Flash Special – Creative Nonfiction (June 2015 / 15.12)

Flash Special – Creative Nonfiction (June 2015 / 15.12)

Natasha Zeta, Cracked

Natasha Zeta, Cracked

Artist Natasha Zeta is exploring the mediums of sculpture, drawing, photography and oil painting. A recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh in Studio Arts and Nonfiction Writing, she is currently working for the Aperture Foundation in sales and New York Foundation for the Arts in the Immigration Artist Program.  Previously she was a reader for Hot Metal Bridge, an MFA literary magazine, and The Original Magazine. This piece is an exploration of how mental illness affects self-image. The viewer sees his image as distorted and dirtied in the mirror, and becomes obsessed with the missing pieces of his reflection. The same happens to the butterflies, who only see their brown, ugly-eyed underbellies. Both the viewer and the butterflies lack the outside perspective that everyone else sees: that they are beautiful, whole, and complete.
 

***

Ann Bogle

Strobe Genre, Utah! 

I am leaning on a future as on a door that is stuck but ajar. If it will not open, I have the past to connect me.

My physical health is good. My mental health as it is unbelievably called is at issue. My mind is well. My mood is troubled and ebullient.

Writers act unable to define their genres in the midst of composition. Time is the element most advanced in fiction. Point of view is next.

And it’s useless to pretend to it in interviews about writing. Narrative is the term I use for story in essay.

Poets keyed to advanced topics in poetry and others leery of “experimental fiction” or “fiction” feel they are inventing plot for humankind.

Autobiography of Red just mentioned in a Tweet. That reminds me of my last night’s delegating: History of Dry. Too many books remain written.

Co-polar order spectrum; strobe genre (the disco light of the 70s illumining and eclipsing fiction-non-fiction-non in one “article”); UTAH! a jump from forehead-down to standing fast, a cheer, for genre studies.

U of MN is looking to fill Instructor Z and B tracks. It reminds me of seat subclasses in coach.

Even airline rep’s tend not to know what those subclasses mean. K was my most recent ticket in coach, I think.

Ann Bogle’s short collections include Country Without a Name, which will soon appear in an illustrated print edition published by Veery Imprints. More here

~

Fortunato Salazar

My Long Blond Hair

I’m on Cipro for a respiratory tract infection and I shouldn’t be pushing it, but of course I am pushing it, keeping up with my stepfather. We’re headed up Wilshire to the 24 Hour Fitness and we need to be on our way back before dark and we’re taking it at a comfortable marathon pace, except we’re walking, my stepfather with his easy long stride, me with stabbing pains in the side of one foot which are probably the early warning signs of a tendon about to burst, my stepfather in his paid-his-dues gear, with his incredibly efficient effortless stride. And then there’s his hair.

*

We come to a cross street just as eight Korean guys packed into a Lexus assert their right to barrel through the crosswalk. One of them rolls down a window and leans way out and it’s unbelievable, it’s totally beyond belief what he calls out to my stepfather, in outright unmitigated public derisiveness: You look just like Kenny G!!!! And immediately everyone in the vicinity stops and looks at my stepfather, but by the time they look, my stepfather and I are across the intersection and halfway up the next block.

*

Sometimes people ask me about my father and I say I don’t have a father. Sometimes people ask me about my apartment and I say my apartment doesn’t have a floor. Sometimes I walk back to my apartment after dark and when I breathe a sigh of relief it turns into a coughing fit.

*

Before I lucked into the apartment, I crashed with my stepfather in his hotel room. We’d work out and then hit a juice bar and then go back and drink. The room was a loft and I crashed on the couch downstairs. My stepfather left with the ice bucket and that was that. I drank all the vodka I could handle and took one last look up and down the hall. I was just beginning to get to know my stepfather. In the morning when I was swapping out the coffee in the coffee pod my stepfather returned and summed up: the ice machine, a total stranger commenting with discernment on his stride, on his stride even though he’s just padding to the ice machine in his flip-flops, my stepfather returning the compliment, one thing leading to another, and it turns out that the stranger used to be on the women’s professional tennis tour, the stranger wanting to get back on the tour, explaining at great length how expensive it would be to get back on the tour.

*

On the treadmill I do the thing where I’m watching my reflection in the glass and there’s a blue, glowing energy source in the middle of my chest. I’m ignoring the stabbing pains in my foot and imagining myself asking for the power status of the energy source and watching my expression of pleasant surprise when a voice tells me that power is at 400% of capacity. I’m also keeping an eye on my stepfather’s reflection. My stepfather is doing the thing where he runs a sub-20 minute 5K, gets off the treadmill, waits in line for a treadmill, gets on a treadmill and runs another sub-20 minute 5K.

