Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Jason Carney: Starve the Vulture

November 10, 2014

Jason Carney, an alumni of the Wilkes Graduate Creative Writing program, is due to release his memoir, Starve the Vulture, in January of 2015 with Kaylie Jones Books. Starve the Vulture has already received excellent feedback, including a review from Kirkus Book Reviews which states, “Carney will easily win sympathy for his life, in which he has persevered to show others the hard work of his salvation.” The novel opens violently, with a car crash happening right before Carney’s eyes, just before a moment of epiphany which leads to Carney’s “grace”. This traumatic experience opens the novel with an enticing sense of danger, consistent with the chaotic uncertainty of Carney’s early life. There is an immediate understanding that the contents of this memoir will not be for the faint of heart. starvethevulturecorrect

Akashic’s website describes the memoir as, “A lyrical, mesmerizing debut from Jason Carney who overcomes his own racism, homophobia, drug addiction, and harrowing brushes with death to find redemption and unlikely fame on the national performance poetry circuit. Woven into Carney’s path to recovery is a powerful family story, depicting the roots of prejudice and dysfunction through several generations.” (You can head to Carney’s page on Akashic’s site by clicking on the book cover to the right.)

One of the most prominent themes in the book is the importance of tolerance and compassion, and how those two things led to Carney’s redemption. Carney learns–through his relationship with an empathetic gay man dying of AIDS–to set his prejudices aside. When Carney does this, it leads to a greater, horrific discovery about the nature of his personal hatred for homosexuals–but instead of getting stuck in his own tragedy, he shares what he has learned about himself and the root of bigotry to students all over the country. Carney teaches others, when we lash out at a group of people, we learn to do so from personal experience and past prejudice.

Recently, Carney had the honor of performing a TED event at Mountain View College near Dallas, Texas. During his talk, he discussed the origins of his family, the hatred he once held for minority groups, and how he was taught to use poetry to define his world. He recites a few of his poems to a completely enraptured crowd, comparing past crimes against minority groups to modern statistics about the disparity between black and white inmates in America. He urges “White America” to have an honest discussion about the continued segregation of minority groups in our country, the silence of hatred, and the lack of conversation that perpetuates it. Carney closes the discussion by stating, “White America needs to have an honest conversation with itself because we segregate ourselves and we talk about freedom.”

I urge readers to check out his talk here:

Carney’s memoir is one of the most important memoirs you will ever read. I encourage everyone to get their hands on this book, which is available for preorder on Amazon. Until then, I was fortunate enough to have Jason Carney answer a few pre-emptive questions I had about the nature of Starve the Vulture, which you can read below!

Tell me a little about your book. What does it mean to you?

Starve the Vulture is the deciphering of the signs of my life. The breaking down of moments to their meaning, when a person takes a look back at their life trapped within severe moments of adversity.

I know that you mostly write poetry–why the switch? Was this a story you had been planning to tell for a long time?

I have been telling this story for 15 years on poetry stages and college campuses. So the progression from poetry to prose seems like a natural one. I had no intention of writing this story until my mother died in 2007. After my plunge into the final throes of addiction and the car wreck, I went to NYC and stayed on long-time friend and American Poets Roger Bon-Air Agard’s couch in Brooklyn. The next thirty days were spent at the Spring Lounge in Manhattan. Eight hours a day, in the back corner with my laptop. From those crazed and drying out hours of writing came 47,000 words which have been molded and revised into the present thread of the story. The original title of the book was Flowers from my Mother’s Funeral.

How was writing this similar to or different from writing poetry?

Similar in the sense that a narrative is a narrative. The poetry slam thrives on narratives, which I think helped me cut to the core of the scenes and not waste time with bullshit that did not belong. I honed my ability to bare my skin in that arena. You cannot hide in front of an audience. After a while, they become part of your writing ritual. I mean the writer brings this influence into the writing process with them.

Was writing this memoir a cathartic experience for you?

In the sense that this book gave me a gift. I wrote it to heal part of myself. This is the gift of this type of project. All writing should be done first for the writer and second for the audience. You cannot give away what you do not have. You cannot manufacture the treasure either, it will manifest the way it wants to in the writer’s life. The gift I received from vulture was not the one for which I wrote it. However, when it presented itself, I fell to my knees in that dorm room in gratitude. I refer to a spiritual gift here—no money or movie option or publishing contract can give this type of gift to you. It must come from the writing. From the universe to the artist, a thank you for the excavation of their bones.

