Tag Archives: writers

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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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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In Defense of Big Jim: Another Look at the Million Little Pieces Controversy

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After recently reading that Oprah has apologized for rebuking James Frey, I felt encouraged to write up my thoughts about Million Little Pieces, Frey’s controversial memoir about drug addiction that includes many fabricated details. I hadn’t done it earlier because, frankly, I didn’t want to be in the James Frey apologist camp. I find the fact that he made up so many details about his recovery incredibly sad. I say this because he offers such an accurate and compelling portrait of a certain type of recovering addict—almost an archetype—that has been in every treatment center I’ve ever been in. And I’ve been in a quite a few.

I started using heroin when I was 17. When I was about 23, I made my first attempt at inpatient treatment and over the next four years I participated in five more attempts. These included stays at different types of inpatient facilities, including the secular and religious; hospital and farm; big city and rural; 12-Step and Therapeutic Community. To understand where I’m coming from, you have to understand something about how treatment works. Each facility might have a different approach (sometimes wildly different), but there seem to be two constants across all programs:

  1. Clients can never engage in physical violence, or even threats of physical violence;
  2. Clients cannot have sexual or romantic relationships with other clients.

These are the cardinal rules.

Of the two, the rule about violence is probably the greater issue because this sort of behavior has the potential to affect the whole environment. You can’t foster the emotional depth required to right an upturned life, if everybody is attacking one another. The other rule prevents individuals from getting lost in the heady experience of a new relationship or just junking out on sex.

Now here is the interesting thing about these rules, or any rules: The disingenuous among us can often find ways to use the rules themselves to gain an advantage they otherwise might not be able to achieve. As you might expect, this is especially problematic in drug treatment. Once, during a stay in a religious facility in Syracuse, I met a young man who claimed to regularly receive prophecies from God. The facility was a charismatic Christian operation, and prophecy and other gifts of the spirit were part of the inpatient milieu. This young prophet was about eighteen, from a wealthy family, and handsome. He wore his hair feathered back like Bon Jovi and only received transmissions from God right after lunch, during the long, hot catechism classes that followed. His messages were almost always harmless aphorism. The first time it happened, I thought he was having an epileptic fit. We were all sitting at our desks and he began to shake, making his chair rattle. Soon he began speaking in an other worldly voice. You knew it was God speaking through him, because he used words like Verily and Thou.

I glanced over at Miguel, a drug addict from the Bronx about the same age as me, and rolled my eyes. The proctor, a slight man with soulful eyes, would wait patiently for these prophecies to end, his hands folded on the lectern. What else could he do? In this facility, Jesus was A-1 and to prophesy was not only condoned, but encouraged.

Religious institutions may offer unique occasions to subvert the rules, but the no violence rule offers a similar opportunity for everyone. Going into inpatient treatment can be an intimidating experience, especially your first time around. You’re suddenly thrust into the middle of hierarchy, where previously you may have never even understood a hierarchy existed. In an inpatient facility with strict rules about violence, you can’t just beat one another down to determine the Alpha. Instead, it’s all done with stories. Instead of uttering prophecy, a person might exaggerate his credentials. This might involve the kinds of drugs one used, the types of crimes one committed, or the length of time spent in jail. Because of the rules about violence, there isn’t a good way to sort out the liars. Typically this behavior comes from young men of wealthy families, during their first stay in treatment. Most of the time, it’s just ignored. With the rules in place, the risk of one client beating up another is nil. The greater risk is that clients posing as thugs will never come to understand themselves with any amount of depth.

This seems to be exactly what happened to James Frey.

Ignoring the two cardinal rules of treatment, Frey describes his treatment experience as a lot of tough posturing and a relationship. As I read Million Little Pieces, I kept thinking Frey had written a memoir from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. He seemed to have really captured the frightened little rich kid, desperate to prove his own worth. In treatment usually what happens is that the bona fide tough guys (you just know), start to openly explore their own fears and inadequacies. This is often enough to get the most hardened poser to come around and start being honest with himself (and everyone else).

I kept wondering when Frey, the recovering addict and author, would throw back the cape, renounce all the bluster and swagger, and show us who he really was. But I got to the end of the book, and it never happened. Maybe Frey couldn’t throw back that cape, because he had never had that experience in treatment. Maybe he never came to realize his own limitations.

