Writing

Blackout, Sarah Hepola, and Addiction Memoir

Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.

It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.

A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.

Consider the Lobster. Please Start Here.

The essays in Consider the Lobster span around thirteen years, and offer thought on the adult film industry celebrating itself, the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain, the sad decline and increasing indefensibility of John Updike’s novelistic output, and a 62-page review of and commentary on an American English usage dictionary. One of the best benchmarks I’ve found for excellent writing is its ability to make me give a shit about something I have not and do not give many shits about -like John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. All of the writing in here clears that benchmark easily, although I must confess that I’m probably going to be way more into a protracted monologue on Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary than most.

Wallace’s nonfiction has always been a favorite of mine -even throughout the years where I was dismissive of his fiction, I always had, at the very least, grudging respect and tractable positivity about essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (not in this collection, but the first piece of his that I’d read). The sometimes-cascading footnotes require a lot less mental work for me when found in nonfiction, a reality that reflects solely upon myself and the conventions that I’ve grown accustomed to, but still, customs that many share and do have an effect on the experience of reading. As such, familiarizing oneself with Wallace’s voice via his nonfiction is probably the best way to work your way into his body of work. And if you don’t like this shit, man, you are gonna hate Infinite Jest.

Recommendation: Read it. This is the best starting place I can think of, and if you’ve read other Wallace but haven’t got to Lobster yet, you’ll love it.

Flooded Kickstarter Needs Your Support!

http://kck.st/2dGtO32

Q&A with Victoria Griffin, Creator of Flooded: A Creative Anthology of Brain Injuries

 

The following is an interview with the woman behind this anthology project -I hope you find it as compelling as I have.

What is Flooded?

Flooded will be a creative anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction devoted to brain injuries. It will be approximately 80,000 words and will include work of all styles and genres. The anthology is not merely meant to showcase memoirs or personal stories—though they will undoubtedly play a role. Brain injuries take many forms and are often difficult to describe. That’s why the anthology will use multiple genres to explore the experience of brain injuries and concussions, ultimately unifying to create an expansive, truthful representation of  brain injuries.  

 

What inspired the anthology?

In January of this year, I took a hit to the head during softball practice. I immediately felt drunk, but the next morning I had difficulty speaking and walking. My trainer assured me the symptoms would be gone within two weeks, after which the doctor assured me they would be gone within three. After four months, two ER visits, a drug overdose (caused by a neurologist who was supposed to help me), and a desperate struggle to graduate without being able to read or perform basic, everyday functions, I finally recovered. On the surface, the concussion cost me my senior season of softball and four months of my life. But in reality, it left scars so deep, they are difficult to describe—which is what prompted me to write about the experience. When I realized there was no publication solely dedicated to brain injuries, I began to truly consider how concussion awareness is approached—with facts and statistics—and how inadequate that is.

 

What was it like to be concussed?

A brain injury is difficult to describe. I feel like I could write a thousand pages and never capture the experience. I can tell you that my mom said I sounded like a four-year-old, and my dad said my eyes were always dull and lifeless. I don’t remember the first two weeks at all, and after that I would “ lose”  gradually decreasing sections of time—a few days at first, then a day, then hours,
and eventually minutes. When I finally gained enough strength to walk around the apartment, I would get stuck on the stairs and have to call for help. A sound as small as footsteps would send me into sensory overload attacks—which I came to call flooding—during which I would involuntarily curl into a ball and be unable to move, speak, or breathe. Have you ever been near to drowning? Each time an attack happened, I felt like I was drowning. Getting air was more difficult than pressing through the heaviest backsquat I’ve ever attempted. And each attack lasted hours. Still, all I’ve really described is the physical. Can I explain to you what it feels like to lose your mental capabilities? To lose your language? To not be able to understand words spoken to you? To feel paranoia so strong you can’t look anyone in the eye? To lose your emotions, so that all you feel are the artificial sadness and fear induced by the injury and medication? Why fiction and creative nonfiction? As I said, I can’t explain to you what it was like to have a concussion, not like this. I can’t tell you what it was like, but I can show you. I can write a story that makes you feel the fear of being alone when a flooding attack happens and wondering if you’ll get help before you stop breathing. I can write a story that makes you feel the overwhelming depression of losing the entirety of your identity. I can write a story that makes you laugh at the silliness of staring at a light for ten minutes because you believed it wasn’t there. By compiling an anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction, we can use multiple genres, styles, and tones to truly convey the experience of a brain injury. Because it’s not what it looks like or how many people it happens to that matters. It’s how it feels and how it impacts the lives of human beings. Anton Chekhov is attributed with saying, “ Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  Simply telling people about concussions and brain injuries is not sufficient to nurture awareness and understanding. We need to show them.

 

What could someone who has never experienced a brain injury gain from reading Flooded?

