Tag Archives: writing

William Bradley in Brevity 32

William Bradley is the Ethical Exhibitionist. He is also an insanely talented writer. His work is featured in the latest Brevity, which just hit the Web.

One day, my dad came home at lunch with the newspaper—fresh off the press—in his hand.  “Do you know this girl?”  She looked more interesting in black and white.  “She’s missing,” he said.  “Her parents think she was kidnapped.” 

Julio At Large” by William Bradley

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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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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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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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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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This I Believe

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The This I Believe website claims their project is an attempt to engage “people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives.”  Based on a popular 1950s radio series hosted by Edward R. Murrow, the series has been back now in various forms for a few years.

Perhaps because of my interest in narrative nonfiction, I wanted to see what I could do with this format. Writing it was an interesting experience. It didn’t really come together until I was able to acknowledge that I have struggled with faith. From there it turned into a little testimony to Mom, which pleases me to no end.

My humble offering to the ongoing discussion, I hope you like it…

Piggyback Belief

I have always lacked faith, believing instead in life’s shrewd certainties. When I went to the Bronx for in-patient drug treatment, I felt my chances were slim. I had been using heroin for ten years in my small hometown in Pennsylvania, and New York City seemed like exactly the wrong place to kick a heroin habit. But I found a challenge and urgency in the Bronx that pulled me through treatment.

Despite my success, I didn’t think I would last long outside treatment. I didn’t want to feel ambivalent, but I was trying to be realistic: I had no family ties to New York City, no job skills, and no education.

I got assigned an AA sponsor, who I eventually went to meet at a busy downtown diner in Manhattan. I told him what I was thinking. Wiping fried chicken from his fingers and mouth, he leaned forward. “Do you believe that I believe you can stay sober?” As soon as he said it, he waved his hand in my face and added, “Now listen here! I’m not asking if you believe any of this. I’m asking, if you believe that I believe it.” He jerked his thumb into his chest.

Read more after the jump

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Modern Love in the New York Times

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The New York Times’ Modern Love is one the best non-fiction venues available today. I call your attention to this week and last week’s columns, both of which are excellent.

When I started to submit my work, I was largely focused on literary magazines. I was not familiar with Modern Love, but fortunately for me someone in my writing group was. Some writers say you shouldn’t submit a story to a big name venue until you’ve amassed some publishing credits, but I think that’s crazy. What makes more sense to me is to look for where your work will best fit, regardless of the publication’s size or prestige.

My Modern Love story prominently features a Yankee’s cap, which (I’m sure) improved its chances for publication in the New York Times. The story explores the challenges an estranged father faces, building a relationship with his son. I submitted the story in January, which offered plenty of lead time for a Father’s Day publication, although I (oddly) hadn’t even considered this at the time.

Modern Love doesn’t appear in my Writer’s Market, which may explain why I was not familiar with it. Sometimes you learn the best place to publish your work by networking with other writers. The only submission guidelines I’ve found for Modern Love were from a Q&A, hosted by Dan Jones (Modern Love editor) on the New York Times blog site.

Here is Mr Jones on submitting:

Modern Love is open to anyone and we welcome unsolicited submissions. You can send submissions to modernlove@nytimes.com. They should be no more than 1800-2000 words in length (final run length is closer to 1700 words) and the essay should be both pasted into the email and attached as a word document.

UPDATE: The New York Times has publisehd an official submission page for Modern Love essays: How to Submit Modern Love Essays. Good luck!

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Scenes That Linger Long After You Finish the Book

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For me, the mark of a good memoir is how much of it I can remember once I’ve set it aside for any amount of time. Last night as I watched Barack Obama address congress, I found myself thinking about a poignant scene from his debut memoir, Dreams From My Father.

Here is the setup: Barack’s father, a native Kenyan, who has been separated from the family and living in Kenya since Barack was two, is coming to visit. The elder Obama is an official for the Kenyan government. His visit home includes a celebrity visit to his ten-year-old son’s school. Barack feels torn: he is reluctant to have an African show up at his school, but he is excited to finally meet his absentee father. The image used to illustrate this ambivalence is young Barack looking up a picture of a Kenyan in a reference book, only to find a man in a loin cloth holding a spear. How perfectly this scene illustrates those first tentative steps a child takes from private to public life. He looks forward to meeting his father but also values the esteem of his classmates.

This scene works because it’s both universal and specific. It captures the specifics of young Barack’s coming of age—a broken home, the quiet longing, an African father. But it also shows the universals—a ten-year-old sensibility, an elementary school milieu, the child’s growing awareness of his own public identity.

If you asked me to characterize a universal trait of growing up, I am not sure the threat of mortification would ride high on my list. Yet two years after first reading this scene, I can remember a good bit of the detail. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the image of a boy so horrified by his own imagination easily reminds me of my own childhood anxiety around being embarrassed.

Here is what I know: If you try to write a universal scene, you can easily end up with something that sounds stiff and self conscious, completely missing the mark. Instead I think we have to learn to trust our instincts to select the right scenes, the ones with the most emotional impact.

And then just let go and let the muse do the rest.

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Brevity Blog Features Tim Elhajj on Writing, Jimi Don’t Play Here No More

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This week the Brevity Blog is featuring Brevity 29 authors discussing the stories they wrote for the latest issue. The idea here is to discuss the “origins or inspirations” for the stories, and the Brevity Editors even discourage blatant car salesmanship from recently published authors (only stealth car salesmanship will do!), so you know this isn’t just another marketing gimmick. It’s the real deal, folks.

My post went live earlier tonight.

Here is a short excerpt:

This story, Jesus.

The end of [Jimi Don’t Play Here No More] takes place in 1988 when my oldest son was three-years-old. I’ve been telling this story for ages now, but only to other addicts and alcoholics, usually at some type of 12-step meeting. I only recently started telling it to civilians, which is difficult because people never know what to say when I get to the end.

Check out the rest of the post.

And keep watching the Brevity blog for more Brevity 29 authors. This is an awesome issue. I am looking forward to reading Beth Westmark discussion of Tenderness, myself.

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