*

The other night my stepfather discovered the one treadmill that doesn’t come to a halt automatically at the 20-minute mark. That was the night I did the thing where I try not to remember the story the manager told me about how he ruptured his Achilles tendon during a stupid road-rage incident and how it felt when he went to put weight on that foot.

*

We arrive back at my apartment just in time to pass an open doorway where there’s a party going on inside. I have no idea who lives there—I know only my next-door neighbor and the woman from the other end of the building who asked me about the squirrel who wears a collar. I follow my stepfather through the door and it’s not a party after all, just some women sitting around the kitchen table with a bottle of tequila. My stepfather starts telling stories about how he used to sweep up at the Wiltern, how he practically used to live at the Wiltern. Before long he’s deep into a semi-private conversation with a woman in pink scrubs. Meanwhile I’m learning interesting facts about the squirrel from the women who aren’t in scrubs. My stepfather and the woman spend some private time in an alcove off the kitchen. Later, when we’re zipped up in our sleeping bags, my stepfather recounts an adventure from an earlier era: a message at the front desk from a woman who’d showed him an apartment, turning around and going back to the apartment, the woman whispering in his ear when he has no choice but to leave because her roommates are all there, whispering that he’d better call her or else he’ll be missing a great lay.

*

When I was little my stepfather used to wheel me around the neighborhood in my stroller, took me everywhere. Women fell all over themselves about how cute I was, would admire my long hair with its tight curls, so much like my stepfather’s, curly and unkempt. My stepfather would park the stroller at the counter where he went for coffee, and women would gather around the stroller, run their fingers through my hair. They couldn’t believe that we looked so much alike and yet were unrelated by blood.

*

I brought my stepfather to my stylist for a touchup. I was very fond of my stylist and her anecdotes about her former life as a catalog model. It was a treat to watch her in the mirror as she worked. But after I brought my stepfather in, all she did was go on and on about my stepfather. And that was one of the reasons that I stopped cutting my hair, because it had become all about my stylist.

Fortunato Salazar’s recent fiction is at Tin House, New World Writing, Hobart, Corium, Juked, and elsewhere.
~

Siobhan Harvey

When My Best-Friend Came to Stay (or Ten Fragments of a Detached Self)

There is no sincerer love than the love of food – George Bernard Shaw

1.

 After my best friend disappeared, my counselor asked me to describe her.

“Thin,” I said.

In the early afternoon heat, the window before me was faintly stained with my reflection. Set against my ghosted image, the window revealed the world outside: old buses crammed with passengers staring out of foggy glass; pedestrians bustling around the city, their images, moving shadows in shop windows; a lone dove perched high observing all.

“Did your best friend have a name or distinguishing features?”

“Thin,” I reiterated.

“Tell me,” my counselor said, “how you and your best friend met.”

2.

An early spring morning, 1987. The sun is a shard cut between grey stratocumuli. Frost pricks earth and air. The first lesson of the school day is Physical Education. When I have changed, I run onto the sports-field. A girl from remedial class, Billie, points at me and brays, “Fat features!”

Like many caught on the cusp of puberty, I carry puppy-fat on my jowls and cheeks. It’s towards this commonplace misfortune that Billie directs her cruel intent.

My best-friend, hidden perhaps behind a slight-trunked poplar nearby, witnesses the slur, feels the jag of pain I experience and knows she can offer me her secret solace.

3.

The day after Billie’s taunt, my best friend arrives on my doorstep. I’m at home, cooking a meal of boiled potatoes, tinned carrots and braised liver for my absent family.

There’s something about the kitchen, its steam, fire and stricture, and about the abandonment of my chore which makes me invite my best friend in.

It’s strange how my best friend travels so light. No suitcases. No clothing. No possessions whatsoever. Like an angel, she is, I see, abstinence personified.

4.

Each day thereafter, my best friend and I walk to school and sit side-by-side in class. We communicate all the time. Our favourite topic is food.

“100 grams of apple has 47.5 calories,” I tell her. “That’s as much as ten grams of Edam.”

She knows, of course. She’s an authority on how many calories every item of food possesses. So, at lunchtimes, while we walk around the yard, me nibbling on a wafer of cheese or morsel of apple, we recount how little we’ve eaten and take pride in discovering who has consumed the least amount of food.

Naturally, my best friend always wins this contest.

But increasingly, I run her close.

5.

