R.I.P., Jonathan Robinson Flynn

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Every once in a while an obituary is itself an intriguing and engaging essay, as shown here, posted to Facebook today by Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.  Notice the voice, the intimate detail, the surprise, the attitude.  Presumably Nick wrote this, though it was not attributed:


JONATHAN ROBINSON FLYNN, the self-proclaimed “greatest writer America has yet produced,” died on a Sunday morning at the end of October in Boston. At the time of his death he was living at Roscommon, the nursing home where he’d spent his last five years of his life.

He was the subject of his son Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which chronicled his father’s life as an absent father, a bank robber, and as a federal prisoner, as well as the five years he lived as what we now…

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CONTEST: Sycamore Review’s 2013 Wabash Prize for Nonfiction/Poetry



More info at: http://www.sycamorereview.com/contest/



Final Judge: Cheryl Strayed

First Prize: $1000 and publication in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue


Submission Deadline: October 22, 2013

1. For each submission, send one nonfiction piece (limit 7,500 words).

2. A $15 reading fee (submitted online) must accompany each submission. The reading fee includes a year’s subscription to Sycamore Review, which will include a copy of the prize issue and an electronic copy of the Summer/Fall 2014 issue.

3. Additional pieces may be included for an additional reading fee of $5 for each additional work. If submitting more than one, please submit ALL work in a single Word document.

4. Manuscript pages should be numbered and should include the title of the piece.

5. All entries will be read blind. Information that identifies the author should NOT appear on the manuscript itself.

6. All work must be previously unpublished.

7. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable only if Sycamore Review is notified immediately upon acceptance elsewhere.

8. Each piece will be read by at least two Sycamore staffers, with the winner selected by judge Cheryl Strayed.

9. All contest submissions will be considered for regular inclusion in Sycamore Review.

10. When submitting, be sure to select the Wabash Prize for Nonfiction option in our Submissions Manager.

Submit your work by visiting our online submission manager.


Final Judge: C.D. Wright

First Prize: $1000 and publication in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue


Submission Deadline: October  31, 2013

1. For each submission, send up to three poems, of no more than six total pages (all poems should be compiled into a single document).

2. A $15 reading fee (check or money order) payable to Sycamore Review must accompany each submission. The reading fee includes a year’s subscription to Sycamore Review, which will include a print copy of the prize issue and an electronic copy of the Summer/Fall 2014 issue.

3. Additional poems may be included for an additional reading fee of $5 for per poem. If submitting additional poems, please submit ALL poems in a single word document.

4. Manuscript pages should be numbered and should include the title of the piece.

5. All entries will be read blind. Information that identifies the author should NOT appear on the manuscript itself.

6. All poems must be previously unpublished.

7. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable only if Sycamore Review is notified immediately upon acceptance elsewhere.

8. Each poem will be read by two Sycamore staffers, with the winner selected by judge C.D. Wright.

9. All contest submissions will be considered for regular inclusion in Sycamore Review.

10. When submitting, be sure to select the Wabash Prize for Poetry option in our Submissions Manager.

Where Essayists Find Ideas

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

bird headOur friend Aaron Gilbreath has written a useful and thorough essay for the Green Mountain Review on where nonfiction writers find ideas. (The gist of it: don’t stick your head in the sand.)  Here is an excerpt followed by a link to the entire essay:

For those of us who don’t work for publications that give us assignments, we’re left to assign ourselves. I find material in different ways. For my more straight ahead articles or topical essays, many ideas spring from life. I go about my day-to-day, eating and working and walking around town, and I take note of what I’m doing. What am I reading? What am I listening to or thinking about? When I find something of interest or recognize that I’m obsessing on something, I look more closely at it as a potential subject. Am I really into Korean snack foods right now? I should probably write…

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In-Progress Review: Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life”

I’m probably a third of the way into Amy Krouse Rosenthal‘s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. I don’t know what, exactly, I expected – the title has “encyclopedia” right there in it, and at the beginning, for crying out loud – but the first few pages bummed me out. It is LITERALLY an encyclopedia of this woman’s life. (Well, aspects of her life she has decided to share.)

I’ve never found encyclopedias to be that interesting. Not interesting enough to sit down and read it cover to cover, anyway. Certainly encyclopedias have a good and real purpose, and that purpose is information. But when I read nonfiction I expect a larger, clearer purpose, a why now kind of urgency that drives the narrative. This Encyclopedia of AKR? I didn’t know what to do with it. It’s chronological. It has charts, timelines, tables, illustrations. I couldn’t figure out the why now. I’m still debating.

So I read through 10 pages, and then 20, wholly deflated that this .. memoir? .. didn’t fit the expectation for memoir that I had foisted upon it. And I snarked on it to a friend. I even made the comment that I was going to try to “get through” the rest of it today, just to get it over with.

