A Question of Catharsis

October 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Debra Gwartney discusses her essay “Cake” in the current issue of Brevity, and the idea of question marks of the soul:

02418I know I’m not the only one whose eyes pop open in the wee hours, 2 a.m., or 5 a.m., or some moment in between when sleep should be a given but isn’t. Those nights, before I can lead myself back down the soft trail to slumber (I’ve heard this is possible; I know nothing of it) my mind gets churning in what I call The Squirrel Cage. I realize it’s a cliché, squirrel cage, but I use it because the label came to me during a wee hour session when I was too exhausted to stir a clever trope. Plus, the image fits, crusty rodent feet scurrying across the lumpy plains of my memory, scrounging up past episodes that don’t need another middle of the night review, and yet I seem crazy-determined to sort through the prickled past again. Why was I so hard on my daughter fifteen years ago? Why was I scornful of that editor back in 1993? Why did I lie to my mother when I was ten? For reasons I have yet to decipher, there’s peace still to be made with certain, and often very small, remembrances of the past.

For instance, the night I ate cake, a single slice I’d noticed in a friend’s kitchen. I gobbled the confection while my ex-husband and the others were around the corner laughing it up at the dining room table. In the dark of night decades after I’d done it, I recalled my brashness at shoving that cake in my mouth and writhed under the covers. This act of embarrassing desperation got at least an hour in the cage while I prodded every detail of the evening, punishing myself for being a silly, sad girl.

The next morning I’d gained a bit of perspective. What was the big deal with eating cake? I snuck it a long time ago and, really, nobody suffered permanent damage, and, besides, if I’d asked for the slice the hostess probably would have given it to me. Why couldn’t I send this memory off into the pillows of the subconscious, where it couldn’t bother me anymore?

In the light of day, it occurred to me that it was worth writing about, this memory that still poked. Such question marks of the soul intrigue me when it comes to memoir writing: seemingly innocuous events that won’t leave you alone years after the fact are often the best fodder. Sorting through the particulars of our Bavarian-themed dinner party and forcing myself to admit what I’d done, instead of drumming up excuses or pretending it didn’t happen (my middle of the night tactic), might, I thought, bring release.

Bring release? It’s curious I would consider this a possibility, as I’m generally opposed to the idea that memoir must be cathartic. That is, memoir has no responsibility, at least I don’t think so, to bring about a “restoration of spirit,” which is one dictionary’s definition (“catharsis” also means “a medicine that purges the bowels”). Memoir isn’t therapy. Memoir isn’t charged to necessarily reconstitute, to repair what’s been broken. I much prefer Kim Stafford’s idea that, “memoir’s job is not to answer the question, but to deepen the question.”

gwartneyAfter I published my book, Live Through This, a memoir about my wrongheaded illusions as a younger mother and the resulting conflagration of my family, many people asked me if I’d written the book as a release, a cleansing, an ablution to wash away the pain of the past. Sure, I’d say. Sort of. There was nothing easy about scraping my mess up off the muddy sidewalk to examine it anew, so I hoped that some good would come of it. Good came. My daughters and I talked with an honesty, an openness, that wasn’t possible before, a welcomed clearing of the air.

But healing a riff with my daughters was never my central aim. I wanted to tell a good story, a captivating story. I wrote seven drafts over a period of eight years until the narrative worked, until I could finally see my role in our dynamic, until I could own my part. I didn’t want to acknowledge how I’d contributed to our troubles, but I realized there’d be no narrative drive without it. A narrative with energy, with urgency and fierce honesty—the opposite of a tedious complaint of bad children hurting their good mother—required that I embrace another cliché: hold your own feet to the fire. And sure, in the process of feet-to-flames I began to know myself better.

I don’t remember, not once, sitting down to write with the intention of repairing the past. I didn’t consciously plan to find enough words and put them in the right order to fix what ailed us. I sat down to write because I couldn’t not sit down and write. Every time I tried to quit, the book called me back. It nudged me in the wee hours, in the middle of the day, upon waking and upon going to bed. The story demanded to be written and so I wrote it. The rather unexpected restoration, the healing, the catharsis—those were added bonuses, arriving of their own accord and not because I forced them.

I feel the same about the little cake essay. I don’t remember the names of the people we ate with that night—they were my then-husband’s friends from work. Even if I found identities and addresses, I have no need to go back and clean up with those folks. I wrote about eating the cake because that one-minute slip had bugged me for decades, dangling many nights at two a.m., waiting to be parsed. And so I parsed it. I wrote until I uncovered the character’s motivations and intentions, the stark loneliness and fear that led the “I” on the page, who’s both me and not, to consume what wasn’t hers. With every draft, I made myself consider what’s best for the narrative, and not what was going to make me feel better about what I did.

