October 30, 2013 § 23 Comments
I think it has something to do with the fact that the carpenter has blueprints. The chef has recipes. And no one will complain if they build or cook the same thing twice. The writer has no such luxuries. The writer is cursed to start over, from scratch, every time. Like Sisyphus. Except the writer has to make the boulder, and each time it has to be a unique but precisely sculpted blend of levity and gravity, transcendence and relatability. In short, a miracle. By 11:59 tonight, please.
Honestly, I think the real trouble lies in that a writer doesn’t know how she does what she does. It’s not wise to admit that these days, when everyone is supposed to know everything, especially about the way they make their living. But it’s true. A writer can make herself sit at the desk and string words together, but she can’t make them be the right ones. She can try to think profound thoughts and have unparalleled insights, but trying will probably make the good stuff flee, like the soot sprites in Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Writing is not so much a process of creating as it is waiting–waiting for the good stuff to show up. We writers fill up a lot of pages in the waiting, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” Sometimes there are second drafts that are just as shitty. Or third drafts that are even worse. But the practiced writer keeps cranking out the pages until, here and there in all the crap, they see enough decent ideas or turns of phrase to make them believe they have the kernel of a story, or an essay, or a book. Then they trim out as many of the awful passages as they can bear (sometimes the awful passages can be very close to one’s heart), whittling things down to a tenth of their previous size, and the process begins again. Write, write, write, until more good stuff appears and we can throw more of the crap away.
There is no recipe. No blueprint. No line of stepping stones that will lead one to the creation of a brilliant piece of literature without moments of wandering in the dark. We writers strive to bring into being something bold, original, and heart-stoppingly magnificent. But, as clichéd as it may sound, that stuff only arrives by way of inspiration. Don’t get me wrong. We writers have to work hard. We have to show up. We have to put pen to paper or fingertip to key. We have to cry and sweat and bleed. But there’s no direct link between our suffering and the end result. Our tears, our sweat, our blood get poured out, and then, magically, from somewhere off in left field, the miracle appears. And the end result seems so disconnected from our effort that we wonder why it couldn’t have just shown up earlier, before we had that little visit to hell.
But of course, the work was necessary. The work did get us the result. It just happened somewhere in the depths of the unconscious. We couldn’t see the gears turning, the neurons firing, the gods descending and re-ascending from our little brains. And so, when it’s time to face the next blank page, we still have no clue how we do what we do.
And we’re not at all sure that it will ever happen again.
Sharon Rawlette’s work has previously appeared in Salon and the academic journal Philosophical Studies.
October 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Brevity contributor William Bradley has written a truly perfect tribute to the power of the personal essay to promote empathy. The fact that he mentions other former Brevity authors and cites Debra Marquart’s powerful essay from our May 2008 issue is just icing on the excellent cake. A link to the full essay after the excerpt:
It’s impossible for us to live the lives of others, of course, but essays give us a record of someone else’s consciousness—the act of reading these essays and interacting with these minds on the page is the closest thing we have to telepathy in the real world. Part of the reason why I care so much about issues pertaining to racial justice is that reading James Baldwin’s experiences and thoughts in “Notes of a Native Son” and “Stranger in the Village” made the issue vividly real. These issues were personal for Baldwin, and thus became personal for me as a result of reading Baldwin. It’s likewise impossible to believe in homophobic caricatures of gay men’s predatory sexuality after reading an account of growing up gay as sensitive and affecting as Bernard Cooper’s “A Clack of Tiny Sparks.” The idea that women who have abortions are by nature selfish or unreflective is belied by essays like Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day.” Similarly, unlike some of my liberal humanist friends, I know from reading David Griffith’s reflections on his Catholic faith in his essay collection A Good War is Hard to Find or Patrick Madden’s discussions on his own Mormon faith in his collection Quotidiana that there is nothing inherently reactionary or intolerant about subscribing to a religious faith.
The full essay can be read at Utne Reader.
October 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
A guest blog from Melissa Cronin:
This past weekend, in between browsing from one book vendor to the next at the Boston Book Festival, gathering swag, and schmoozing with writers of various genres, I attended a couple of workshops. Because I’ve been writing, adding to, deleting from, and restructuring my memoir for the past four years, one in particular resonated with me: “Revision and Instinct,” led by Holly LeCraw, author of the novel The Swimming Pool. Of course, there’s no magic formula for revision, otherwise I would not have attended the workshop, nor would LeCraw have had reason to lead it.