All the time, anger, searing and volatile, inhabits our house. It arrives at unexpected moments. Like the time I’m washing the dishes. To remove the condensation from the kitchen, the window is opened. A gust of wind catches the glass, swings it wide and smashes it. Her wooden-soled Dr Scholl sandal in hand, Mother tears into the room shouting at me. Again and again, the sandal lands upon my back and arms.

Later, in my bedroom, I select school clothes that will hide the bruising.

6.

A month later, as winter hardens and the late afternoons coalesce into darkness, Mother returns home early from work and demands that we eat our dinner together.

When I bring out the food, Mother settles stern eyes upon me. We sit in silence, my best friend un-catered for, Mother consuming the meal, and I moving meat around my plate. Soon Mother is out of her seat. Her plate upends. Her knife and fork fly, like hard, loud words towards me.

“You bloody idiot! How dare you shame me in front of my friends……”

Suddenly I’m water.  Ripples, born of an energy I’m too young to name (but years later will come to know as ‘emotion’) rise and retreat in me… Until tears stream from me, and I run to my room.

In my wake, my best friend looks on.

7.

A glance: that’s all it took to unravel me.

It’s Mother’s workmate, Mavis, who is responsible. She bumped into my best friend and me on our way to school that morning. She peered into me while asking me how  I was. Then she bustled into the decorating store and demanded to know of Mother, “What’s wrong with your daughter?”

Of course Mother was her usual defensive self. “What do you mean?”

“She’s a skeleton,” Mavis observed. “Is she ill?”

8.

The next morning Father returns from work looking unusually drawn. He escorts me to the doctors. The place is cold and, except for a snatch of an old railway bridge traversed occasionally by a train clattering out of town, affords little perspective. At the doctor’s prompting, Father delivers clipped sentences about the humiliation I’ve heaped on the family. The doctor asks if there are any reasons why I’ve stopped eating.

Father stares ahead as if the question doesn’t concern him.

Too many words clog my throat; I feel as though I’m drowning.

Eventually I reply, “No.”

I’m ordered onto the scales. My height is checked. Addressing his notes, the doctor says, “Go home and eat. Come back in a month’s time. By then I expect you to put on weight.”

At home, Father retires to sleep, and I’m given back-to-school books and the expectant kitchen.

9.

The day I receive my exam results, my best friend starts to slip away. Thin as she is, her body becomes a poem subject to erasure.

Now that my place at varsity is confirmed, the true value of my achievements  – escape – nourishes me. I eat without self-loathing.

10.

Once I settled in a big city, began my studies and starved all communication with my family, I sat down with a counselor to discuss my best friend and my years as an anorectic. Each time I spoke, a story opened up: a postmodern plot; a small town setting; a young protagonist raised by impoverished, violent, poorly educated parents; her ghost-like buddy, corporeal in spite of her slenderness.

Those were the years my best friend returned during my sleep. The house I grew up in was a hall of mirrors. Glass enlarged, extended and squashed my body. A two-way mirror briefly revealed my best friend’s shadow on its other side, a fragment of light distilling our essences just as the past reflects the present. Then the light was extinguished, and I was separated from her by such frail darkness I awoke.

Siobhan Harvey is a poet, prose writer, editor, reviewer, and lecturer in Creative Writing at The Auckland University of Technology. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of publications and anthologies and has been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. She has edited and co-edited several anthologies, including Words Chosen Carefully and Essential New Zealand Poems, which is currently shortlisted for the 2015 PANZ Book AwardsHarvey won the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award and her winning manuscript was published the following year by Otago University Press as Cloudboy. More at her page at the UK Poetry Archive

~

S. J. Mannion

Everything that matters has already happened

I spoke to my sister today, at length, for the first time in years. Our mother was not there.  This may have helped. And now there is my leaving.

We put our weapons down.  We said what could be said.

In this unexpected ease, she recalled things.  Things I had cast out.  But they are prodigal and I was freshly pained.  We cried then laughed.  What of tears when we have cried so many?  We smoked and were comforted by this fragile solidarity.

I do not imagine we cried for the same reasons. But I came away feeling purged and lighter.  As she looks back, I look forward.  I understood the need for this.  I understood that for us the present is nothing, the past everything, and the future always just there in between the trees .

S. J. Mannion is an Irish writer living in Christchurch — middle aged, married-with-three, doing domesticity. When she can she writes; when she can’t she reads. 

~

Kineret Yardena

Persephone Moon

1.

At night, the moon draws my eyes skyward. Tonight it’s thick and full and hanging low, haloing the darkness.

2.

When the world is silent and sleeping, I sit alone, awake. I don’t need words to speak to myself. To feel full. I only need to be here. To listen.

3.

We are six women sitting on the overhang of a boatshed, watching the wide sea, gathered the way women have always gathered, called together by the moon.

