On the line between autobiography and fiction.

In her 1652 literary salon, Madeleine de Scudery introduced the word “roman a clef” to describe a genre of writing that is autobiography overlaid with fiction. Now also called by various names including auto-fiction, nonfiction novel, autobiographical novel, etc.

“So ask me again now—what is autobiographical about my novel—and I will talk about fidelity to emotional effect and contextual variance. About level shifts and category shifts and the impossibility of exact equivalencies. I might discuss the translatability of the source material and then take you through the reconstruction of sound or image or structure. I will mention how inner becomes outer, how sometimes all you can do is convey meaning or form but not both. I will talk about the tension in word choice and metaphor, the gift of plenty and the risk of nuance. I will invite you to wend with me, to wander through the words. Because I am always in the work and outside of it. I am and am not the story.”

- Michelle Bailait-Jones, “On the Impossibility of Locating the Line Between Fiction and Non” (LitHub)

Example of nonfiction novel: Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana.
Multiple epigraphs, pictures, footnotes (academic and digressive), references to pop culture, explications of literary theory. Stories structured by associative leaps and hops from digression to digression. Dedicated to Teju Cole, whose style inspired it.

Kailash uses two voices to tell his story. There is his older self, speaking from twenty years’ distance with the help of his journals and notebooks, and then there is his guiltier, younger self. That’s the voice that the newly arrived, inauthentic-feeling Kailash uses to address an imaginary judge who wants to kick him out of the country. 

- Joanna Biggs, “Erotic Exploration in Immigrant, Montana” (New Yorker)

Kumar explains early and forcefully why these subjects—geopolitics and sex; geography and desire; history and lust—should share pages. In an enormously funny yet simultaneously dark recurring device recalling Roth’s Portnoy addressing his psychiatrist, Kailash speaks to an imagined immigration judge whom he pictures adjudicating both his status in America and his libidinous proclivities. Sex, Kailash tells us, is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.”

-Sanjena Sathian, “Geopolitics and Sex, Geography and Desire: On Amitava Kumar’s ‘Immigrant, Montana’" (The Millions)

Teju Cole: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely?” 

Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti practice an auto-fiction in which the book turns in to the self while Alice Sebold and Teju Cole write novels that turn to the world.

The difference between fiction and memoir may be the difference—when it comes to meaning, that recyclable plastic thing we crave in our lives, and without which we become despondent and ultimately inert—between metaphor and referential mania. They say the truth shall set you free, but it seems rather to be the case that fiction, or, Stories About Fake People, who can be understood by means of the empathic engine of metaphor to be yourself, shall free you from that intolerable freedom we call meaninglessness. 

- Rebecca Wolff, “Our Sense of Truth” (Lithub)

Phillip Roth’s view of selfhood as perpetual performance with a character in a book being only one variant of that enormous possibility.

“People constantly change their story… we are writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.”

- William Gass quoting Phillip Roth, “Deciding to Do the Impossible” (New York Times)

Tim Parks on Leo Tolstoy’s use of life for fiction. After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy chose the performance of goodness and sainthood over the writing of fiction, which felt to him like an indulgence. His relationship with Sonya, his wife, and their thirteen children, kept him rooted in the flesh and the material. Then in 1887, Tolstoy returned to fiction to write The Kreutzer Sonata (my personal favorite novella), in which protagonist holds his views on abstinence and material world and kills his wife in a fit of rage when he discovers she is having an affair with the violin teacher. Six years later, Sonya fell involve with her younger piano teacher but Tolstoy did not kill her. It’s not clear whether he wrote the script for the affair or predicted it. A character is not a steady state so much as a tension between various poles and forces. The problem is being anyone at all.

“Let’s offer this formulation: a certain kind of writer, for whom the day-to-day performance of self—the interaction of personality with the world—is complex and conflicted, invents multiple fictional selves who deal with the same predicament in different ways. Rather than establishing any ultimate truth about identity, such a writer explores possibilities that might be dangerous or incompatible in real life. In short, the writing becomes an extension of the living.”

