shortly after that, I went through a French existentialist stage, and I worshipped Camus, Sartre, and especially Simone de Beauvoir.  I even took French with the idea that I would one day be able to read them in the French, though my French never got good enough for that to happen. I didn’t really start writing my own nonfiction until I read Virginia Woolf, Mary Austen, and Annie Dillard. I think reading women made me realize that I could write my own mind and my life, too. That I didn’t have to be a junky or a road-tripping rogue or a French philosopher to write about my life and my ideas. It was probably Woolf who initially blew the doors of my own writing open for me.

I am one of these readers who has many books going at once. I have a stack of 13 books by my bed (that’s an exact number, by the way). Here’s what they are: The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, The Republics by Nathalie Handal, The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne, Hotel Juarez by Daniel Chacon, Volt by Alan Heathcock, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Poetry of Witness by Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, How to Live, Or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Tenth of December by George Saunders, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. But I am also currently re-reading Popul Vuh and Cervantes for my Masterpieces of World Literature course.

I am reading these books because something about them interests me. I am not one of those readers who picks up a book and has to finish it. For that reason, I adore the Kindle samples. But if the book made it to my bedside, that means something in it grabbed me, and that’s usually the voice.

I think writers should be reading deeply, but also widely, meaning cross-genre and across the ages. If you want to write CNF, you have to read the forerunners, such as Montaigne, St. Augustine, Shonagon, Basho, Kenko, and Wollstonecraft. These writers show us that no matter what we do or say, someone else has already done or said it. It also allows us to enter the dialogue, and you can’t enter the conversation if you don’t know what has already been said.

 

In addition to being a writer, you’re a college professor.  What are some of the classes you teach?  What are some of the books you most frequently assign? 

I teach at a community college and for two low-residency MFA programs, as well as community workshops and retreats with the Wordy Girls, so I teach a huge spectrum of classes.  When I teach CNF or memoir, my go-to books are usually Nabokov’s Speak Memory, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Rodriguez’ Always Running, Meloy’s Anthropology of Turquoise, and Slater’s Lying. There are many, many more, of course. I usually try to focus each class around a theme, and with my graduate students, this is easy because the theme is always focused on what they are trying to do in their own writing. So sometimes the theme is the connection to wildness, sometimes it is memory and myth, sometimes it is identity.

 

Before studying literature and creative writing in grad school, you were an undergraduate Bio major.  What made you choose that major?  Do you miss it? 

I thought that since I already read books and wrote stories, I should study something that I didn’t know much about. I also love being outside, so I picked a major that I thought might give me an opportunity to work outdoors. Studying biology was also an act of teenage rebellion. My father was a writer, and I was determined to do something different. I don’t miss biology because I spent most of my time as a biology major reading nature writers, and I’m still doing that. And I live in a forest and spend a lot of time outside, so I have figured out the balance that sustains me and my reading and writing life.

 

Do you keep your poetry and prose writing processes relatively separate, or do you find yourself starting in one form and thinking that it might work better in the other? 

I let the work decide. Often, I write a poem and realize it wants to be an essay or vice versa. If you pay attention, the work will let you know. You just might have to try it both ways to be sure. I have many essays and poems that are trying to do the exact same thing. Sometimes the essay works better; other times, only a poem will do.

 

I came across a quote of yours the other day: “In poetry, I often feel like I can write whatever I want, because really, who is going to read it?,” a sad but extremely funny commentary on the scant audience for contemporary poetry.  Do you have more of a filter with your nonfiction work (or maybe just a bit more anxiety about revealing personal info)?

I tell my students that even though we get gray hair and wrinkles, the payoff to getting older is that you really stop giving a shit. That has happened to me, so I can write things in essays and memoir that I wouldn’t have been able to write about 10 years ago. The only real filter I have is my mother. I have given her veto power since I am also writing about her, though luckily, she has gotten older, too, so she doesn’t exercise it very often.

 

You’ve said that you always keep a journal with you, and journaling became the seed for your book Almost Somewhere.  What is your journaling process like?