Writing about things does tend to stir up the past and allows old things to resurface in your mind, were there any memories that came back to you that surprised you while writing this?

No not really. That is not true, when I wrote about spending time with my grandparent from the ages of 7-12 on Friday and Saturday nights, I was surprised at the hidden emotions of happiness

that I had denied myself for many years. The chapter was eventually cut from the book, yet when I read those passages I still tear up and cry. Happiness is hard for me.

I know that you had to change a lot of names for the memoir. Is there a concern that the people you’ve written about might recognize themselves and be angry?

I tried to write folks the way I remembered them being. I wanted to change names when discussing illegal acts. I am willing to put my actions out there, but I don’t have a right to expose anyone else. Those involved will recognize themselves, those not involved will not figure their identity. I will not tell them. The names in the book are not clues either. They are just random choices, they hold no secret meaning or metaphor. Cuban came from the lunch I was eating, Yardstick from the yardstick my son was using as a Light-Saber. And so on.

How do you feel the experiences you’ve had have shaped the man you are today?

Everywhere you go there you are. You are the constant in your own life.

Do you ever feel embarrassment in your professional life because of where you’ve come from, or prouder because of the adversity you’ve overcome that others have never been tested with?

I don’t measure myself against you or anyone else. I am unique to me and as common as everyone. No one is more or less than anyone around them. But I offer for you to under-estimate or overlook me. I like to be an unexpected surprise.

I usually make the last question, “What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?” But you have a story so powerful, so interesting, and very unique. I think a better question might be, “What advice do you have for other members of the human race who are faced with adversity?”

In the words of Jimmy V. “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Throwing your arms up into the air is a sign of praise as much as it is a sign of surrender. People should be happy for what gifts they do have, especially amid all the clamoring for what they do not have.

Jason Carney Southern HeritageJason Carney, a performance poet from Dallas, Texas, is a four-time National Poetry Slam Finalist, honored as a Legend of the Slam in 2007. He appeared on three seasons of the HBO television series Russell Simmons’ Def Poets. Jason has performed and lectured at some of our nation’s finest colleges and universities as well as high schools and juvenile detention centers from California to Maine. A graduate of Wilkes University MFA Program for Creative Writing, where he was an honored winner of the Etruscan Prize, the Bergman Foundation Scholarship, and the Norris Church-Mailer Scholarship. He is Co-founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit Young DFW Writers.

The Writer: contest deadline approaches

November 23, 2011

A lot can happen in a week: Thanksgiving with the family; resurfaced issues between in-laws; how a turkey can once again bring together so much love (or resentment, anger, and other genetically passed down neurosis). Use those awkward family moments to your advantage and submit your best work to The Writer essay & memoir contest, new for 2011! The deadline is Nov 30….

The Writer, in collaboration with Gotham Writers’ Workshop, invites writers to enter The Writer 2011 Essay/Memoir Contest with guest judge Lee Gutkind. Only original, unpublished works of 1,000 to 1,200 words will be accepted. Prizes include cash, publication in The Writer, and more. 

Editors at The Writer will read and judge each of the entries and select 20 semifinalists. Lee Gutkind, the finalist judge, will select and rank three winners from among the semifinalists. Lee is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction and author of more than 20 books, including Almost Human: Making Robots Think, featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His new book, You Can’t Make Stuff Up, the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Bible, will be published in July 2012 by DeCapo. He is editor of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.  

Entry fees are $10 US.

The deadline is 1:59PM (EDT) November 30, 2011. 

Visit this link for more info and to submit your work. Go Wilkies!

great opportunity: new essay/memoir contest

August 31, 2011

Did last week’s Q&A with memoirist/essayist Melissa Hart inspire you? Then get your best work in shape and submit to The Writer essay & memoir contest, new for 2011! 

The Writer, in collaboration with Gotham Writers’ Workshop, invites writers to enter The Writer 2011 Essay/Memoir Contest with guest judge Lee Gutkind. Only original, unpublished works of 1,000 to 1,200 words will be accepted. Prizes include cash, publication in The Writer, and more! 

Editors at The Writer will read and judge each of the entries and select 20 semifinalists. Lee Gutkind, the finalist judge, will select and rank three winners from among the semifinalists. Lee is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction and author of more than 20 books, including Almost Human: Making Robots Think, featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His new book, You Can’t Make Stuff Up, the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Bible, will be published in July 2012 by DeCapo. He is editor of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.  