- Tim Parks, “How Best to Read Auto-Fiction” (New York Review of Books

In “Corn Maze,” Pam Houston talks about the blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction.  When she toured for her first fiction collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, the question she was asked most often was how much of this really happened to her? She answered honestly: “A lot of it.” 

Houston maintains that truth can never be an absolute. The instability of truth automatically locates creative nonfiction between genres.

“When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given the ever-shifting junction of code and context. Given the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident. Given our denial. Given our longings. // Who cares really if she hung herself or slit her wrists when what really matters is that James Frey is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her.”

The line of acceptable imagining in blurry. Houston gives example of three Italian kayakers which she loosely invented for an essay which the editor removed because they weren’t “real” in the sense of being verifiable. Maybe they were Spanish. On the other hand, the same editor added a fog to create atmosphere. 

Her novel of 144 chapters does not purport to be nonfiction. And yet, as the James Frey scandal blew up, Pam Houston revisited her naming strategies.

“In past books I have used Millie, Lucy, and Rae. For the sake of sentence rhythm, I was leaning towards something with one syllable, but it would also be convenient to the book if the replacement name meant something as embarrassing as what the name “Pamela” means: which is all honey. I had considered Melinda, which on some sites means honey and could be shortened to Mel. I had considered Samantha which means listener, and could be shortened to Sam.  But in the car with the elk in the pasture and the snow on the road and Jeff Tweedy in my ears I was all of a sudden very angry at whoever it was who put all that pressure on Oprah Winfrey. This book was in danger of missing the whole point of itself if my name were not Pam in it. If my name were not Pam in it, who was the organizing consciousness behind these 144 tiny miraculous coincident unrelated things?”

In naming characters for fiction, the conventions don’t always make sense. You can write fiction that resembles a real person more than the nonfiction that names them and proceeds carefully. 

“Speaking only for myself, now, I cannot see any way that my subsequent well-being depends on whether or not, or how much, you believe what I am telling you—that is to say—on the difference (if there is any) between 82 and 100 percent true. My well-being (when and if it exists) resides in the gaps language leaves between myself and the corn maze, myself and the Las Vegas junkies, myself and the elk chest-deep in snow. It is there, in that white space of language’s limitation that I am allowed to touch everything, and it is in those moments of touching everything, that I am some version of free.”

Her writing tends to avoid didactic statements because she feels like she can’t speak for everyone.

“I have never felt comfortable speaking for anyone except myself. Maybe I had been socialized not to make declarative statements. Maybe I thought you had to be fifty before you knew anything about the world. Maybe I was afraid of misrepresenting someone I thought I understood but didn’t. Maybe I was afraid of acting hypocritically. Maybe I have always believed it is more honest, more direct, and ultimately more powerful, to tell a story, one concrete and particular detail at a time.”

And finally, in loose sum, a writing prompt of sorts from Alexander Chee’s essay, “The Writing Life,” found in How to Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays:

“The writer Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day ‘the consolations of the mask,’ where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory.” 

Lia Purpura on the writer's journal plus a writing exercise inspired by David Shields.

A Journal and a Notepad

Lia Purpura recommends carrying an intermediary little pad as a catch-all that you can transcribe into your journal at the end of the day.

Found journals include the artifacts of daily life, the to-do lists, the odd objects, the sudden observations.

Review your journals for “patterns of thought” or “patterns of image.” Note recurrences and memories that keep begging to be addressed. Set tasks or writing habits for yourself in the journal. For example, “I’ll look out this window every morning for 3 months and record what I see.” Note the patterns that emerge in a single day of your life. How do these patterns juxtapose against the rhythms? What patterns emerge in a week? What obstacles continue to arise that thwart you?

Writing Prompt

David Shields describes “appropriation art” as “when you steal but make a point of stealing, because by changing the context you change the connotations.” How is this true? How does it apply to fashion? Give a few examples of writers and artists that create appropriation art.

"S M" by Alice Walker.

I tell you, Chickadee
I am afraid of people
who cannot cry
Tears left unshed
turn to poison
in the ducts
Ask the next soldier you see
enjoying a massacre
if this is not so.

