Tag Archives: creative non-fiction

Got Junk?

Holly and I are collaborating on an online literary magazine called Junk. From the press release:

Tim Elhajj and Holly Huckeba have joined forces to bring you Junk, a literary fix at http://www.junklit.com. We’re a nonfiction literary magazine that focuses on addiction, but you don’t have to be an addict to submit to us.

That white elephant (pictured) is Whitey, our mascot. When it comes to memoir about addiction, Whitey is the (literary) elephant in the room that no one talks about (shhhh).

We just published our first official issue, a touching story from Elizabeth Westmark called Detritus.

Holly and I have some work posted, too. Check it out. I’d love to get your feedback. This is something I have always wanted to do and I’m so pleased it’s finally coming into its own.

I have always felt very strongly two things: 1) our creativity is one of the most powerful forces each of us has for creating good in the world; 2) memoirs about addiction and addicts are legion, but for some reason this work only appears in the same predictable ways, time after time. Junk is an attempt to bring these two ideas together and have some fun.

But mostly have fun.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Holly has agreed to work with me on this. I love working on creative projects with her but only realized this a few years ago, when Holly signed up to create memory books for the entire fifth grade as our kids graduated to middle school. It was early in the school year and she asked if I wanted to be part of it.

I laughed. “No way,” I said. “Count me out.”

Of course the plan for the memory books expanded. Then it contracted. Some of the fifth graders were confused. Others were prolific. Finally we came upon zero hour: it was the weekened before the memory books were due. Holly had so many stacks of art work, a few lists of names, and a lot of ideas.

“Are you going to help,” Holly said.

What could I say? Of course I would.

We ordered pizza for the kids and temporarliy lifted all TV and video game restrictions. We took all the art work to my office and spread it out on a ping pong table. The coffee machine clucked to life. We started trading ideas. The copiers and printers began humming. We got out the sicssors and started doing layouts.  The paper cutter made its chop chop noise. We sent out for Chinese. Finally, in the middle of the night, those memory books started coming to life. I had no idea it would be so much fun.

This weekend before last, Holly and I were at it again. We scoured our little corner of Washington to capture a photograph to go with Elizabeth’s fine story. What fun!

We posted the press release on the blog for the journal, where we post updates about research, all types of addiction, or literature that strikes our fancy. Our goal is to use the blog to create a community around the journal and see what happens.

Won’t you join us?

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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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New York Times Book Reviewer Invites Your Shock, Outrage

Charles Bock invites you to be outraged. This past Sunday Bock reviewed John D’Agata’s new nonfiction book, “About a Mountain,” describing the material this way:

The mountain that John D’Agata is ostensibly concerned with … is Yucca Mountain, located approximately 100 miles north of Las Vegas. … [S]ince the mid-1980s, the United States government has been doing back flips to bury the country’s entire reservoir of spent nuclear waste — some 77,000 tons of apocalyptic yumminess — deep inside Yucca. In the summer of 2002, the summer after D’Agata helped his mother move to a Vegas suburb, Congress was proceeding with plans to make the mountain a nuclear dump. Also that summer, 16-year-old Levi Presley jumped to his death from the observation deck of a third-rate Vegas hotel. These subjects, disparate though they are, animate D’Agata’s sprawling narrative.

But Bock doesn’t want to direct your outrage toward government backed destruction of the environment, youth suicide, or even sprawling nonfiction narratives. No. He wants to direct your rage to a few of D’Agata’s footnotes.

Yes, that’s right: the footnotes.

With such weighty material to discuss, it seems ridiculous to zero in on footnotes but perhaps these are some outrageous footnotes, deserving of the full weight of our scorn. D’Agata writes nonfiction, you see, and he acknowledges in one of his naughty footnotes that he conflates the dates of two key events in his story by three days. MY GOD.

Bock uses inflammatory language, calling the material referred to by the footnote a “lie.” He goes on to charge D’Agata with playing “fast and loose with a verifiable historical date.” I suppose this is true if by “verifiable” Bock means that he had to read the footnote where D’Agata presents the discrepancy. But I wonder if adding footnotes to nonfiction really deserves the “fast and loose” qualifier that’s typically employed to discuss immoral women, or deviant sexual behavior (as fun as those things can be!).

