New in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis last year, I had the honor of participating in a panel of writers addressing the subject, “Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.” The latest edition of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies offers a special conference issue, and it includes our panel discussion alongside three other panels: two from the 2015 Nonfiction Now Conference in Flagstaff, and one from the 2015 ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) Conference in Moscow, Idaho. Special thanks to Renée D’Aoust, Michael Steinberg, Richard Hoffman, and Meredith Hall for their rich insights and commiseration!...
Prayers of the Unfaithful

Prayers of the Unfaithful

This Sunday, like all Sundays, in another mass I will not be attending, there is a space of prayer between the creed and the offering of bread and wine. Catholics call this the Prayers of the Faithful. A man has had surgery. Someone’s baby died. A priest has gone away for a family visit in another country–Italy, Romania, Argentina. The war continues. There are homeless. Repairing a leak in the church will cost $700. Often there is a petition for “those who have lost their faith” to return. Lord hear our prayer. Lord have mercy. As Pope Francis visits the U.S. for the first time, I think of the “lapsed” and excommunicated. I think of those Catholics who (like me) don’t attend church anymore except (maybe) on Ash Wednesday or Christmas or when family comes to visit. Occasionally, on our own, we may slip in unceremoniously at the back, relegating ourselves to an easy-exit corner in one of the last twelve pews. Some of us never step into line at communion time, or else we genuflect and vanish from the pew just as ministers step forward towards the congregation: a swish of certainty in their rayon robe-hems, their hands carrying goblet-like ciboriums filled with brittle wafers. Somewhere between belief and the body of Christ, the unfaithful offer their presence–if not their prayers, too, however fragmented and skittish. We are the strays. There are a lot of us around, people with different histories and different reasons for existing along the fringes of the church. It might be a falling out with a priest over something real gone wrong: a wedding,...
American Prison: Beyond the Binge-Watch

American Prison: Beyond the Binge-Watch

If the success of Orange Is the New Black offers any indication, it seems fair (and gross) to say that prison has become “pop”—for a Twitter moment, anyway. Even the cover of the Economist June 20-24 proclaims, “Jailhouse Nation: 2.3 million reasons to fix America’s prison problem.” Progressive-glam MSNBC has been boosting its ratings with weekends of Lockup since 2005. Everybody (white? middle class?) seems suddenly if temporarily agreed upon the disgrace and “inefficiency” of prison conditions. We all exchange nods over restaurant pasta and craft beers about how we need to “change the system.” I’m suspicious. Yes, I’ve worked my way through all three seasons of OITNB. I appreciate seeing a diverse and predominantly female cast in a series where most episodes would pass the Bechdel test. I am glad to see a trans woman of color playing a trans woman of color with nuance and verve. But the ethnic and lesbian stereotypes are wearisome and gratuitous–on this subject, Allison Samuels’s essay is a powerful read. Beyond that, the much-acclaimed back-stories feel like predictable and narratively lazy devices (see? we care about “other” people!), never letting us avert our eyes too long from the center of the action: the annoying, blonde, fair-skinned, based-on-reality character whose post-adolescent “experiment” in crime and lesbi-chic resulted in—imagine!—the unspeakable possibility of incarceration. Meanwhile, I am thinking about an actual person named M., an African American man who has been incarcerated in California since March this year. Rather than accepting a felony plea deal, he took his chances with a jury and lost. In the second of two afternoons I spent in court with...
Love and Mercy, Not Blood and Bullets

Love and Mercy, Not Blood and Bullets

For almost four years now, as I’ve completed a second book, 1966 has weighed heavily on my mind. Maybe you were born that year, or one of your siblings was. Maybe you got married then, or your parents did. Perhaps you graduated, or got drafted. Maybe you lost someone—to distance, disease, or drinking; to random violence or Vietnam. In May that year, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, an album that received some critical acclaim despite mostly popular failure. Love and Mercy, a stunning biopic about Brian Wilson released last weekend (starring John Cusack and Paul Dano), devotes an amazing amount of detail to the creation of songs for that album. It wasn’t an easy process. In one telling moment during the drafting stage, Wilson tests out “God Only Knows” on the piano and sings for his father in the living room. “It’s a love song,” Wilson says, only to hear his father spit back, “It’s a suicide note.” How wrong his father was. Pet Sounds was certainly a far cry from the sugary surfer tunes of earlier Beach Boys records, but that’s what made (and makes) it so compelling. There is a counterpoint of notes in major and minor keys, an unpredictable instrumentality, the interplay of mournful phrasing and affirmative refrain—shadow and brightness—as if attuned to the year, and perhaps the decade, itself: “Each time things start to happen/I think I got something good goin’ for myself/But what goes wrong/Sometimes I feel very sad/Sometimes I feel very sad…/I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” Three months after Pet Sounds was released, Charles Whitman wrote actual suicide letters that...