People who do not cry
are victims
of soul mutilation
paid for in Marlboros
and trucks,


Violence does not work
except for the man
who pays your salary
Who knows
if you could still weep
you would not take the job.

On kissing.

Sometimes it’s terrible.

Then there are times when you kiss your way to heaven until your lips ache and you realize the guy you’ve been drooling with is named Dwight. Which adds a different dimension to the kisses and makes you wonder about his mother, who is suddenly present in the kiss, inserting herself between your lips and his, altering the fullness, the swelling ardors. Dwight? What the fuck? Oh God.

On not wanting to be your BFF.

I can’t whistle or remember the really cute hopscotch rhymes. My mom doesn’t buy soda. We don’t even have cable. I’m not allowed to play with Barbies, shave my legs, or get a perm. You can seriously do better. 

On my husband’s sleep habits.

He doesn’t need any. Even if he did need habits, he would fall asleep too quickly to remember them. He has a steady regimen of sleep accidents, coincidences, and uncanny events. But not habits. No habits ever. 

Exploring "fraudulent artifacts" as form.

Over 150 Extensive Artifact Forms for Fiction or Nonfiction


Note: This isn't exhaustive. And many could fall under multiple categories. 

How-to guides, instructions, and manuals

  1. Lorrie Moore's "How To Become a Writer"
  2. Lauren Schenckman's "A Guide to Fooling Yourself"
  3. Naira Kuzmich's "How to Date a White Guy"
  4. Laura Madeline Wiseman's "How to Measure Your Breast Size"
  5. Chelsey Biondollilo, "How to Skin a Bird"  
  6. Rebecca Bernard's  "How to Be Another Person in 5 Days"
  7. Lindsey's Palka's "How to Explore a Graveyard"
  8. Cait Powell's "A Manual for Surviving an Accidental Drowning" (safety manual)
  9. Lucy A. Snyder's "Installing Linux in a Dead Badger"
  10. Melanie Rae Thon's "Instructions for Extinction"
  11. Kristina Ten's "Confirmation" (religious instructional)
  12. Marriage manual (see Stanley Crawford's Some Instructions to My Wife...)
  13. Housekeeping manual
  14. Social story or social prompt
  15. Lauren Goodwin Slaughter's "After Your Milk Comes In" (sleep training guide)
  16. Manuel Martinez's "Travel Tips
  17. Chella Courington's "Parenting 101" (parenting how-to)
  18. Jonatham Lethem's "Elevator Pitches" (elevator pitches for movies)
  19. Tara Laskowski's "The Etiquette of Adultery"
  20. Rob Kenagy's "Prayer for Alien Abductees"


  1. Ron Carlson's "Single Woman for Long Walk on the Beach"
  2. Ben White's "Will Babysit for Little $$$$
  3. Patrick Madden's "Writer Michael Martone's Leftover Water" (Ebay listing)
  4. Frank Ferri's "Selected Personals from the American Psychiatric Association's Dating Website"
  5. Advertorials
  6. Missing pet flyer
  7. Missing person poster
  8. Obit 

Epistolary forms

  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, "A Novel in Nine Letters"
  2. Sean Lovelace's "Letters to Jim Harrison
  3. Amelia Gray's "Diary of the Blockage" (diary)
  4. Michael Sheehan's "To Whom It May Concern"
  5. Alina Stefanescu, "Dear Committee for the Socialization of Illegal Aliens" (letter to government agent)
  6. Oyl Miller's "A Cover Letter From an Art Major Seeking a Job That Literally Requires Him to Apply the Skills He Learned in School" (cover letter)
  7. Raymond Carver's "Why, Honey?" (love letter)
  8. Amitava Kumar, "Love Poems for the Border Patrol
  9. Tiff Holland's "Letter to my love" (love letter)
  10. Break-up letter
  11. Recommendation letter
  12. Rejection letter
  13. David Shield's "Possible Postcards from Rachel, Abroad"
  14. Stephanie Dickinson's "Postcard from the Bum House" (postcard)
  15. Sympathy card
  16. Congratulations card
  17. Edward Hardy, "Apology #9: Not About the Toaster"
  18. Samantha Hunt's "Letter to Stephen Hawking" (fan mail)
  19. Amy Hempel's "Reference #388475848-5" (traffic ticket correspondence)
  20. Lydia Davis' "Letter to a Funeral Parlor" (customer complaint)
  21. Sea Sharp's "Shrinkology" (customer complaint)
  22. Joe Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy" (epistolary series addressed to a business establishment)
  23. see George Saunders' "I Can Speak!" (product refund request)
  24. Kyle Brown's "Dear Fiction Editor
  25. Adam McOmber's "A Memory of the Christ by the Apostle John" (religious epistle)
  26. Stephen Yuan's "The Book of John" (epistle)
  27. Meg Favreau's "The San Diego Snake Company's September Newsletter" (newsletter)

