In some corners of the internet, personal essays are derided as frivolous and narcissistic, but I couldn’t disagree more. I find personal narratives to be deeply compelling and important. I believe they can be as effective as hard reporting in conveying important ideas, and sometimes even more so in terms of opening people’s minds by engendering empathy, first for the person telling the story.
I consider myself very fortunate to serve as Essays Editor for a publication that recognizes the value of personal essays, pays writers fairly for them, and makes room in its editorial calendar for at least two of them each week.
Member support — which WordPress.com is matching times three! — makes this possible. (All the money in Longreads’ story fund goes toward paying writers, illustrators, photographers, copyeditors and fact-checkers.)
While it’s difficult to single out particular essays as favorites, or most important, in the interest of possibly persuading some of you to contribute, I’d like to point to a few that have made me especially proud to have the opportunity to do this work and be part of the incredible Longreads team.Read more…
PJ Harvey performs at Alexandra Palace, London. Photo by joeri-c via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory. Read more…
Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened to S-Town. You can listen to the podcast on its website or on iTunes.
Pam Mandel: I finished S-Town about a week ago but I keep going back to replay the last two episodes because I feel like there’s something important in there I missed.
Sari Botton: I just finished it this morning and immediately called my husband to ask, “Did I miss something at the end?” I still have lots of questions. While I like that they didn’t artificially wrap it up, I kind of wish they would have acknowledged they weren’t going to.
Mark Armstrong: I should first admit I’m not a regular podcast listener, but I loved S-Town in a way that made me truly excited about the possibilities of audio documentary. There was an intimacy to it that I can’t imagine working as either a written magazine feature or filmed documentary. It was that intimacy that somehow still made the show deeply satisfying, even though NONE of my questions were answered at the end.
“My brain right now is 90 percent focused on the episodes that we’re writing and shooting now,” Weisberg said. “I have about 10 percent of my brain that is thinking about next season and the whole story arc for the series.”
. . . Fields doesn’t argue the point; he loves looking at the big picture. “If you’re just doing the episode that’s in front of you,” he said, eyes lighting up, “you’re not telling a big story.”
As part of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve vowed to read the hundreds of books I already own. Last night, I started and finished Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Córdova, which I received last year courtesy of a giveaway from Danika Ellis, a book blogger who runs The Lesbrary. Córdova’s 1990 memoir is compulsively readable—I couldn’t put it down. She writes about her decision to join the convent fresh out of high school, her growing unease regarding church politics, her deep friendships with her fellow postulants and secular students alike, and, eventually, her decision to leave the novitiate. Córdova is well-known for her 2011 memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, which describes her political work and LGBTQ community organizing in the 1970s. She was a force for good in the West Coast queer community. She edited a lesbian magazine, created an LGBTQ business directory, and even organized the Gay and Lesbian caucus to the Democratic Party. Sadly, Córdova died a little more than a year ago. I wish I could have met her.
In the two years since I compiled the first installation of “The Lives of Nuns,” Autostraddle wrote about queer nuns in history, Racked shadowed (fake) nuns growing marijuana, and The Huffington Post reported on a nun’s murder and the students who want the truth. Those stories and more are included below. Seclude yourself and read. Read more…
Rick Paulas | Longreads | August 2016 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)
The storytelling show Mortified was created in 2002 by Dave Nadelberg, and the show has a clever angle: Performers share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts,” along with a running behind-the-scenes commentary from their younger selves. It’s show-and-tell meets #tbt, and the results are hilarious. The show’s so beloved by performers and audiences that there are now nearly a dozen Mortified shows performed each month throughout various “chapters” around the world: eight in the U.S., eight abroad. Tickets range between $10 and $20-plus.
They also don’t pay performers, at least not in money. Mortified, like The Moth, Upright Citizens Brigade, and even TED Talks, is one of the hundreds of live events around the world that have sprouted up during an era in which experiential entertainment, or the IRL economy, were supposed to grow more cherished (and more lucrative) as entertainment products became digitized and commoditized. There’s just one problem: Live events exist in the same way many independent publishers exist—on a shoestring budget in which the performer is usually the last to be paid. Read more…
Barry Newman, in the monastic republic of Mount Athos, in the 1980s.
Mary Pilon | Longreads | August 2015 | 10 minutes (2,724 words)
“Why wait until the next story about coagulated fat in sewers comes along when you can read this one now?”
“All the world’s Grape Nuts come from a dirty-white, six-story concrete building with steam rising out of the roof here in the San Joaquin Valley.”
“With a WeedWacker under his arm, Dan Kowalsky was at work trimming the median strip of U.S. Route 1 in suburban Westport, Conn., when he was asked, above the din: Why not use a scythe?”
For 43 years, this is how Barry Newman has opened his stories. As a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Newman developed a niche as the “King of the A-Hed,” the front page, below-the-fold feature story that had become one of journalism’s more peculiar corners since its inception in the 1940s. On a front page filled with the dryness of the bond market, the gravity of war casualties or the enduring egotism of Wall Street, the A-Hed was an homage to the ridiculousness of the world, a favorite among readers, reporters and editors, its existence constantly under threat. Read more…
At the time, the stories we read seemed to me a means to an end, grueling exercises for the tender muscles of my developing Arabic. Only more recently have I wondered what it might feel like to read them as someone living under the Assad regime. A story, at its best, can make us feel less alone; it can be a portal into the most intimate corners of another human consciousness. This is the thrill of my favorite stories. That lightning bolt of connection when a writer nails a familiar feeling in words. That reminder of the obvious but startling fact that every other human on the planet has an inner life like me, feels hope and pain and that same faint ache when the evening sun lights the streets a certain way. For me, this is a pleasure, at times a consolation, like a kiss or a conversation. But in a state ruled by violence and fear, what kind of subversive potential might these stories take on?
—Matthew McNaught, writing in n+1. McNaught’s piece reflects on the years he spent living in Syria before the Civil War. He paints a haunting and specific portrait of his former Arabic teacher in Damascus, revisiting the stories he read with him and how they resonate in the wake of all that has unfolded. For further reading, see McNaught’s essay “The End of the Line: A Microbus Map of Damascus,” which originally appeared in Syria Comment and was reprinted on Longreads in January 2014.
To try to figure out what exactly that story is and why we still have it, we have to separate out the folk tale that is Cinderella, though, from the turn of phrase that is “Cinderella story.” Americans will call almost anything a Cinderella story that involves a good thing happening to someone nice. We slap that title on movies and books, but also on basketball games won by tiny schools full of scrawny nerds, small businesses that thrive and even political ascendancies that upend established powers.
The actual Cinderella tale, while a nebulous thing that can be hard to pin down with precision, is more than that. There’s very little that’s common to every variant of the story, but in general, you have a mistreated young woman, forced to do menial work, either cast out or unloved by her family. She has an opportunity to marry well and escape her situation, but she gets that chance only after being mistaken for a higher-status person, so she has to get the man who may marry her to recognize her in her low-status form, which often happens either via a shoe that fits or some kind of food that she prepares.