My Writing Process These Days

Thanks to Joshunda Saunders for inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Joshunda is one of the most insightful and prolific writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet, read, and commiserate with in the past two years. You can check out her terrific blog, including her own reflections on process, right here. 1. What are you working on? Two and a half years ago, I started working on an an essay collection about public performances of violence in America. As I began, I thought that the section about the 1966 clock tower shooting at UT Austin would be the first chapter, alongside nine other chapters including San Diego, Waco, and Tucson. What I’ve discovered is that the UT Austin research and writing has demanded a space of its own. I’m almost finished with a stand-alone triptych about that event. It’s 12o pages or so: two lyric essays at beginning and end, with a centerpiece of narrative reportage/investigative journalism. I haven’t abandoned the larger project, but it was important to recognize and respect the full weight of the box inside the box. 2. How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre? I guess that I’m weary and wary of much of the nonfiction that I read. I don’t mean I’m concerned about bias or subjectivity (which I understand and also expect); but overall I find it disappointing how some genre notions that might be necessary for marketing purposes can narrow our aspirations as writers. I’m fascinated about the pre-genre possibilities of the essay form: how it can document and reflect, but also explore, evoke,...

The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Donna Hilbert author of the new poetry collection The Congress of Luminous Bodies (Aortic Books) for tagging me in THE NEXT BIG THING What is the title or working title of your book? Tripwires and Trigger Fingers. Where did the idea come from for the book? For my first book, Teacher at Point Blank, I explored about how we can work and live under bizarre, unhealthy conditions that encourage a certain amount of denial. As I was waiting for the book to be published, I had to keep revising the last chapter because it began with a litany of rampage shootings at schools, and for about five years I had to keep adding names and dates to the list. It was a hideous feeling. It’s still true that every time a drastic event happens, we tend to treat it like something from Mars. But there I was, facing that list in my book. I wanted to examine that phenomenon of denial on a larger American scale, connecting different public performances of “mass violence” we have buried or forgotten about–starting with UT Austin in 1966.  What genre does your book fall under? It’s a collection of essay meditations—lyric as well as narrative. My inspirations are Sei Shonagon, Jamacia Kincaid, Susan Griffin, and Nathanael West. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? Oh dear. Because this collection will deal with ten distinct events, we might need ten casts. I’d be happy if Helen Mirren just played me lurking around archives and trying to get people to share info in email...

Writer Ninja Podcast Episode 8: Starting from Scratch

What have you made from scratch lately–whether it’s something to eat, wear, use at home, or give away? We may live in a world that often feels prefabbed, but there are plenty of opportunities for us to contribute pieces of ourselves to make things better or more interesting. Tune in to the Writer Ninja Podcast, available on iTunes and on this site. Then post your ideas in the comments section below! Also listen to Jo’s interview with four smart writer-editor-artist people–John Brantingham, Ann Brantingham, Elder Zamora, and Scott Creley–who came together to organize The San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival from the ground up. Then join Jo at the festival as she reads among an amazing lineup of poets, novelists, and nonfiction writers–including James Brown, Aimee Bender, Eloise Klein Healey, Donna Hilbert and Stephanie Hammer: February 15-17, from noon to 9 PM in the West Covina Civic Center, 1444 West Garvey Avenue, West Covina, 91791. All events are...

Writer Ninja Podcast Episode 7: Boundary Crossing

You may have missed Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s fabulous reading from Sex with Buildings (Dancing Girl Press) at Riverside Arts Walk September 6, but it’s never too late to visit her website, Magically Real. Also catch our chat about genre bending and blending on the latest Writer Ninja Podcast, available on iTunes and on this site. Recommended books from this episode include: Short Takes, edited by Judith Kitchen Flash Fiction Forward, edited by Robert Shapard and James...

Book Recommendations: Writer Ninja Ep 4 and 5

Looking for the perfect blend of literature and community? Visit the San Gabriel Valley Litfest, coming in 2013. Meanwhile, as promised, here are links to the most recent books recommended on the latest episodes of Writer Ninja Podcast. Check them out! From Episode Four, “Mothers and the Others” Bearing Life: Women’s Writing on Childlessness, edited by Rochelle Ratner The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf From Episode Five, “The Gift of Consent” East of Los Angeles, by John Brantingham Building a Character, by Constantin Stanislavski Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott You Already Know, by Aaron Henne...

Writer Ninja Podcast Episode Five

Episode Five, “The Gift of Consent,” now available on iTunes and on this site. Jo asks for your thoughts on how important consent is to any authentic learning experience, both inside and outside traditional learning situations. She also interviews writer John Brantingham, author of East of Los Angeles (a poetry collection), and professor extraordinaire of English and Creative Writing at Mount San Antonio College. Brantingham is also the current coordinator for the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, planned for Winter 2013. Recommended links for readings will appear shortly: Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), You Already Know (Aaron Henne), and Building a Character (Constantin Stanislavski). Also check back for information on the Mount San Antonio Writers’ Weekend coming up soon! Happy new year,...
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