But what is the definition of revision? When LeCraw asked the audience to answer, people called out: “Hell,” “surgery,” “re-imagine,” “re-create.” LeCraw’s addition to the list: “Bravery.” Revision isn’t about the technical stuff: where to place a comma, semicolon, or quotation marks. As LeCraw said, “It’s a lot about psychology.” She then scribbled a sentence on the white board: You need to get out of your own way. In other words, during the first draft, just dump the words onto the page, don’t think too hard, “be a child,” she said, “lower your standards.” Easier said than done. If only I could stop the judging part of my brain: Why are you using the word walk instead of stroll? Why are you putting a hyphen there?
LeCraw then jotted the word prisoners on the board I squinted at my husband sitting next to me, thinking, what is she talking about? Maybe I’m in the wrong workshop. I had to be patient. She clarified: “Michelangelo’s Prisoners.” Years ago, when visiting Florence, she noticed unfinished marble blocks of figures trying to emerge from the stone. The metaphor: the first draft is the gathering of the clay to prepare for creation. “The middle is revision,” she said, which come from “instinct.” Ugh. That means trusting yourself, knowing what you’re doing. I sighed, whispered to my husband, “How does she do it?”
“Energy,” LeCraw said. I leaned forward in my chair, attentive. “The energy is not in the marble or in the prisoners trying to get out,” she continued. To explain this, she shared a scene from a short story she submitted to a journal years earlier, where the grandmother throws dishes to the floor. The journal didn’t accept it, but the editor wrote to her to say that the grandmother scene intrigued him. Others said the same, too. What was it about the scene that captured readers’ attention? Honesty. It was the first time the Grandmother was being herself.
LeCraw asked us to think about where the energy is in our own work. I closed my eyes, recalled a section of my memoir: Through the crowd of shoppers and maze of colors, I saw the peaches stacked in a pyramid. I touched a perfectly round one, picked it up. Recently tilled earth, summertime, wafted toward me. The downy flesh tickled my palm. I couldn’t wait to take the first bite – the squirt, the juices, the sugar. I heard a pop. The sound of a gunshot. The peach was in my hand then it was not. Why did my mind focus on this excerpt? Because there is action, like LeCraw’s throwing of the dishes? But energy doesn’t necessarily mean action. Like LeCraw’s marble, you “need to shave away the stuff that’s weighing you down, the stuff that bores you,” she said. What’s left is energy. I closed my eyes again, imagined shaving layers of marble from the prisoners, as if I were scrubbing dead skin from my own body, working to expose my inner self. Suddenly, I realized, for me at least, the energy is in the senses: tilled earth, downy flesh, the pop.
The challenging part, though, is how to avoid the boring stuff: over-explaining or when not enough is happening. After you cut out the part that has less energy, “think about he smallest thing that can fill the hole,” LeCraw said. For me, it’s the senses. What is it for you? Maybe it’s a precise verb or adjective.
Once you’ve finished revising, you need to do what LeCraw calls “polishing,” when the narrative becomes “rigid, ossified,” and it’s difficult to discard material. But, even then, she said, “You might find yourself in first draft mode,” if you’ve forgotten, say, a scene and have to go back and write it into the rest of the narrative. So, the truth is, writing means multitasking: writing, revising, and polishing at the same time. But what if you’re like me and you’re not good at multitasking? There’s still hope: As LeCraw said, though the start is “fuzzy, what matters is that at the end it’s yours.”
So, I leave you with an exercise LeCraw left us with: take the places in your own writing that are pregnant with energy, put them together, then delete everything else. Next, fill in the holes. Of course, you need to trust your instinct. But, if you keep scraping away at the marble, you’re bound to find the story.
Melissa Cronin received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Brevity and Hunger Mountain Journal. In addition to working on a memoir, she is a contributing writer for a local newspaper in South Burlington, VT where she lives with her husband, John.
October 17, 2013 § 27 Comments
Kate Hopper, author of the new memoir Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, examines the pain and perseverance that we meet along the road to publication:
Just over a month ago my doorbell rang, and a FedEx driver handed me a thin package. I turned it over and saw that it was from the University of Minnesota Press, my publisher, so I tore it open. It was my memoir.
I started to cry. And let me be clear: I did not gracefully shed a couple of tears; I sat in my tiny office and sobbed. The dog came in and looked at me, sniffed my legs, wondering, I’m sure, what the hell was wrong with me. And I wondered the same thing: Why am I crying now? What’s going on? Yet, I couldn’t stop.
