Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

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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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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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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Seattle Book Fest: A Big Success

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Last night’s reading at the Seattle Book Fest was fun.

I surprised myself by getting nervous about three hours before Matt and I spoke. Holly said you couldn’t tell from listening to me, but I don’t see how that’s possible. The good news: I didn’t faint or throw up.

We were talking about flash non-fiction, so I read I Am and Jimi Don’t Play Here No More. I thought my first story, “I Am,” went really well. Halfway through Jimi, I just wanted it to be over. 

But I kept reading.

Fortunately for me, Matt was there. What a pro! I’ve attended enough of these panels and workshops to know what’s expected, but each time Matt interjected something helpful, it seemed like a revelation:

“Can everyone hear?” “Is anyone interested in learning where to submit their own flash for publication?”

In the end, it seems like it’s the simple, obvious stuff that makes or breaks a good reading. I am pleased I was able to participate. Once I started writing, it took me a long time to start sending things out for publication, but it was an obvious next step, and one I’m glad I finally took. Now I’ve done my first reading. I just need a book deal (and maybe a groupie) and then I’ll be solid.

All kidding aside, I want to thank Matt Briggs for allowing me to read with him. What a great opportunity.

Thank you, Matt!

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In Response to a Writing Group Question About How to Make Real Money as a Writer

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In 1995 I moved to Seattle from New York City, with an unfinished BA in English (9 credits shy) and a promise to send the remaining course work by mail.

I applied for a job with a software company.

Because I had nothing else, I brought a few poems to my first interview for a writing sample. One poem contained the word “goddamn,” and the fellow who was interviewing me said he didn’t mind but thought it might be a bad poem to use on a future interview. I hadn’t even realized.

The hiring manager at the software company asked me how much I expected to earn. I hadn’t given much thought to salary requirements and had only ever held hourly wage jobs. I told her the first number that popped into my head: twenty thousand. She smiled and told me she would give me twenty-four. I was so surprised and elated I had to restrain myself from saying, “thousand?” A year later I learned I was the lowest paid writer in a group that was notoriously underpaid. They gave me a ten thousand dollar raise my second year just to put me even with the rest. As it turned out, I was really good at interviewing software developers and coming up with clever ways to explain how to use the company’s financial software.

Now I work at the biggest software company on the planet. I make more money than I did in 1995 but somehow it’s still not enough. Two years ago my oldest son, who grew up in Steelton, asked me in all seriousness if I were rich. Two months ago my eleven-year-old daughter, who has lived her entire life in a suburb of Seattle, asked me with equal candor if we were poor.

Money is all about perspective.

Do what seems right. Keep trying. One day you end up right where you are supposed to be. Chances are, you will still have to think long and hard before you make certain purchases.

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How I Got My Story Published in the New York Times: The Truth of the Matter

 

When Dan Jones of the New York Times called about publishing one of my stories for Modern Love, I was delighted. I was also determined not to let him know I had a drug history. Dan had emailed me that he thought my story might work well for Father’s Day and wanted to discuss it more by phone. I immediately thought: Don’t tell him about the drugs. He’ll think you’re a loser. But then when he called, we talked for less than five minutes before my drug history came up.

It went something like this:

“So if your son was in Pennsylvania with your ex-wife, what were you doing in New York City?” Dan asked.

I chuckled demurely. Lying seemed like a bad idea.

“Well,” I said taking a deep breath. “That’s another story.”

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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.

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