Fellow Feature: Brian Benson

Brian Benson

Brian Benson, former Attic student and current Attic fellow, talks generously about writing, Portland, and his book This is Not for You that is out this month.

Sign up for his upcoming workshop "Craft of Memoir" here.

Order This is Not for You from OSU Press here

**Over fifty percent of the royalties earned on This Is Not for You will be donated to organizations working on behalf of Black Portlanders.

Want to learn more about Brian? Check out his website to keep up to date.

Q: How are you?

A: I’m doing okay, thanks! I’m one of those weirdos who likes the gray and cold, so I’ve been doing alright with the COVID winter. Also, after a month or so off, I’m back to teaching, which is such a comfort; this past year especially, writing workshops have been my number-one antidote to loneliness. And I’m gearing up for the release of This Is Not for You, the memoir I wrote with and about Portland activist Richard Brown. After many months of monotony and dread, it’s nice to have something to look forward to. 

Q: What book or article have you read recently that you really enjoyed?

A: I’ve been on one of those streaks lately, where I’ve happened into a bunch of great books: Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, to name a few. But the best book I’ve read recently is Danielle Evans’s new collection, The Office of Historical Corrections. The first story was amazing, and then the second one was even better, and as I read on, I kept waiting for that dud that inevitably appears in the middle of a collection. But there wasn’t one. It’s just spectacular, cover to cover, and the closing novella is a masterpiece.   

Q: How has your writing or your approach to writing changed since you started to teach it? 

A: I love this question. And I find it really hard to answer. My writing has changed immeasurably since I began teaching. Day after day, I get to immerse myself in another writer’s language and style and worldview, and every time I do, I learn a little bit about what I’d like to do more or less or differently in my own writing. Also, teaching writing—and leading discussions on others’ writing—forces me to engage deeply with what I read and ask the questions I might otherwise be too rushed or lazy to ask, which of course helps me do the same with my own writing. And then I get to hear the questions other writers are asking about the thing I just read, and often they’re questions I never would have thought of on my own. So now, after many years of teaching, it’s like I have this chorus of voices in my head, reminding me that there are a million ways to write and read every story, which is such a gift when I’m feeling bored or stuck.

Q: When it comes to leading workshops at the Attic, what is one aspect of each class that you always try to cultivate? How do you establish a sense of community in the class as well as a critical lens?

A: What I want, basically, is for everyone to fall a little bit in love with each other. I know that sounds cheesy, but when I say love, I’m thinking of Steve Almond’s definition of love as it applies to writing characters: “Love is a sustained act of attention implying eventual mercy.” In my workshops, I encourage writers to be deeply attentive to and curious about each other. We do critiques, of course, but always with the spirit of: what do I love about this writer’s work? And how can I help them do more of what they’re already doing well? If everyone ends up committing to that sort of engagement with others’ work, this thing starts to happen, where the writers all get comfortable with each other, and they start sharing riskier and bolder writing, and also giving better and sharper feedback (which is possible because of the comfort they all feel), and by the end, it really does feel like a sacred space, where people are communicating with each other in a way that feels pretty rare. That moment at the end of class, when everyone is looking around and thinking, holy shit, I’m so glad I know all of you, is what I try hardest to cultivate.

Q: Coming from a background that does not directly include the traditional study of writing, how did you realize that writing was the avenue of work you wanted to pursue?

A: I think I’d always loved to write, but for the longest time I didn’t give myself permission to take it seriously. One of the big reasons was, my sister and I both got placed in the Gifted and Talented program (which is a messed-up program in so many ways, but that’s another can of worms), and she got put in the “creative” group while I landed in the “intellectual” one. As far as I can tell, we did pretty much the same thing—origami, balsawood bridges, some math—but I took those labels pretty seriously and grew up believing that I wasn’t creative. I ended up studying history, and then working in nonprofits, and doing other stuff that I guess felt “intellectual.” I really enjoyed all of that, and it fed a certain part of me, but apparently not all of me, because my love for writing just kept popping up. I’d labor over the language in term papers; I’d write (as a friend put it) unnecessarily beautiful emails; and finally, in my mid-twenties, I joined a little writing group a friend was starting, and I started writing about a bike trip I’d taken a few years earlier, and I just felt really alive, like I was doing a thing I’d always secretly been wanting to do. I’ve been writing consistently pretty much ever since. 

Q: What was the transition like from attending the Attic to teaching at the Attic?