I don’t belong here. I wasn’t yet called by any moon. But there was wet sand leading to this place of brightly burning candles and musky incense and voices layering in Sanskrit song. And I didn’t want to be alone. So I have tied a feather to my forehead, have strung my neck with three strings of beads. All so I can feel what belonging here would feel like.

Now we are singing, I am singing along. They by heart, me by reading the kirtan chants from a slip of paper. We are singing songs to Krishna and Buddha and Jesus and the Divine within; singing praise and peace, singing enlightenment for all—a swirling dervish dance of high pitches and low moans.

Still sitting on the boatshed overhang, Nenge strums us into rhythmic lullabies and ecstatic harmonies, as Durga leads with her voice, calling us to our feet, asking us to embrace our inner wolf and mother, the mythic maiden and crone. To lean into the great shadows and the greater mysteries. To feel our menstrual rhythms swaying into alignment with the rhythms of the sea, the moon-made tides.

I don’t feel any rhythms. I don’t feel any tides.

And, tonight, I don’t feel like dancing.

But I don’t say anything, swaying along anyway. Perhaps tonight I will sway my way into a new rhythm? The rhythm of the body pulsed by the moon.

Then Durga calls us out to join her. Tonight, she has brought along a small bowl of her menstrual blood to make an offering to the fiery Pohutukawa that is a short walk from where we are sitting. Revered as a tree of life and death, the Pohutakawa is the host for her full moon offering. Sprinkling her life-death blood around the thick magnificent roots, Durga closes her eyes and, in Sanskrit, chants her way into the rhythm of all things.

4.

I wonder what it would feel like to feel what she feels. To feel the Great Mother. To feel the rhythmic moon. That full-bodied reverence. That faith.

5.

Where does her faith come from? Her sense of belonging?

(Where the hell is mine?)

6.

Did I lose it?

7.

Have I ever had it at all?

8.

My body longs to live as the moon lives in a rhythm of swells and contractions. To expand from nothing to half-lit to full, then shrink back from full to half-lit to nothing – then again.

My body craves fullness:

roasted lamb rump with fresh rosemary bathed in gravy and a thick mint sauce; candlelit teasing that turns breathless, wet, pleading; a lush, overgrown garden that swells like the womb of the earth.

My body craves half-ness:

the twilights and 3ams and last hours of night’s leaning— times between the song of sleep and the song of wakefulness that don’t demand any great kind of knowing, times that invite a little bit of the universe’s everything to come in.

My body craves emptiness:

vast unyielding deserts
————————————————————————–wide thundering seas
——–long quiet overland train journeys, cutting through sweeping grass prairies
where I see no one ——————– no one ———————– no one
———– ———– ———– ———– for a thousand miles or more
———– ———– —just corn
———– ———– ———– maize
———– ———– ———– ———wheat
———– ———– ———– ———– ———– their tall sheaths blowing
space to breathe wider
———– ———– —-and freer
until there is
no me
anymore.

Am I too great?
Am I too small?

9.

Should I know?

10.

All I know is that I want to talk about death. About boneness. About the great losses and the stone silent end of things. About brokenness so dark I close my eyes every second. About where Persephone fell. But people only seem interested in talking about life. And security. And happiness. When I start talking, they walk away.

11.

Why am I like this?

(Where do I belong?)

12.

I drive across the vast, arid expanse that yawns and stretches from northern Utah down to Mexico, earth the colour of ripe mangos and papayas, resting into the silence of this echoing ancient world. It seems like there is nothing here. Barren, people call this place, because the native plants are short and gnarled and hidden here. Barren because they do not see the oak trees and rose bushes and magnolias that they grew up seeing.

13.

There is empty. And there is empty. And there is empty. I can’t explain what I mean. Please don’t ask me to.

14.

I wish I could draw maps with prime numbers, or viscous yellows, or Melville quotes rammed together with irrelevant arrows. Then I could articulate clearly that (a) I should be here and (b) I shouldn’t be there.

15.

My body longs to live as the moon lives – to belong where it is. To be where it belongs. But I don’t let it. I rage against my rhythms. Against death. I rage against the relentless waning that is pulling me down, away from everything. Everything I was told to care about. Everything I was told mattered. Like gyrations of courageous fragility exploding through a snowy hillside barn dance.

16.

Do you know, how when it’s silent and I’m so full – so unspeakably full of the grace of migrating swallows and the bondaged walking to hope and to freedom by the light of the moon – I’m only aware of, only present to, the great, vast unquantifiable emptiness?

17.

But if emptiness is empty, will there ever be anything I can grab hold of, make mine forever?