My journals are a mess. Like books, I have many going at once. I sometimes forget to date them and then when I go back to see if there is usable material, I have to read and read in order to figure out where and when I was writing. The only exception to this is that when I’m travelling, I’m meticulous about keeping a record of the date and where I was. I have no idea why this is, but maybe that’s why I am drawn to writing about my travels. I have done a better job of journaling on the road, so accessing those memoirs is much easier.

 

Is “I Love Rock N Roll” still your go-to karaoke song? 

Unfortunately, yes, though I have been known to mix it up with “Me and Bobby McGee.”

*

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere, as well as four collections of poetry.  She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham. 

Some Alligator Background

In our latest issue, Melinda Copp gave us a glimpse into the wonderful world of alligators, focusing particularly on a lovable alligator named Norton, who resides at the Palmetto Bluff real estate development in Bluffton, South Carolina. In the post below, Copp reveals how she came to know Norton and the challenges of writing a piece centered around animal facts. 

Her contribution to our Winter 2015 issue can be found here.

 

Not long after my first interview with Kimberly Andrews at Palmetto Bluff back in 2008, I bumped into her in the bar line at an Old Crow Medicine Show concert at a small venue on Hilton Head Island. After the initial awkwardness associated with seeing a professional contact in a social setting, we got our drinks and hung out together for the rest of the night. (As we have many nights since.) I knew about her tracking program and I’d expressed interest in going, so she told me about the tour she had planned for the next morning. I will admit that not all plans I’ve made over whiskey have been kept, but when a scientist asks if you’d like to go alligator tracking the next morning, it doesn’t matter how late you were out the night before, you show up. And so, as the essay describes, I rode around the Palmetto Bluff real estate development with her looking for an alligator named Norton.

The two biggest challenges of writing “Alligator Nature and Nurture” were, first, how to make alligators likable, and second, a natural history, by definition, contains a lot of background information. People tend not to like flesh-eating reptiles. And background information is about as dry as it sounds—it’s the part readers are most likely to skip. So how do you make it interesting to read, let alone something that the smart people at a journal like 1966 would want to publish?

I will mention here that my essay is also part of a longer work of creative nonfiction about alligator management. And, honestly, I tried to break all this background information up and spread it out among the entire book. In other words, I tried to not write “Alligator Nature and Nurture.” Instead, I tried unsuccessfully through several rewrites to sneak the facts in so people wouldn’t notice. It sounded like a good idea, but I could never get it to work. So what you read here is both a defeat and a victory. In any case, when it became clear that all my natural history background had to go together, I was back to that question of making it interesting.

When Kimberly found Norton that morning, and I saw him floating there in the fake pond surrounded by new roads and fresh infrastructure, I knew I had the answer. Palmetto Bluff had already made him likable—his name was Norton, after all. The juxtaposition of human development and alligators that moment we find him in the essay shows the crux of everything I wanted to say. It was a pretty awesome moment. Thinking about how he got there provided the context for a lot of alligator background information. My hope still is that I did it justice.

*

Melinda Copp has an MFA from Goucher College. “Alligator Nature and Nurture” is an excerpt from a larger work of narrative nonfiction about alligators in the human world. She lives in Bluffton, South Carolina and blogs at www.melindacopp.com

The Winter 2015 issue is here!

Settle in for a cozy winter’s read with essays about alligators and the humans who love them, living with illness, the woman behind San Francisco’s Coit Tower, and how we become ourselves. New work by Alice Lowe, Adrian Koesters, Melinda Copp, Suzanne Roberts, Ben Wirth, Elizabeth Mosier, Dawn Newton, and Sarah Carson.

 

Best American Essays 2015

We’re excited to say that Carolyn Kraus’s essay, “A Thing with Feathers,” from the Spring 2014 issue of 1966 has been selected as a “notable essay” of 2014 by the editors of The Best American Essays 2015.

You can read this wonderful essay here.

