Thursday Apr 18

RobertClarkYoung3 One of things I enjoy the most about editing creative nonfiction for Connotation Press is the yearly recognition, for our August retrospective issue, of the best writers I’ve presented in the past twelve months. As much pleasure as I get from making these “best of” selections, the process itself is often difficult, simply because the reason I publish any piece is because I already believe it to be excellent.

And so I take a kind of arduous joy in crunching my brain in order to arrive at the “best of the best.” These are the results for the past year:  

In “From the Diaphragm,”Jeffrey Condran mixes the personal, the scholarly, and the dramatic without once losing his deftness or his balance. In the old days, this sort of accomplishment used to be referenced as a “virtuoso performance” or “tour de force,” though Condran’s postmodern concerns certainly didn’t exist in those days. Never mind. You should hop aboard for the ride—it weaves and dips and rises and zooms through some amazing and amazingly divergent terrain without once making you seasick—it just enlightens and thrills you.

“Heroes and Domestic Tyrants,” by Lisa Ampleman, begins in a very intriguing way. The first-person grabber line is usually the province of fiction, rather than nonfiction. Here’s this one, and I defy you to read only the first line of the piece: “When my cousin’s wife, Lorrie, was around twenty weeks pregnant, her pelvic bones began to separate.” The reader who is unsure of genre may well get so caught up in the story as to forget all about genre. And yet the piece is not only a good example of creative nonfiction, but a great one.

The same can be said for “The Reluctant Organ Donor,” by Penn Stewart. This isn’t just the story of a musical instrument; it’s the story of a family. I’ll allow you to experience its emotions for yourself. Try the first line: “Back in the early 70s my grandparents’ house burned down.” The story is all true, and it reads as being true, yet it employs the fictional techniques of getting hold of you with the first line, keeping you interested with suspense, making you feel compassion for the people in it, and organizing itself around a central symbol.

The truth is always a powerful subject, and I think the world could learn something from Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade , the coauthors of “Two Characters.” As they tell us, “Journalists claim to want the facts, ‘and only the facts,’ but philosophers remind them of Nietzsche’s view: ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ So, what about the writers? They are interested in truth, that strange amalgam of fact andinterpretation. A writer will always wonder which details are relevant, and she will always assume, simultaneously, that all the details are.”

Every now and then I present a writer whose work, I’d like to think, only I have the courage to publish. While it’s possible that an academic journal might publish a piece that attacks the educational system—including students and parents—is isn’t necessarily so. Thus I’m proud to give you an excerpt of “Hall of Fools” by Shamrock McShane. The title is apt, and so is the writer’s honesty.

Andrew Tonkovich brings us “Grace Paley: Some History, Together.” Tonkovich has a good deal in common with Paley, in addition to page-by-page writing skill. He shares her ability to make us look at a subject that might seem over-familiar and force us to encounter it in a new way—and that’s an experience that’s always worth the read.

A piece that reminds me of my family heritage is “Tocadiscos” by Yasmin Ramirez. Many people don’t know this from looking at me, but I am half Mexican. On my mother’s side, I have a number of Mexican cousins who are even fairer than I am—they have blond hair and blue eyes. One of my great grandfathers, it is said, was exiled to Mexico from Spain for being a religious heretic. I’m just as proud of him as I am of the Union cavalryman on my dad’s side of the family. Like Yasmin Ramirez, I grew up with Mexican records on the turntable. I’ve never read anything about this experience, and so it’s with great personal interest that I present her piece to you.

In “Living the Questions” Dorit Sasson tells us of some adventures she had as a youth in her father’s country of Israel. I’ve had a number of adventures in my mother’s country of Mexico, including one that was nearly life-threatening, which I wrote about here. Mind you, all I was doing was riding a bus. Sasson’s experiences involve hitchhiking—which I’ve never been brave enough to do—and I’m sure that you are going to greatly enjoy her adventure.

One of the most intriguing kinds of creative nonfiction occurs when the writer combines personal experiences with elements of the scholarly essay, with the author becoming a kind of first-person character. “When I Use Big Words I’m Not Trying to Sound Smart,” by Marquis Bey, is a superb example of this subgenre, and I am sure that you will enjoy it both emotionally and intellectually.

Creative nonfiction writers, by definition, are often interested in cross-genre experimentation, and they’re apt to create any number and variety of multimedia projects. When Barbara Presnell first sent me her excellent piece, “The Photograph,” she suggested that we embed some photographs at appropriate places in the text. Being able to see the photographs that relate to the story only adds to the story’s appeal to the reader’s heart and mind, and I’m sure you’ll agree.

Finally, I’m always looking for new essays to publish. I invite you to submit nonfiction on a topic of your choice. I’m looking for creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and personal essays—with the understanding that these categories often overlap. Up to 10,000 words. Please submit work directly to me at [email protected]. I look forward to reading your work—and who knows, you may even find yourself honored next year in my “best of” column!