Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the first part of a three part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how my love for literature helped unravel me and I introduce the way memoirs by literature professors suggest a new approach.

 

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered that all the interesting stuff happened inside books. I grabbed every spare moment to lose myself in spaceships heading for distant galaxies. By the age of sixteen, in the early 1960s, I graduated from sci-fi to the great writers, such as Dickens, Dumas, and Twain. Their works, either assigned in school, or borrowed from my local library, took me on a wild ride through great adventures in fascinating times and places.

These authors were clearly geniuses at self-expression. I felt smarter when I read these books, but sadly I was only smart about the author’s invented world. I had learned almost nothing about how to become an adult. In fact, many of my favorite books provided in-depth examples of how NOT to become an adult.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator seeks truth by attaching himself to a narcissistic caricature of a man. In the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a young man attempts to find his truths, not within his own world, but by leaving everything he knows. In Henry Miller’s novels, the author searches for himself through sexual liberation which leads him into emotional chaos.

My English teachers showed me how to appreciate elegant structure, fine turns of phrase, and symbolism. However, when I lost myself in each book, I ignored their interest in history and technique. Instead, I left my own boring mind behind and entered the crafted intellectual framework created by the author. It turned out this was not a good idea.

I spent hours in disturbing worlds such as those created by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. From them, I learned that the future was going to be grim and hopeless. So when the angry anti-war riots began in the mid-60s, I wasn’t only fighting against the war. I was fighting for my soul, hoping to escape the helplessness my anti-heroes had inspired.

Protest marches and riots did nothing to restore my hope, so I returned to the method of escape that I knew so well, clinging ferociously to literary geniuses who took me into ever darker perspectives. Samuel Beckett completely deconstructed reality in his plays and novels. Joseph Heller in Catch 22 introduced a mocking cynicism to World War II. Ferdinand Celine smashed the notion of the novel, turning the very form into a distorted shape that made me gasp with pleasurable pain. I was drowning, and instead of throwing me lifelines, my literary heroes were teaching me how to drown better.

For example, I identified with the boy in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis who grew up and turned into a beetle. Growing up cost him his innocence and his parents’ love. Kafka’s book, along with so much of the literature of the day, hammered home the point that by entering adulthood we would lose our souls.

Arthur Miller captured the essence of spiritually dead adults in Death of a Salesman. The play’s anti-hero Willy Loman tried to cope with his emptiness by deceiving himself. Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was an even creepier master of self-deception. Instead of blaming himself for sexually abusing a little girl, he blamed her, thus demonstrating how far adults will twist their own values in order to serve their own needs.

After years of absorbing these stories, I was terrified of adulthood, convinced that growing up would make me ugly and shallow. My parents believed that sending me to college would prepare me for life. By the end of those four years, I felt far less prepared to be an adult than when I started.

Why Humans Need To Direct Literature Back to its Central Goal
To maintain civilization, each generation must pass along sophisticated social lessons. In preliterate societies, these lessons were communicated in oral stories, with simple, powerful messages. But by the twentieth century, society seems to have forgotten this essential purpose of stories. Instead, stories were being used in one of two ways.

Stories were used as pure entertainment for the masses, with no lesson at all. Those were the genre fiction novels and movies, the thrillers and mysteries, comedies and romances. And for the educated elite, stories became intellectual playthings to be admired for artistic sophistication, but again with no particular emphasis on helping kids understand life.

As an intellectual young man, I desperately sought lessons about life. Unfortunately, I was born at a time when the message embedded in almost every book taught that there’s really no point to grow up at all. It’s true that great literature contained an internal elegance and brilliance, but the underlying message was awful.

Memoirs Demonstrate How Literature Ought to Work
Forty years later, I learned valuable lessons peeking out from behind the twists and turns of literary stories. My belated insight came from reading Professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran. As an English literature professor in Iran, she tries to convince her students that Western literature is not evil. She uses the villain in Nabokov’s Lolita as an example. According to Nafisi, Humbert Humbert’s manipulation of a little girl reveals the corrupt morality of turning women into things.

Through Nafisi’s eyes, Nabokov’s novel becomes an important window into the dark secrets of the human psyche. It’s quite simple, really. He is embedding the message in irony, saying one thing and meaning another. But to explain this lesson to her students, as well as to us, her readers, she uses an incredibly tricky device. She simply walks outside her classroom into the streets of Iran, where armed thugs treat women like things.

By artfully describing the events and their impact on her, she turns her life from a series of events into literature. While she teaches her students about Nabakov’s book, she uses her own life-as-literature to teach us about our place in the world.

For example, she recounts an episode that occurs one morning when she attempts to enter campus. A guard angrily blocks her. “Take that rouge off this instant. Don’t you know that it is a criminal act?” The guard rubs Nafisi’s face raw trying to get off the red, which is in fact her own natural coloring. The incident leaves Nafisi feeling violated and naked.