And, eureka, self-forgiveness was part of the process. It sidled up when I wasn’t looking. Another nice bonus. Something like the cherry on top of a German chocolate cake.


Debra Gwartney is the author of a memoir, Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she is co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, most recently Prairie Schooner and The Normal School. She teaches in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program, and lives in Western Oregon.

Your Personal Essay’s in My Journalism!

October 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

Anybody remember the one with the guy eating peanut butter at the opera?

Anybody remember the one with the guy eating peanut butter at the opera?

…Your journalism’s in my personal essay! But are they two great reads that read great together? Do confessionals really get us closer to the truth than reportage?

At the Washington Post, Eve Fairbanks takes a look at the recent trend of first-person narratives used to fill column inches that were previously journalism, and questions whether they really open up new vistas, or are instead inescapably biased and perhaps even jejune.

…perhaps what we’re really seeing, with the so-called democratization of opinion, is how weird and variegated writers’ lives actually are, rather than a profoundly widened window into human experience. From Homer onwards, it’s always been the duty of reporters to tell stories about the lives of those people who cannot spin great stories out of their own astonishing experiences.

Ironically enough, the article is itself a first-person essay rather than journalism. It’s not necessary for every essay mentioned to be investigated, but this leads to lumping them together as not-journalism. Ms. Fairbanks misses, for example, that the woman pictured with twins (whose essay What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps Ms. Fairbanks cites as an example of the trend) is veteran reporter-turned-stay-at-home-mom Darlena Cuhna, and the Mercedes piece sparked a national conversation on poverty that was covered by CNN and Al Jazeera, among other ‘real’ news outlets.

Should the reporter be in the story? Should a story be the reporter’s story? What makes an essay journalism? Ms. Fairbanks examines these thought-provoking questions from several angles and with quite a few links to first-person pieces worth exploring.

Check it out here.

My Very End of the Universe: The Absent Father

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Installment two of our author interview series celebrating our new “flash” cousin, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form, new this month from Rose Metal Press, features Tiff Holland interviewing Meg Pokrass, about Pokrass’ novella in flash Here, Where We Live:

Meg Pokrass

Meg Pokrass

TH: Meg, the most interesting character to me in your novella was initially the father—his extreme presence in his absence. You mentioned to me once that you did not know your own father. Did you imagine him to be like this father?

MP:  No, I did not imagine my father to be like the father in this novella at all. I wrote this absent father to be what who I wanted my father to have been like. I imagined how a girl, overwhelmed by so much worry and conditional difficulty, might cultivate memories of a dead parent and use them as life rafts. The father remains my main character’s backbone—a force that has some influence in balancing out her difficult luck.

TH: What moved me most about him is that he “died making an old building new.” After reading the novella, I recognized that the narrator is like the father, thus his pull. She’s trying to be a fixer, too. Did you envision this all along?

MP: I was a “fixer” as a kid, yes. I didn’t really envision writing the main character as me, but that is how the character developed. This happens to me a lot. I try to write someone very different from myself, but it ends up being a kind of self-portrait. I wish I could say it was intentional. Writing a character unconsciously becomes, at least for some writers, an internal portrait of ourselves at different ages.

TH: Talk about the role of luck in the piece? I love the line “On our stoop, luck cleared its throat like a Mormon missionary and walked away.”

MP: Thank you for saying so, Tiff. I have always been fascinated with luck. Scientists can’t study it, you know? Our lives are determined by luck from the moment we are born. Wisdom matters, making good choices is huge, but luck is annoyingly present throughout our lives. All of this stuff we believe we can control is mostly wishful thinking. Sure, we can influence the way things turn out, but we can’t do anything about luck.

TH: Did you write the pieces chronologically with the novella in mind?

MP: No. I patched it together from a lot of old stories and poems, wrote some new ones, and wove chronology into it. I reshaped certain chapters/stories to fit into different time frames. It still feels a bit mysterious to me, how it all came together. I had been writing it for years, but didn’t know it.

TH: This isn’t just another coming-of-age novella, this is a novella about active creation/invention. The characters, seen and unseen, stay with you.

MP: Thank you! I’m really glad to hear this. I was strongly influenced by Tennessee Williams’ plays when I was an actress. I studied his beautiful lines and heartbreaking characters. But I was mostly fascinated with the importance of the absent father in The Glass Menagerie. I am glad that the absent father’s presence looms large in Here, Where We Live.