When I described this later, someone said, “Tears of happiness!” But that wasn’t it exactly. Yes, I was thrilled to finally hold my book—so smooth, so carefully designed—in my hands. I was relieved. But that wasn’t all.
I began writing this book, a memoir about the premature birth of my daughter, almost a decade ago. I spent a few years writing it and revising it. Then I spent a year or so having it rejected. Some agents and editors thought it was too dark, others said there was simply no market for it. One said it needed to be funnier. Another claimed the content was just too challenging. (Just so you know, my daughter is fine—she’s a healthy ten-year-old.)
Each time I received a rejection, I hung my head for a bit. A few times I cried. I often laced up my running shoes and went for a rejection run. And then I came back to my desk and asked myself these questions: Why have I structured the book as I did? Why is it important to have the hard and gritty parts of motherhood woven in with the beautiful parts? Have I written the best book I can write?
The answer to that last question, at first, was no. I knew I could do better, put more pressure on my sentences, cut scenes, expand others. I knew I needed to thread the various narrative lines more carefully through the book. I knew I needed to push myself as a character on the page, to make sure I wasn’t letting myself off the hook.
So I wrote the book again, from scratch. That took another two and a half years, but when I was done, my answer was yes, this is the best book I can write. Yet the rejections continued to come—the book, they said, was still too dark, too challenging, there was no market.
These later rejections didn’t make me hang my head; they made me angry. And there’s nothing like a shot of anger to convince you to persevere, which is what I did. I knew I’d find a home for the book eventually; I wouldn’t give up. But here is the thing: submitting and writing and rewriting are exhausting. Constantly hoping is exhausting. Not giving up is sometimes exhausting.
So last month, when I finally held that book in my hands, it wasn’t just joy I felt. All that other stuff came rushing out, too—all those years of trying not to be discouraged, of not giving up, all the energy it took to keep diving back into that manuscript. It all whooshed right out of me, and that’s why I couldn’t stop sobbing.
I realized I wasn’t going to get anything done in that state—I was a blubbering mess—so I laced up my running shoes and headed toward the river. I let all those rejection runs seep into that one, and then, step after step, I let them all go. It started to rain, and I shivered as I ran over the Mississippi River, picking up my pace. Then I shook out my arms, let out a couple of boisterous whoops, and pumped my fist into the air. Because all of that hard work was worth it.
For more information about Kate Hopper’s writing, retreats and classes, visit www.katehopper.com.
October 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A heads up from our good friend (and king of all things Quotidiana) Patrick Madden:
Keen essay readers have long noted the prevalence and importance of lists within essays, whether quick catalogs of items in a cupboard or multiple perspectives on the question of whether animals have souls, so it’s no surprise to find not just lists-in-essays but lists-AS-essays coming into a kind of subgeneric, subversive prominence in our postmodern period. Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ’80s” both focused on decades filtered through personal experience, and Joe Brainard perhaps took the form farthest with his “I Remember” books, which covered, in haphazard fashion, a whole life.
Somewhat independently and somewhat inspired by these and other examples, essayist John Proctor has been chronicling his life in decades-dedicated lists updated daily on his website. September pitted us “Against the Eighties” and October is bringing us “Out of the Nineties,” while November promises the Aughts and December will regress to the Seventies. Having read the whole series (before the links, embedded videos, and photos, which heighten the online experience), I highly recommend it. It offers an interesting challenge to our default narrative and structural expectations while essaying a life through its interactions and influences.
October 9, 2013 § 3 Comments
A guest post from Rebecca McClanahan, on the occasion of her rich new memoir, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change:
If you take artifact and split it into three parts, you get ART, I, and FACT. I think of these as the triumvirate of family history memoir, a body of three forces that work together toward a central purpose. During the decade that I was researching and writing The Tribal Knot, these three forces collided in surprising ways.
I’ll start with FACT, an element I could not ignore, given the trunkloads of ancestral documents, ephemera, and personal effects my mother had passed on to me, some dating as far back as 1848. Here’s a partial list: Postcards, telegrams, water-stained schoolbooks, photographs, diaries, newspaper clippings, calling cards, hospital bills, tax notices, affidavits, wills, marriage announcements, death notices, farm ledgers, handmade valentines cut raggedly by a child’s hand—my great-uncle’s hand—more than a century ago. And hundreds of letters. Written in good times on store-bought stationery; in bad times on used envelopes, church bulletins, grocery receipts, wallpaper, wrapping paper, on unused bank checks or the margins of free calendars distributed from seed companies.