Thanks to Nafisi’s brilliant writing and a lifetime of symbolic thinking, she spins the two parallel dimensions, weaving together her real world experience with her intellectual insights into the literature.

My English teachers did not have the advantage of showing us reality. Instead, they were limited to the lessons inside the books, making the incorrect assumption that I didn’t need to learn lessons about life. Nafisi’s ability as a memoir writer adds a crucial dimension to her teaching toolkit allowing her to help students grow up.

When I first read Lolita so many years ago, I felt disgusted by Nabokov’s clever trick of taking me inside the mind of a creepy man who has no ability or interest in self-reflection. In my youthful view, the novel provided more proof that adults stink. Now, with Azar Nafisi’s help, I see a sophisticated insight into the darkness of manipulative men who use women as things. It would have been a good lesson, but because it was couched in irony, in the distorted viewpoint of a first-person anti-hero, the lesson was out of my reach.

Because memoirs are written “straight” (not “slant”) and from a first person point of view, it is easy and natural to enter Azar Nafisi’s world and feel her pain. By letting me experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of abuse, she makes me want to cry or vomit about the way millions of women are treated, just a few thousand miles away. Thankfully, her story also provides hope by revealing the compassion of people such as Nafisi herself, who risk their own safety to help kids build up their self-esteem.

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

Epilog to Part 1
It has been forty-five years since I have been a student of an English literature professor, so I consider the possibility that in recent times, literature professors have expanded their view of literature to include not just the author’s world but the reader’s as well. To learn more, I turned to the friendship I formed with Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote two excellent memoirs, and happens to have the same last name as me.

His two memoirs share a lifetime of love for literature, as well as for his two sons, so I assumed he would be able to relate to my passion for life lessons. However, in a book he recently wrote about English literature, the Risk of Reading, he describes in detail the method of line by line explication, attempting to take us into the lines of great literature with the reverence usually associated with scripture. In my opinion, this approach glorifies complexity and undermines the value of literature as a teaching tool for social development. Click here to read the review I wrote about his Risk of Reading. Click here for an essay about his memoir Courage to Walk, and here for an interview I conducted with Robert Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

However, in two other memoirs by literature professors, I discover that Azar Nafisi is not alone in her application of literature as a tool for life.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by literature professor Karen Swallow Prior reveals how literature helped her steer through the challenges of growing up, and like Nafisi, she teaches her college students how to see their own lives reflected in literature. Click here for my essay about Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.

In Freedom Writer’s Diary, Erin Gruwell shows her high school students how literature could help them find their own higher truths and then goes further to show how writing about their own lives can deepen their search for truth. Click here for my essay about Freedom Writer’s Diary

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Interview with an Indian Lifestory Author, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed a life story called “Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh, about her romance with the city and her budding relationship with her new husband. This is the second part of the interview about writing and publishing the story.

To read part one of the interview click here.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote your story within your own cultural point of view, so you made no comments to the fact that you were falling in love with your husband after marriage, rather than before. I think you did a lovely, fun, uplifting job showing this love. I suspect one reason this component had so much authentic power is because you gave no background that it was an arranged marriage, since in your culture, that is the norm and there is no reason to explain it. You were just there, inside it, inside your own point of view. To me, that makes great memoir writing. Did you debate this decision within yourself or with your editor? Were you tempted to offer any explanation to a reader who might have been confused about falling in love with your husband?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Ha, ha, I am glad this question came up. Ours wasn’t an “arranged marriage” in the conventional sense of two strangers getting married after brief introductions. We had known each other for about a year through our blogs before we first met in person. At the time, my husband was working in the US and I was in India. When he came to visit me, we met just twice. Even though we knew each other, our interactions were mostly limited to the virtual space. So while we liked each other enough to get married, the love needed ripening. And that happened after the marriage, in Hyderabad. In the context of the story, I didn’t feel the need to share all this detail with the readers and hence left it a bit ambiguous. I do remember my editor asking me about this, and I told him that we had met each other online.

Jerry Waxler: That’s a fascinating circumstance, Bhaswati. Maybe an opportunity for another story. (laughing) You delved into the delicious food you ate. I was surprised by the specificity of your menu and the intensity of your pleasures. I don’t typically see this much emphasis on food in memoirs, although I do know that in writing we are taught to include all five senses. Typically taste is short-changed but not in your story. I wonder if you had a particular reason for focusing so specifically on your eating experience, or if you could comment on that.