But wouldn’t you know, the more I read, the more I found myself laughing out loud at certain encyclopedia entries. And I felt myself connecting with the alphabetized anecdotes, really being able to experience the narrator’s life through her brief commentaries, but also I felt connected to her through my childhood. What?

After the timeline at the beginning, each chapter begins (appropriately) with a letter of the alphabet. I am on letter “D.” (Sidenote: She wants the D. Ha ha ha.)

But it wasn’t until I reached this letter “D” and, specifically, the entry below, that I absolutely connected with the narrator. (And from this point on, she has me completely. I will never doubt her again.)


This is a thought that consumed me in my early twenties, and now, as I’m staring down my thirties, I’m obsessed with it again. I see it in everything I do. Every single day. Multiple times a day. This feeling of, Why does this all matter when I’m as good as dead anyhow? It’s a terrifying thought.

And while it doesn’t change the fact that Amy Krouse Rosenthal is going to die and that I am going to die, and it doesn’t stop me from feeling this thing in every aspect of my life, I feel some comfort and some – dare I say – camaraderie in the fact that I am not the only one who thinks this way.

So, Ms. Rosenthal, you got it. I’m going with your flow. Let’s make it through to Z.

(PS – Consider this a soft-boiled review of sorts. Maybe a full one will follow when I’ve finished and digested EoaOL.)

From Laura Wexler’s “An Interview with Patricia Hampl”

This quote appears in The AWP Chronicle (now The Writer’s Chronicle), March/April 1998 issue.


On autobiography vs. memoir:

“A memoir .. takes on the narrative and formal demands of a novel: How to draw the reader forward? How to establish theme through incident and portraiture? What holds it all together, and what keeps it all moving forward? Chronology – which is autobiography’s bedrock – is the most flaccid, lifeless response to those questions. So the very thing that would seem to be the basis of autobiographical writing – a life over time – is not the ground the memoir can stand on. It has to root itself in the same dilemmas and adventures of poetry and fiction. It has to make a story. In doing that, it has to disregard a lot of the life.” – Patricia Hampl

Week One, or: This Is Not a Creative Title

What a week!

(Okay, and plus a half or so.)

Wouldn’t you know, the gentleman and I adopted cats. We’re a regular Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song.

Anyhow, look at these girls, like either of us could’ve resisted:


Liddy on the L; Maron on the R

My goodness, but they are playful. All. The. Time. Liddy’s almost a year and a half old. She didn’t have an exact birth date listed, but I worked out the math and she’ll be two in April. And I’m declaring her birthday as April 4, because I’m not a hardcore Marguerite Duras fangirl at all.


Maron is three, almost four months old. She might’ve been closer to four months when we got her, who knows. But her birthday shall be in May. So they’re about one year apart, but sweet as can be. And best of all, even though they aren’t from the same litter, they love each other. They spend all day play-fighting and napping together. I have more pictures. I could show you. But I won’t be “that girl.”

I suppose technically Liddy is “my cat” and Maron is “his kitten,” and though I love Maron and think she’s super adorable, had I gone to the pet adoption center alone I’d have just come back with Liddy. But I’m glad there are two of them, and I’m glad they get along with each other and with us.

So after Thursday a week+ ago – and something like eight or nine agonizing months before that – I officially started my MFA! How exciting, right? Each new day and class was a snowball effect, though really, by the end of my readings class on Monday night I was already smitten. But it crystallized for certain during my craft class Wednesday night.

I’m a little bummed that today is a holiday, which means no readings class tonight. First up on the syllabus is Stephen King‘s On Writing, which I’d read some ten years ago when my dad bought it and recommended I read it. I used to be a huge Stephen King fan. And I like him now, it’s just that my reading tastes have shifted. Anyone who scoffs at you for reading Stephen King should be immediately sat down and handed On Writing. The man is brilliant, an amazing storyteller. (How could he not be with the success he’s had?) I get so irritated with people who scoff at him simply for the literary genres he chooses to publish in. I’m sure he gets irritated with it too, although what’s that old saying again, something about laughing all the way to the bank? Which I’m sure helps, but you don’t write a memoir/instructional ON WRITING if you don’t take your craft seriously. So any Stephen King critic out there can suck it. You don’t have to like his books (though you must read one or more to judge first). But you do have to respect the man. He absolutely knows what he’s doing.

Okay, I went off on a little tangent. Seriously, though, On Writing is part memoir and part instruction, and totally engaging. I’m about halfway through, and if not for a little jaunt out of the city this past weekend, I’d be done with it already. In fact, as soon as I finish this update, I’m diving back into it.