Until Oprah hammered him on national television.

You can’t go through treatment six times without developing some empathy for people who fuck up spectacularly, especially other addicts. One afternoon in Syracuse, the Bon Jovi Prophet started to offer pointed messages critical of our entire class. The proctor listened calmly then asked him to remain after class for a private conversation. I have no idea what was said, but from that day forward the prophecy stopped. One assumes the proctor disabused this boy of the notion that he could speak for God.

What else could be done?

There is almost always a comeuppance in store for the addict who bends the rules too far to meet his own needs. Some of us just need a little more of a push to get to a more productive place.

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Raymond Carver On Writing

Ray Carver

Writers write, and they write, and they go on writing, in some cases long after wisdom and even common sense have told them to quit. There are always plenty of reasons—good, compelling reasons, too—for quitting, or for not writing very much or very seriously. (Writing is trouble, make no mistake, for everyone involved, and who needs trouble?) But once in a great while lightning strikes, and occasionally it strikes early in the writer’s life. Sometimes it comes later, after years of work. And sometimes, most often, of course, it never happens at all…. But it will never, never happen to those who don’t work hard at it and who don’t consider the act of writing as very nearly the most important thing in their lives, right up there next to breath, and food, and shelter, and love, and God.

—Raymond Carver (introduction, Best American Short Stories 1986)

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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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Zen and Writing Memoir

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Went to see Natalie Goldberg Friday night.

I could have sworn I read her book, Writing Down the Bones. But I don’t see how I could have, since until they introduced her Friday evening, I had no idea she was into Zen. According to Wikipedia, teaching writing using Zen principals is Goldberg’s niche. Fortunately for me, I just finished Dinty Moore’s, The Accidental Buddhist, which is a fun exploration of Moore’s experience with Buddhism. So when Goldberg started talking about Monkey Mind and focusing too much on this side of life, I was able to put it mostly in context.

Poor thing lost her mother on Christmas eve. She was talking about the experience of losing her mother and, at one point, she asked, “Where is my mom?” It came out so plaintive. The rest of the night I felt sad, vulnerable. Sooner or later everyone loses their mom.

Goldberg also pronounces memoir funny. She says, “memwhhar.”

And I long for the East coast.

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Shoot the Buffalo

Although I rarely read fiction these days, I do read a little, especially if it’s good.

Shoot the Buffalo, Matt Briggs latest novel, is my kind of fiction. A coming of age story set in the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, it features some of the saddest, yet most oddly compelling characters I’ve read in a long while.

I seek out coming of age stories. The best memoir is written to read like fiction, so all the coming of age stories I read actually count as research toward my own on-going memoir project. One of the inherent problems of writing this kind of story is that something big has to happen to your main character, but not so big as to prevent a minor from rising to the challenge and overcoming in a way that’s believable and (hopefully) compelling to read.

In American literature, this sort of story often presents itself as a Hero’s Quest, typically a redemptive story where the hero overcomes some great adversary. But it’s not always so cut and dry. In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s well-known coming of age memoir, a no-account stepfather is young Wolff’s big challenge. In a stunning act of guile, Wolff manages to (literally) reinvent himself, escaping to a prep school in the Northeast. Wolff’s use of deceit to overcome his situation has always made the story stand out for me. There is nothing more poignant then a child trying to cope with grown up issues the best he can, especially if that child is saddled with lousy parents. For a boy in this situation, the most believable thing to do is make a poor choice.

Shoot the Buffalo deals with the guilt a boy feels after he leads his siblings into the woods in search of their parents and his little sister dies of exposure. What struck me was the clever way Briggs uses the story’s structure and setting to move the main character from childhood guilt and confusion to a believable resolution as a young man.

It’s fiction, but it feels real. It’s just a genuine story about a hard childhood.

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Foreskin Tales

Shalom Auslander

Books I have read on how-to-write memoir occasionally suggest boiling down into the fewest words what your memoir is about. From Shalom Auslander’s new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, here are a few words that do just that:

I believe in God.

It’s been a real problem for me.

I have very little sympathy for veal.

I find Mr. Auslander inventive, irreverent, and incredibly funny to read. Most of his stories center on his experience growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in upstate New York. But his memoir is also an exploration of fatherhood: ambivalent memories of his father, feelings about his own role as a parent, but mostly he offers stories that feature the antagonistic relationship he has with his Heavenly Father. This is how to write memoir.

