Briefly: Three Short, Rough Drafts and
a Review of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide
to Writing Flash Nonfiction
Much has already been written about The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore. The general consensus is that the book is terrific, that Moore has assembled some great writers of flash nonfiction (including Jenny Boully, Robin Hemley, Brenda Miller, and Lee Martin) to write about this form, provide writing exercises to inspire the reader, and to present example essays. I wish, for the sake of being a contrarian essayist, that I could say I disagree with the popular assessment, but I’m afraid I don’t. Rose Metal Press, Dinty W. Moore, and all of the contributors to this relatively (and appropriately) slim volume have put together an invaluable book. I’ve read it twice now since getting my copy a month ago, and I’ve been going back to some of my favorite chapters to try my hand at those writing exercises.
Moore has put together a much-needed history of the brief essay in his introduction. Succinct yet thorough, I think that this history is going to be tremendously useful for those of us who teach nonfiction forms for quite some time—as useful as Philip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, perhaps (another piece I go back to every so often). Beginning with Thackeray in the late 19th century and ending in the 21st century with online literary magazines such as this one, Moore has provided us with a valuable resource.
As glad as I am to have read the history, though, I found myself appreciating the craft essays in this book even more. For quite some time, I think our genre has had several excellent craft books designed to help the beginning writer. There’s Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories, Kristen Iversen’s Shadow Boxing, Moore’s own The Truth of the Matter, and countless others. These are all great books to help students who are just getting started in nonfiction, but there’s been a dearth of books for the more advanced student or practitioner of the craft. This book acts as a nice corrective for this—in fact, the first exercise in the book is a revision exercise from Lia Purpura. The assumption in many of the craft essays is that the reader has already started writing nonfiction, and doesn’t need a lot of guidance as she struggles to come up with ideas.
So what of the exercises themselves? I found some more useful than others, though you might very well find that some of the exercises I couldn’t use are exactly what you need. For purposes of this review, I’ve completed three of these exercises over the past three days. What follows is not exactly polished writing—the pieces are not revised, and they’ve been written quickly. Think of them as something of a cross between craft exercise and essay.
(A note about the exercises—in the book itself, the exercises aren’t given clear titles, so I’ve identified them by their author’s name and a description of what the exercise asks for).
Mrs. Thompson (inspired by Carol Guess’s “Capture Someone Who Raised You” exercise)
She told us that Twisted Sister was a group of homosexual predators who would probably molest us if we ever went to one of their concerts. She told us that the song “Only the Good Die Young” proved that Billy Joel worshipped the devil. She told us that Bob Geldof and Michael Jackson could stage all the concerts and write all the songs they wanted—famine in Africa would not be ended until American children got serious about learning to pray the Rosary.
It was this last claim that finally led my father to tell me that I could no longer attend Catechism, even though it had been important to him that I receive my religious instruction. Dad attended a Catholic school when he was a kid, and still had a respectful fondness for the nuns who taught him and, stereotypically, attacked his knuckles with rulers. But Mrs. Thompson, he said, took things too far. “It’s not your fault—or any other kid’s fault—that people are starving in Africa,” he said.
I didn’t exactly mind being forbidden to attend Catechism for the rest of the year—the school year was almost over anyway, and I could stay home and play Nintendo while my siblings had to go to their own classes. But sometimes, while playing Metroid or Duck Hunt, I would feel a little anxious. This wasn’t what a Sunday morning was supposed to be. And though I trusted my dad would never knowingly put my immortal soul in jeopardy, I felt like I was in danger all the same. I was pretty sure he was right, but if he wasn’t, and she was, then I knew that God would certainly punish me for this transgression. She had been very clear on that sort of thing.
Our House (inspired by Bret Lott’s “A Place You Know Well” exercise)
I don’t currently live at home, in the house my wife and I bought together three years ago, after we were both hired in tenure-track positions at a small, Southern, Baptist college that, it turns out, was not exactly the best fit for me—a liberal from the north who writes self-indicting works of creative nonfiction. Actually, “not exactly the best fit” is putting it mildly—I wound up hating the job, and hating some of the people who worked there. In my defense, they hated me first, saw me as an outsider who didn’t belong, and worked very hard to make me feel unappreciated and unwelcome. But I had never really hated anybody in my life, and found the sensation unpleasant enough that I knew I would have to leave.
So I have taken another job—a job at my alma mater in upstate New York (which, I guess, is also home, in a way, but not the way I usually think of the word). Emily, my wife, has remained in North Carolina with the cats. We see each other as often as possible—at our house, at my apartment, and often in small Pennsylvania towns with names like “Frackville” that lie somewhere between our two residences.
But today I am back in my house—this place that we bought when the jobs were new and the future seemed to hold tremendous promise. A porch swing perfect for wine-sipping. A hallway to display all of our framed albums by the likes of Elvis Costello and John Cale. Upstairs bedrooms that could be turned into offices that we could decorate however we wanted—Emily’s tastefully minimalist, mine stuffed with the old lunch boxes, comic books, and Atari games that I’ve been hording for years.
