In my experience, nonfiction writers today seem to err on the side of being dishonest, if only to strengthen the sincerity of their stories. And as a rule, dishonest nonfiction tends to be more provocative and memorable than its truthful counterpart. That said, when James Braun’s submission appeared among the others, myself and the rest of OAR’s staff was forced to pause. His story of a guilt-laden rush to the emergency room with his step-brother was not only arresting, but honest.
I’ll be the first to admit that while it was a touching story, “Different Now” felt slightly askew. It were as though the writer himself had momentarily tried on a new, vaguely ill-fitting jacket. The piece was out of his comfort zone, but it was easy to detect the skillful author beneath the too-tight blazer. The pacing was remarkable, the voice was unmissable. The repetition of sounds kept the story crackling on the page. Of course we had to take the piece. Slight awkwardness aside, we had a burgeoning writer on our hands; we couldn’t risk losing him! Sure, he was writing outside his style, and it was tangible in his work. But that kind of experimentation is to be rewarded, not punished.
Since his acceptance and publication in OAR’s fourth volume, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of reading Braun’s recent works. It’s jarring how quickly someone can improve in the span of a few months, but I suppose no one should be surprised. When you wake up at 5am each day to read and write, as James does, you’re bound to see rapid improvement. James is, down to his very nature, a short fiction writer. He thrives off using real feelings and experiences as fuel for his work, and strives to make his characters’ unique voices a staple of his style. His narrators are quirky, charming, and have a manner of speaking that make you smirk and furrow your brows in turn.
James is bracing for grad school, where he hopes to get an MFA in creative writing. A PhD could be in his future as well. He’s currently working on a short story collection starring a character named John Day. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in The Minnesota Review, The Rectangle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atlas and Alice, and elsewhere. He is the first and second place recipient of Oakland University’s flash fiction and nonfiction competitions, respectively, and is a senior at OU, majoring in creative writing with a fiction track. James lives in Port Huron, Michigan with his cactus named Cabbot.
(OAR interviewer): Your nonfiction “Different Now” was absolutely heart-wrenching. What was it like to write about this difficult experience? Was it distressing? Did it give you a sense of closure, being able to reflect on your step-brother’s accident?
(James): I wouldn’t say that writing this piece amounted to any kind of healing, but in the act of writing I was able to––at least on the page––relocate myself back into that moment of change, or as Tom Spanbauer says it, “The moment that after you’re different.” In writing such a story I might say it opened the opportunity for a new kind of reflection, one that is felt and seen in the act of narration, a memory unpacked not only for the writer to feel but the reader as well. To make tangible a repressed experience for the purpose of sharing the understanding the writer has tried to get at. And, even here, I can say with certainty I’ve failed even inside such telling, but ultimately there was no way around the writing.
What compelled you to write about this event?
As a preface to this: it’s unusual for me to write nonfiction. I feel as though these greater truths I’m seeking are found better in fiction, though I’m not here to say nonfiction is any less of an art form than, say, poetry or fiction or screenwriting. When I sit down to write, I first look inside myself for something I would rather not write about, and that’s what I try to write. This story started in that afraid place inside me, and there too is where it ended.
And: to share. And to preface that, I’ll say I sure as hell didn’t write this for the purpose of publication––I’m of the opinion that if you’re writing for anything more than yourself, you should not be writing (I think it’s Spanbauer who also said something like this). But to share one’s work with those you love, and also those you will never meet. How intimate that can be.
What is your current writing process like?
Before anything, I remind myself of two things: to sound human and to not be afraid to fuck up. Most of all I try to listen and trust the language of the story, listening for the voice that will inhabit the work. I try to have a rhythm, listening to the acoustics of each sentence, how even the most minor of words can have a syllable. As Gordon Lish has said: “Every morpheme counts.”
What else works for me is keeping a notebook of nouns and verbs that I have read or heard or thought of, nouns and verbs that are words that I like. Maybe it’s the way they sound, maybe it holds some sort of meaning or weight, or the way the word looks. Before I start a new story I look at those words, what my teacher Peter Markus has called the “luminous words,” and I look into them for some sort of relation to one another, ways I can craft a sentence to either punch the reader in the gut or make them laugh (but of course, there is no reader in writing). I listen to these words for the story they are meaning to tell, and tell that telling the only way I can tell it.
And: I try to stay out of my characters heads. Immediate action and scene will portray how people feel far more than a thought or telling statement.
And: the second reminder, as mentioned above. To not be afraid of mistakes. Experimenting, using weird syntax, swearing too much, showing people writing they’ve never seen before. I think there’s a freedom in that, telling yourself it is O.K to write this way, it is O.K to be different or strange, so long as you are honest with yourself in your writing. To say it is O.K to fail, and to know that you will fail, endlessly so, until the time comes when you do not.
And most of all: I look for the heartfelt. The beautiful images, the humanness of a sentence or piece of dialogue. Too often I see writing that fails to take risks, that never leaves its safe zone. I want to leave that place of safety, go and write inside this new strange place I’ve found myself in.
As ridiculous and pretentious as that sounds. Thank you for reading my work.