To be fair, Bock speaks highly of D’Agata’s work:

Rarely does D’Agata betray his emotions or reactions to an event; rather, he works by establishing a scene, introducing tangentially related elements, building layers of complexity and scope, then jump-cutting or circling back at just the right moment, guiding the reader safely — and unexpectedly — to a destination D’Agata had in sight the whole time.

And Bock understands the bigger picture. He knows what D’Agata is trying to do with creative nonfiction, not just in this book, but in the whole of his career:

As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art.”

But ultimately Bock finds D’Agata’s voice lacking, having lost nothing less than his “moral authority” by conflating these dates. Although D’Agata offers no explanation for this conflation, Bock helpfully tenders a reason of his own: “for the sake of a tight narrative hook.” I don’t know. I haven’t read the book. But even knowing that the date of this child’s suicide has been conflated with some important back room vote doesn’t make the hook of this hard-to-grasp story much tighter for me. In Bock’s own words, the hook seems built on “layers of complexity and scope”; it does not easily give itself to a quick one line summary: this boy dies, that deal done. But even if we concede that a tidier hook is the reason for the conflation: Is it worthy of our scorn?

I’d argue that all of creative nonfiction suffers when we—writers and readers of creative nonfiction—allow journalists to manipulate us so easily. We do have to be wary of authors who pass off their fictions as truth. But do we need to be so dogmatic that a footnote raises a larger cry from us than anything found in our texts?

Of course, Bock can evaluate the book and the writer in whatever way he chooses. And calling into question the veracity of nonfiction is (sadly) the norm these days. I do want to know if the nonfiction book I’m reading has been made up. I just get tired of journalists revving up the scorn machine to score a point.

If John D’Agata can lose the moral high ground for footnoting his work, what does that say about us as readers and writers?

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Love Hurts: Betrayal in Memoir

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At last month’s reading, someone asked how you protect siblings when writing memoir. It’s a good question and I didn’t feel I had a great answer. When you write about your life in essay or memoir, you naturally lean toward things that have some emotional weight: the people, places and events in your life that have had enough heft to have left a mark. Often these things involve family members—whether siblings, mates, parents or children.

This is where it can get sticky.

I don’t think it’s possible to write good memoir without betraying someone. Memoir requires we put ourselves on the line like no other kind of writing. Here I am not thinking of only the scandalous tell-all memoir, although it’s certainly a fine example of betrayal. But even stories about the most ordinary subjects—parenting, infirmities, relationships (especially relationships!)—require unearthing details that wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of the public sphere.

I first realized this after having a conversation with my nine-year-old son about sex. He and I had sort of stumbled into the discussion, but it ended up being one of the most satisfying parenting experiences I’ve ever had.

So naturally, I wrote it up and posted it to my blog.

I didn’t think about betraying anyone as I wrote. To me, the story was about my reluctance to tackle my fears and inadequacies around being a good father. But to tell the story, I had to mention that my nine-year-old had found pornography on an old laptop computer that I had earlier lent to my oldest son, who had been stationed here in Seattle. I suppose I understood it was a little dicey to link my oldest boy’s possession of the computer and pornography, but there seemed to be enough plausible deniability built into the story (he shared the computer with all his roommates) to cover everyone, so I blazed forward.

When I finished, I posted the story. Friends and family were amused. I was pleased. One night as I read the comments attached to the story, my nine-year-old noticed it over my shoulder. He was reading dialog attributed to him, that he had actually said.

“Is that about me?” he asked.

I could hear the hurt in his voice. We had had a heart-to-heart talk—one of our very first—and I had posted it to the Internet for all to see. I felt so ashamed. I quickly switched the window to something else. It was all I could do not to just tell him a lie: “You? Of course not.” Somehow I held my tongue.

Now parents have been telling humiliating stories about their kids for ages, so that’s nothing new. But this story was different—it wasn’t about getting a cheap laugh. I wanted to talk about coming to terms with my fears around being a parent.

My nine-year-old and I needed to have another little heart-to-heart.

I didn’t try to explain to him anything about fears and inadequacies. I went with how much I love to write. He seemed to understand that I wasn’t out to hurt him. We came up with some boundaries, which mostly involved certain things he would rather I never write about, if they involve him. 

