May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
Cheryl Diane Kidder explores the difficulty of turning true events into fiction, and how some truths, like those in her recent Brevity essay “Cut,” want to be told in the nonfiction form:
The hardest thing about writing “Cut” was getting it into a form that both got the facts of what happened, or what I was able to recall, and how my thought processes were working at the same time. That, and waiting until my daughter was old enough to listen to the whole story. My daughter is 24 now so I’ve been trying to get this right on paper for about 23 and a half years.
I wrote several versions of these events in third person, pushing the story out and away from me, claiming it only as fiction, certainly nothing I would have personally gone through. Trouble there is, presenting the piece as fiction in a fiction workshop I kept getting these comments, “Unbelievable,” and “This could never happen,” and “What woman would leave her baby at home alone?” Clearly it wasn’t working as fiction.
So, I rewrote it as nonfiction, and I found that the facts spoke for themselves, my voice was stronger and my ability to recreate my mindset at the time of the event came easier to me. The piece was never more than a thousand words in any of its permutations. I didn’t want to spend more time in that place than I really needed to. And once I had it into a shape I felt OK about, I still kept it in a drawer for a couple of years. Getting it right and getting it out in the world were two completely different things. I had accomplished the one and never quite knew if I was ever going to be brave enough to do the second.
So, when I first sent the piece out to magazines I sent it as fiction, and although I got no written comments from editors, I did get several rejections, form rejections, and I was pretty sure what those editors were thinking: “Unbelievable, This could never happen, What woman would leave her baby at home?”
So, I sent it to Brevity as nonfiction and was over the moon to get an acceptance. And now comes the biggest hurdle of all—it’s out in public, anyone can read it.
Let me just say this: this did happen, my daughter was sleeping and safe when I got back home and now, 24 years later, she reads all my writing and forgives me and loves me anyway.
Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in CutThroat Magazine, Weber: The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere.
May 21, 2013 § 3 Comments
Sheryl St. Germain discusses the origins of her essay Interviewing Emily Dickinson and the “truth” of an imagined moment:
Because I’ve been doing historical research for another writing project, which involves trying to recover a particular woman’s voice from 16th century France, I’ve become extremely sensitive to the fact that we sometimes must invent in order to reach (create? interrogate?) a truth. My narrator couldn’t have literally had a conversation with Emily Dickinson, since Dickinson is dead, but I wondered what that conversation might have been like had it been possible. So many of us have been influenced profoundly by Dickinson’s words and yet we’ve never had a face-to-face conversation with her. So I guess the “truth” of the piece is my own desire to connect with Dickinson in some deeper way. And even though the conversation is completely invented, I did quite a bit of research in order to write the piece in a way that felt like it honored her voice. I visited Dickinson’s homestead and grave in Amherst; walked around the gardens and landscape where she lived most of her life; spent a summer rereading her poems (three-volume boxed set with all variants) as well as Alfred Habegger’s extensive and insightful biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. I also reread some of her letters to get a sense of her voice outside of the poems. I spent a month at writer’s retreat not far from the Dickinson homestead in a room that was called, eerily enough, the “Emily Dickinson room.” I had not requested this room, but when it was given me I took it as a blessing from Emily.
Sheryl St. Germain has published 10 books of poetry and nonfiction, the latest of which is Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.
May 21, 2013 § 5 Comments
Sarah Wells discusses the roots of her essay “Field Guide to Resisting Temptation,” found in the latest issue of Brevity:
I wrote this essay after it occurred to me for the first time that I could be the one to screw up my marriage. Even though my husband and I had talked about temptation abstractly, about bar scenes and dinners out when he’s on the road for work, I thought we were talking about him and his temptations. Not me. I felt infidelity-proof. This could never happen to me; I love him too much to ever be tempted, and who would be attracted to me anyway?
So when the circumstances of this essay came to pass, I was surprised by how easy it could be. How fast. How immediately painless. How could this happen to me? I was stunned and pleasantly surprised that someone besides my husband found me—three c-sectioned mom, married, average intelligence, occasionally humorous, recently leaner and healthier but still so not attractive—desirable. I wanted to keep hearing these things.