Entry fees are $10 US and the deadline is 1:59PM (EDT) November 30, 2011. 

Visit this link for more info and to submit your work. Go Wilkies!

Q&A with author Melissa Hart

August 24, 2011

Have you ever known a multi-tasker? I mean, a real multi-tasker who seems to juggle it all and do so with grace and, yes, success? When it comes to writing, Melissa Hart colors in and outside of the lines in such a well-rounded fashion that’s so inspiring, she has to be one of my favorite interviews of all time. She’s busy, but she’s incredibly endearing as you see… 

Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009.) She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine, and her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Advocate, Fourth Genre, The Los Angeles Times, Adbusters, High Country News, Orion, Hemispheres, Woman’s Day, and various other publications. She teaches for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program, and for Laurel Springs School.  As well, she works as an independent writing coach and editor. Visit her website at

Welcome, Melissa, and thanks for joining us. Gringa received –and continues to receive — such positive feedback. What do you plan as a follow-up? Are you working on another memoir? 

This summer, I’m finishing the final draft of a memoir about learning to train permanently-injured owls for educational presentations at a raptor rehabilitation center while navigating the baffling process of adopting a child.  The book focuses on people who dedicate their lives to helping injured and orphaned kids and birds of prey.  It’s taken me three years to write, and I’m really excited about its completion and its possibilities to bring awareness to these two demographics which actually have a lot in common! 

As you work on personal essays, how do you know when you come across something that might be ‘memoir-worthy’? How do you know when something has enough meat to carry a book-length theme or motif? 

With Gringa, I knew I wanted to investigate the under-reported phenomenon of children being separated in the 1960s and 70s from newly-out lesbian mothers.  From my perspective as one of those children, I wanted to explore the effects of homophobia on families.  I also wanted to examine my coming of age in multicultural Los Angeles and what it meant to grow up in such a culturally-rich environment, believing I myself had no discernable culture. 

I’ve written numerous short essays about my experiences with adopting my daughter and with owl-training, but I’m fascinated by how the two paralleled each other over two years, and—as I’d taken extensive notes during our adoption process—I realized I had enough material for a book-length work that expands much of my published material on both subjects. 

I urge participants in my writing workshops to identify a specific era and/or event from their life that has energy and conflict and revelation, and to focus their essay or book-length project on this.  For instance, I’ve got a client right now working on a long essay about going to Japan right out of college to assist his grandfather one summer with some political activism, protesting a proposed naval base.  He’s written about 8,000 words on the subject, but he could easily expand it with flashbacks and history and personal anecdotes to become a book-length memoir. 

How do you balance your time between writing and teaching? Do you ever envy those who have a ‘regular’ schedule? 

I spend about half my time writing, and the other half teaching.  I’m just not one of those writers who can spend all day every day at the computer—I love to interact with emerging writers and talk shop and help them to get their own work published.  I’ve lately started a coaching business for writers, which I adore.  I’ve worked with an etiquette specialist, a woman who did search and rescue with her dog, an 85-year old world traveler, and an Americorp teacher—it’s such a fun, fulfilling job. 

I had a regular schedule as a special education teacher about 13 years ago, and it darn near killed me.  I love the freedom to wake up at six AM and work for an hour before my daughter wakes up, and I don’t mind working like a fiend while she’s at morning preschool because I get to spend time with her in the afternoon. Often, I’ll teach at night and/or meet coaching clients on weekends.  This flexible schedule works better for me than would a 9 to 5 job.  I like every day to be a little different, with time built in to go for a spontaneous hike or write something unplanned, just in case inspiration strikes.  With social commentary, in particular–especially if it’s for newspaper or radio–writers have to jump on a news topic as soon as it hits the wire.  I’m grateful for the time I have to monitor the news with an eye for timely topics that I can then explore in a more immediate way than I approach my books and literary essays. 

What’s your favorite part about being a contributing editor to The Writer

I love my editors.  I’ve been working with them for about 8 years, and they’re such kind, positive people.  They give me wonderful assignments for my “Literary Spotlight” column, introducing me to so many innovative literary journals.  My main editor, Sarah Lange, also knows exactly what types of books I like, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing reviews on–for example–Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Notebook and Eric Maisel’s Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions

You have so many diverse publications to your credit. Did you create and follow a plan for the magazines and newspapers you write for or did these publications grow organically as you discovered your areas of interest? 