My big lesson was this: it’s fine to write about the important stories, but you have to consider the aftermath. Can you live with it? I know writers who have changed the names of their loved ones to protect their privacy. I have heard of other writers who have let loved ones (and even not so loved ones) vet their pages before publication, with the option to negotiate what details get published. Obviously if you’re writing a tell-all memoir, you’re not going to have the pages vetted, but you must prepare yourself for the potential fall out.

A few months later my oldest son posted to the comments section of my blog denying any knowledge or complicity with pornography, which I had already assumed was the case, anyhow, but his earnest disavowing also made me chuckle. We probably need our own little heart-to-heart, but he already knows how much I love to write, how important our relationship is to me.

He is my biggest fan. Somehow my best stories always seem to be about him. Writing memoir is almost certain to involve betrayal, but that’s not always so bad.

Sometimes it can be the start of something beautiful.

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Did You Make It?

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I got a little reminder about why I write nonfiction today at Aaron’s football jamboree. 

This is his first year out for football, so I was interested in getting to know the rest of the parents. I was standing on the sidelines watching the drills. One of the boys on the team hollered to the man standing next to me about what he had brought for the team’s snack. The man hollered back about having picked up a twelve pack of something from the local warehouse store and his boy beamed. I was so amused by this exchange: the importance of the snack, the boy’s earnest query, Dad’s dutiful reply. I stopped taking photographs and grinned at the man.

I pointed out my son, and we struck up a conversation.

When I asked him what grade and school his son attended, he told me the boy had recently switched to a new school and was doing poorly. I told him I had had the same experience myself, switching to a new school.

The man surprised me by asking, “Did you make it?”

By this I understood him to mean, did you make it to graduation, are you a high school graduate, which I am not. I am embarrassed to say that I came this >< close to lying to the man. I felt a huge wave of shame roll over me–me, Mr. Memoir, a guy who has written about being a divorcee, an absentee father, shooting IV drugs, and even being homeless. There is just something intimidating about being asked something like this point blank in a conversation. I really wasn’t sure what to say. I started to bluster, but then I finally just smiled and said, “Nah–not really.”

This man grinned and said, “Me either.”

We had a good chuckle. I didn’t get his name, but I connected with this man in a way I would not have had I tried to save face by going on about my time in college, the military, or even getting my GED.

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Shalom Auslander at Elliott Bay Books

Shalom Auslander appeared at Elliott Bay last night to promote the paperback edition of his memoir, Foreskin’s Lament.

What struck me most is how serious and intense he is. I guess I should have realized this about him from his promotional photo, which simply screams I am a serious and intense author. But his work, which I love, just seems much too funny to come from anyone so grave.

Except for a single man who laughed loudly in all the right places, the reading felt a little like a wake. Despite this, I enjoyed myself. I got a chance to hang out with Matt Briggs and talk shop. And it’s always good to get into Seattle for a night.

Auslander said he considers memoir to be the literary equivalent of pornography. I’m pretty sure he was serious. I guess he only wants to write fiction, but his memoir is really good.

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The Truth About David Sedaris

Last month Holly and I got to see David Sedaris at Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle. He was promoting his latest book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, which is a collection of previously published essays and some new material. The most enjoyable part of the evening had to be the Q&A session after he read, and this is only because David Sedaris is so witty and fast on his feet. The truth about David Sedaris is that he is arguably one of the best American humorists writing creative non-fiction today, but he has also been criticized for stretching the truth in his work.

Continue reading

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I Sent Ira Glass An Essay About My …

This American Life is one of my favorite radio shows.

The danger with submitting an essay to them is that when they reject it, I may be too hurt to continue listening to their show. And that would be a shame, because I really like the show. Earlier this month, I sent them my story, The Solution to All My Problems.

I’m also looking at some other journals that don’t mind simultaneous submissions. For the next issue of Tin House, the theme is “Off the Grid.” They’re looking for nonfiction “by or about people or institutions that function (or don’t function) out of the bounds of “normal” society.”  

This story sort of freaks me out. Now that I’ve sent it to my writing group, I feel compelled to keep sending it out until I find it a home. If I can’t find it a place on public radio or in a nice lit mag, I’ll send it to the Grapevine.

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