What scared me the most was that my husband and I had just come back from an amazing weekend away, a weekend of laughter, relaxation, vulnerability, and intimacy. We spent the weekend reminiscing over career changes, our three children, the future, the bright and uncertain and beautiful future we imagined always with us together. Married. Forever. We were in about as solid a place as we had been in the nine years we’d been married.
Even this contented, even this satisfied in my marriage, I could be the one to drive us into a guardrail.
But this didn’t just “happen” to me. I had let it happen, and I was making a choice by allowing it to continue, the flirting and the compliments and the texts, I was letting them arrive, I was receiving them. I was a threat.
I didn’t realize at first that I had a choice, that I had the power to say yes or say no, to protect my marriage or maim it beyond recognition to the point that reconstructive surgery or, God forbid, amputation might be necessary. I could turn one way, or I could run the other. I could choose to let it keep playing and wrecking my heart, or I could turn it off even though it was crazy ridiculous hard, the kind of hard that shamed me because I felt so weak against it.
Out of that realization, out of that place of shame and weakness, I wrote myself this essay. I wrote down the things my best friend had said to me and the things I needed to tell myself in those moments of insecurity when I felt ugly and undesirable or just temporarily lonely and wanted a quick fix. I had to write myself a way out. I had to write down what I was choosing into and what I was choosing out of. I don’t have to give in or just let this happen as if I have no control over my emotions or my fate or what pain or joy I inflict or deliver. I have a choice.
Writing this essay was shaky hand, racing heart, peeling skin back kind of work. And when I sent it to my husband, it was shaky hand, racing heart, peeling skin back kind of work. But after he read what I had said out loud to him in far fewer words, he heard me, and that confession shrunk my Goliath down to the puny little monster he is. It handed me a few stones and a slingshot.
“Field Guide to Resisting Temptation” empowered me to look for ways to protect my marriage, to own up to the truth underneath the desires, to realize that “it isn’t the full story, it’s only a moment, this moment when you are small and insecure,” and to face those insecurities head-on. Through bearing witness to my weaknesses, I found strength.
Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award. Her essays have appeared in Ascent, Relief, River Teeth and elsewhere. Poems by Wells are happily floating about in all sorts of places. Sarah’s poetry has been honored with two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essay in Ascent, “Those Summers, These Days” was named a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2012. Sarah serves as the Administrative Director for the Ashland University MFA Program and Managing Editor for Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
May 20, 2013 § 6 Comments
Brian Doyle discusses the genesis of his essay, “Sachiel the Tailor,” found in the May 2013 issue of Brevity:
And where did Sachiel come from, you ask? I kid you not, from a hole in my excellent ancient beloved perfectly worn green cotton shirt, which yawned and grinned and gaped at me one morning, and made me sigh, and I took it to my excellent tailor Miss Choi, but in the doing so up rose Sachiel in memory, Sachiel who may have survived the Catastrophe but did not want to talk about it, Sachiel who did not move from his stool in his tiny storefront on Chauncy Street in Boston, Sachiel who would accept your goods laid on his countertop while you stared fascinated into the welter of the shop behind him filled to overflowing with needles and pins and thread and scraps and bolts of cloth and scissors and shears and poles with hooks with which he perhaps reached things high on the walls, though you never saw him move from his stool to do so; yet a day later there would be your goods, perfectly repaired, for quite a reasonable fee also, not to mention the chance to listen to Sachiel. He was an enormous man. He wore white shirts with dark vests. He had a broad face. When he appeared in my memory I could then hear his voice again, and feel the slicing wind down that narrow little street, and so I begin to type, and time is transcended, and space, and loss, and this is one of those sweet powerful holy things about writing that we do not talk enough about, I think; writing is a time machine, writing resurrects, writing gives death the finger. And so amen.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of many odd books, notably the sprawling serpentine sinuous Oregon novel Mink River.
