Category Archives: writing

Tim Elhajj in Guernica

A portrait of Tim Elhajj as a young seaman

I have a story up this morning at Guernica, a delightful online magazine that rides the slim line between mainstream news site and literary journal. I am so proud of  my story, An Unfortuante Discharge Early in My Naval Career. I am so pleased it found a home at Guernica.

I have tried with varying amounts of success to write about this experience before. I have always known I would write about it again one day, but I probably wouldn’t have attempted it this time around were it not for a brief craft essay written by Kerry Cohen that appeared on Brevity early this year (discussed here).

Once I started writing, the story came surprisingly quick, but I had a bit of trouble with the ending. I’m not a very political person, but Gay Rights is one of the few issues I do feel strongly about, and I wanted to find a way to present my feelings in an overt fashion, but it kept coming out wrong—like a writer who knows he is not very political, but who nevertheless tries to make some deep political statement known.

Despite these problems, I started sending it around. I received a lot of positive comments, but most pointed to the unsatisfying ending. I started thinking about the wisdom of trying to sound like a particular type of writer. Not that there is anything wrong with overtly political writing, but I’m the kind of writer who likes to let the story to do its own talking. I needed to find a way to let the story speak for itself. What you’ll find on Guernica is what I came up with.

There is one line in particular that I won’t share here, but of which I am particularly proud. I suggested to my wife that this very line might one day find its way into all my future bios. She laughed. I hope you’ll agree that this story is a powerful political statement, but it’s more than that to me because it’s uniquely mine: not that reveling in one’s own sexuality is a terribly original idea, but it’s told in a way that could only have come from me. Huzzah!

Many thanks to Katherine Dykstra, the wonderfully smart and supportive editor from Guernica, who had some great suggestions for this piece. Also, thanks to William Bradley, who introduced me to Guernica by posting something about it to his blog earlier this summer. I have learned more about the shape and breadth of creative nonfiction by following William’s blog than by following\reading any other single blog or book. My man.

And, of course, I want to thank my wife Holly, and my oldest son Tim, who have both been so supportive as I write about all manner of nonsense from my past. Thanks you two: I don’t say it nearly enough, but I’m really grateful for your ongoing support.

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Tim Elhajj in Together Magazine

I’ve got a piece up in Together, a new recovery oriented newspaper for the New York area. I’m revisiting the James Frey boondoggle, but looking at it from a new (I hope) perspective. Check it out: The Millionth Word on “A Million Little Pieces.”

Together appears online and in print. I just got my print copy, and it looks like a gas, not just for people in the recovering community but for anyone interested in a more healthful, contemplative life.

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Brevity Magazine: Concise Literary Nonfiction

 

Brevity is another good venue for nonfiction writers.

Essays published on Brevity are 750 words or less. Flash nonfiction, a twist on flash fiction, which Wikipedia tells me has been popular for about twenty or more years, meaning it’s a form that’s really come into its own with the advent of the Web and (presumably) online journals. You won’t find too many journals devoted entirely to nonfiction, and fewer still are nonfiction journals that impose a word count on essays. I can think of only Brevity.

Brevity also has a blog, which is a good place to read about publishing opportunities for nonfiction writers, the latest nonfiction furor or book, and—best of all—brief blog posts from authors who appear in the latest issue of Brevity magazine. These author posts are my favorites, offering insight or commentary on some aspect of the published story—think of it as an author reading in print.

Dinty Moore (Between Panic and Desire and The Accidental Buddhist) is Brevity’s editor. Warm, generous, smart, Dinty has published some of my pieces, turned some other pieces down, and even helped me with my childhood memoir project, which I’m still hammering away on. He’s a great guy.

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Tim Elhajj in The Yalobusha Review

I got my copy of The Yalobusha Review in the mail last night. My story 20/20 appears in this volume, and I couldn’t be more excited. This is the first paper bound literary magazine where my work has been published. I was looking it over at lunch today and feel proud to be in the same magazine with such great writers and such good work.

I’ve reprinted 20/20 on this site, so you can have a look.

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Dopefiend, a Recovery Memoir in Twelve Parts

Over twenty years ago, I moved to New York City to kick a heroin habit. I had less than twenty dollars in my pocket and was leaving behind my beautiful three-year-old boy, who had his mother’s straw colored hair and clear blue eyes, exactly the opposite of my own dark countenance. I searched for some recognizable piece of myself in his chipper smiling face but couldn’t find much.