The anthology is not simply for survivors. While it will certainly be an outlet for them to express their personal realities, they are actually the group of people who (as readers) need the anthology the least. When I realized I was concussed, my first reaction was to try to hide it because I knew I would be benched. What if I had read an anthology like Flooded? What if I had known what could happen to me? I was lucky. I walked away from my brain injury with no permanent damage, and my poor decision early on did not negatively affect the outcome. But it could have. And for many, it does. Reading an anthology like Flooded may help others to make better decisions in such a situation. If you have not experienced a brain injury, you might in the future. Or a family member or close friend might, and they will not be able to tell you what they’re going through, not until it’s over. What if you had the opportunity to gain insight into their struggles? I know my friends and family would have leapt at the thought of learning anything about what was happening inside my body and mind. Concussions don’t just happen to athletes. They happen after a fall or a car accident. They are a part of life that needs to be addressed in literature. At the very least, gaining empathy for another’s pain and struggles makes you a better, more understanding person. Who doesn’t need that in their life? How did your concussion change your life? The concussion completely altered the course of my life, directly and indirectly. Because of  it, I wound up discovering a new passion—freelance editing. But the most significant result of the injury is its impact on my perspective and my worldview. I now have a much deeper understanding of the sorts of challenges some people face every single day—those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and learning disorders. I also have an incredibly deep-rooted appreciation for the people in my life. We all know that extreme situations bring out the best and the worst in people. I saw people behave in ways I never would have expected. I saw true cruelty, to a degree I didn’t believe people to be capable of, not from strangers but from people who had been in my life for years. But I also saw extreme compassion and sacrifice. I saw a few friends and family members put their lives on hold to make sure I made it through. From driving across the country to staying with me when I was afraid of what might happen during the night, I can never repay those amazing people, but I will spend the rest of my life trying. And now, I consider of every person in my life, would they be the one to make sure I kept breathing when an attack hit? Or would they be the one to step over me and leave me alone?
When and how can writers submit pieces for inclusion?

Submissions will be accepted via Submittable beginning November 15. The submission window will close February 28. Following the Kickstarter, detailed submission instructions will be available at victoriagriffin.net. All submissions will be read blind—without any identifying information—so that race, gender, and background play no part in the selection process. Who can submit? Absolutely anyone can submit. There is no requirement to have experienced, or even seen, a brain injury. If a writer takes the time to research brain injuries and concussion in order to write a piece that accurately represents the experience, we have already educated one person on the realities of brain injuries. As previously mentioned, all submissions will be read blind so publication history is not a factor. Seasoned veterans and unpublished writers are both welcome to submit and will receive the same consideration. The work speaks for itself!

 

What challenges do you expect to face in creating the anthology?

Of course, raising sufficient funds to create the anthology is the first challenge. Spreading the word about the project and gathering interest is a trying process, but the incredible amount of support the project has already received from writers, athletes, and the online community  makes me incredibly optimistic. The next challenge will be selecting pieces to fill the anthology. I published my first piece my junior year of high school, and I have six years’ worth of experience with literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. The amount of talent in the literary community is astounding, and when combined with a topic that elicits deep emotionality, I have no doubt the quality of submissions will be superb—and will make choosing 80,000 words of fiction and creative nonfiction a difficult task. Perhaps the greatest challenge I anticipate is the promotional aspect of the project. Once the anthology is complete, we will need to shout it from the rooftops and get the work into the hands of readers. I have experience promoting my own work, but this is a whole new level. That’s why I’ve allocated a promotional budget to be used for services such as a professional blog tour, cover reveal, and promotional plan. While I foresee challenges in promotion, I believe that the quality of the work and the significance of the work will ultimately entice readers.

 

How does Kickstarter work?

Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing crowdfunding platform, which means we set a budget, and if we are a dollar short of that goal, we get nothing. For that reason, the budget I have set is the bare minimum we need to create the anthology. I have also set a target budget, which is the amount it would take to give the anthology the treatment I believe it deserves and, most importantly, to pay contributors an amount that is fair to their work and their talent. Keep in mind that the actual project budget is only 74% of the total budget. The other 26% goes to Kickstarter fees and rewards fulfillment.

 

What do backers receive in return for supporting Flooded?

Rewards! By supporting Flooded, you become a part of our family, and that does not come without its perks. Your reward will depend on your pledge amount. Examples of rewards are inclusion in thank-you sections on victoriagriffin.net and in the print anthology, a special “ behind the scenes”  eBook, 25% off editing services, a custom journal, and of course, the FloodedAnthology itself. Dedicated contributors even have an opportunity to receive a “ perfect copy,” delivered three months before regular distribution and signed by every single U.S. contributor—an offer that will never be available again.

http://kck.st/2dGtO32

 

That’s a lot of money! Where is it going?
Other than Kickstarter fees and rewards fulfillment, the budget will cover cover art and design, interior layout, Submittable fees, editing and proofreading, promotion, and of course, contributor payments and copies. A breakdown of the minimum and target budgets are below. [Include budget images.] How can I help?Spread the word! Share a link to the Kickstarter page on social media. Tell your friends and family. Help us to turn this project into a movement. And of course, you can visit the Kickstarter page yourself, and pledge to support the project! We would love to have you as part of the Flooded family.