May 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
Sometimes a book is more than just a book: it is an occasion for high anxiety. For instance, in just a few days, the American Psychiatric Association will unveil the fifth edition of its handbook of diagnoses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. More than a few – patients and professionals and caregivers – are upset with what they expect to find there. In today’s guest blog, psychiatric nurse practitioner Nina Gaby examines how the controversy might play out in one family:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Appendices become sections. Axes morph. Spectrums of quirk. Structure disintegrates. What is already less science than art becomes even more subjective. The world as she knows it is crumbling. 992 pages. Releases to the big shots on May 18. The final edition isn’t as bad as she thought, reading yet another scholarly review. Maybe she has overstated. Controversy has overshadowed common sense. She takes it personally.
It has done away with the Multi-Axial System. Axes 1-5 initially provided a template on which to place symptoms, psychosocial stressors; quantifying functioning and listing criteria, stuff that people hate to hear, but clinicians rely on. We have only moments to evaluate, diagnose, develop a treatment plan, and find a billable code. You don’t like being reduced to numbers? Okay, says the older sister, then pay for it yourself. Personality still takes on blame, but has lost its own axis. (Is it scrim or lens? the older sister snorts.) The proposed windmills of domain and level and trait, internet process addictions and other tasty problems will reside for the next decade, unreimbursed, in the nether land of Section 3. Others have died altogether.
Bereavement, Excoriation, Hoarding, Asperger’s. No, yes, yes, no.
Bio markers still lack data. The older sister retreats to write her own narrative.
(“Reformulation of Personality Disorders in DSM-5: The work group recommends a major reconceptualization of personality psychopathology…”)
“Your regret must be so far, so much wider than mine,” said one sister to the other. The genogram showed dark bars. Cut-offs. Flattened symbols float across scar tissue.
“We were never like other families,” said the other. She, however, shows no regret. The first sister wants to see the signs of remorse, slash marks across the core. “Show me,” she begs.
It’s horrible when you can’t be mad anymore, the first sister thinks.
The first sister doesn’t want the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to change. Biblical, its criteria like drops of blood. Tribal. She learned its secrets after suicides, after grad school, when she began to see herself as a helper. A map maker clinging with the cliché of an evangelist’s zeal since the Third Edition, which was bright green. Such an odd choice for so serious a text. What color will these girls be now? What if you can’t help?
“I cut you off, summarily, more than death, more than ice crystals.” Dust from the pastel the second sister clutches is bright and azure under her thumbnail. “Ha!” She is proud of color. The other one scribbles in monochrome; she thinks she cannot afford anything else.
A list banners out wide between them, a rip here, a yellow edge crumbles there, the wind tries to play with it. Like a prayer flag.
Holidays come and go. Stones pile up on grave markers. Pizza boxes. Pay stubs. One has many husbands, the other, again, can’t afford that luxury. She doesn’t want so many lines and bars and slashes on her map. Instead, dots connect here and there, arrows.
“Just wait till 2013. You won’t be able to call me names anymore,” says number two. How does she know that? Her therapist must have told her. Number one plots in the same way she did when they were young. “That’s ugly,” their mother would say.
Come on, really, they ask, who did mom really like best? That was the secret. And it wasn’t that they all had a little too much of this and a little too little of that. “It’s all about gamma-amino butyric-acid deficits,” the smart one smugs. “Or maybe dopamine imbalance.”
“You always try to make me feel stupid,” says number two. “It’s not going to work anymore.” Slash. Cells perform lysis on themselves. Codons break. Pop-it beads drop to the floor. Information scatters in the tailwind of the prayer flags.
No point in lecturing. About dopamine. About responsibility. Family secrets. It’s a transparent defense. Like skin over a genogram, this family map. Time wasted, lines like borrowed eyeliner, like dirty shoelaces, like Christmas ribbons, willow whips, a pattern that explains it all. Only one really cries at the end, sudden and alarming.
Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist, and psychiatric nurse practitioner specializing in co-occurring addiction disorders. Gaby has most recently been published in I Wasn’t Always Strong Like This: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, edited by Lee Gutkind. She recommends an article in Psychology Today (Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, blog 3-15-13) for an overview on what’s new and old in the DSM-5. She has taught the old DSM since it came out in 1994. She is anxious.