School assignments or coursework

  1. Caitline Horrocks' "It Looks Like This" (high school essay)
  2. Joyce Carol Oates, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again" (English class essay)
  3. Leigh Stein, "Writing Prompts for Girls and Women" (writing prompts)
  4. Ron Cohen's "The Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction" (college course description)
  5. Jill Talbot's "The Professor of Longing"(syllabus)
  6. Amie Barrodale's "Prospectus"
  7. Jenna Le's "Book Report" (book report)
  8. Charles Yu's "Problems for Self-Study" (multiple choice test)
  9. Mike Topp's "Stuyvesant Bee #88" (high school newspaper)
  10. Peter Cherches' "Reading Comprehension" (assignment)
  11. Ian Frazier's "Have You Ever?" (assignment)
  12. Ani King's "Conjugate "to be", using complete sentences" (grammar exercise)
  13. School journal
  14. Science project description
  15. Will Slattery, "Impressions and Preliminary Maxims Gleaned From Teaching High School English"
  16. Tina May Hall's "The Extinction Museum: Exhibit #71 (flap of lichen preserved between two panes of glass)" (museum exhibit)

Academic and/or scientific documents

  1. White paper
  2. Fieldwork report
  3. Field guide (see Ben Greenman's “A Field Guide to the North American Bigfoot”)
  4. Elizabeth Wade's "Variant Table
  5. Eula Bliss's "The Pain Scale" (scale of measurement)
  6. Amie Barrodale's "Prospectus"
  7. Michelle Ross' "Key Concepts in Ecology" 
  8. Wendy Brenner's "The Instrumental Side of Human Communication" (conference presentation)
  9. Steven Zultanski's "Mouths" (statistical compendium)
  10. Description of medical condition (see Randall Billings Noble, "The Heart As Torn Muscle")
  11. Description of medical procedure (see Lish Troha's "Demonectomy")
  12. Notes (see Rick Moody's "The Preliminary Notes" or Will Slattery, "Impressions and Preliminary Maxims Gleaned From Teaching High School English")
  13. Editorial notes (see Orli Matlow's "Editorial Notes From Your Twitter Troll")
  14. Summary of a concept in philosophy or rhetoric (see David Jose Villaverde's "Zeno's Paradsox (of which he had several)")
  15. Math notes or theorems (see Chad Simpson's "Let X")
  16. Book review

Legal documents or official forms

  1. Matthew Vollmer's "Will and Testament" (will)
  2. Estate inventory
  3. Mieke Eerkins' "Vis a Vis Love" (marital contract or prenup)
  4. Divorce decree
  5. Police report
  6. Security incident report
  7. Noise complaint
  8. Suspicious wildlife activity report
  9. Suspicious activity report
  10. Nels Hanson's "Update" (medical history)
  11. Psych evaluation
  12. Immigration interview
  13. Medical discharge report
  14. Mike DiChristina's "Appeal" (legal appeal)
  15. Rich Ives' "Declarations of Attendance"
  16. Workplace employee assessment
  17. Nonprofit donor report
  18. Nonprofit request for funding application
  19. Business plan