These publications most definitely grew organically out of whatever interested me at the moment.  Matching my writing to suitable publications requires research into the magazines and newspapers out there, which can be so exciting.  For instance, I hadn’t heard of High Country News (one of my favorite publications) until I wrote “The Owl and I” and began to look for potential markets.  I tell my students to give themselves a couple of hours every now and then to peruse the stacks at the library, and in bookstores, and to research publications online.  Duotrope Digest offers hundreds of titles, of course, and I also like to Google a key word such as “owl” along with the word “magazine” to see what comes up! 

I write on a wide variety of subjects—among them travel, nature, adoption, LGBT issues, and Down syndrome—and I love how there’s a publication out there to fit even the most specific essay and/or article. By the way, I’d like to emphasize for your readers how open the editors of newspaper commentary sections are to topics and writers from all over the country—for instance, as an Oregon writer, I’ve had commentary published in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post.  Editors are always looking for fresh perspectives and voices on topics which affect readers in all parts of the country. 

You often find unique ways to bridge similarities between animals–owls, cats, raptors–and humans. Have you always been an animal lover? How has your relationship to animals fed your creativity? 

This is a terrific question, and one I’ve never been asked!  I’ve had cats since I was three years old—the first, a mammoth beast named “Butch” whom I loved almost as much as my little sister.  I’m happiest outside, watching animals in nature, or playing with my cats.  Ten years ago, I sold my first travel article to Cat Fancy, after visiting a feline sanctuary in Rome, and I’ve been writing off and on about cats (and sometimes my two dogs) every since.  It’s interesting to note that my husband and I met at the dog park . . . three years before the romantic comedy Dog Park hit the screen.  

Volunteering at the raptor rehabilitation center inspired numerous essays.  I’d never been around birds of prey, and getting to feed them and care for them–and later, glove train them—was such a privilege, every single day.  I thoroughly enjoy getting to revisit those years in the memoir I’m working on now. 

One of the things I tell workshop students on the first day is “identify your passions.”  Then, you can brainstorm whom you might profile in a magazine related to these passions, and what related essays you might write, and what books you might review.  For instance, I’ve got a student fascinated by VW busses, and he’s written articles, essays, profiles, and blog posts on the subject for a couple of years.  As soon as freelance writers get in touch with what they love, they can take a cross-genre approach which keeps their work exciting and relevant. 

With fall just around the corner, how do plan to take advantage of the remaining weeks of summer? Anything left on your summer reading list you’re excited to share with us? 

Oh, my summer reading list.  Between parenting, working on a book, teaching a community-based class and working with coaching clients, it’s a miracle if I get to open The New Yorker.  But I’m on a huge Mary Karr kick right now, reading her work backwards from Lit to The Liar’s Club.  I just reviewed Sarah Rabkin’s superb book of essays, What I Learned at Bug Camp, for High Country News, and I’m looking forward to reading John Daniel’s newest book.  I’m kind of hoping children’s author Kevin Henkes will come out with a new picture book, too.  I’m in love with his mice. 

Speaking of books, what’s the one book that you turn to repeatedly for an extra boost of writer’s self esteem? What’s the book that kicks you in the pants when you need it most? 

J.D. Salinger’s books—the three that aren’t Catcher in the Rye—ground me and remind me of who I am and what I want to accomplish as a writer.  Aside from his story, “Seymour: An Introduction,” there’s little in them about writing, per se, but they’re informed by marvelous characters, compelling dialogue, subtle plotlines, and a great deal of Eastern philosophy which I try hard to practice in my daily life.  Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn are my contemporary go-to authors, and all I have to do when I’m feeling unbalanced and confused about my work is to read a few pages. 

By the way, Kornfield says in one of his audio lectures, “What is it time to do with that which you have been given?”  I urge freelancers to write this question on a sticky note and attach it to the computer.  As someone who’s mainly self-employed and juggling several jobs in a day, I repeat it to myself almost every morning.  It helps. 


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An Interview with Patricia Harman

May 19, 2011

Patricia Harman is a mother.  She is a wife.  She is a midwife.  Now, she belongs to an elite group of writers who have written multiple memoirs.   After the success of her first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, a story of the babies she helped bring into the world, Harman felt a need to tell her own storyArms Wide Open, her newly released second memoir, is just that.