Bhaswati Ghosh: Oh yes, I have a particular reason and that is my intense love of food. Food is essential to my appreciation of any culture, and it was the same in case of Hyderabad. What made it even more prominent in this story was the novelty that this city presented to me in terms of cuisine. The rich assortment of food available here was definitely good news to me, but what made it even more appealing was the affordability. This enabled us to sample a lot of different foods within a short span. Since a lot of the tastes were new to me, I remained more curious than I usually would be. My taste buds were alive to the unfamiliar but inviting sensations, and that has possibly found a reflection in my descriptions of foods in the story.

Jerry Waxler: The journal, Global Graffiti Magazine, that published this short story focuses on international articles so your piece about Indian culture spoke directly to the heart of that particular publication. How did you find a publication that was looking for a piece like this? I ask because I think most aspiring writers are trying to figure out where to publish their work, and so we would love to learn something from you.

Bhaswati Ghosh: My “system” of finding venues for my writing is quite conventional. Like most people who use the internet, I rely on Google for my searches. Currently, another good source of finding suitable markets is Facebook, which has a number of resources in the form of Groups/Pages that provide links to writing sites/journals etc. I found the link to Global Graffiti via one such group. As far as I remember, it was Places for Writers.

Jerry Waxler: Where can I look for more life stories, with this same, clearly communicated, lovely storytelling quality?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Unfortunately, I haven’t found too many avenues for this form of (personal) storytelling. The immediate names that come to mind are Granta, Cha (an Asian literary journal) and The Caravan.

Jerry Waxler: I love to read about cultural mixings, for example reading books about travel to foreign lands, or immigration, or cultural intermarriage. Such crossings reveal things about our lives that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see when our perspective stays within one culture. Your story was actually based on such cultural surprises, crossing from the city of your birth to the city of Hyderabad. However, there is another cultural crossing at work here. By reading it in the U.S. I had some of my own surprises. So it became cross-cultural not within the story, but out here in the contract between reader and writer. Interesting! What was your relationship to international writing? Did you have any particular background,r preparation, or intention to write for an international English speaking audience?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Not really. About six or seven years back, I joined an online writing community, the first for me, which mostly consisted of Americans as members. My interactions with these writing buddies enhanced my knowledge of Americanisms more than American English. That and reading international publications has enabled me to develop a style that I hope appeals to readers from different cultures.

Jerry Waxler: Nice. I love writing groups, and you’ve offered yet another benefit that I hadn’t thought of. How about a crossover market in the other direction? What sort of audience is there for aspiring western authors in India?

Bhaswati Ghosh: That market looks more and more promising. If a recent report published in a leading Indian daily is to be believed, nearly 90 million Indians speak English. Publishing houses are proliferating in the country, bringing out more titles than ever before. Festivals like the Jaipur Literary Festival (http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/) draw big names from the Western literary circuit every year, besides also featuring notable authors from Asia and Africa.

Jerry Waxler: You write about living in India, and now, it looks like you have immigrated to Canada. We’re on the same continent. Welcome! How do you plan to reach out to publications in this part of the world?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Thanks for your welcome. At the time of writing and subsequently publishing “Love in Hyderabad”, I was already in the US, in California, for nearly a year and a half. My husband worked in the Bay Area as an IT specialist, while I managed the home and my writing. We moved to Canada in June 2011. Being relatively new here, I am still exploring publishing avenues in this country. I hope to answer your question with more clarity only after spending some more time here.

Jerry Waxler: What else of yours can I read on line? What else are you working on that I can look forward to reading?

Bhaswati Ghosh: I blog at http://bhaswatighosh.com/. It’s part of my website, which also has links to some of my online publications. Among new things, I have started a series on my blog called “Immigrant’s Postcard” (http://bhaswatighosh.com/category/immigrants-postcard/), in which I record my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada. I intend to write these as short, conversational sketches that will acquaint readers with an immigrant’s perspective. I am also working at a tree sloth’s pace on my first novel, but your interest may just move my writing limbs a bit faster!

Note
You can read Bhaswati’s story by clicking here. Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

Click here for Bhaswati’s blog

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Short Story and Six Writing Prompts: Locate Love in Space

by Jerry Waxler

I am mainly interested in full length memoirs, so when I clicked on a short life story about a woman in India, I only intended to glance at it. However, the style and subject matter drew me in and before I knew it, I reached the end. “Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh expanded my horizons, extending my curiosity to the smaller art form and the larger world.

Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

“Love in Hyderabad” is about the author’s move from the city where she grew up, Delhi, India, to a more picturesque location, Hyderabad, replete with joyful sensory input, cultural and culinary diversity, and a profusion of birds in a park near her urban apartment. The move coincides with her marriage, so she is adjusting to life as a married woman against this magnificent backdrop.

This short story sings to me. It’s an ode to India, to Hyderabad, to birds, food, and to love itself. Despite its brevity, this piece contains many components that I typically enjoy in a full length work.

