Tag Archives: nonfiction

Dopefiend, Now Available for Pre-order on Amazon

dopefiend

Here it is!

The cover art is ready. The book is in the final stages of copy edit. In a few weeks, the galleys should go out. Amazon lists the release date as September 1. Amazon also says my book is number 1,449,102 in Books. Already.

Well, it’s good to know where you stand, I suppose.

I have setup an Amazon author page, a blog, and a Facebook page for the book. If you are on Facebook, give me a Like. I could use it.



I am still trying to figure out what I ought to post to the book blog. I have categories for People, Places and Things. In treatment, the standard warning we issued to one another was to watch out for people, places, and things. It was a reminder that one ought to be wary about the people you hung out with, the places you allowed yourself to visit, and the things you got involved with. On the blog, it hasn’t quite gelled into a posting strategy.

But I’m optimistic.

I’m mostly posting about book related things. I have one post about Steelton. At some point, I’m going to post a story about the night this mug shot was taken.

Dopefiend

And, of course, as we pull our plans together for a book tour, I’ll add those to the blog. Keep coming back. It’s going to be grand!

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About a Mountain by John D’Agata

About a Mountain

In 2002, John D’Agata helped his mother move to Las Vegas and found himself following the ongoing controversy around a federal plan to store locally radioactive waste material from all over the country. Also while in Vegas, he volunteered for a community suicide prevention help line, and that same summer a 16 year-old boy jumped from the roof of a hotel to his death. In About A Mountain, ($23.95, W.W. Norton & Company) John D’Agata takes these disparate threads of his experience in Vegas and weaves them into a meditation on everything from bureaucracy and corrupt politics, to the self-destructive impulses of individuals and nations, to the limits of language over time.

For over twenty years, Yucca Mountain, the titular mountain, has been at the heart of a plan to dispose of waste from every nuclear power plant or weapon development site across the United States. Once collected, the government plans to store this material underground, inside the mountain, until it no longer poses a threat to human life. But as D’Agata unpacks the decisions that led to this course of action, it becomes clear that the threat to humanity isn’t what’s driving the policy. Instead there are politics at play at almost every level of the process, from the assessment of risk—does the threat of transporting nuclear waste outweigh the threat of storing it in multiple locations—to adopting Yucca Mountain as the central storage facility. Will anyone be surprised to learn that Congress selected this mountain—which geologically may not be the most suitable location for a variety of reasons—because its state and federal representatives were among the weakest, least able to protect their constituents from harm?

Fortunately D’Agata has his sights set higher.

He isn’t primarily concerned with rabble rousing against corrupt politicians, but wants us to consider instead the act of self-destruction itself. We consider it literally as he traces the last hours of a sixteen year old Levi Presley who commits suicide. We consider it figuratively as we reflect on how long the toxicity of the radioactive waste we’re creating will last, compared to the length of the longest known civilizations and cultures, or the efficacy of language itself. D’Agata gets high marks for the scope and breadth of this work. He reaches for and imagines descriptions of everything from Edvard Munch contemplating the world as he paints The Scream, to the last hours of Presley’s life, before he leaps from the tower at the Stratosphere. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and for the most part I did, but somehow, something about its execution left me cold.

D’Agata has a penchant for lists. He includes lists of contradictory facts, lists of the exact types of devastation that might occur in a traffic accident involving a truck with a payload of nuclear waste, lists that include everything that would be contaminated in such an accident from rusted bolts to light bulbs, lists of the accumulation of cosmic sums of interest that accrue over vast periods of time. One or two these type lists seems fine, a good idea—this is, after all, a book about the existential grief of modern life. What better way to present this than by asking the reader to wade through this sort of data. But I am the type reader who wants to drink in every word, and I feel cheated when I am tempted—no, invited is a better word—to scan so many lists by the author. Worse, D’Agata has chosen to bring into the story his own experience, but his experience moving his mother to Vegas seems inconsequential and dull. Mom and son look for somewhere to live. Mom and son march in a small parade. Not all of his experiences are so trite. For example, he describes a visit to the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, and his work on the suicide prevention hot line allows him to segue more easily into the material about poor Levi. But there is little self-revelation here. The material from his life is simply a way to frame the text, lacking any sort of urgency or depth. Why bother?

Compare D’Agata’s use of memoir here with something like Nick Flynn’s sublime memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, where Flynn, a soon to be father, uses his book to examine his fears of fatherhood and intimacy and, as the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks in the news, his growing obsession with torture and pain. Under Flynn’s deft hand, the connections between his own personal fears, American fears of terrorist attack, and the fears of torturer and tortured alike seem plain enough, but each is made all the more urgent by the immediacy of the prison scandal, or the infant growing in its mother’s womb. This is how to use personal experience to inform a political issue. D’Agata presents some intriguing ideas, but his text misses on some important marks.

It’s a noble miss, but a miss all the same.

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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

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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Love Hurts: Betrayal in Memoir

love-hurts

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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