We’re thrilled to introduce the 2018 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eighteen writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2019 OLF applications will be posted at the end of April, and the deadline to apply will be Monday, July 9, 2018.
2018 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Brian Trapp is Visiting Assistant Professor at Willamette University, where he teaches creative writing and disability studies, and Director of the Walter and Nancy Kidd Creative Writing Workshops at the University of Oregon. His work has been published in the Gettysburg Review, Narrative, Ninth Letter, and Brevity, and was selected as Notable in Best American Essays 2013. Formerly associate editor of the Cincinnati Review and formerly fiction editor of Memorious, he is currently writing a novel and a memoir, both based on growing up with his twin brother, Danny, who had severe cerebral palsy. He lives in Eugene with his three-year-old daughter and his partner, the writer Marjorie Celona.
Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
The source of my inspiration, both in my writing and my life, has always been my twin brother, Danny. He had severe disabilities, including cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities, could only say twelve words, and required total care, but he was also funny, charming, mischievous, and sometimes (quite frankly) a jerk. He would make fun of me when I changed his diaper and laughed when he coughed food into my face. His disabilities sometimes caused him great physical pain, but most of our life together was full of laughter, joy, and giving each other crap. He died seven years ago, at age 28, and I want to bring stories of our life together into the world.
Whether I write fiction or nonfiction, I’m interested in representing the moments of joy, absurdity, love, and banality in the shadow of sickness. Our culture simplifies disabled people and their families through sentimental and tragic stories, so I want to tell stranger, funnier, and more complex stories that I find more real. I often think of this Djuna Barnes quote from her novel, Nightwood: “There is more in sickness than the name of that sickness.” I want to show my readers that “more.”
How would you describe your creative process?
Sometimes my creative process consists of drinking lots of strong black tea, sitting/staring, and then getting up to pee. I write lots of garbage long-hand on a legal notepad and see what I come up with. More often than not I come up with nothing and try again the next day. When I feel like I’ve discovered something, I start a new, less crappy draft on the computer. If I’m not discovering something, then my reader probably isn’t either (to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor). I also like to write by ear, to speak the voice in my head, which I think of as a kind of music. I try to follow what I find funny, and usually the emotional weight is lurking somewhere behind the joke. Still, I am convinced my writing is terrible until someone else tells me it’s not (this person is usually my partner).
What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
The validation. About a year and a half ago, the memoir excerpt I submitted for the fellowship was accepted for publication by a prestigious monthly magazine. The editor delayed and delayed publication, and then right before Christmas told me that he didn’t want it anymore. The essay is about my twin brother’s life and death, the most important story I have to tell. I fell into a deep depression and was no fun at Christmas or New Years. When the call came from Oregon Literary Arts, I perked up. The fellowship was a validation of my talent and hard work, sure, but most of all it reminded me that my brother’s story matters.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel and a memoir. I’ve been working on the novel for many years. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about characters like my brother and me, except they are much more troubled and weird.
The memoir, from which the excerpt below was taken, is about growing up with my twin brother, but also about his death, which was devastating. It’s not as depressing as it sounds—my brother was very funny, and I tried to capture that as much as possible.
What advice do you have for future applicants?
Tell your most important story. And apply. You might just win.
My twin brother, Danny, could say twelve words: Eh. Eh-eh. Hi. Yeah. More. Momma. Dada. I-an. Arra. Dayday. Annie. Eddie. At the end of our visits, I wanted just one.
“You say my name right now,” I said. “Say I-an.”
We were in “Cascade Falls,” though there were no falls. It was just what his group home renamed “Unit B” to sound more like a home, more like the nearby, overpriced housing developments in the exurbs of Cleveland. “Cascade Falls” was a wing in a facility for severely disabled children and adults. It was clean and antiseptic, with walls lined in gold-plated donor plaques and elaborate, swirling abstract canvases drawn by the residents with an art therapist’s “assistance.” The art therapists said the residents told them what to draw through their body language and eye motion, that they could infer intent, could tell what the residents were thinking: move left, move right, circle here, square. I doubted this, even for my brother, who was the smartest one.
If anyone could divine his intent, it should be me, his twin, the one who stewed with him in the same amniotic fluid, the one who should have a bond with him beyond words, some psychic tether between our brains. But even after 28 years of practice, I had enough trouble knowing what he was thinking. Still, it was a convincing story: At the annual fundraiser, the paintings were auctioned off and “Cascade Falls” raked it in.
My brother lay on his bed with his arms bent at the elbows and wrists, his hands curved down like a praying mantis. He had short and choppy dyed-blond hair, which our father still cut every few months using CVS scissors and two fingers. He wore track pants and a Cleveland Browns T-shirt, the orange football helmet with “Danny Trapp” written in black Sharpie so it wouldn’t get lost in the laundry. He was positioned the way my mother taught the staff when he moved here five years ago: pillows under every stress point (head, shoulders, hips, elbows) with an ancient plush polar bear stuffed between his knock knees. Above his bed were his CDs: ABBA and the Mama Mia soundtrack, with no trace of my Clash albums, to which he’d said “Eh-eh” until I turned them off. Mixed in were the collected films of Mel Brooks, because even though Danny was legally blind, he dug the dirty jokes.
“Say it,” I said.
My brother smiled, flexing his dimples. His caterpillar eyebrows narrowed, and his eyes flashed like an evil genius. “Eh-eh,” he said, which was a problem. It was our ritual: I couldn’t leave without my name.
“Please,” I said. “Just say I-an. Come on. I have to go and you’re being a butt-head. I’m serious.” I studied his face, a foreign language I was still learning. He didn’t give me much, just listened poker-faced with his mouth open, icing me.
It was just after Christmas, three weeks before our twenty-eighth birthday, and we weren’t doing very well. I was trying to earn a PhD in English, which, no, wasn’t the tragic part. The trouble was with my wife. Before the holidays, she entered rehab for the second time in two months. She was hiding empty wine bottles in closet suitcases, passing out in grocery store bathrooms, searching for some kind of bottom. Meanwhile, Danny was struggling with his new feeding tube and kept getting helicopter rides to the hospital for pneumonia. He’d spent several weeks in the ICU that fall. Things were bound to get better. We’d wish it on our birthday cake.
I went hardcore. “That’s it,” I said, and lunged towards him, grabbing his ratty Browns’ shirt like it had lapels, and pressed my nose flat against his. “You say my name right now.”
He tightened his eyebrows again, scrunched his upper lip, and did his “squirrel teeth,” his patent look of displeasure. “Momma,” he said into my face.
Was he picking on me, as in Momma, you jerk…? Or was he saying something more insidious? For my brother, joking was a barometer of health. If he didn’t make fun of me, I’d worry he was in too much pain that day, too distracted to find things funny. But this joke, like all true jokes, was unstable: How much was he just kidding? How much aggression did it hide? I’d told him about my wife, so why didn’t he realize I was desperate? Momma, because I don’t care.
“I’m going now,” I said, and kissed the stubble on his face. “But first, tell me who’s ugly.”
It was the trick question, the insult bait. He looked to his left, considering. His lips twitched. I pretended to walk away, took a few slow steps, looked back, and listened.
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