Kineret Yardena is an educator, writer, and arts programme consultant. Her work — motivated by a deep commitment to inter- and cross-cultural understanding — has taken her to New Zealand, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Gambia, Senegal, and India. Kineret currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a resident at Upaya Zen Center. For more, please visit: www.kineretyardena.com.

~

A Discussion of Creative Nonfiction

Dinty W. Moore: Do your damndest

dinty_w_mooreDespite the confusion that the term ‘creative nonfiction’ still seems to foster, the idea is simple enough.  Nonfiction means truth: honest observations, honest conclusions, and honest memories.  If you make things up, change events or invent actions for flow or dramatic effect, you are taking real life and adapting it to be fiction.  Nonfiction is not fiction.

And yes, memory is a slippery devil, so when I say honest, I mean that the writer can look the reader in the eye and say “I’ve done my best to remember this with as much accuracy as I can muster, I’ve fact-checked myself where possible, I’ve crap-checked myself as well, and I’m not dressing this up just to make the story better.”  The writer does her damndest, in other words, to get it right.

So where does the creative part of creative nonfiction come in? The creative part is the arrangement – the shaping of the essay, the word choices, the metaphors, the musicality of the sentences, where the story begins and where it ends, the interweaving of threaded narratives, the use of form and frame.  Essentially, writers of creative nonfiction are doing just what poets and fictions writers do, but the underlying story is not of the imagination.

Mindful-Writer_C1-280x408Simple enough?  But even with this key constraint – tell the truth, dammit! – the possibilities are seemingly infinite, from a straight-forward chronological memoir such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes to the experimental works of Ander Monson or Maggie Nelson.  Some stories are told in the simplest of language, and some are filled with lyrical riffs (Lia Purpura, Eula Biss).  Some are quite lengthy (Proust) and some remarkably brief (Josey Foo).

I don’t understand why people still confuse what the genre means and how it works.  But there is a lot I don’t understand.  That’s why I am a writer.

Dinty W. Moore is author of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals,  The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. Moore has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Normal School among numerous other venues. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore edits the online journal Brevity and lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.

*

Ann Bogle: On the truth

abogleLately, I think a lot about The Truth. I believe in The Truth. I believe that The Truth is a story and that it has many parts and paths and personalities and elisions and that each person writing holds those. Personality has a setting and sails to a party, and pitch is a formal tone that gives voice its decision-making power and amounts to points around a compassion.

In “Strobe Genre, Utah!” I write a few ideas. It is a poem that estimates how my ideas feel. It is a matter of truth that I hold its views. Each paragraph is similar to a stanza, and each stanza is composed of sentences. A poem is more likely true of its speaker than a fiction of its author. Creative nonfiction carries the guise not of character but of approach to language and persona, however distinct from the author, who lives at home not assimilated. Fiction is likely a projection of true thoughts of the imagination of the author’s characters, sometimes expressed as a narrator’s voice. A narrator’s voice has as many as two to three bevels and creates the impression of almost two rather than one man or woman at work. In The Great Gatsby, there is Nick Carraway, who does not appear physically to resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald, and there is Nick’s narration and Fitzgerald’s narration and The Truth deep inside the billiard pockets of the story’s evening. The Truth of the narrative is concealed by propriety and courtesy and privacy among the drink of characters who exhibit less propriety than they aspire to and observe social forms and customs. The story is true as a horse driving.

Ann Bogle’s short collections include Country Without a Name, which will soon appear in an illustrated print edition published by Veery Imprints.

*

Ethel Rohan: My voice

rohanFrom as far back as I can remember, people have given me grief over how I speak. As a girl growing up in North Dublin, I didn’t speak like my fellow Northsiders and was often accused of faking my accent. Some said I was trying to sound posh. Others said I was putting on an English accent. The overwhelming opinion was that my accent made me different, and my tribe didn’t like that. I didn’t like being different, either, but I couldn’t seem to make anyone believe I wasn’t faking. I was just being me.

When I left school and worked for Allied Irish Bank’s headquarters in Ballsbridge, a fancy part of Southside Dublin, my accent was more in keeping with my peers, but those peers didn’t like how I spoke either, because I was from North Dublin and they, too, thought I was faking how I spoke and pretending at being one of them.

Rohan bookWhen I emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco, I again stood out for having an accent, and again not in a good way. Americans would voice disappointment because I didn’t speak with a distinctly Irish accent – that beloved brogue that I, too, wish I could boast. Over the next two decades, my Irish accent would soften even more and I unintentionally developed a touch of the Californian lilt. That “Yank twang” elicited further derision from my compatriots during my 30+ return visits to Ireland over the years.