  1. R. M. Berry's "History" (introduction)
  2. Ben Greenman's "Introduction" (introduction)
  3. Any one of Michael Martone's illustrious third-person bios
  4. Joanna Novak's "JoAnna Novak" (third person bio)
  5. Lance Olsen's "Table of Contents" (table of contents)
  6. J. Robert Lennon's "The Year's Best Fiction 2008: The Authors Speak" (anthology)
  7. Michael Martone's "Acknowledgement" (acknowledgements)
  8. Michael Parrish Lee's "The People Catalogue" (compendium)
  9. Elaine Chiew's "Compendium of Chinese Ghosts, Part I & II" (compendium)
  10. Jonathan Lethem's "Liner Note" (liner note)
  11. Ben Greenman's "A Note on the Type" (liner note)
  12. Michael Martone's "Contributor's Note" (contributor's note)
  13. David Means' "Disclaimer" (disclaimer)
  14. Jill Talbot, "Words for Snow" (lexicon)
  15. Temim Fruchter, "Glossary of Chain Accidents" (glossary)
  16. J. G. Ballard's "The Index" (index)
  17. Matt Bell's "An Index of How Our Family Was Killed" (index)
  18. Rick Moody's "Primary Sources" (annotations)
  19. Sean Brijbasi's "excerpts from a dictionary of coincidences, vol. i" (dictionary)
  20. Enclyclopedia entry
  21. Wikipedia entry
  22. Malcom Sutton and Francois Lemieux's "1001 Xanadus" (ancient text)
  23. Lauren Trembath-Neuberger, "Drug Facts" (drug reference)
  24. Shirley Jackson's "Dildo" (description or explanation)
  25. Steven Millhauser's "Phantoms" (case study)
  26. Ben Greenman's “A Field Guide to the North American Bigfoot” (field guide)
  27. Teddy Wayne's "Rules and Regulations for Benehmen!, the German Board Game of Discipline" (board game rules)
  28. Steven Millhauser's "A Game of Clue" (board game rules)

Web and social medias

  1. Rob Wittig's"The Fall of the Site of Masha" (website)
  2. Dinty W. Moore's "Mr. Plimpton's Revenge" (google map)
  3. Email
  4. Facebook post with comments
  5. Spam
  6. Robin Hemley's "Reply All" (listserve)
  7. Nextdoor.com post
  8. Internet banner
  9. Twitter feed
  10. YouTube comment
  11. Subreddit chat transcript
  12. Travel guide or intinerary
  13. Orli Matlow's "Editorial Notes From Your Twitter Troll"

Surveys, self-help and questionnaires:

  1. Dwaine Rieves' "The Animal; Questionnaire 1"
  2. Customer satisfaction survey
  3. Mary Kay Jordan Fleming's "Parent Readiness Quiz"
  4. John Yau's "Questionnaire"
  5. Claudia Cortese's “Origin Story” and “Answer Key to Origin Story
  6. Nancy McCabe, "Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved?: A Quiz"
  7. Art Taylor's "Master the Art of French Cooking" (recipe)
  8. Wedding announcement
  9. Colin Nissan's "It's Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers" (seasonal advice column)
  10. Heather Murphy's "To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder" (safety tips)

Transcripts or minutes:

  1. TV transcript
  2. Dictation transcript
  3. Informational video transcript
  4. Phone text transcript
  5. Neighborhood garden club monthly minutes

Interviews or profiles

  1. David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"
  2. Elizabeth Syuckey-French's "Interview With a Moron"
  3. Claire Polders' "Office Women: Three Portraits and Thirteen Questions"
  4. Donald Barthelme's "The Explanation"
  5. Keynote speech 
  6. Political stump speech

Memoirs and bio forms

  1. James Bradley's "Artist Statement #64" (artist statement)
  2. "John Yau's "Unauthorized Biography" (informal bio)
  3. Captain's log
  4. Pilot's log
  5. Amber Sparks' "The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: A Nightly Log
  6. Travel diary
  7. Michelle Herman's "Tunings, Counterfactuals" (memoir)
  8. Dream journal
  9. David Shields' "Life Story"
  10. John Barth's "Life-Story"
  11. Eulogy
  12. Epitaph
  13. David Alpagh's "Poetic Template for Introducting a Featured Bard" (introduction)
  14. Kevin Brockmeier's "The Jesus Stories" (holy scriptures)
  15. Resume