May 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
We’ve posted a new issue, with sharp, challenging work from Hope Edelman, Brian Doyle, Marcia Aldrich, Sarah Wells, Laurie Lynn Drummond, Robert Vivian, David J. Lawrence, Sonya Huber, Sheryl St. Germain, Randall Albers, Cheryl Diane Kidder, Kim Adrian, Melissa Ferrone, Jia Tolentino, & Patricia Park.
In our Craft section, Barrie Jean Borich explores the connection between body and memory, Jill Talbot’s CNF class interviews Brian Oliu, and Bryan Furuness and some writer friends discuss ‘What to Do When Facing Deep Writerly Despair.’
Plus outstanding new reviews of books by Lia Purpura, Peter Trachtenberg, and Tracy Kidder and Dick Todd’s Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.
Paul Bilger provides the wonderful artwork.
May 13, 2013 § 18 Comments
A guest post from Tarn Wilson
Last month in my 6 a.m. spinning class, sweating up an imaginary hill on my stationary bike—rap music thumping, my frighteningly enthusiastic instructor whooping encouragement—I realized, as disciplined as I believe I am, there was no way I’d be there that time of day, working that hard, if I didn’t have a class to attend. A teacher to yell at me. Sleepy people on either side of me spinning themselves awake. Then, in the loose way our minds make connections when we haven’t quite shaken sleep, I flashed to my MFA program. It, too, provided me structure and motivation to work harder than I thought I could.
As we shifted into sprints and our breath fogged the windows, all the arguments against MFA programs I’d read over the last several years spun through my head (in essays with names such as The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System that Represses Good Writing):
- Writing programs produce “workshop style” prose, dulled by group consensus and shaped by a particular aesthetic, a reflection of the tastes of the famous and narrow-minded instructors.
- Writing programs create an elitist, self-perpetuating literary community, which controls the publishing world and excludes innovative, outside voices.
- Or, contrarily, the recent proliferation of writing programs has lowered standards, releasing into the world a mass of marginally trained beginners.
- Besides, writing can’t be taught.
The arguments are well-reasoned and convincing—and I confess I don’t know enough about the most elite writing programs to address criticisms lobbed particularly at them—but they don’t speak to my experience, to the three years I spent in my low-residency MFA program, which did not transform me into a famous writer, but which challenged and stretched me, provided an inspiring community that has sustained me since, and reshaped, not just my writing, but my life.
As the spinning instructor pressed us into a fast stretch on an imaginary highway, I tried to articulate to myself what felt like a bias in the critiques, not about what constitutes fine writing, but about what kind of person is a true writer. An image forms in my mind. A typewriter. A small room. A bottle of whiskey. The face looks familiar. It’s Hemingway! Not the real Hemingway, with his crazy neediness, but the Hemingway of our imagination. Independent. Charismatic. Curmudgeonly. He has a masculine confidence in his own words and worth—and his own distinct, controversial writing style. He doesn’t follow trends; he makes them! I recently read an old craft book by Robert Bahr, Dramatic Technique in Fiction, which crystallizes this portrait: “For the most part, accomplished writers are friendly, vivacious, entertaining people, but there is no getting around the fact that they have strong egos . . . they generally get along well with those who treat them with deference and are vicious competitors when challenged.” This Hemingway model suggests we are not worthy of being writers if we doubt ourselves or thrive in non-competitive community.
The truth is—whether caused by genetics, life experiences, or cultural forces such as racism, sexism, ageism—some of us do not possess the gift of confidence. But that is no reflection on our potential. Early in my career, I taught English in a school for at-risk teenagers. I finally abandoned my unsuccessful attempts at a traditional literature program and just let them write. They produced some of the most raw, rhythmic, original, poetic prose I’ve ever read. It stunned me. They resisted both revision and publication, so the world will never read their work. But I’d learned a secret. Remarkable writing comes from all kinds of people, from shy and bold, educated and uneducated, confident and self-defeating. In my many teaching years since, I’ve read beautiful, original pieces written by the talented and confident, the talented and insecure, and those who seemed to have no talent at all but who labor over their work. Each of these future writers deserves the opportunities that match their needs, whether a solitary room in Key West or in an MFA program.