Congratulations, Carolyn, and thank you for allowing us to publish your work. And thank you to Robert Atwan, Ariel Levy, and the other editors at Best American. The Best American Essays series celebrates our genre every year and brings all of us amazing essays we might otherwise have missed. It also encourages a lot of writers and small magazines through the recognition of their work in the “notable essays” list. That encouragement means a lot and we’re grateful. You can purchase Best American Essays 2015  at your local, independent bookstore.

From our staff of writers

Most of our editors also write and occasionally they write for us about craft. Here is a reflection from assistant editor, Ryan Diller.

The Ethics of Personal Nonfiction

Ryan Diller

 

It’s hard to write creative nonfiction without bringing in the personal; even some of the genre’s great research writers, like Jon Krakaeur and David Foster Wallace, cannot help but embed their biases and experiences into their works. Many CNF writers have gone so far to argue that it is impossible to write without bringing in personal biases. After all, to break through the bland, detached style stereotypically associated with nonfiction – a style that masquerades as objective – is a hallmark of CNF. But when we insert our own perspectives into nonfiction, we face a tough moral question: how do we responsibly and respectfully write about others from our highly subjective viewpoints?

If we publish our works, we face offending the dubiously named “innocent.” It’s a legitimate, empathetic concern. Even I can’t say with 100% certainty that I’d like any and all aspects of my past broadcasted to the public. Some writers have tried to get around this obstacle by changing names and obscuring the features of the people who inspired their characters, but, as Ryan Van Meter demonstrates in his wonderful essay, “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” this can defeat the entire purpose of writing nonfiction. In this piece, Van Meter recalls his attempts to turn an adolescent trauma – an incident in which two boys mocked him for his homosexuality, which he had not yet come to terms with – into fiction, but when he tries to rename the boys who harassed him, he can’t “find the perfect substitutes for the names Mark or Jared. Without Mark or Jared the story somehow won’t work.” For whatever reason, tiny, random details like these can be what make pieces ring true or false.

For me, what makes Van Meter’s piece compassionate and not an act of literary vengeance is the balance with which he tells the piece. Having written about my own personal traumas, I know that it’s extremely difficult to treat abusers mercifully, avoid blaming yourself, and be true to your strong visceral experiences all at the same time. Van Meter solves this dilemma in the essay’s conclusion by mixing them all at once, demonstrating the complexity of reencountering his abuser years after the fact. When Van Meter forgives Jared at a ten-year high school reunion, Jared gives him a friendly shoulder squeeze, which “feels a little like the warmth of comfort, and a little like the squeeze of danger.” Complexity and moderateness, empathy and self-honesty: they can seem contradictory, but it’s their blend that makes Van Meter’s piece so captivating and what I believe can make personal writing generous, rather than selfish.

Writing about the personal can be a deeply terrifying experience. Will my abuser contact me again (for this reason, I actually break from the Van Meter Principle. Also, I hold out the hope that maybe the perpetrator of my trauma has changed)? Will I alienate the ones I love? Will I remember the way my aunt’s nose wiggled correctly, or am I failing to do justice to my family’s mythos?

But to share one’s own past honestly can be a magnanimous thing when done well. It can assure others that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and it can maybe even result in your relationships with others actually getting better (hey, I’m trying to be optimistic here).

 

Welcome to the Summer Issue

We’re please to present our summer issue. In it, our writers contemplate the varied topics of professional wrestling, fracking and the prairie, migraines, nuns and love, Lauren Bacall and another Betty, pansies, the humanity of a drug smuggler, the death of a mysterious father, the sea urchin Diadema.

 We can’t help but notice that most of these essays talk about loss in one way or another, whether it be environmental devastation or the loss of love, freedom or family (and even the loss of pain). But so many of them also show how sometimes the universe gives us small gifts amid that loss, ways to make do without, salves to ease pain: the smell of pansies and dirt, memories of love, scientists and prairie activists, a wrestler’s dedication to craft, Bacall’s strong chin. And even in the bleakest of these essays, there is still this sign of hope: writers making shining art from the darkest places humans find themselves. We hope you find pleasure here, and failing that, strength.