Place

Bhaswati transports me to a magical city of light and beauty. How much of the beauty does she create through the wide-eyed lens of her own delight, and how much is “real?” It doesn’t matter. As a memoir reader, I attune to her pleasure — she is my guide and I am happy to see the place the way she sees it.
Writing Prompt 1
Look for a location that played a key role in your story. In that place, sketch a scene or situation that filled you with emotion. Include what you saw, felt, heard, smelled, and tasted. Scan your memoir-in-progress to see if this portrayal of place might let readers feel closer to you and your story.

Writing Prompt 2
When you moved from one community or region to a new one, consider how this transition evoked a slew of emotions such as nostalgia, curiosity, adventure, disorientation, discomfort and fear. What new unfamiliar aspects of yourself were you able to feel and express in this new place?

Natural beauty as a story “character”

Birds seem to occupy all the empty spaces in the story, as if they are the glue that holds the world together. Birds play an important role in my life, too. As I write this, one of my three cockatiels sits on my shoulder nibbling on my ear. I glance out my window to see birds perched at seed-filled feeders. In addition to my passion for the creatures themselves, I am drawn to the uplifting language of their soaring and singing.

Writing Prompt 3
Look for pockets of natural beauty within your own memoir. Where do the birds display, fly, and sing? Plants also add life. Where do you walk through a stand of beautiful trees or admire the flowers in well-tended gardens? Try inserting some of these in your story to populate your place with life.

Writing Prompt 4
If your location lacks natural wonders, try highlighting those absences by focusing on the lonely tree, the single bird, the weed growing through the crevice. When I was in college in Madison, Wisconsin on winter days so cold it hurt to breathe, when the lake was frozen into a sheet of barren, stark white, I can’t recall a single living thing other than my fellow students.

Character arc

In “Love in Hyderabad” the exotic setting and the sense of adventure provides a perfect backdrop for falling in love. However, this story does not center on whether the protagonist will “get the guy.” The couple are already married. Once I comprehend the situation, I relate to Bhaswati’s budding romance with just as much affection as I would if it took place in circumstances with which I am more familiar. Even though they were already married, I was enchanted by their progress, as their emotions caught up to their marital status.

The story provides variations and surprises that play with my expectations, demonstrating that even after a lifetime of reading and watching, new twists are possible. The constant that “Love in Hyderabad” shares with all good stories is that by the end, the protagonist has resolved the dramatic tension. Bhaswati’s love for her husband, for her circumstances, and for her life, give me that sense of goodness that makes her story worth reading, and by offering it to me, she makes my life more valuable as well.

Writing Prompt 5
When you write about your own life, you know the events and you know the feelings, but you don’t always know how to frame them into a story. Here are three suggestions for ways you can find the emotional arc.

1) Write a scene about a time when you wanted something. In memoirs, the desire is usually psychological. For example, you wanted emotional safety, or respect from other people, or the pride of achievement. Then scan through events, noting how you pursued that desire. How did you grow, and what did you learn during this pursuit?
2) Scan your major transitions and look for lessons. (eg: generosity pays, cynicism destroys, people need each other). Assume that this lesson is the conclusion of a story. Now that you have the end, look for the beginning. What events set this lesson in motion.
3) Read through your growing chronologically arranged file of events and scenes and look for patterns. (Eg: “I’m repeatedly drawn to partners that I intend to fix, and then discover they are not going to change.” Or, “art and creativity keep coming up as driving forces in my life. What’s that about?”) Use these repeating patterns, and look for compelling scenes to carry the reader through the body of the story. Now that you have the center of the story, look for the beginning — how do you want to first introduce the pattern, and then an end, what lesson or conclusion does it lead to?.

Writing Prompt 6
Review the way your story works, following this scheme. You started out pursuing some sublime or psychological goal. Life got in the way and you kept overcoming the obstacles. In the end, you learned something about yourself and your life. Now, with that synopsis in hand, write your beginning and ending paragraphs.

Note
Click here for an essay about another newlywed couple moving to a different city, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Click here to read another essay about a short story about clowns by Sean Toner

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview about the relationship between literature and life

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of the memoirs “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk.” Waxler is a professor of English Literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature.” In this part of the interview, I ask Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

Jerry Waxler: In your books, when you quoted a passage from literature, I felt you were using literature to help you explain things to yourself, as if you were using literature as a source of strength. So first of all, thank you for expanding my vocabulary of self-help tools. I wonder to what extent you have consciously thought about the use of literature as a repository of wisdom to help you get through life?

Robert Waxler: Now this could be a book in itself. I helped start a program back in 1991 called “Changing Lives Through Literature” precisely because of my deep belief in the power of literature to make a difference in people’s lives. Literature can teach us important lessons about life; it can give us strength, as you suggest. When we read good literature, we realize we are not alone. We learn about empathy, about ourselves and about others. As the story unfolds, our own lives unfold. We see ourselves and others, understand the complexity of human character, and see how singular each life is, and yet recognize how universal certain patterns and behavior seem to be. I try to show (and tell) my students this all the time.