“What a treasure,” everyone said, “to have all this family history at your fingertips.” The daughter-in-me agreed. As did the granddaughter-in-me, and the great-niece and great-great-granddaughter. The writer-in-me was not so sure. The writer in me knew that all the stuff in the world does not a book make. I had too much–not only the artifacts themselves but also, as the process deepened, oral histories, interviews, site visits, library and other secondary sources, not to mention the ransacking of my own memory and life story. I wanted to give up, but it was too late. I’d been sucked into my ancestors’ lives, and the only way to find my way out was to write my way in–into the questions, the mysteries, in search of the hidden design, the voice, the structure, anything that might move me from mere FACT into ART.
Then, a few years into the process, something shifted. I began to feel like that magnet Eudora Welty talked about in one of her interviews. Once a writer is immersed in the work, she says, “wherever you go, you meet part of the story.” You’re “tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized.”
At some point, my center became magnetized. Turned out, it was the same center that had magnetized my writing for thirty years: my obsession with human connections, with the myriad ways lives intersect. Then, the universe cooperated with another iron filing drawn to my magnetic center, an image that grew out of an interview I conducted: the description of a “hair picture” woven from the hair of 13 members of my ancestral tribe, an artifact that, according to my informant, was an important factor in a family murder-suicide that occurred in the 1930s. How could I resist the image? It was a physical incarnation of one of the deepest themes emerging through the material: the interconnectedness of family lives. Each family member with her own strand of individuality, yet when all these strands are woven together, the design is more intricate than any individual design could be.
That was one of the ways ART collided with FACT–as image. Over the next years, other elements of art collided with the factual material–structure, characterization, timeline, and decisions about what to include and what to kill off (600 draft pages, as it turned out, which I considered a form of mercy killing for the reader.) When ART collided with FACT, a lot of surprises occurred.
But what surprised me most was how powerful the third element–the I–turned out to be. When I’d first set out, I imagined my role as fact-collector, transcriber of artifacts, amateur historian. As usual, life had other plans. With each letter I studied and artifact I touched, I inched closer into my ancestors’ lives, fitting my feet into the tracks they’d left for me. Imagining yourself into the consciousness of someone else is a form of communion, and, as it turned out, I needed this communion. I needed all the help I could get, including help from the dead. Yes, some of what I found was difficult to accept: my great-grandmother’s painful childhood, my parents’ darkest moments, and the unwelcome discovery of certain documents, like the 1920s Klan membership card. But I was also humbled by the tenacity, grit, humor, and vulnerability of my ancestors, especially those I had known in life. As a child or adolescent, it’s hard to imagine your grandmother, or great-aunt or -uncle aside from their relationship to you. You are the child and they are the old ones, simple as that. But when you inherit hundreds of documents spanning more than a century, their whole lives are spread out before you, from beginning to end. You become the old one, with knowledge that they can’t have.
That was the biggest surprise of all, the realization that because of my access to all these documents, coupled with my knowledge of how their lives played out, I knew more than my ancestors knew. They knew only their present and their past; I knew their future. I knew which marriages would last and which ones wouldn’t. I knew my grandmother was pregnant before she did. I knew that one of the uncles wasn’t telling the truth when he wrote that things weren’t “all okay,” that they were so far from okay that he would end up killing his son and himself. I could move through space and time, foretell my ancestors’ futures, yet I was helpless to intervene. I wanted to reach through time, to post a letter of my own. A letter of warning, yes: Be careful whom you love, what you say, what city you move to, where you hide the ammunition. But it would be a love letter, too, for that is finally what happened, which was the biggest surprise of all. I fell in love with these people, the living and the dead. I wanted to keep living inside their lives. I wanted the letters to keep coming.
This blog essay was adapted from a lecture delivered at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference in May 2013. Listen to the original here: River Teeth audio podcast.
October 8, 2013 § 6 Comments
I looked up to make eye contact, like you’re supposed to do when presenting to a room full of people, but his eyes were down. The crown of his head of soft white hair was tipped toward me. He was making notes. He licked his thumb and moved the page over as I turned the page in my reading.
“On the walk down the planked dock, fiddler crabs went about their work in the higher marsh flats,” I read. Jesus, I thought. How many times have I used the word marsh? That’s the fifth time in the past 30 seconds. I need to edit that.