The fan blowing on our faces isn’t enough to ease the muggy heat. Our sweat drips on the floor; moisture beads run down the window like rain. The instructor shouts, “Let me hear you, people! One long hill. Ten minutes. Go!” My thighs ache, but I increase the resistance on my bike and press on.
I’m not a Hemingway writer. I’m a people pleaser. I don’t admire this trait in myself. (I must have been born this way, because my hippy parents were deeply disappointed in my over-eager obedience.) This trait has worked against my growth as a writer because I’m easily swayed to fill my time with other people’s worthy work. But since I couldn’t seem to eradicate this tendency, I decided to use it on behalf of my writing. I applied to an MFA program because I knew I’d work hard to meet the deadlines and expectations of teachers I admired. It worked.
When I started my program, I hoped only that the structure would help me make writing a priority and I’d pick up a few advanced skills. I’d underestimated the power of mentors. I should have guessed: in my work with at-risk teens, I’d researched what fosters resilience in those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The number one predictor of future success? Mentors. The number one way to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in top career fields? Mentors. Yes, my MFA mentors were skilled writers generous with their wisdom, but even more, they showed me, in their various creative ways, how to build a writing life—especially in a culture that rewards very few writers financially and that offers constant, bombarding distraction. They modeled how to make a living, prioritize writing, navigate the demands of family and friends, and manage emotions around success and failure.
The critics don’t argue against mentors, but suggest writers should find them organically. Think Hemingway gathered with the expatriates in Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons. But not all of us know where to find a mentor, and even if we did, we’re too polite or shy to impose on their precious time. Critics argue that MFA programs are classist, but I also believe it’s classist to demand writers find their own support. Now that I teach privileged teenagers, I recognize how much easier it is for those raised in well-off families to find mentors. They have spent their lives cultivating an appealing, graceful assurance. They know how to network, have access to people who know people, and have the confidence to ask for what they want. The rest of us need an MFA program.
And those complaints that MFA programs produce too many writers and that writing can’t be taught? I agree there is a certain luminous originality in the finest writing that can never be taught. But after years of seeing students’ awe-inspiring growth over a semester’s time, no one can convince me that most writers won’t improve, dramatically, with regular practice and structure and meaningful feedback. (I think that is also a cultural bias, an American Western, individualistic, frontier mentality: many other cultures value apprenticeship, elders and generations of accumulated wisdom.) The typical MFA program may not birth genius, but the students improve. And aren’t we all better off when people pursue their passions, when chefs, mechanics, surgeons, parents or musicians are happier and more skilled? Also, I believe what when we struggle with our writing, regardless of the final results, we think more clearly and understand more deeply—and our communities improve when any of us does work that loosens our hearts and defogs our brains.
I step from the bike and wipe the sweat with my soggy towel. My legs shake. We clap for our teacher and ourselves. I gulp my water. I try to hold the shape of my essay in my mind long enough to get home and transfer it to the page.
But at home, the essay doesn’t organize itself as easily as it did in my exercised-fueled brain. I don’t want to blast the critics. Their arguments sprout from noble impulses: a desire to dissolve exclusive clubs, a passion for innovative writing, a respect for literature and love of excellence. So, as I have learned to do, I listen to my writing as I might a timid, wild animal. Carefully. With attention. When I read the critics, I sense something else pulsing under the surface—is it my imagination?—the personal pain the writers may feel that their own creative work has not been recognized by the establishment. Then I see that I, too, am not writing what I thought I was. I thought I was adding my voice to the debate about the value of MFA programs. I thought this was an essay. But it’s just a disguise. This is a thank you note to my program and mentors. This is a love letter.
Tarn Wilson is a happy graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her recent essays have been published in Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Life Writing, Ruminate, and The Sun.