Tag Archives: writing

On Writing An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career

I got my copy of Best Sex Writing 2012 earlier this year and was very pleased to have my work featured alongside so many great writers. Like they used to say in the old Penthouse Forum letters, “I never thought it would happen to me!

For my part in the Best Sex Writing Virtual Blog Tour, I wanted to talk about how I came to write my submission, An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career.

This was a difficult story for me to write. As nonfiction, I have long thought the story would work better if I had been gay. Consider the synopsis: caught having casual sex with a shipmate, a troubled teen collides with an out-of-control and powerful homophobic authority. This, in turn, makes our intrepid young protagonist confront his own homophobic fears, which allows him to realize that he is… STRAIGHT?

Humm. I hear you. You probably want to say something like: Your synopsis doesn’t seem quite right, my friend.

That’s exactly what I said. For years. Too many years. But then I read a brilliant craft essay by Kerry Cohen, a former Best Sex Writer herself, and discovered that the story really is mine, even if it doesn’t map cleanly to what a reader might expect. I can own it. I don’t have to tell it the way it would be told if it were in a Hollywood movie or a cheap novel. If I can overcome my own personal shame long enough to see the truth, I can make the story mine.

With that revelation, the only thing left to overcome was the social stigma.

As the author of a memoir about my recovery from heroin addiction, I know a little something about social stigmas, how damaging and infuriating they can be. In one of the first pieces I ever published, I refused to acknowledge I was an addict because I was afraid of what people would think of me. I published the piece—a great story about my relationship with my oldest son—without mentioning my addiction. But I started to think seriously about how much of my life I wanted to share in my stories. What does it mean to write nonfiction? What impact comes from openly sharing true stories about socially stigmatizing issues? Nonfiction gives our stories a little extra something that fiction can’t manage. That’s not meant as a ding against fiction writers, but as encouragement to writers of nonfiction: Our work matters in ways we can’t always know or understand. As Kerry Cohen points out, we have to be brave enough to “locate the truth,” to own our own stories.

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Tim Elhajj @ Northwest Bookfest, Kirkland, Washington

I’m appearing at Northwest Bookfest, Seattle’s celebration of books, authors and readers. Join me for a panel on memoir. I’m pleased to appear along with Richard LeMieux, Brenda Peterson,  Chuck Randall,  and Ed Lincoln.

Sunday, October 2, 2011
1:00pm – 2:00pm

 PETER KIRK COMMUNITY CENTER
352 Kirkland Avenue, Kirkland, WA 98033

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Tim Elhajj in Brevity

Trusty blue nova

I’m pleased to announce that my story, Sobering, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of Brevity.

Brevity has this to say about the issue:

The Winter 2011 issue of Brevity offers eighteen concise essays — rich examples of the experimentation, illumination, and surprise that can come with the very brief form.

Included is one our briefest essays yet, from the esteemed Steven Barthelme, and some of our favorite authors returning for an encore, including Richard Terrill, Lance Larsen, and Tim Elhajj. Meanwhile, Linsey Maughan graces us with her first creative nonfiction publication ever, and more than a few graduate student authors display their growing talents and strengths.

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2010 in Review: the Blogging Edition

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 5 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 39 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 277 posts. There were 37 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 4mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was January 7th with 437 views. The most popular post that day was Modern Love in the New York Times.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, quartertothree.com, en.wordpress.com, search.aol.com, and search.conduit.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for present tense, tree fort plans, tree fort, play fort plans, and sketchup.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Modern Love in the New York Times March 2009
24 comments

2

True Stories July 2008

3

The BFG November 2007
2 comments

4

About Tim Elhajj February 2007

5

I Am Not Your Broom July 2008

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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 Forthcoming from Central Recovery Press in October 2011!

Four Views of a Book Press

I signed a contract with a book publisher!

Dopefiend* is forthcoming from Central Recovery Press in October 2011. I am so excited and pleased.

Central Recovery Press first contacted me in early spring. I signed in late September. In-between was much book publishing drama. It’s nothing like what I imagined. I say that, but I am no longer even sure what I imagined. I just know I agonized over everything.

You always read about these wonderfully talented writers who were poor business people and ended up dying penniless and lonely in some terrible place. I was determined not to let that happen to me. I asked about print runs, wholesale and retail prices, and means of distribution, but the person I worked with—a kind soul from upstate NY named Tom Woll—liked to answer these type questions in general terms. I could never tell if he thought I was somewhat slow or if he was  just trying to protect me from myself.

Probably a little of both.

In the end, I had to reach out to all my writer friends and acquaintances for help. That’s what really turned the tide and helped me understand what was going on. It’s one thing to see yourself as a promising new voice. No matter how many rejections come, you’re always able to shrug it off. Writers get rejected. This is just what we do. In a sense, we’re manufacturing rejection. But being asked to deliver on a vivid and engaging manuscript is another story altogether. I didn’t see it right off, but now I realize I was overwhelmed, intimidated, and mabye even a little frightened.

Fortunately I had a host of writers and friends to rely on for everything from sanity checks to encouragement. Much thanks to: William Bradley, Dinty Moore, Matt Briggs, Rachael Brownell, Diane Diekman, Karna Converse, Carter Jefferson, Grace Skibicki, William Pitt Root, Tom Catton, Ira Sukrungruang, and I am sure a few others who I am forgetting as I write this.

And many thanks to Holly—a wonderfully talented writer in her own right, and my best reader and favorite critic—for putting up with me all summer long and for cleaning out some room in the house where I can write. I realize that I have been offered a wonderful opportunity, one that not many writers get.

Now my job is to write the best book I can produce.

*Dopefiend is the tentative title. I agreed to come up with a new title, but I haven’t found anything I like just yet.

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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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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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