Jerry: A common problem for memoir writers is deciding how to tell their story without intruding on the privacy of other characters. So I was surprised to see how much you had written about your son Jeremy’s life. What can you share about his willingness to be portrayed, or any fears you might have had about sharing his private life with your readers?

Robert: Yes, this is a particularly sensitive issue, especially given some of the issues that “Courage to Walk” attempts to address. I would never want to write anything that would harm Jeremy or Linda. And this story is so much a story about vulnerability and how we are all powerless, how human weakness is at the core of our humanity and how we should not be ashamed of that fact, that we should instead see it as a strength, as an important way of building compassion and community. It is difficult for Jeremy and for Linda and myself as well, to relive these very traumatic events as they are narrated in “Courage to Walk.” These events take us close to the core of our mortal human selves. Our hope though is that the story will get people thinking more about the meaning of compassion and vulnerability, the need for all of us to confront our finitude, and not to feel so much the shame but the beauty of it.

Jerry: While memoirs are about real life, they seem to be journalism. But they are also stories, so they seem a lot like “literature.” What do you think? Are memoirs “literature” or not?

Robert: I am not sure I am an “expert” on memoirs, but I’ll give you my view on this. To begin, the word “literature” itself is problematic. I am not sure people can agree these days on a definition. Are we talking about canonical works—Shakespeare’s plays, for example? Or can we assume that Stephen King is also writing “literature”? And what about a book such as “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac or “Night” by Elie Weisel? Not exactly non-fiction, but not really memoirs either. Are they “literature”?

And then there is an important issue about memoirs and memory. We recover the past through the present, and, in this sense, I suppose, as you suggest, memoirs are introspective and psychological portraits. But memory is a very tricky process. What we filter through the present about the past is not the past but our recollection of the past. Someone writing a memoir wants to stay true to the facts as he remembers them, of course, but the truth of an event is not simply in the facts. So that too complicates the issue.

I think there is a very fine line between literature and the memoir. In both cases, the writer is trying to get to the “truth” of the experience. Literature might be an invented story; memoirs might be based in fact. But, in an important sense, all narrative is invented—in the same sense, that we create our selves and our identity through the actual experiences of our lives. Our lives are our stories, and our stories are our lives.

Jerry: As you were putting your life on paper, what were you learning about yourself and your circumstances that you didn’t know before you started?

Robert: I learned about how powerless we all are as human beings from the beginning, and how that knowledge is a good thing. It can help build a more compassionate and reasonable community if we let it. We are all filled with fear and anxiety from birth; we need others to help us along the way. I don’t know why we should be ashamed of that. If anything, we should be ashamed of the ways we distance ourselves from others, pretend to be powerful and independent, set up foolish defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from that truth. I also learned that it is very, very difficult as a parent not to try to do everything possible to help our children, even if they don’t want our help. It’s a difficult line to draw—between obsession and compassion. They need their freedom, and we need ours, but we all need each other.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/interview-academic-popular-writing/

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Author Interview: Curtis Smith talks about publishing in Literary Journals

By Jerry Waxler

At this year’s Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference,  Curtis Smith played an important role, by throwing in a few choice comments about how much fun writing is. (To read more about his comments, click here ). One of the parts of writing that seemed to be working especially well for Curtis was his regular publication in literary journals. Since he was getting so much satisfaction from that aspect of his craft, I asked him to share some tips and pointers with the rest of us. Our interview follows:

Jerry Waxler: Your bio says you have published in 50 journals. Could you say more about how you found these journals? How much legwork do you do to become familiar with the journals in your “space.”

Curtis Smith: In the pre-internet days, I found them using books like The Writers Market or Dustbooks Small Press directory.  I’d familiarize myself with them mainly through the stories reprinted in the annual anthologies like Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, or the O’Henry series.  Sometimes I’d order a particular journal; other times I’d go to the local college library, which carried quite a few lit journals.  These days I mainly use websites like Duotrope or New Pages to find markets.  And I visit the journals’ websites and see what kind of work they post.

JW: Do each of the journals tend to have their own “voice” — and if so, when searching for a journal you will submit to, how much must you understand their voice preferences?

CS: Some journals do have a unique voice, the independents mostly, print places like Hobart and Monkeybicycle and online places like Smokelong.  These days, a website will give you a good indication of a journal’s aesthetic.  I think if you’re dealing with a journal affiliated with a college, you can find the turnover of editors may lead to a somewhat less defined voice–that said, many university-sponsored journals are beautiful and have a long history of publishing great work.