My Irish accent has unfortunately softened to utterly tame, but its vestiges seemingly deepen whenever I read my work aloud. So much so, I’ve sometimes been accused of faking an Irish accent for my readings. “I didn’t hear an accent when you spoke, and then you start reading and it’s like flying shamrocks and leprechauns everywhere.” Of all the accusations about my accent over the years, the latter galls, and hurts, the most. I write the way I write and read the way I read. After my last reading, which was followed by said accusation from a fellow writer, I went into a spiral of anxiety and swore off ever reading in public again. Then I slapped myself. I know the truth.

I write to an innate rhythm within myself. Unlike my fickle, ear-influenced accent, that rhythm is constant and unwavering. When I read my work aloud, I am reading in time to that rhythm. My writing rhythm is my writing voice and it’s true. I’ve faked a lot of things in my lifetime, largely to survive and rarely for dishonesty’s sake, but I have never, ever faked my accent or my writing voice. I’ve just been me being me, and I’m most me when I write and read my work. I’m not letting anyone take that away. I’ve had enough taken away. I’m going to keep speaking, and reading, the way I do. To do otherwise would mean surrendering to that lifelong accusation that had dogged me – and faking it.

Ethel Rohan was born and raised in Ireland and now lives in San Francisco. She is the author of a short e-memoir, Out of Dublin, and two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the latter long-listed for The Story Prize. Winner of Ireland’s 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, her work has or will appear in The New York Times, PEN America, World Literature Today, BREVITY Magazine, Tin House Online, and The Rumpus, among many others. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.

*

Tim Elhajj: Be inventive

5265078125_4348fcf9d7_nIs anything more irritating than listening to writers rail on the “creative” in creative nonfiction? These discussions almost always go the same way. First, pious calls for honesty. Next, trot out the few memoirists caught red-handed, shamefaced and ridiculed, sometimes for a national audience. It’s so annoying. The rule of thumb, it seems, is to be creative, but not too creative, as if creativity were somehow intrinsically linked to credibility. It isn’t. I say be creative. I say you can never be too creative.

I say be like Alan Kaufman.

In Kaufman’s recovery memoir, Drunken Angel, he describes not only falling in love with his pet goldfish, but his desire for sex with the little creature. Not that I think Kaufman is being dishonest with his fish-love confession. Love and sexuality are wholly subjective human experiences, so who can really say? What we can speculate on, though, is its value as a metaphor in his memoir. He is coming to terms with emotions long numbed by a lifetime of alcohol abuse. He is like a child. He has to suffer the indignity of telling his AA sponsor his feelings for the fish. These scenes are probably the emotional core of the book, and Kaufman wisely puts them front and center. His emotional response to his pet cements him into his newfound sober lifestyle. For a recovery memoir, that’s exactly what you want. It’s perfect. It’s creativity at its best. It’s creative nonfiction at its best.

Or, be like Shalom Auslander.

In Auslander’s painful and hilarious coming-of-age memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, he describes growing up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community, and his efforts to break free from it. Auslander seems to believe in the God of his fathers, but he does not wear this faith easily. It’s a battle. So when two angels show up at his living room window one Saturday afternoon, it’s no great surprise, even though he is writing memoir. One of the angels even flips Auslander the bird, and this doesn’t surprise us either. Like Kaufman’s feelings for the fish, Auslander’s angels offer a metaphor for his specific struggle. It’s not just that the author is angry with God. It’s that the spiritual world he has concocted occasionally comes to life, sometimes holding him in contempt, but always making it a more colorful experience for us.

elhaj bookI was so delighted with Auslander’s approach, I did something similar in my own recovery memoir, Dopefiend. I have a friend, Chopper Cassidy (not his real name), who died of a drug overdose when I was a teenager, and he shows up at an AA meeting I attend in NYC, some dozen years after he died. Of course, you know that didn’t happen. But I wrote it that way to provide the reader with a metaphor for heroin addiction, the specter-like way it hangs over your head long after you’ve taken your last injection. By the time Chopper shows up, I have just finished in-patient drug treatment, the most tenuous time in recovery. This animated corpse shows up again on the subway as I’m struggling along in my early days, and then he disappears from the text, never to return again. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether it works or not, but the question I want to ask is this: Does it make you mad that I put a shuffling zombie in my recovery memoir?

Is it too creative to have a decomposing corpse ride the uptown 4 to the Bronx?

Does it irritate you? Annoy?

I hope not.

It’s just me, trying to be as creative as I can.