(For some reason just now I remembered that Life’s Little Instruction Book and the parody Life’s Little Destruction Book. How goofy were those?)

So anyhow, that’s the readings class. And we’re also reading short excerpts from George Orwell (“Shooting an Elephant”) and William Zinsser (On Writing Well) to supplement the King reading. At the end of it, we’re to write a 750-word creative piece (mine shall be nonfiction) based on something we picked out from the readings. Which on one hand I’m frustrated is vague, but on the other, I’m excited that it’s open-ended. We’ll see what develops. That’s half the fun, isn’t it?

Wednesday afternoon will see me back in my publishing practicum. The class is centered around Chatham’s literary publication The Fourth River and this week we’re looking at the journal’s web presence. Throughout the duration of the semester we’ll be looking at submissions and how to selected pieces for publication and how to screen rejections, etc. I can’t word it as well as the professor did, but it’s all focused on publishing and all the aspects that go along with it from an editor’s standpoint. The behind-the-scenes, etc.

Then Wednesday evening is another craft class, for which we are currently reading Dinty W. Moore‘s The Truth of the Matter, along with supplemental readings. This week it’s essays from Paul Auster, Charles Simic, and Sue William Silverman. Also, during class last week, we were given a prompt and free-writing time to picture a house, absorb all the sensory detail we could from it, and then write what that image elicited. I easily had 500 words or more, and then the professor said to pare it down to 100 or less and hand it in next week. Hoo boy. Even though I’ve worked with shorter forms, like flash-fiction, flash-nonfiction, and poetry, I am definitely way more verbose than 100 words. It was a difficult exercise, but actually I had a ton of fun working with it and manipulating it into something brief and powerful. I’m really happy with how it turned out; maybe I’ll share it some time.

(I’m a little wary of posting my work on here, both for the fact that it’d be embarrassing to put out a draft that wasn’t finished, but also because who knows which of these things I write I will want to submit for publication?)

We’re also set to hand in a response to the Auster essay, “Why I Write,” which is gorgeous and moving. We’re also to create a list of 25 memories, without thinking too hard about it, with the idea that they’ll have some associative nature. And lastly is a list of 12 delights or 12 un..delights..?? Things we’re either passionate or dispassionate about. I’m interested to see what we do with these lists in class.

All in all it’s been an amazing week and a half. I’ve got good books to read, amazing professors to learn from, and talented classmates to work with. And I’m writing and I’ve got a cat dreaming on my legs, so how can it get any better than that?

Moving in the right direction isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. I am absolutely certain there are going to be times over the course of my MFA that I am burnt out and frustrated and overwhelmed. But there are also going to be times of courage and strength and achievement. If you asked me to imagine my life any way I could have it, this right here and right now is what I’d be picturing. This is my ideal.

I had the thought the other day (which I shared elsewhere, but will say again here) that it is really, really nice to sit back and examine my life at present and think, “Yes.”

That’s it: a simple and resounding “yes.”

Book review: Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club”

Before picking up The Liars’ Club, I read Mary Karr‘s 2000 publication, Cherrybased on a recommendation from a professor of mine after she read my Master’s thesis. So, I did things a little backwards; The Liars’ Club was released in 1995 and centers around Karr’s childhood in Texas – growing up with alcoholic parents with special attention paid to her “Nervous” mother, suffering at least two instances of sexual abuse that go undiscovered until her adulthood, relying upon her older sister, Lecia, for solidarity – whereas Cherry details more with Karr’s coming-of-age years. I won’t go into that, since this is supposed to be about TLC.

(Okay, not using that acronym again! But seriously, if you haven’t read any Mary Karr yet, start with The Liars’ Club and then Cherry.)


I have to admit, even though I loved Cherry and, now, The Liars’ Club, it takes me for-e-ver to get into Karr’s memoirs. I don’t know if it’s the difficult subject matter or what. I just know that while reading both, I felt .. not overwhelmed, but easily tired. (I think I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read some pretty gnarly nonfiction shit over the years. It takes a lot to really surprise me anymore concerning content, which .. well, that might be a whole other can of worms for another time. But even though it’s not so surprising, it’s still emotionally trying.) And since Karr’s works have the ability to wear me down so quickly, my reading of them is always staggered and inconsistent in pace and attention. Therefore, my review will likely also be staggered and inconsistent. I’ll try to make some good points, but mostly it’ll just be a case for why you should read The Liars’ Club.

Though I seem to have focus issues when it comes to Mary Karr, her voice and her writing style is so very accessible and graspable. I read Cherry early this year, and just finished The Liars’ Club about a week ago. Reading it (even though it was technically out of order) felt like I was picking up right where I left off with Cherry.