Earlier this year I read another memoir about fatherhood by Neal Pollack. For some reason, Jewish fathers who write memoir seem to fixate on the circumcision of their son’s penis. Everyone has a story. Even me! 

So what’s a nice Catholic boy like me doing with a circumcision story? No idea. Maybe I was adopted.

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A Good Teacher is Hard to Find

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Brevity recently posted about a writing teacher with a problem: one of her memoir students was afraid that if she told her story people would think she was a jerk. This particular student’s story involved higher stakes than most of us will ever face (her remorse over the death of an innocent man), but if you’ve ever tried to write memoir, you know this fear. No matter your circumstances, memoir writing always includes the challenge of putting yourself out there in a story.

What struck me was the homerun advice this teacher gave her student:

The following week, I struggled to find something to tell her. Then I found a quote that for me defined the real purpose of the personal memoir. It was from Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…. “Does it happen all at once or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You come. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are REAL, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL, you can’t be ugly, except to the people who don’t understand.”

I told my student that she had to be real. If she revealed her true self and experience to the world, then she could only be a jerk to those unwilling to understand.

— Debbie Hagan

Where do you find teachers like this?

I ask this literally. I had excellent teachers when I was an undergraduate, but choosing them was completely dumb luck. I’ve tried taking classes since, and while I haven’t had any terrible teachers, I haven’t been that impressed either.

I have tried different strategies to find a good teacher, all to no avail. One of my recent teachers, who published a wonderful memoir and was teaching at one of this area’s more prestigious (and expensive) schools couldn’t articulate how to use present tense verbs to make temporal transitions. Teaching is a completely different skill set from writing. I have no doubt that this teacher knew how to make these transitions in her own writing, but she couldn’t explain it to save her life.

To be fair, I’m not sure I could clearly explain the mechanics of grammar. And I’m not even sure that’s what I want in a creative writing teacher. I am more interested in reading my work and listening to other’s work. I like the feeling I get collaborating with other writers. So what do I want from a teacher? I want encouragement. Honesty and good judgment. If I am frightened, I want my teacher to struggle the following week to find something to say.

I am not sure it’s possible for someone to teach you to be a financially successful writer, but it shouldn’t be so hard to find a good teacher.

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Katha Pollitt has Balls

Katha Pollitt is my latest hero.

I wasn’t even familiar with her work until I heard her on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. An American feminist writer, Pollitt is perhaps best known for her column “Subject to Debate” in The Nation magazine.

But all that means squat to me. Ms. Pollitt is my new hero because she has balls.

Her new book, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, includes essays about discovering her boyfriend was unfaithful and her subsequent response, which included web-stalking him. Her friends cautioned her about publishing these stories. What kind of self-respecting feminist tells stories like these? 

Discussing her motivations for publishing, Pollitt articulates something anyone who writes personal essays or memoir knows is true. Here is Katha Pollitt on Fresh Air (probably within the first 6 minutes of air time):

In American literature now you can tell the most horrible things about yourself — you can be a heroin addict or a sex worker (not that those things are so horrible, but let’s just say) — as long as the arc of the story is, “I used to be bad and now I’m good” [or] “I used to be sick and now I’m well.”

But what you can’t do is really present, in a full detailed emotional way, what it feels like to be in an ordinary loser situation and just tell what it was like.

There has to be a moral in American literature. This is one of the big problems.

I have felt these same things approaching some of my essays. As an unpublished writer with few political affiliations, the stakes are much different for me than for Ms. Pollitt. But even with little name recognition, anyone who writes honestly about their lives puts it on the line in a way that other writers never really do. I am glad Ms. Pollitt had the courage to publish her work, even if she risks losing some of her luster in certain circles.

Of course, Katha Pollitt had balls long before she chose to publish Learning to Drive. Here is my favorite Pollitt story from a quick scan of the Web.

Citing Pollitt’s lack of patriotism, Bernard Goldberg named her number 74 in his book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. This was because Pollitt wrote a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, Put Out No Flags, in which she argued for restraint. As if calling for moderation in autumn 2001 wasn’t gutsy enough, she responded to Goldberg’s criticism by writing, “Memo to self: Must try harder.”

What a great gal.

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