“Ok, Andrea,” he held up his hand to stop me. “You sound great so far – your tempo is perfect – but you need to project more.” He was at the far end of a hardwood floor room, sitting in a plastic black chair near the doorway. His legs were crossed with my papers on his lap. When he instructed me to project, he gestured, pen in hand, to his diaphragm, drew his hand up his body and delivered it forward, showing me how to draw the words from deep inside, carry them up my vocal chords and propel them out of my mouth. Showing me how to empower my voice.
We practiced in the Performing Arts building at Virginia Tech. The room smelled warm and softly spiced, like wood and radiator heat. Tony Distler, the white-haired reading coach who was helping me, told me the building was originally the University’s student center. “Really? It’s so small.” I looked around at the golden pine walls, behind me at the stone fireplace. There were mirrors on the wall, like in my old ballet studio, and as Tony assembled a podium from crates, I asked, “Is this room used for dance classes?”
“Yes,” he told me, and he pushed down on the floor with his foot. “The floor isn’t sprung, but the timbers beneath it – this whole building is made of wood – have beautiful give, so it is perfect for dance.”
Per his suggestion, I straightened my spine, drew breath from deep in my belly, and projected my voice over the wood planks to the far end of the room. On page two, I already felt the piece sagging. It was too slow. Who’s going to care about this? And I still have six pages to go. Salt and water, water and salt, heat and salt, salt and sand. Jeez, how many times do I write variations of that? I need to fix those phrases too. What must this guy think of me? Probably wondering how on earth I ended up a finalist.
“This guy” keeps an office upstairs at the Performing Arts building. When I shook his hand upon meeting him, I asked, “What is your position here at Tech?” He hesitated, then he smiled kindly and said, “I’m retired.”
“But you still have an office on campus? How wonderful!”
“I was Director of the School of the Arts when I retired.”
Oh. Perhaps I should have done some research.
When I finished reading my work to him, Tony stood and told me I had done well. My tempo and pacing were good, and I had sustained my projection after correcting for it. He pulled his chair back into the middle of the room and we sat side by side so he could give me some pointers.
“On page three, the paragraph that begins ‘We could take the boat out -”
“Yes, I see that one,” I said.
“That last sentence – it’s a wonderful sentence by the way – don’t slow that one down too much.”
And he read my sentence, in his honey, theater-trained voice, and it was wonderful.
“Just the natural world that was exposed to the elements, with sands that shifted with storms and tides, and plants and animals that had adapted to a life of salt and water,” he read, and the words danced in the wood-spiced room.
“Wow.” I stared at him. “You made it sound like poetry.” I pictured the room next door, and the stage that was in it, and imagined him coaching young actors. Imagined him, script in his left hand, gesturing with his right, awing them with his ability to breathe life into the written word.
“Now this line, on page six, is similar,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, strong sentence, with a natural momentum that peaks here, at ‘tide pools.’ Then you can slow it down, to give the words their power. And this comma here,” and he showed me the comma, “leave it in the piece, by all means, but don’t observe it when you read.”
And he read my sentence, and he felt the words, and he showed me their power with his voice. Power I intended when I wrote the sentence, but didn’t feel the words conveyed, lying there on the page.
“On the long walk back, I watched the tide creep up the beach, louder now, waves building with the force of an ocean behind them, washing up into the tide pools, awing me with its power, its inevitability,” he read. I practiced his tempo and felt the words move. I felt the power of my voice as it floated the sentence along.
At the end of the session, I understood I had been given a great gift to share this time with Tony. Reading with him didn’t just show me the flaws. It showed me the beauty, too.
“I have learned so much today,” I told him. “I read this out loud to myself before I submitted it for the contest, because I know you’re supposed to do that as a writer. I caught a lot when I did that – lots of overused words and cumbersome phrases. But to read it to an audience? That was totally different.” Wondering, oh my God, is this total crap? Why didn’t I cut that sentence? This phrase? That word?
Tony smiled and said, “I’m not here to tell you what to cut. I’m just here to help with you sharing your work with an audience. But yes, I can see you recognize where you repeat yourself. Feel free to edit before the reading.”
“And the way you read it,” I said, still in awe. “You brought it to life. I didn’t know it could have so much life.”
He shook my hand firmly, and his gentle eyes crinkled in encouragement. “I’ll be there to introduce you, and you are welcome to call me with any questions you have between now and then.”
Tony walked up the worn wooden stairs to his office, and I stepped out into the sunlight, my voice a glittering new tool in my writing box.
Andrea Badgley holds a B.S. in Ecology, but left that field to raise children and write. Her work appears in Southern Women’s Review, on Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog, and has been honored with the Freshly Pressed blogging award by the editors at WordPress. She grew up on the coast of Georgia and now lives with her husband and two children in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. She writes creative nonfiction on her blog at andreabadgley.com.