So, okay. There may or may not be spoilers following this. I’m not sure what people consider spoilers anymore. I’m not a big fan of television. I have about five or six shows I watch religiously, and like 3/4 of them are already off the air. (Thank youuu, Netflix!) I usually don’t get into shows until they’re ending or have already ended. Therefore, I am not into the Breaking Bad/Game of Thrones/Walking Dead/Newsroom/Boardwalk Empire/etc. thing that is happening right now. Actually, most of those shows terrify me because of their gratuitous violence, but ANYWAY that’s not the issue I’m trying to highlight here! What I am trying to say (and forgive the rambles and constant interruptions, I woke up wide awake at 5am this morning for some ungodly reason) is that even though I’m not up-to-date on popular programming right now, I’m no stranger to social media and the shitstorm that accompanies even the slightest spoiler hint some poor but well-meaning fool spits out into the Internet in the hopes of some communal emotional affirmation.

You’ve been warned. In a very round-about way.

(PS – on the subject of social media, Mary Karr is on Twitter!)

As mentioned above, The Liars’ Club is centered around the narrator’s childhood years – we’re talking, like, toddler and/or pre-Kindergarten ages to eight and, later, the narrator as a young woman with an MFA. The clarity of the memories the narrator presents is just stunning, and so very visual. Every scene Karr crafted was careful and purposeful, and the dialogue she reconstructed felt true. I think that’s an important distinction here. So often you run into dialogue in fiction and nonfiction that feels contrived and flat. But Karr’s reconstruction of her childhood through voice and dialogue and scene is just staggeringly rich. I believed her: that’s what I’m trying to say. After all, that’s what the narrator – and Karr – are wanting from a reader. This is a narrator at the age of 40 (during the time of publication [1995]) who is telling us about herself at age four. We are reaching back 36 years and we are being asked to believe what four-year-old Mary-narrator is telling us. And I do believe her, hook, line, and sinker.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the content itself is that a majority of Karr’s reminiscing is pretty common, everyday, and even affectionate. And these in turn are punctuated with moments of extreme fear and violence, such as when the narrator’s mother has a “Nervous” episode, throwing out Mary and Lecia’s belongings onto the lawn because their room is messy and setting fire to the huge pile of clothes and toys in their yard as the small-town neighbors watch. Later, as Lecia and Mary lie together on a quilt on their bedroom floor, their mother stands in the doorway clutching a large knife as they watch her, quiet and motionless. Karr’s voice narrates the scene (and others like it) with such calmness that it elevates the panic of the reader. Obviously since Karr has written the memoir in 1995 we know that she survives that episode, but she pulls no punches in her recounting. Her father is implicated, as he passively refuses to leave work and confront the chaos at home. And her mother, naturally, is implicated in her alcoholism and manic depression. But it is all done so subtly that there seems to be a lack of malice in the narrator, allowing the reader to freely traverse the emotional landscape instead of being shoved toward outrage or disgust. Neither of the narrator’s parents are around when she is twice sexually abused, and yet she never comes out and blames either of them for not being there to protect her. It is what it is to the narrator, and there is more that is said by what the narrator chooses not to say.

Karr is able to play with time, to weave in and out of her childhood and even specific moments, such as when she tags along with her father to hang out with his friends, a gathering affectionately dubbed The Liars’ Club. Some readers might find this confusing, but as long as you’re paying attention, you won’t get lost. After reading, I have to think that this memoir is not about blatant accusation or atonement. Though I’ve had alcoholics and drug addicts in my extended family, thankfully my childhood was nothing like Karr’s. What I imagine this memoir to be is a portrait of life as a young girl growing up in a household with two alcoholic and volatile parents, and how everyone in the household emerges from the damage. The mother, who is at times unstable, mentally ill, depressed, and dependent on painkillers and alcohol, is humanized in the wake of the narrator’s father’s stroke. We find out why this woman has been so seemingly flippant with her affections and with other men at the same time the narrator finds out. We watch her care for a husband she divorced and later remarried, changing his bed sheets, washing his partially paralyzed body, trying to put a humidifier in his room. We discover that the father, who by the end suffers a stroke likely due to his hard lifestyle, isn’t really invincible after all. Lecia, ever the practical one, marries well and is able to foot the bill for a number of financial needs for the family, namely part of the narrator’s MFA tuition, while the narrator finds herself in a sort of suspended state of young adulthood.

We are allowed to follow the narrator as she grows and learns these things about her family, so that we’re not reading the memoir through the lens of accusation or redemption. We persevere though the narrative because, at the end, it’s all anyone can do: persevere. We’re born into it, and we grow out of it, and when we’re on the other side of it we look back at our former selves and see clearly the road map of how we’ve arrived. Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club is an excellent example.