JW: How did you decide which journals would be most appropriate for the nonfiction essays you wrote about your relationship with your young son?

CS: That’s been more of a crapshoot–since many journals only have one or two essays per issue, it was harder for me to get a feel for that.  Some markets I did target–I had a piece in The Humanist and a few others in special theme issues.

JW: During your writing process, do you ever write with a particular editor or publication in mind?

CS: Rarely–sometimes I’ll see a call for a theme issue that piques my interest, but usually I just write for myself.

JW: You mentioned at the Philadelphia Stories conference that once you have published in a journal, you develop a rapport with the editor. Could you say more about that process or give an example of how it has worked for you.

CS: I’ve been lucky to click with a few editors–the collection of essays coming out next year will feature three essays that first appeared in Lake Effect and two that first appeared in Mississippi Review.  I’ve developed a long relationship with other editors with my fiction–my last two story collections featured a trio of very long stories that first came out in The Greensboro Review.  I also have a couple places that have taken a number of my flash fictions.  If I enjoy an editor and his journal, I’ll gladly submit more in the future.

JW: When your work is published in a journal, of course the journal’s stamp of approval gives you authority as a writer. I imagine, then, that as an aspiring writer, you would want to be accepted into the most prestigious publication, the higher the better. Right? How do you even know which journal is more prestigious and which is less so?

CS: Of course you want your work to appear in the best journal possible.  And there are some wonderful journals out there, but outside that first tier of places like The Paris Review and Ploughshares and Georgia Review, there are any number of fine journals putting out great work.  How does one know which journals are good?  I think you just have to keep your eyes open–check out the annual anthologies like the Best American Series and Pushcart and see where they’re getting their work from.  Listen to what your friends are reading and where they’re publishing.

JW: What sorts of feedback do you get when publishing in a journal? Do you hear from readers? Is it like a tree falling in a forest? Is there a specialized audience that gets to know your work?

CS: It used to be pretty rare that you’d get feedback.  If you were lucky, you’d get a Pushcart nomination or a mention in the Best American series.  But now with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, you get a lot more feedback.  If I read a story or essay I enjoy, I make sure to drop a line to the author if we’ve hooked up on a site – and many people do it in return.  The audience is pretty much limited to writers and fans of lit fiction and journals, but it is a bigger audience than before.

JW: Do you put much of your own marketing/networking energy into publicizing your piece in the journal?

CS: Not much beyond a posting on Facebook.  I add links to online pieces to my website.  I save the bigger pushes for my books.

JW: Please give examples of journals you published non-fiction essays in, and some thoughts about why these particular ones worked out for you.

CS: I’ve published a number of essays in Mississippi Review and Lake Effect.  Others have appeared in Turnrow, Bellingham Review, Philadelphia Stories, Red Cedar Review, Inkpot, The Humanist, and a number of others.

The two essays from Mississippi Review were theme issues, so they worked out because my work could address those themes.  And the same for the Humanist.  The others were just nonfiction spots in lit journals–and I think they fit because my writing comes from a fiction-writer’s perspective, and I bring fictional techniques into my work.

JW: Many of the readers of my blog “Memory Writers Network” do not come from a “literary” or “creative writing” background. They are just looking to develop the best writing skills possible so they can share parts of their lives. Are there journals that would appeal to this segment of the writing public, the well-told stories, that would not necessarily earn high grades in a creative writing class?

CS: That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure.  I’m guessing that journals would, by nature, appeal to the folks with literary and creative writing backgrounds.  That said, I think there are some wonderful journals that have fine literary work that is also very accessible.  For the readers of your blog who are interested in nonfiction more than fiction, I’d suggest Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre.  The online journal Brevity is also very interesting (short-short nonfiction).

Notes

Click here for Curtis Smith’s home page.

Click here for Philadelphia Stories Home Page

Looking for the onramp at Philadelphia “Push To Publish” writer’s conference

by Jerry Waxler

At the Philadelphia Stories’ “Push to Publish” conference in the Fall of 2009, I peered into a room filled with cabaret tables, each with an editor on one side and an empty chair on the other. Christine Weiser, who along with Carla Spataro organized the conference, stood guard at the door. When the moment arrived she opened the gate and the pack of us hustled in, eager to sop up every one of our allotted 15 minutes.

“Speed dating” is my favorite way to meet editors. In fact it’s my only way. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a dozen of them, and from each interview I take away some insight about the gatekeepers who stand between me and my future readers. Probably the most informative meeting was the very first, when a young editor told me, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Since then I have refined my message, learning to be as clear and concise as possible. I’ve also become increasingly curious about them. By turning the tables and asking them to talk about themselves, I deepen my respect for them as real people with whom I may some day do business.