Meg Pokrass is the author of Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) and Bird Envy (Printed on Paige, 2014). Her flash fiction appears in 200 literary journals including Green Mountains Review, Five Points, storySouth, McSweeney’s, and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Meg serves as associate editor for Rick Barthelme’s New World Writing. She lives in San Francisco with a dog and two cats. Find out more at megpokrass.com.


The Tomatoes Could Be Terrible. Write Anyway.

October 20, 2014 § 15 Comments

heirloom_tomatoesI just started working as an editor. I’m freelance, so I see a lot of self-published work, some of which fits every horrible stereotype about self-publishing. But no matter how near the beginning of their craft the author is, they’re still one up on me:

They finished a book.

They didn’t wait for the Fairy MFAmother to whack them with her magic Now You May Go To The Writer Ball wand, they didn’t let their mother’s dismissals or their lack of time stop them. They followed Nora Roberts‘ (and so many other prolific big-name authors’) maxim:

Ass in chair.

For us creative nonfictioneers, it’s often not a failure of imagination or work ethic, but a fear of not measuring up that dogs our ability to finish–or even start.

Should I write about the cancer? Nah, everyone’s got a cancer memoir. What about that time we broke up? Modern Love did that last week. My dad died? Special to me, but not everyone else. Sorry, Dad.

Fear of not being interesting, fear that our experience is too common, that we have nothing to say, that no-one wants to hear it, can paralyze a writer. After all, why should anyone care?

But there are three paths to memoir: be famous, do something amazing, or write well. We can’t control the first, and the second is often dangerous or expensive. As for writing well, we don’t know until the third, fourth, or fifth draft whether or not we’ve hit the mark. Stopping–or not starting–because we’re scared we won’t measure up is like throwing away the seeds because we might be allergic to tomatoes.

At Women Writers, Women’s Books, Shanan Haislip writes,

I still wonder if my life is a bit boring for a real writer. And it’s funny how the words can silenced by simple insecurity, by doubt, by the writer’s need to measure up to something, somehow. If you let it—and this takes courage—writing always comes through the cracks.

So dig out the damn seeds and plant the tomatoes. Maybe they’ll be bitter, or misshapen, or an odd color. They still might make great marinara. You won’t know unless you plant.

Go write. Not later. Not when you’re “interesting,” not when you’re unafraid. Now.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Every day she wonders if that was the last word she had.

CNF Wants Weather, Boundaries, Teachers, & Crazy You!!

October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

bbc weatherSpend a second and review the CURRENT CALLS FOR SUBMISSIONS at Creative Nonfiction magazine.  They are reading for two new anthologies from In Fact Books, a special issue of CNF, and the Exploring the Boundaries section of the magazine.

Jan 20

Exploring the Boundaries (section of the magazine)

What to send: Ambitious writing that pushes against the conventional boundaries of the genre, plays with style and form, and makes its own rules.

 Feb 9

Beyond Crazy (a book!)

What to send: Original stories that address–either directly or obliquely–the trials of living with mental illness. 

Mar 9

Becoming a Teacher (another book!)

What to send: Stories by and/or about elementary and secondary school teachers, recalling and reflecting on the most salient moments of their careers.

Apr 13

The Weather (a special issue of CNF)

What’s on the line: $1,000 for best essay; $500 for runner-up; publication in CNF.

What to send: True stories–personal, historical, reported–about fog, drought, flooding, tornado-chasing, blizzards, hurricanes, hail the size of golfballs, or whatever’s happening where you are. We’re looking for well-crafted essays that will change the way we see the world around us.

Lee Martin is the Bomb

October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

Lee Martin is the bomb.  Let’s just acknowledge that.  He is the bomb!  Or whatever cool phrase the kids use these days for “best.”

Here he is instructing readers of his blog how to read like a writer.

bombOne thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?

I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, lee_martinbut also to further define their own aesthetics.


It’s important to gauge our responses to the openings of pieces by thinking about the effects they have on us. Openings can come from different aesthetics and have different objectives, but the one thing they simply must have in common is they have to be interesting. We should think about the effects that different kinds of openings have and how the writer creates those effects. A good writer creates his or her ideal audience with the opening and also teaches that audience how to read.

Read Lee’s Full Blog post over here at The Least You Need to Know

Copyediting from A to X

October 15, 2014 § 7 Comments

copyeditor-cartoonI’ve recently hung out my shingle as an editor, and it’s been fascinating to look up and confirm bits of grammar and punctuation I’m “pretty sure” I know, but am now paranoiac about getting absolutely right. Over at Medium, there’s a great rundown on commonly confused words from Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, including this lovely distinction:

One’s sweetheart is “hon,” not “hun,” unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).

It’s a quick, fun read and you’ll want to bookmark it–if not for yourself, for reference during future arguments with your editor.

Enjoy it here!


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