Various lists

  1. Ingredient list
  2. Menu or meal plan
  3. Spotify playlist
  4. Kelle Groom's "25 Reasons to Attend the Gala"
  5. Lea Page, "Things I Did After Each of 32 Rejections"
  6. Kathyrn Lipari's "12 Things I Can Tell You About Cutting"
  7. Rich Ives' "Improperly Used Tools of Parenting"
  8. Matthew Williamson's "Discarded Notions"
  9. Meg Pokrass' "To-Do List"
  10. Sofi Stambo's "Lists" (shopping lists)
  11. Deb Olin Unferth’s “Things That Went Wrong Thus Far”
  12. Dennard Dayle's "Recent Activity" (credit card statement)
  13. Kristen Iskandrian's "Remarks My Immigrant Mother Has Made About Babies"
  14. Jack Pendarvis' "Our Spring Catalog" (publisher's catalog)

Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, Found Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts, edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, is hot in my head right now.  Shields and Vollmer define “fraudulent artifacts” as “a text purporting to be a particular form of writing… which also tells a story, stirs thoughts and emotions, inspires inquiry, initiates action, and/or calls into question that which is—or has purported to be—real.”

Here's the frame:  An artifact is by definition an object constructed by a human being. Every artifact arises from a series of decisions taken by its maker. These artifacts are governed by social conventions and how we use or abuse them, how we fill the box. Conventions are nothing if not a way to create expectations. These expectations are a primary tool in the writer’s arsenal.

A fraudulent artifact infuses a received form with a story, thus creating an object “more authentic than the original upon which it was based.” The deceptiveness is self-reflexive as well as confessional.

Notice where risks can be taken in each form or genre and then "redraw the limitations." Use the form as vehicle to carry narrative. Make sure artifact reveals something about the narrator, generally the maker of the artifact. And, if you're smart, read the introduction to the book online in PDF for free, where the authors lay this out more cogently. 

Experimental fiction is the art of telling a story in which certain aspects of reality have been exaggerated or distorted in such a way as to put the reader off the story and make him go watch a television show. Another aspect of the experimental story is the innovative use of language.

The ending of an experimental story is very important. It should make no sense, thus disrupting the reader’s dominant paradigm. You, the reader, should just sit there, stunned, asking yourself, “Wait, am I missing the last page?”
— George Saunders, "Writing Experimental Fiction"
Breaking the rules involves risk. Risk produces tension. Tension produces energy. Energy produces momentum.
— David Shields and Matthew Vollmer

Other must-reads in my innovative fiction craft bible:



Random promptings

And a few things I've never seen which may possibly exist but would still be very cool to read at some point:

  1. Retirement community newsletter
  2. Application for political asylum
  3. Eviction notice
  4. Currency transaction report for withdrawal or deposit of large sum at bank
  5. Hobby Lobby supply room inventory
  6. Hobby Lobby secret abortion fund
  7. Hobby Lobby Recovery Group minutes
  8. GoFundMe profile
  9. Mall parking lot prophecy
  10. World of Warcraft guild rules
  11. Personal fitness goals questionnaire
  12. Ketosis and Halitosis report
  13. "20 epigraphs I almost put in a poetry chapbook before I stopped huffing bath salts"
  14. Notes from a Roy Moore sermon
  15. Conscious uncoupling announcement (see Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin for possible template)
  16. "Suspicious wildlife activity report from Lifeway in Nashville, Tennessee"
  17. "List of fortune cookie fortunes that actually happened"
  18. Product recall for specific translation of Bible
  19. "Why I didn't graduate" graduation speech transcript
  20. Amazon.com wedding registry
  21. "Writing Retreat That No One Can Afford" application
  22. 22 things you did instead of writing a memoir
  23. 21 things you did instead of telling your spouse the truth
  24. 20 ways to protest Trump while shopping for groceries at your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly



Where to submit

And, of course, it's always a tough call when deciding where to submit your innovative form fiction. Some literary magazines nurture a special affinity for formal and genre innovations. Take the time to learn more about the editors and the landscape. Then pick your best piece and roll the dice.