At many conferences, attendees only get one chance, but “Push to Publish” offers multiple interviews. First I headed to Fran Metzman who represented the online Journal Wild River Review, as well as the printed Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told her of my interest in finding a outlet for my essays about memoir writing. Even though Metzman was responsible for fiction at these journals, she also writes a nonfiction column on women’s issues for Wild River Review. “Yes, submit a proposal,” she said. “Just be sure to do a professional job.”

My other date was with Christine Yurick, the publisher of the new print publication “Think Journal.” I asked her to describe her journal’s specific slant. She said she likes structured stories. I was puzzled.

“I assumed that by definition a story has a structure.”

“No, not all,” Yurick said. “Some journals emphasize experimental pieces.”

This explained why I sometimes can’t understand literary journals. Today’s ah-ha revealed that these publications differ in their philosophy of Story. I filed the concept away for future reference, to help me look for the place most appropriate for my writing.

When we finished, she said she would check out my blog and get back to me if she thought there was a match. Note to Self: “Gatekeepers read blogs.”

The net result of the two interviews was a glimmer of hope that literary journals might someday provide an onramp into publishing.

Creative Nonfiction Craze

When it was time to go to the first workshop, I selected a panel called “Tapping Into The Creative Nonfiction Craze.” The assigned room was locked, so about 40 of us trooped down to the auditorium, and arranged chairs into a makeshift meeting area. Our numbers and eagerness suggested that Creative Nonfiction is indeed a craze. And yet, despite its popularity, most literary journals still publish mainly fiction and poetry. The one exception, not surprisingly, is the journal “Creative Nonfiction” which is devoted exclusively to the genre.

As each panel member offered their observations about writing stories of truth, I began to grow optimistic that perhaps memoir writers have a widening channel through which to publish their work. Curtis Smith reinforced my suspicion when he said, “thanks to the proliferation of online and print journals, this is a great time to be a writer.”

The last time I heard offer such an upbeat claim for writers was years ago when Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that during the 1950s many writers got their start by publishing in magazines. His nostalgia made me curse the day I was born, wishing to be alive in a good time for writers. Curtis Smith claimed those times had returned. Happy day!

Continuing my search for the onramp to publishing, I attended another panel called “The Joys of Small Press.” Moderator Barbara Berot said that small presses are an easier entry point for new writers. Marc Schuster, Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, pointed out another advantage. “Big publishers are looking for products that will sell while small presses are looking for books they love.” Another panelist Debra Leigh Scott said that because of advances in printing technology, the cost of starting your own small publishing house has never been lower.

Like so many other people in the business, these panelists agreed “there isn’t much money in writing.” From there, the session sputtered back and forth between the strategies of publishing and the difficulties of earning money. Naturally I would like to be rich, but I keep this motivation at bay, because the more I think about money, the more likely that I’ll focus on its absence.

Curtis Smith, the same guy who cheered me up in the previous panel, offered a way out.  “Keep your day job and write for fun.” His reassuring smile reminded us that money is only one of the many rewards of writing.

In my younger years, when offered a choice between a dark thought and a happy one, I always chose dark, believing that was automatically the smarter of the two. I soon became adept at seeing darkness at the end of every path. After a few years, I had my fill of smart despair, and decided I’d rather be happy. I diligently studied the art of finding something pleasurable in almost every situation.

The business of writing provides a perfect opportunity to exercise this discretion. Given the choice between misery and fun, I follow Curtis Smith’s advice and choose fun. In fact, fun is precisely the reason I attend writing conferences. By coming together with other writers, I enjoy the pleasure of their company, transforming writing from an isolated activity to a social one.

At the end of the day, I thanked Christine Weiser for another great conference. She said, “By the way. Would you be willing to submit some of your essays to the Philadelphia Stories blog?” Here was another opportunity to participate in the writing community, and another way to reach readers and writers. “I’d love to,” I said and walked out to my car. Skipping past puddles from the all-day autumn rain, I eagerly anticipated the approaching winter, looking forward to a whole season full of excuses to stay inside and write.

This is the second article I wrote about the 2009 Push To Publish Conference.  To read Part 1, click here.

Stylistic innovation in Sean Toner’s clown story

by Jerry Waxler

While most of the memoirs I review are book length, I recently read an award winning short story “The Head Clown” by Sean Toner, published in a wonderful online literary collaboration called “webdelsol.com.”

“Head Clown” is about Toner’s summer by the ocean, where he worked in a bookstore, and to earn a few extra dollars he took a job dressing up as a clown and selling balloons on the boardwalk. From this mundane situation, the author has crafted a brash, luxurious tale that worked the magic all good stories are supposed to do. It opened a window into the author’s world, his people, his attitudes, his sweaty palms. By focusing tightly on each moment he brought me into his world, endowing scenes with color and character, creating depth of emotion and variety of insight. Toner’s exquisite attention on small details provided me with so much pleasure I was sorry to see it end.