A: So nerve-wracking! When I started, I had some experience facilitating groups, and I’d done some childhood education, but I’d definitely never taught creative writing and I had no degrees behind my name and so I had a pretty debilitating case of imposter syndrome. I’d had fantastic teachers, though—Cheryl Strayed, Karen Karbo, Liz Prato—and I’d learned a lot from the way they taught, and as I prepared for my first class, I figured I’d just parrot them until I came up with original things to say. Then I started teaching, and my classes were full of wonderful people, and though I definitely still felt like an imposter—like I had so much to learn about literary craft—I also felt pretty naturally drawn to the less-technical part of teaching, the part that’s just about making people feel welcomed and heard. And honestly, seven years in, I still pretty much feel that way. Like I’m an imposter, and also I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing. 

Q: What is one of your favorite things about living in Portland, Oregon? What is one of your favorite things about writing in Portland, Oregon?

A: I love a lot of things about living in Portland, though I’m kind of hesitant to say them aloud, because maybe my least favorite thing about Portland is how much it loves to pat its own back for its Portland-i-ness. That said, I love that I can get everywhere on a bike if I want to, and that I live like three miles from a rainforest, and that Portland is a real city (at least to a guy who grew up in a nowhere Wisconsin town) that also feels small: if you stay long enough, and get involved in enough things, you pretty much can’t leave your house without running into someone you know. Which is the best part about writing in Portland, too: there is a real writing community in this city, or better said, there are like four dozen writing communities, and I find the vast majority of Portland writers to be super supportive of each other. Also, as I mentioned, I love the winter months, when the weather sucks so much that I have no choice but to bunker up and write.

Q: In your writing, how does working in the short-form or under a series of formal constraints influence what text appears on the page?

A: Writing is all about making choices: what to write about, how to write about it, from what perspective, with which words, etc. And I can often get pretty incapacitated—in my writing and in my life—by the choices before me. What I love most about short-form is that it places constraints on my writing, and on the choices I can make in my writing. Obviously, there’s the word count, but also, in short-form, I feel freer to use structures that don’t hold up as well in longform (postcards, how-to lists) and that force me to choose one path and ignore all the others. And once I stop devoting so much energy to waffling between this or that, I find myself feeling a lot freer to just write. 

Q: Can you tell us about your newest book, This Is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience, coming out next month from Oregon State University Press?

A: This Is Not for You is the product of about four years of collaboration with Richard Brown, an eighty-something activist and photographer who’s spent decades working on behalf of Black Portlanders and against racist policing. The book is a memoir, written in Mr. Brown’s voice, and it has a braided structure, moving back and forth between his present-day life in Portland and the long path that led him to where he is now. Mr. Brown has lived a remarkable life—he grew up in Harlem, served in the Air Force in the Jim Crow South, raced cars in Germany, photographed pretty much every Black person in Portland—and he’s a fantastic storyteller and tireless activist, and it’s our hope that all of that comes through in the book. I can’t imagine a better time for it to come out.

Q: What was the genesis of This Is Not for You? What was it like to co-author a memoir? Were there any surprising challenges or craft decisions?

A: This is a hard thing to answer in a few words, so I’m going to link to an essay I recently wrote, which details the whole process. In short, though: we were introduced by a mutual friend, back in 2016, at a point when Mr. Brown just thought he maybe wanted to write a little pamphlet expressing his views on policing; we met for lunch, and we hit it off, and so we kept meeting for lunch, every week, for several years, until we had a book. Co-authoring a memoir was maybe the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and there were so many challenges—how to structure it, how to keep my voice out of it, how to account for the fact that the latter is impossible, etc—and again, in the interest of not giving a three-thousand-word answer here, I think I’ll just point to that essay.

Q: What has it been like to be part of a book release during a pandemic? Are there particular tools that readers and writers alike should be aware of to both navigate this terrain or to support a book’s publication during it?

A: Well, the book comes out in about a month, so most of the publicity still lies ahead of us. We have done one Zoom event—a panel conversation with myself, Richard Brown, and former state senator Avel Gordly—and it had the standard downsides and upsides: it was sad to not all get to be in the same room, but also, people from all over the country were able to tune in. Overall, that’s how I think the book release will feel: less intimate, in some ways, but more accessible, too. For example, we have a Powell’s reading coming up on March 5, and it’s cool knowing that I can invite everyone, everywhere, to come.

As for how to support the book, and any book being published, I think it’s not a whole lot different than in pre-COVID times. Preorder a copy if you can, and rate and review the book wherever possible, and talk it up online and anywhere else you have an audience, and (maybe most important) if you like the book, get in touch with the writer and tell them. As I see it, at least, there is nothing better than getting an email or letter from a stranger who loved your book.