Why I love James Meetze's "Phantom Hour".

Phantom Hour. By James Meetze. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2016. 83 pp. $18.00.

James Meetze's Phantom Hour embraces metaphysical uncertainty. In this collection which Meetze inscribes "for my father and for his memory", we encounter a poetics of amnesia and absent memory. The geography is immediate, located within the human body, its failings, and the mind which negotiates time through memory. Poetry becomes a vehicle to bear absence, to speak silence. 

For the son who aims to paint a portrait of his father, dementia offers a heavy brush painting over the curves, erasing beloved details and particularities, obliterating perspective and light, leaving vague shapes and abstracted loss. "Memory is the architect of forgetfulness", but also the agent of preservation, the palette in which we hold one another captive, the curator of what is to come. The language reveals memory's antipodal nature, a back and forth, erase and rewind, interrupted by the way in which objects render the absence of memory palpable.  

To convey this dizzying motion, Meetze makes use of form, alternating between lineated stanzas and lyric into heavy prose blocks. 

This drifts between his father and memory of the person his father was when he had the ability to say it. The poems are his "profession":

to record the trail of our flesh: this. 

When he offers "lyric as lineage", Meetze addresses his father as a son who writes in order to remember-- "to know the narrative of our blood." The flesh is a staging ground for embodied history, and the narrative of blood is filled with the stories of others: 

I address myself in reference to what I remember.

This address includes multiple audiences--  the father he knew, the face behind the phantom, and the fear of ghosts dwelling in our own blood. While the science of genetic mapping can offer us new certainties about the origins of Alzheimer's, it provides no exorcism, no cure for genetic haunting. The phantom in the gene code-- this "genetic disposition"-- the science of what we cannot prevent. These are questions which others must answer for us. In our name. 

Family history hides inside a surname-- "a noose", by Meetze's metaphor-- which renders us subjects, a place in our common past from which the serialized self  is "hung", simultaneously extinguished and eulogized.  Meetze seems to suggest that mythologies provide a way to incorporate the change and transform surprising events into safe, holy, untouchable spaces. 

Want and story and loss inhabit me
speaking words aloud to make them real things.

The phantom hour is marked by the absence of the human and yet the memory which intervenes re-builds this absence into a physical fact, solid as "gray matter". Meetze's muse expands to include the mind itself, our place in that mind, the rituals of entry and exit. And the risk inherent in writing for phantoms. 

Unlike automatic writing which transcribes the words of the absent, we are faced with the terror of possible forgery. Fear of forgetting, of wronging, of perverting, is present. Love tempts us to idealize our parents as parts of a usable past. This temptation lies in the hollows of Meetze's half-shades:

Look, ghost, you too are legend, madman
a stanza in our longer story.

The ethics of remembering hinges on this blurred boundary between remembering and rendering. When a body is rebuilt or re-membered, it is an approximation of an original, at best. We see this ethics at work in the construction of memorials and public monuments in which a certain valiant aspect of the memory is rendered solid and immovable. 

The ghosts this poem is written for
are the ghosts of the poem.

Neuroscientific studies show memory to be a process of constant revision. Each time a particular memory is accessed, the mind rewrites and revises. The violation of lived reality is inescapable in the act of honoring the past. In Meetze's use, honor is not merely verbal but "perpetual condition". He juxtaposes the rigidity of his father's honor--its diligent manners, its formal gestures-- against the fluidity of memory itself.

Everything is not what we assume
and this is the problem; the body in this world
moves between challenges and finds its way
to that other world in which the ghosts say.

The saying and the said. the careful use of syntax to reverse expectation, as in the line: "The specters of our past are with us to say." Our loved ones cannot stay, Meetze acknowledges, while asserting a greater privilege, the possibility of "saying". 

"Sacred to the memory" it says.
If only, like this, the mind
were a stone
and the story its engraver.

This distinction between saying and speaking is a fascinating ontological question which deserves further poetic treatment. 