And then there’s this room. The dining room. We rarely eat in here, but when we do, it’s usually because one of us has made a dinner that requires more preparation than throwing hot dogs on a grill or tossing a frozen pizza in the oven. Emily’s sausage and sundried tomato pasta. My quiche lorraine. These are the dinners that would be eaten by candlelight, if we didn’t have two cats who like to stand wherever we put down our plates.
There’s an elegant simplicity to this room, which is decorated mostly with things we took from her grandfather’s house when he died in 2008. Small bookshelves stuffed with old books. A heavy clock adorned with a statue of Frances Bacon. The roll-top secretary that held most of Emily’s grandmother’s important papers, and which now displays, within its glass casing, more old books as well as family photographs—my paternal grandfather as a boy with his own grandmother, a woman whose name I don’t know. A photo of my mom and her siblings when they were children. Pictures of Emily’s great aunts.
In our old apartment, we had what we called our Wall of Dead Relatives. Now, we have accumulated enough dead relative photos to cover three walls in our dining room. My grandparents on their wedding day. Emily’s great-grandparents on their wedding day. Emily’s grandparents outside their house in Nashville. My grandfather in his Army uniform.
I don’t mean to give you the impression that the dining room is some sort of mausoleum, or a dreary place. It’s not. These are photos of happy people enjoying themselves, much like the people in the collage frame on the wall to my left, the only people in this room who are still alive (aside from me, typing away). These photos are of family and close friends, mostly taken at the rehearsal dinner for our wedding. There’s Emily’s mom, uncle, and brother. My brother and sister leaning in together, his arm thrown around her shoulders. Our friends Mike and Katie, a year before they got married themselves, many years before the birth of their son or the publication of their first books. Emily’s dad, years before the chemotherapy made his beard fall out—the beard that he has only recently been able to grow back.
I frequently find myself anxious for Emily and the cats to join me somewhere else, away from the school I can’t work for and the town that I no longer like. But then, just as frequently, I’ll find myself sitting in my apartment in upstate New York, decorated only with posters from Stanley Kubrick movies and one framed photo of Emily on the nightstand, and I realize that I very desperately wish to go home, where I eat better food, drink better wine, and find myself surrounded by those who care about me the most.
Presence (inspired by Patrick Madden’s “Brief Contrary Essay” exercise)
My college girlfriend cheated on me a couple of times, although it’s perhaps inaccurate to call it cheating, as she was always very careful to call me shortly before the hook-up—which for purposes of this essay we’ll define as any romantic contact that involves either participant revealing a body part normally covered by a bathing suit, and not just intercourse—to break up with me. These indiscretions occurred while we were away from campus and each other—once over Christmas break, and once towards the end of a summer. We would usually get back together because, I’d found, abstinence tended to make the heart grow fonder. Or at least forgiving.
Absence, though, does not make the heart grow fonder, despite what conventional wisdom tells us. My college girlfriend found her own affections for me tended to fade when I was not in her immediate line of sight. And to be honest, though I never actually cheated on her, I was frequently tempted to do so while we were apart, and likely would have if I weren’t so inept when it comes to talking to women.
I’m married now—not to my college girlfriend, thankfully, but to a woman I met in graduate school. I have been faithful to her, and I feel as certain as one can about such things that she has been faithful to me. I can honestly say I love her more now than I did on the day I married her, and the available evidence suggests that she feels the same way. This, in spite of the fact that we don’t currently live together—not because of it.
Our hearts are sometimes made fonder, but not by distance. When I’m at my apartment in upstate New York and she’s at our house in North Carolina, we both tend to work. I have written four new essays and one short story since we began our long distance relationship three months ago; she has finished a book proposal and written a series of poems. We teach. She has started running every morning. I have taken to watching movies she has no interest in, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Solitary life is a bit lonely, but we’re rather introverted anyway, and quickly get used to being alone with our thoughts. There have been days when I have realized, at four in the afternoon, that I have neither left my house nor seen another human being all day. And I don’t miss the contact. I don’t tend to spend much time pining away for my beloved. It would be romantic to say that I do—perhaps it would make you like me a bit—but it wouldn’t be true. I read. I write. I work. I sleep. And that’s pretty much what she does too.
Our hearts are made fonder, though, when we see each other again. Between eight and nine every night, we each grab a beer and log onto Skype so that we can talk about our days, bitch about work not going well, laugh about the political absurdity du jour—and look at each other while we do so. And then when we see each other in person—at the Syracuse airport when she comes to see me, or in our own house when I travel to her—we tend, I think, to stand a little closer to each other. Hold hands a little bit tighter. Laugh, as if surprised, as we say “I love you” to each other—like we had forgotten how good it feels to be with the one you love. Like we had just remembered how happy life can be.
No, absence does not make my heart grow fonder. That’s a lovely sentiment, and if being physically apart from the one you love improves your relationship, then I’m happy for you. But for me, it’s the presence after the absence that makes my love grow, that overwhelms me with the power of my own affection for this woman I’ve been with for ten years. We are almost halfway through this year-long experiment in living apart, and I promise—myself, my wife, and you, gentle reader—that, once we are again living under one roof, I will do everything I can to remember how powerfully and positively her very presence in my life affects me.