 

Recommendation: Pledge some money, folks! And signal boost the shit out of this thing. Tell you friends and family, especially if you feel passionately about the importance of a better public conversation around concussions and other brain injuries. http://kck.st/2dGtO32

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, but secondarily for his magazine and nonfiction writing. This collection of short stories is neither but is certainly worth the read, especially if you enjoyed his most popular novel. There is a reoccurring format here in which many stories (all of which share their title with the book) are presented as transcriptions of interviews with a variety of distasteful males. The interviewer’s questions are omitted, and both specific questions and the larger structure must be inferred only from the answers given, a technique that was also well-employed in Infinite Jest. In this story collection, standing on their own, these “interviews” are even better -hilarious and fucked up little vignettes that you don’t want to come to the end of.

The other stories here are thematically linked, even if their structure is radically different -although DFW does really gravity to the kinds of postmodern structures that depart radically from those employed in conventional narratives, so expect stories in the form of essay questions, lots of fourth-wall busting, and other assorted hand-waving. While sometimes irritated by the author’s drive for architectural novelty, I can’t help but admire his implementation. These stories are very, very good, and they stick well in the brain. And as to the thematic links, we find the staples of DFW: horrible people behaving badly while still somehow (sometimes) sympathetic, obsessively wrought recursions, B-list sexual deviancy, depression, and alienation.

Most of this book was written after Wallace had received a fair bit of critical success and approval, and it’s tempting to dismiss some of the more obsessively backflipping stuff as show-off literary masturbation -and I have to confess to being extremely dismissive of his work for a few years for this exact reason- it’s going to be a loss. This book is good, and it’s fucked up in the kind of ways that lead to productive thinking about upsetting shit, and it’s an example of a very difficult form of writing done very well. It might not be for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, you’ll know pretty quick.

Recommendation: Read it! Or at least try.

Mishka Shubaly’s “Beat the Devil” and Amazon Singles

Mishka Shubaly seems to do a bunch of diverse shit. I’d heard him on a podcast a few times before hearing about his whole relationship with Amazon.com as a popular purveyor of their “Kindle singles,” a novellete-length product usually available for around 1.99 and published exclusively as a digital product. I’ve been leery of those kinds of things -with the sometimes-exception of self-published informational ebooks- because as much as people like to talk shit about “the gatekeepers” the traditional publishing model does hold back the flood of self-aggrandizing “personal brand” vanity publishing, badly edited how-tos, and, oh my god, so much fucking supernatural erotica.

While “Beat the Devil” is certainly a cut above that sort of thing, I can’t really say that I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine, but not great. There’s enough to make it worth the two bucks, enough to keep me reading through to the end, there is some pretty bad writing on display. Shubaly can write damn good introspective prose, but his dialog is badly artificial and his need for an external narrative morality skews things to the cliche. I love his oral history, the telling of insane stories that feel real and drive forward with undeniable emotional honesty, but there’s a lot of shit to wade through, and it’s sometimes distractingly bad.

All of this culminates in the mediocre recommendation of “try the sample?” for this particular artifact and a pretty solid “fuck this noise” on the whole “Kindle Singles” thing. I feeling like Shubaly’s work is some of the better writing in this particular medium, and it’s only OK. I’d love to see more small presses and lit mags really push things on the ebook front, but with Amazon’s history of fucking over presses and booksellers, I completely understand the reluctance.

Recommendation: “try the sample?”

Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America

Lorrie Moore is good at writing short stories. This surprises no one, I assume. I had read one or two of her stories in anthologies, but never took the time to sit down with an entire book. Some short story writers seem to come across better in small doses, but many of the best (Carver, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones spring to my mind) seem to offer the most to the reader when their collections are read all at once. There’s some kind of cumulative effect, a thing that no doubt relates to thematic or narrative connections present within a collection, but which owes even more to the experience of spending more time within that writer’s own aesthetic universe, familiarizing oneself with a certain pacing or sense of humor or dramatic sentimentality, or whatever specific intangible it may be. Moore is definitely included here. I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I kept reading, and I don’t think it was because the stories themselves were getting better -I was getting better at reading them.

These stories are not often particularly engaging if read strictly on the level of plot, although there are certain exceptions to this. They are engaging mostly out of their wildly different and always enjoyable senses of voice. There are all kinds of people in Birds of America and they all have different ways of getting their identities out there. Even characters who might seem superficially similar when viewed from a strictly plot-looking synopsis cut markedly different lines in prose.

While the characters who inhabit this book each inform their stories with variance in a free indirect narrative sort of thing, there is something distinctly universal to the author in the descriptive prose, a way with metaphor and simile that is very hard to define, and is probably the single most important factor in the quality of Moore’s prose. She has a way of writing something novel that communicates an idea as effectively and as universally as a cliche would. I still can’t figure out the exact mechanics, or any kind of worthwhile definition, but, damn. It’s impressive both when you notice it and when you don’t.

Recommendation: Read it! Don’t sell yourself short by reading her work in isolation.