 The liturgical aspects of poetic longing emerge in Meetze's interspersed incantations of holy words ("Here is the body, and here the blood."), and the pulse of fear released by careful caesura and lineation. 

My prayer is narrative; it too is a form of song.
Those hold together everything we remember.

We abandon the chronological linearity of historical time to for the multiplicitous memories and associations of neurological time. How to deal with an end to our linear, earthly lives?

These questions are not meant to be answered.
I think existence hinges on our unknowing.

The poet's challenge is to acknowledge the awe in these questions rather than depict their tidy resolution. The tools of the human spirit, the poet's screws and hammers, have not kept pace with scientific discovery. We are left with the same broken techne:

When I asked, a caesura
where an answer should be.
This house could be.
You or I were not yet there, were,
in some small way, lacunae,
imagined in absentia.

Meetze's assertion--"I am nonlinear"-- dangles between response and proposition. This interstitial, in-betweening spirit is the poet's voice. Giving up the things we have memorized and known in exchange for the things we cannot believe-- the phantoms, the nonlinear time, the material insistence of placed objects-- we permit the memories to speak for themselves. Meetze acknowledges: "These memories comprise my council." But the council does not absolve us. We are left with the responsibility of reconciling our family histories in the larger context of current life. 

Meetze flirts with Jean-Luc Godard's suggestion that art has no obligations to memory and no duty to render reality truthfully, since truth is an outcome inherent to the process of well-made art. Despite this implied freedom, the placed poet, the poet charged with family history, struggles with the intimacies of memory, or how it becomes a process of negotiation within families, a narrative woven and rewoven by different voices, a "we" that unthreads into separate strands:

No one wants
to be a river
more than we.

"Remember lest you be haunted" is the twentieth century's warning, the vestige of totalitarian regimes, gulags, and nationalisms. But Meetze remembers in order to be haunted, as if the haunted is one emboldened by courage to hunt forbidden images. The poet becomes the haunted hunter of memory. We trust him for being loyal to the memory rather than the world which makes use of it. 

As the cycle winds down, Meetze returns to absence. Rather, he returns to the absentia of poetry: 

The phantom is in the hour of the book, it is the book, and the work the words do in the absence of their author. 

Though Meetze doubts his role as son, progenitor, and patriarch, he establishes his bearings in a poetic vice. His father did not trust the poet to tell a true story. Yet, when Alzheimer's arrives, it is the poet who is best equipped to bear this journey towards loss. 

In the moving finale, Meetze gives his father permission expand the boundaries of what we see.  A simple envoi for an unfathomable journey: 

I hope it is sound.

Poised between wine and the blood, the invisible act is transubstantiation. This transubstantive space that lingers between the shadows of synapses is Meetze's lodestar. It is courageous, metaphysically transgressive-- utterly shameless in its sublimity

"Free Union" by Andre Breton.

My wife whose hair is a brush fire
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger
Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude
Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow
Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass
Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer
The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut
Whose tongue is an incredible stone
My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child
Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows
My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs
With steam on the windows
My wife whose shoulders are champagne
Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice
My wife whose wrists are matches
Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts
Whose fingers are fresh cut hay
My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit
And Midsummer Night
That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails
Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea
And a fusion of wheat and a mill
Whose legs are spindles
In the delicate movements of watches and despair
My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders
Whose feet are carved initials
Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks
My wife whose neck is fine milled barley
Whose throat contains the Valley of God
And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom
My wife whose breasts are of night

And are undersea molehills
And crucibles of rubies
My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses
Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight
Is a giant talon
My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight
With a back of quicksilver
And bright lights
My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and white chalk
And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk
My wife with the thighs of a skiff
That are lustrous and feathered like arrows
Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock
And imperceptible balance
My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax
Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring
My wife with the sex of an iris
A mine and a platypus
With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles
My wife with the sex of a mirror
My wife with eyes full of tears
With eyes that are purple armour and a magnetized needle
With eyes of savannahs
With eyes full of water to drink in prisons
My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the axe
My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire 


Translated by David Antin

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).