I lived in Steelton, a small-town in south central Pennsylvania. I had tried several times to stop using drugs there, but had found little success. There was a guy in Steelton who had been a heroin addict himself but had been clean for about five years: Scotty G. At the time, it seemed unimaginable to me that anyone who had once used heroin could go so long without the drug. Scotty was stocky with an open, friendly face. He wore his blond hair in a carefully greased crew cut, two slick curbs of hair rising on the receding hairline of his forehead like a McDonald’s sign. To ward off the coming winter, he wore a long pea coat. Scotty liked to wear black Wayfarer sunglasses, a host of gold rings on his fingers, and thick ropes of gold chain around his neck. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a busty redhead who smoked long brown cigarettes. Scotty always drove a new Ford sedan with dealer plates attached by magnets to the trunk. When dopefiends get sober, they invariably do one of two things to make a living: car sales or drug and alcohol counseling. Scotty worked at the big Ford dealership on Paxton and Cameron Streets, but he liked to show up to the 12-step meetings and do a little counseling on the side. We envied his jewelry, his shiny sedan, his pneumatic girlfriend. But his clean time held us in awe. Milling about Scotty during a smoke break at the meeting, we sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and listened to whatever he had to say.

“There are only two things you need to do to stay sober,” Scotty said.

We all raised our eyebrows. We knew there were at least twelve things required in the meetings, even if we couldn’t articulate exactly what those things were. Yet here was Scotty talking about doing only two. Seemed like a bargain. We all shuffled in a little bit closer.

“First,” Scotty said. “Don’t get high.”

This was an obvious first step and a little chuckle rose up from the seven or eight of us standing there. If you’re not an addict, it may seem like this solves the entire problem. It does not. The list of things that can impose a moratorium on drug use is endless. Someone gets busted somewhere along the distribution chain and suddenly there are no drugs available. You have to stop. Or one day you might not be able to get your money together. And: you can always get busted. Not getting high is as much a part of getting high as being able to poke a vein or get your money together. The trick isn’t to stop using drugs, but to remain abstinent for the long haul.

“Second,” Scotty said.

And here he paused for effect and held up two fingers. This was the money step: the crucial information we needed to stay clean. The signet ring on Scotty’s stubby pinky glittered in the afternoon sun. I didn’t want to seem too eager, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was about to hear something momentous. I leaned in a little closer.

Scotty had a little half smile on his lips as he sipped his coffee and adjusted his coat.

“Boys,” he said. He glanced to his left and then to the right. When he was sure he had our undivided attention, he said: “Change your whole fucking life around.”

He laughed heartily at his own little joke and stroked his tummy. The rest of us stood there in silence. Scotty crushed out his cigarette and grinned. “Come on,” he said, walking past us. “Let’s get back to the meeting.”

Fucking Scotty G.

He was just toying with us then, but I have come to realize that Scotty G.’s little joke wasn’t really all that far from the truth. To successfully stop using drugs, I had to change just about every aspect of my life: I needed a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual makeover of the most sweeping kind.

Of course, I didn’t understand any of this back then. None of us did.

We all groaned and smirked and scowled. Someone shook his head. Another person laughed good-naturedly and said, “Cocksucker.” We were a forlorn little group of recovering addicts, who thought we had stumbled upon a bargain. Instead we had the same old dusty twelve “To Dos” we started with.

We all turned together as one and headed back into the church basement. The only way to get where I wanted to go was to do all twelve.

And it was a good thing I did.

As it turns out, my son grew from a beautiful blonde boy to a strapping hulk of a young man. He towers over me, his eyes still blue, his hair still clipped short. Over the years, he has looked skeptically at my long tresses, my affinity to dress in faded black jeans and combat boots, or my deep and abiding loathing for athleticism of any kind. The one thing we have in common is a penchant for self destruction: This tendency of ours is the most recognizable piece of me that I have ever found in him. The only way I could hope to help him with it, was to first find my own way through the maze.

Here is my story in twelve parts: a part for each step, a step for each part.

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Dopefiend

Dopefiend is the “code” name of my latest novel-length memoir project.

I wanted to write a few words about what I’m doing, as much to keep you folks at home updated, as to track what happens as I continue to work. I’m excited about this project because it’s now gone beyond the good idea stage and has become a fully formed idea. I have in mind a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not only do I know what’s going to happen in a general way, but I also know specifically what will happen in each chapter along the way. And I have it in writing. I’ve created a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

But before we get into the details, let’s go high level.

