Writer Brian Benson and Portland activist and photographer Richard Brown co-wrote Brown’s memoir This is Not For You, out this week from OSU Press. “The memoir tells the story of Brown’s many decades of activism on behalf of Portland’s Black community and against police brutality, and includes several dozen of his photographs,” Benson said.
Benson first came to the project in 2016, when a friend put him in touch with Brown, a Black activist who was approaching his eightieth birthday and was thinking of writing a book. Benson is a white writer and teacher in his thirties, whose first book, Going Somewhere (Plume), chronicled a cross-country bike trip. They became friends and collaborators over the course of the next four years.
“Richard’s whole life has been about collaboration. He’s worked on so many different projects, with so many different people. I feel lucky to have gotten to work with him on this one,” Benson said. Brown’s memoir was written through years of conversations between Brown and Benson, which Benson then transcribed and began to narrativize. They revised many drafts together over the next four years, as Brown told his life story. Benson wrote more about Brown’s work and the experience of writing the book together on his blog.
“The book has a braided structure, and it goes back and forth between present and past. We were writing it in real time, so we went all over the place with the front story. We kept trying to figure out what in the present tense felt relevant to the story we were trying to tell. The story really is about the question that Richard asks over and over again, which is: if I don’t do this, who will?”
Benson has taught for the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program since 2019, at Grant High School, Roosevelt High School and Gresham High School. The latter two teaching residencies were virtual classes, after schools pivoted to online learning.
Benson said his favorite thing about working with teenagers is that “they can see right through you, instantly. I was working with a teenager at some point, and I remember saying something I just kind of felt I should say about a text I’d shared, and he said, Do you actually believe that? And I was like, Actually, no. I appreciate the playfulness, because once teenagers start opening up in a workshop, the stuff that they’re producing is so much fun and surprising. Also, because when you find out that you’ve actually been able to reach teenagers, it’s the most moving thing ever. Especially because right now, it’s Zoom, and therefore you’re teaching to a blank screen most of the time, and so it’s kind of a shock when you finally get to see what they’ve written in response to your lessons. At the end of the workshop last fall, hearing students become excited about their own voices– and to hear that a student got something out of it, and is respecting their writing and is excited about it– was the best thing.”
Sometimes, talking to students about writing means bringing up your own work and the difficulty of writing it. “As a teacher, I don’t want to be just evaluating others’ work all the time,” Benson said. “Putting my own work out there in a workshop without having it take up too much space shows students that I’m also a vulnerable person who writes drafty stuff that he isn’t sure about.”
“When I talk about writing, I include myself in the questions that we’re asking as much as possible. So talking about what my own process looks like, or trying to have that spirit of ‘there isn’t always an answer for it.’”
Join Richard Brown and Brian Benson’s virtual book launch at Powell’s on March 5th at 6 pm PST. They will be in conversation together at the event, moderated by Sienna Rose Kaske, transformative justice practitioner, organizer, and writer. Register for the event here.