Arms Wide Open is Harman's second memoir

It is the story of how a young, hippie woman living on a self-sustainable commune, came to be an influential member of the medical community.  I reviewed Harman’s book for Hippocampus Magazine last month, and she was nice enough to grant me an interview shortly thereafter.  Here is our Q&A:

How different was the process of writing this book, compared to writing The Blue Cotton Gown?
My first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, didn’t start off as a memoir.  I just wanted to tell the stories of the amazing patients I met in the exam room of the OB/GYN practice I share with my husband.  Gradually, I realized I needed to tell more and I began to weave my narrative in with the patient’s.  I decided to write Arms Wide Open because readers asked me about references to living in a rural commune in the Blue Cotton GownAha! Thinks I.  That could be another book!  While The Blue Cotton Gown was written during the days that lived it, Arms Wide Open went back decades into my past.  I had the advantage of having some twenty or so journals hidden in a box in the closet, that I’d kept, but not opened, all these years.   

The first part of the book deals with your self-sustainable life in Minnesota, and the cabin in which you, Stacy, and Mica lived alone.   There were times I would almost cry for you, it sounded and felt so difficult.  Would you do it again?  What did it teach you?

I currently live in on three acres of land with a vegetable garden, woods, fruit trees, a view of the lake, and all the modern conveniences, but I do sometimes wish we lived more rurally.  Though subsisting without electricity, central heat, running water or a bathroom wasn’t fun at times, there was a simplicity and closeness to nature that I miss.   I think what I learned from those times is “Moderation in all things.”  We thought we could save the world being witnesses for a very pure life on the land, but we were so extreme it didn’t make sense to anyone.

Despite most of the book’s narrative happening at the tail end of the civil unrest of the 60’s and early 70’s, you manage to keep politics out of your story, for the most part.  Was this difficult for you?  Was that a choice you made consciously?  
In the first draft I was more political and I consciously took some of that out; not because I wanted to hide my true beliefs, but because I felt it would date the book.  When you finish a manuscript, you don’t know when it will be published.  I thought, for example, if I wrote about the presidential election of 2008, the book would seem past tense by 2011.   I did mention “the wars in the middle east” and how I felt about them, but that was a safe bet! Ten years from now, they will probably still be fighting.  I also made it clear we believe that war isn’t the solution to the division of the world’s precious resources.  I tried not to get on a soapbox and be preachy about the environment or to sound like I was giving a lecture.

In Arms Wide Open, you talk a lot about natural childbirth.  Do you still embrace that concept so strongly?  Why do you think there has been a return to those ideals as of late?

Harman during her "hippie" days

I embrace the idea of natural childbirth more strongly than ever.  I don’t think everyone has to have their baby at home, but as much as possible, I would want for women and their partners to experience birth as it was meant to be, a simple, transcendent experience.  Technology and medical malpractice lawyers have taken something precious away from us.  Birth should be a feminist issue again and I think that is starting, partly because the C/Section rate in the United States is so out of control.  33%.  That’s right.  1 out of 3 women now have their baby born by major abdominal surgery.  Not the way things should be…..Don’t get me started!

Since you are a politically minded person, I’d love to ask your opinion on healthcare.  Are we heading down the right road?  Is universal healthcare attainable?  And should it be?

The health care system in the US is in very bad shape.  This year the Health Insurance Industry has made record profits as patients postpone surgeries because they can’t afford their big deductibles.  Then there are the 46 million Americans with no health insurance at all. This, in the richest nation in the world.

We have a summer cottage in Canada and we get to know the locals up there and have learned so much about their national healthcare system.  We are definitely supporters of some kind of universal health insurance in the US.  It’s the strength of the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies that make reform difficult.  Their propaganda have the American public so terrified of change, that even if it would benefit them, people vote against it.

Little by little, I believe things will get better.  In the recent health care reform bill, just having young adults able to stay on their parent’s insurance plans until they are 26 is a help and there are other benefits to children.  They can’t be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions anymore.  The Children’s Health Insurance Program (Chip) was extended and all health insurance plans must now provide immunizations and other preventive care for kids.

Finally, you belong to a small group of writers who have written two or more memoirs, will you do it again?  Is there more you’d like to share with your fans? 

Patricia "Patsy" Harman

Currently, I decided to stop milking my own life for stories before readers get sick of me.  I’m working on a novel, set in the Great Depression in West Virginia.  The heroine is an inexperienced midwife, a former suffragette and union radical, on the run, hiding out in the mountains.  I imagine I will write about myself again, someday.  I still have all those journals in the box and have had adventures that astound even me.

**Arms Wide Open is available now on Amazon, or through your local independent bookseller.  For more on Patricia Harman, please visit her website.