One of the writer’s noblest jobs is to offer his or her self-awareness to the reader. In fact, when I was younger I received much of my appreciation for the nuances of life through the eyes of authors like Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens. Their wordplay revealed the creative power within each moment, providing some of my most intellectually stimulating sensations.

Nuance versus clarity
Despite my passion for rich writing, I had no idea how to emulate it myself. Writing in a journal for years, words flowed freely, but without an audience, my style never grew. Then to earn a living, I wrote technical manuals. When I finally turned my attention to a broader audience, I focused entirely on clarity. I achieved simplicity, but my “just-the-facts” style lacked the verbal pleasure my favorite authors had given me.

Sean Toner’s story awakened memories of sitting with a book and enjoying the words rolling around in my mind, making strange connections, sending shivers of activity through my brain, setting off other recollections too distant to even identify, like the rumbling of thunder that seemed to rattle the substrate of reality itself.

“Head Clown” comes to me at a perfect moment in my journey as a writer. I recently listened to an audio course from the Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences, Exploring the Writer’s Craft” by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa. In it he regrets the loss of style in modern prose. His observations started me pondering.

As a hippie in the 1960’s, I lived in Spartan rooms, sleeping on the floor. Piles of books fed my mind, but no decorations or knick-knacks personalized my space. Professor Landon and Sean Toner, like participants in a literary intervention, helped me see I had done the same disservice to my writing style as I had done to my life style. With their help, I gained the courage to fling off my literary hair shirt and open up to the joys of excellent sentences. Here are a few tips I took away from Sean Toner’s “Head Clown” and Professor Landon’s Teaching Company lectures.

Short is not the goal
One of the measures of effective writing, according to many modern systems, is to reduce the length of sentences. Software programs even use sentence length as a measure of “good” writing. Landon warned against judging a sentence by its length. Some long sentences are horrible, and others are beautiful, clear, and uplifting. He showed the difference, and offered suggestions for long sentences that inform and entertain.

One plus one equals three?
When I edit, I often try to simplify my descriptions, following Sol Stein’s famous advice, “one plus one equals a half.” In his book “On Writing,” Stein said it’s punchier to use one adjective than two. While his idea enhances simplicity, it risks stripping away nuance.

Brooks Landon offers an alternative. He observes that if the first word that comes to mind is insufficient, you naturally want to say it again a slightly different way to express the truth. By adding a couple of different approaches to an idea, you can offer the reader several slants that elaborate on your view.

While Sol Stein’s advice often leads to tighter writing, I appreciate Brooks Landon’s permission to say something in more than one way. His perspective expands my options to give more to my readers.

Speculation
When writing a scene, we are taught to look to the senses, what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. But this formula misses the additional vein of material running behind our eyes and between our ears. Our thoughts provide the reader an additional way to relate to our viewpoint. For Landon, this is the hallmark of good writing: “Bring your unique self to your reader.”

Sean Toner offers an excellent example. He looks out the window at a woman crossing the back yard. She stops and talks to some children. He can’t see what they are looking at, so he offers several possibilities. His speculation intensifies my curiosity, drawing me into the external scene and also providing a glimpse into Toner’s mind.

Metaphor
Landon loves metaphors, but he has a hard time convincing his writing students to use them. I know why his students are reluctant to follow his advice. Metaphors are as risky as crossing a pit of alligators by crawling along a slimy log. A bad metaphor sounds weird, and so the writer must work harder and take more chances. It’s easier just to walk around. Sean Tone is not shy about metaphors. For example he compares a tall fair-skinned man to a golden sycamore, allowing me to see the sun shining through the canopy of a forest. The image deepens my connection with both Sean’s imagination and this aspiring clown’s appearance.

Humor
When Toner looks out the window and tries to understand what the woman and children might be pointing to, he speculates that they may be looking at a dirty magazine or a man buried up to his shoulders in dirt. The resulting laugh creates an extraordinarily sophisticated psychological sensation. By pulling me so far into his own mental process, Toner has created a moment of intimacy, like brushing up against a stranger at a party, a thrill of forbidden contact. The laugh provides an abrupt and pleasurable discharge of that tension.

This interplay between intimacy and distance is one of the purposes of memoir. We tell about our life experience, which brings us all closer. At the same time, we turn the events into a story, which allows us to take a step back. Whether your memoir is as short as a man buried up to his shoulders, or as tall as a golden sycamore, you too can use word play, speculation, metaphor, and humor to contribute to the multi-dimensional power of your story.

Writing Prompt
Follow each of these strategies from “Head Clown” to add style to your anecdote.

Notes
For more about Sean Toner, see his home page.
For more about the Teaching Company lecture series, by Brooks Landon, University of Iowa, click here.