This memoir builds on the success of my Modern Love piece, As a Father, I Was Hardly a Perfect Fit, a humorous essay about forging a relationship with Timmy when I lived in New York City. Here is the full title I’m sending around to agents and editors:

Dopefiend: A 12-Step Story of a Father’s Journey from Heroin Addiction to Redemption with His Son

Not sure if I’ll actually be able to use this title for the finished work, but I love the edgy word dopefiend paired with plaintive call for redemption in the subtitle. My apologies to Donald Goines for appropriating his badass title. Unlike Mr. Goines, I’m not planning on covering much of the time I spent using drugs. Instead, the plan is to focus primarily on recovery. I consider it a spiritual road memoir, though it’s a decidedly irreverent trip.

Obviously I’m going to focus on the 12-Steps, which I’ve used to great effect to change my life around. But I’m not interested in getting tangled in dogma or preachy instruction on abstinence. Instead I’m organizing the story in a way that celebrates 12-Step recovery. Dopefiend is a concept memoir: I am writing it  in twelve chapters, with each chapter to focus on one of twelve spiritual values. Each value corresponds to one of the 12-Steps.

Together the chapters form a narrative that describes how I got sober and built a relationship with Tim. I want to stick close enough to the story about Tim to give Dopefiend some mainstream appeal. But I also want to offer a deep and satisfying story about 12-Step recovery that doesn’t necessarily involve a hero’s journey or a Hollywood ending.

Heroin addiction is incredibly debilitating. If you survive, most of the time you don’t get your wife back, you remain distant from your siblings, and you can never recapture the time lost with your son. If you’re lucky, you don’t die from AIDS or the hard realities of this kind of life.

But if you’re thoughtful about it, you might see how your story can benefit others. You might find a little place for yourself, with a different wife, maybe struggling to build ties with your siblings, or learning to make the best of the time you have left with your son.

I’m excited. I’ll post more in the weeks to come.

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Brief Craft Essay by Kerry Cohen

 

Kerry Cohen is my latest dose of inspiration. I particularly enjoyed her essay in the craft section of the latest Brevity.

Cohen is talking about being abused as a young girl, but also acknowledging how hard it is to accept that she enjoyed those feelings and even came to chase after those feelings. I can completely relate to this from my own adolescent experience experimenting with sex. Her memoir is about promiscuity, and in some ways it is not the same as what my experience was (adolescent boys are rarely considered promiscuous, and I’m not sure I’d classify my experience as abuse, but when you mix adults, adolescents, and sex, the results are always bound to be a little dodgy). Yet this perverse sense of shame for enjoying something so physical seems very familiar.

I am trying to write a childhood memoir myself. It is very slow going. I have actually had to set it aside for now because it just seems too big to tackle, and too hard to get a firm handle on. But I often think about picking it back up and essays like this one give me a certain amount of encouragement, a certain amount of hope.

Here is the link to Cohen’s latest memoir, “Loose Girl, a memoir of promiscuity.”

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William Bradley in Brevity 32

William Bradley is the Ethical Exhibitionist. He is also an insanely talented writer. His work is featured in the latest Brevity, which just hit the Web.

One day, my dad came home at lunch with the newspaper—fresh off the press—in his hand.  “Do you know this girl?”  She looked more interesting in black and white.  “She’s missing,” he said.  “Her parents think she was kidnapped.” 

Julio At Large” by William Bradley

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Tim Elhajj Forthcoming in The Yalobusha Review

My flash non-fiction story “20/20” will appear in the next issue of The Yalobusha Review. This is the first little magazine that’s an actual hard copy journal that will feature my work, so I’m thrilled.

Great way to start off 2010!

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Gary Presley in the New York Times

My writing group companion and friend Gary Presley has a Modern Love essay appearing in the New York Times this week. Congratulations Gary!

It’s a real winner. Here’s a little taste:

And so it was that the man in a wheelchair, sardonic and standoffish, and the vibrant young woman who loved science and worried over how she would support her sons, developed an odd connection, a link to a place where hands might touch, but thoughts and feelings and emotions began to flicker like lightning beyond the horizon.

More…

Do you have your own Modern Love story you want to submit to the New York Times? Here’s how you might go about it.

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