Tim Elhajj is the author of Dopefiend. Together with Holly Huckeba, he edits Junk, a journal which features memoir about addiction, obsession, and unrequited needs, both real and imagined. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Brevity, Guernica, Sweet, and many others.

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Siobhan Harvey: On balance

harveyIf you’re not going to be honest as a writer, there’s no point in starting, wrote poet Hugo Williams in The Guardian a few years ago (1). Whenever I’m facilitating a creative writing course, I tell my students that what is so frightening yet so liberating about writing creative nonfiction is that you are telling your readers, This is the truth. This happened to me – from which, as a writer, of course, there is no place to hide. What there is – and this is what, for me, makes creative nonfiction so engaging as an act of writing – is creative perspective. A piece of creative nonfiction presents the facts, but in doing so the writer has the capacity to offer the narrative with as much inventiveness as their imagination allows. Not for the creative nonfiction writer the dry, clinical evidence recounted within the straitjacket of conventional time and structure (beginning-middle-end); no, he or she can leapfrog, like time travellers, through eras, stretch and expand the poetic parameters of language and clothe their examination of self in a discourse composed from clouds, stars, mosquitoes or, to quote Scott Fitzgerald, “New Jersey’s decreased appropriation for swamp drainage…” (2)

cloudboyI always think that the tricky balancing act between verite and inventiveness known to the creative nonfiction writer is one known to the poet too. Certainly this was the case when I originated, edited and crafted my collection, Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014). The subject, the fraught journey of a gifted autistic child and his mother through his first years of education, was inspired by my son’s experiences at primary school during which his fixations with the esoteric such as cloud-watching and his inability to conventionally assimilate amongst his peers were treated as wilfulness and/or weirdness, even by some of his school teachers, even in the supposed enlightened times in which we live. As his parents, my partner and I have felt (continue to feel) infinitely protective of our son. To pen, then, the facts of my son’s experiences risked exposing him unnecessarily to further academic hardships. And yet, given the frustration my partner and I felt at the paucity of assistance and recognition for children like our son, here, in the child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, was a subject and a structured set of events I was inspired enough to want to explore and examine as an author.  So I originated the concept of Cloudboy as literary title, content and motif. In doing so, I didn’t want to censor myself from writing the challenging factual stuff, but I did want to contextualise it within the wider body of amazing, fascinating and extraordinary stuff – and I wanted, as poet and creative nonfiction writer, to be as inventive as possible with the subject the better to illustrate the amazing imagination, the force for good in our world children like my son possess.

In writing Cloudboy, in engaging with creativity and honesty, a parallel form of the narrative generated itself. Accompanying Cloudboy the collection, a creative nonfiction essay, ‘A Boy Called Cloud’ appeared like a non-identical twin. Both underpinned by artistry and reality, they entwined to make (in my mind, at least) a complete story, a creative story yet fulfilling Williams’ emphasis upon authorial honesty.

Notes:

(1) ‘The Last Bohemian’ by Olinda Adeane, The Guardian, 4th June, 2005.

(2) ‘Sleeping and Waking’ from On Booze, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picador, 2012, page 57.

Siobhan Harvey is a poet, prose writer, editor, reviewer, and lecturer in Creative Writing at The Auckland University of Technology. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of publications and anthologies and has been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. She has edited and co-edited several anthologies, including Words Chosen Carefully and Essential New Zealand Poems, which is currently shortlisted for the 2015 PANZ Book AwardsHarvey won the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award and her winning manuscript was published the following year by Otago University Press as Cloudboy. More at her page at the UK Poetry Archive

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Essay: The Writer’s Voice and Gogol’s Paintbrush

Trish Nicholson 

Am I in danger of losing my voice? Forgetting who I am and why I write? Should I withstand the constant pressure to be published, to give the readers what they want? And having followed my voice, does it lead to heaven, or hell?

Big questions stirred up from my recent reading of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Portrait – much wordier than modern short stories, but then he didn’t have to spend time answering emails, sending text messages, and Tweeting his Amazon links. Lucky man.

The Portrait shows a struggling young artist, Chartkov, way behind with his rent, who finds in a junk shop a half-finished portrait of an Oriental male whose eyes are painted with such extraordinary vitality they bore into the viewer. He buys it with his last 20 kopeks, not knowing why. That night in his studio, the malevolent gaze of those eyes spawns such nightmares he throws a sheet over the picture. But later, when the frame is accidentally damaged, he finds inside a cache of gold coins.

His initial thought – enough to keep me for three years of further study to perfect my art – is quickly overtaken by images of himself in a fashionable apartment: a popular portraitist, a man of fame and fortune. He chooses this route, producing unremarkable likenesses of the moneyed patrons he charms, increasing his wealth and pomposity, until he comes upon the work of a young artist with the extraordinary talent he might have achieved himself, had he stayed on his original path.

