Monday, June 4, 2012

Writing Nonfiction Worthy of the Literary Magazine, Part 1

Does “Because It Really Happened” Make Nonfiction?: An introduction

It has been my pleasure to be a worker at Umbrella Factory Magazine. When Umbrella Factory Magazine started up in late 2009, the founding members decided not to give any member of the UFM staff a title other than worker. It was part of the whole branding exercise and formation identity that the magazine ultimately adopted as standard operating procedure. Worker also puts it into focus with this: since 2009 I have been fiction editor, retro-issue designer; writing workshop facilitator, spokesperson; screenprinter, publisher; editor-in-chief, chief financial operator and nonfiction editor. Pretty impressive list of jobs, right? Well the title of “worker” is all encompassing. Every other worker at UFM has a long list of job titles and positions that they have filled, are currently filling or will someday fill. It's the nature of big endeavors and small literary magazines. Honestly, every post I've held within the UFM structure has been rewarding, by which I mean: a resume builder, CV enhancer or a good barroom story. The trickiest post, by far, has been the post of nonfiction editor. This job is a lesson in patience, empathy and anger management. It really has. It has raised questions such as 1) where have all the writers gone? 2) is there a difference between writing in one's diary on a sunny afternoon at the coffeehouse and a memoir? AND 3) perhaps we should do away with nonfiction as a separate category or can we purposefully not represent this genre at all?

Is Nonfiction worth fighting for? When we scramble a week before our magazine deadline for something good to run as nonfiction, I say no. No. No. No. No one's reading nonfiction because if they were, well, then we'd have some writers of nonfiction. In Issue 9, for instance, we ran a Micheal Grady short play for our entire nonfiction selection. I should say that I've always been a bit of a Grady-groupie and I used my clout (as well as a tone of desperation) to get him to submit something. Grady and I were at Goddard College together. And as long as we're talking Goddard College, UFM also ran Heather Leah's “The Blanket” in Issue 2. Heather was another classmate of mine. Even if these are only two writers, they are friends and they helped me out. Keeping that in mind, I know only so many people, so what happens when I can no longer count on my personal pool of nonfiction writers to fill the nonfiction slots at Umbrella Factory Magazine?

The filling of nonfiction slots has been a tough task. Anyone who wants to count the number (or even the ratio) of fiction and poetry to nonfiction at UFM, or any other literary magazine, will see that nonfiction is definitely the dwarf. Two reasons for this: 1) the number of nonfiction submissions is tiny, especially next to fiction and poetry. AND 2) What we receive and what we read is terrible. I cannot sugarcoat this enough-99.9% of the nonfiction submissions are worse than a visit to dentist while suffering from a terrible case of diarrhea. Get it? It's painful, and it's shit.

Amanda Bales, UFM's fiction editor, and I speak weekly about the station of life in the Literary States of America. While lamenting the lack of good nonfiction and the minute amount of it, I had to ask her: “Why is it so terrible? Tell me, we both know writers.” It's rhetorical. Many writers of nonfiction have paying gigs, you know, like journalists.

“You and I both know the answer to that,” she said. “How many times have you been teaching and someone turns in total crap and tries to justify it by explaining how the event really happened?” Her supposition is that a writer of a poorly written piece will defend it under the guise of “this really happened.” Who cares? This really happened nonsense cannot be a crutch for poor writing. Dr. Gonzo, truth, lies, or fabrication would never, never, never churn out a piece that was poorly written. As far as I can tell with Hunter S Thompson, good writing was the most important aspect of his work. Don't hide behind “it really happened.”

I didn't start out hating memoir. I fell in love with Frank Conroy's Stop-time. I thought David Gilmour's The Film Club was brilliant. Jenna Jameson's memoir as well as the Keith Richard's biography is worthy of the title of memoir. Even within the UFM back issues: Dr. Bernays's “Bugs” is memoir and it makes sense. This piece is wonderfully written, by an expert, and it's easily assessable to someone who doesn't know or care anything about insects. Good memoir is out there. I know this. But every time I open a submission that's less than a couple thousand words and opens with “my mother, my father, my genetic code” I know it's not worth reading. Why? It will almost always lack a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. It will almost always lack anything for me the reader. It's often by someone trying to work something out. Leave it in your journal.

Many writers want to be published. I get that, I want to be published too. I want to be published all over. I want the world to know my name. It's an ego thing. If you are, or you know someone who has this sort of ambition, take it from me, as a writer learn how to write good nonfiction. A writer of good nonfiction will get publications in every literary magazine that represents the genre.

So before we write good nonfiction and before we point fingers and laugh at less-than-good nonfiction, perhaps we should define it.

Nonfiction: The branch of literature comprising works of narrative prose dealing with or offering opinions or conjectures upon facts and reality, including biography, history, and the essay.
Wikipedia,, and Merrian-Webster all offer a similar definition and they some even cite examples. These sites claim that the word nonfiction, (or non-fiction) came into our language around 1909. Well, if that's the case, perhaps this young form of literary endeavor does need some definition.

Let's just say nonfiction is a piece of expository writing based in fact. Further definitions are as follows: piece-a work with a beginning, a middle and an end. Expository writing-writing with a purpose such as, but not limited to, explanation, definition, information, description of a subject to the extent that a reader will understand and feel something. Think about the cave paintings of 30,000 years ago, they tell a story. And for the modern man, a good film documentary conveys its purpose. A film about Andy Warhol and his friends who liked to drink and smoke and screw is interesting. A film about how I felt at age ten and watching the adults in my life drink and smoke and screw is not a good idea. AND Based in fact-have at it. Choose something to write about, learn about it and teach others. That's my definition of nonfiction. I only demand that it's well written and that it serves a purpose.

Just because it really happened is not good enough. Truman Capote wrote a wonderful book called In Cold Blood. It's well written. It's assessable to readers. It's engaging. It made him a very popular writer. It's very well written. And, well, it really happened.

In this series: Writing Nonfiction Worthy of the Literary Magazine I hope to cultivate a whole mass of nonfiction writers. This is a symptom of a small literary magazine editor—I have big endeavors. I hope to make my intentions as an editor clear with this genre. There is a standard: good writing. But there's also a lesson here: choose good content, choose clear goals and a real audience. The course of this series will not be vague. It may encompass elements of memoir, but memoir will not be a topic.

Please come back next week for The Interview.

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