He riffles through his earlier paintings, finds among them the half-finished portrait that had changed his course, and is filled with demonic rage and envy. He squanders his fortune, buying and destroying the best works of art available, finally dying in his madness.

Temptation and the tempter. In some ways, the story echoes Gogol’s own experience although he did not struggle in such penury; he was no peasant. Born of minor gentry, his father a dabbler in writing and staging comedy plays, Gogol had aspirations to write from an early age. With ambition gleaming in his eyes, he left poor, dusty Ukraine for St Petersburg at the age of nineteen. Abandoning attempts at German Romantic poetry (which he self-published and later bought up and destroyed in a moment of insight), he took up the fad of the times – Cossack folk tales from the plains he had just left.

This was what the readers wanted. Being Gogol, he did not follow the popular trend to simply re-hash traditional tales, but created original combinations of the realistic and the fantastic, and, frequently, the demonic. Although born and brought up in the area, he had to write home to his mother for details of Cossack culture, dress, and festivities. His characters were based more on Little Russia archetypes than personal observation, but Gogol’s writing exceeded readers’ expectations – his Ukrainian Tales made his name.

But I think there is far more in The Portrait than a cautionary tale of the dangers in forsaking one’s “real art” for the market place.

In the last part of the story we learn that the portrait is of an infamous moneylender, whose clients, in some mysterious way, all turned into monstrous characters and came to a bad end. The painter was a mature artist who had spent a life of dedication to his art. Innocence of heart allowed him to create exquisite religious works, portraying holiness and purity in the eyes of the saints he painted, his work much esteemed by the Church authorities who commissioned them.

He had no need to paint the moneylender’s portrait; he knew of the man and was reluctant, but seemed drawn irresistibly into complying with his request. Before the painting was finished, however, he could no longer bear to look into those evil eyes which his genius led him to depict so vividly and realistically. He abandoned the project. But shortly afterwards, the moneylender died and the painter was left with the half-finished canvas. Like everyone who had been involved with the Oriental, he, too, changed his character, becoming unaccountably jealous, violent, and destructive. As the painting was passed on, bought and sold, it wreaked havoc on everyone who owned it.

As to the original artist, only after spending the rest of his life in the most austere monastic regime, putting himself through life-threatening hardships, did he regain his equanimity and take up a paint brush again in the service of his monastery.

Gogol’s recognition as a great writer was well established with his other satires – The Government Inspector, The Overcoat, Dead Souls – works for which he is perhaps better known. But he returned to The Portrait years later to edit and rework it. The story seems to have expressed a dilemma he identified within himself.

I’ve often read the phrase, “the writer plays God”: we create characters, prescribe our own reality, invent worlds. The power of this disturbed Gogol. What he produced from the inner voice that poured into his writing seemed to surprise, even shock him. Just as the painter, depicting so accurately the evil in the moneylender’s eyes, created something beyond his intentions and control, so the results of all art can extend beyond its creator, for good or evil. Was the satirical humour – never far from Gogol’s stories – cheerfully derisive chuckling, or demonic laughter?

Gogol’s conviction that his portrayal of the devil and other grotesque imagery, even in satire, might indicate some measure of corruption within himself, concerned him so deeply he sought the council of a spiritual advisor. In his last years, Gogol subjected himself to rigorous self-deprivation, finally refusing to eat, and dying an uncomfortable death at the age of forty-nine.

We live in a less superstitious age but no one would deny the power of story. It fashioned our humanity and continues to construct our lives. But can it also corrode the soul of the reader, and the writer?

A social anthropologist, photographer, and writer of short stories and creative non-fiction, Trish Nicholson is a compulsive scribbler.  In 2011, she signed with Collca, a UK based epublisher, to write a series of eBooks based on her travels. Masks of the Moryons: Easter Week in Mogpog (set in the Philippines) was released in December 2011, Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon in April 2012. From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters in February 2013. Inside Stories for Writers and Readers was released in August 2013, and in 2014 Writing Your Nonfiction Book: The Complete Guide to Becoming an Author was released as an e-book and paperback. Her latest book is Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, a travel memoir of five years in the remote West Sepik province, forthcoming October 2015. Trish can be found here and chirps on Twitter (@TrishaNicholson) when not hiding in her tree house.

 

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About bluefifthreview

Blue Fifth Review, edited by Sam Rasnake, Michelle Elvy, and Bill Yarrow, is an online journal of poetry, flash, and art.
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