October 4, 2013 § 6 Comments
Kathryn Miller discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay, Wide Open Spaces:
I was in Chicago for the summer, supposedly to work on my book about getting shot as a kid in an affluent Chicago suburb. But I wasn’t writing much, if at all. I also wasn’t doing any of the things I said I’d do while there, like go to the police station. Instead I went to street festivals and concerts and rode my bike across the city and spent money that I shouldn’t on fancy dinners with old friends.
Two years earlier, I’d decided to confront the shooting, take in as much as possible about it, to hopefully attain further healing or closure or something else good. In that time, I’d immersed myself in it. I’d read the two books written about the woman who shot us, looked at my hospital records, talked to my mom for the first time about her experience. I’d endured the strangeness of workshop, listening to fellow MFA students debate things like where placing the shooting scene in my book would garner the most narrative tension and hearing my description of the boy who died the day of the shooting read aloud, making his death happen again, right there, in class, so I’d almost embarrassingly yelled, Please stop. But even after all that, I still avoided reminders of that day. Thus, while I’d resolved at the beginning of that summer to go to look at the records, days and weeks passed, my guilt mounted, but I didn’t go to the station, nor did I even call to find out if accessing the records was possible.
It took the man I was involved with at the time to make me finally call. Just do it, he said one morning, crawling back into bed next to me, where I was lying far too late, especially for a Wednesday. Maybe we can even drive up there today. I didn’t look convinced. All you’re doing is calling and getting some information, he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. It was the reasonable, casual terms I needed the task to be put in—I was capable of doing something simple like “calling and getting some information.”
And like that, a couple phone calls later, I had an appointment to look at the files the following week.
When I told my good friend about the police station plan, we were drinking beers in a dive bar with mismatched, disintegrating stools, the metal legs rusting, the black vinyl peeling back from the seats, exposing yellow foam cushions. There was handwriting all over the bathroom walls saying things like, Imagine Charlie Sheen fucking a centaur on Mars. We were watching open-mic stand-up comics. He said: Jesus, dude. Don’t go by yourself.
When I told my dad at dinner in a crowded suburban restaurant, trying and failing to mimic a Wisconsin lodge: his eyes got red and misty.
What my stepmom did at that same dinner: clasped my hands across the table, across my bread plate with a piece of half eaten onion bread on it and said, We’re so proud of you. You’re so brave.
But I didn’t feel brave.
The morning I went to the station, I was in a foul mood, irritated by everything, even the blue, cloudless sky—will it ever rain again—until I realized driving to the station that no one was making me go. What I was about to do wasn’t such a big deal anyway—it was paper, words, photographs. The hard part, the trauma, was long passed. No matter what I saw, I was okay and nothing in those files could change that.
When I sat down to write about the experience, it was the first time all summer that I was able to write almost effortlessly. The words flowed with ease (though I still wrote, rewrote and edited the hell out of it, like I do everything). It was getting myself to the police station, to that moment, that was the work.
October 1, 2013 § 8 Comments
By Amy Wright
Cowbird is an online community of storytellers that arose during the momentum of the Occupy movement, providing the 99% with a forum to put faces with those numbers destabilized by the economic inequality of large corporations.
The first “Saga”—as I remember it, since the themes are no longer organized chronologically—was the “Occupy Saga,” and gathered stories of confessional Wall Street “low-rung” financial advisors, Red Diaper Babies-turned grandmothers, Oakland strikers, new “Migrant Mothers” en route across country to look for work, etc.
The “Working Saga” that followed takes Studs Terkel’s idea international, collecting anecdotes from retired principals of South African schools, Mexican painters, Norwegian photographers, Kalamazoo briefcase and accessory store owners. Thus, even as the media was answering a context-driven call for connection, it was already transcending the movement, inspiring stories of separated lovers, perseverance, failure, and adversity that are timeless and global
The strength of this community, as I read it, is that Cowbirders “love” each other’s posts. The distinction between loving a piece, commenting on, retweeting, liking it, or giving it a thumbs up may seem insignificant, but I would argue makes all the difference. For, in love—unexpectedly perhaps, depending on your definition—there is much freedom.
I have loved pieces I don’t particularly like, because I admire the writer’s intention or revelation. I have loved pieces for risks the writer takes rather than literary merits I tend to favorite. And perhaps most significantly for me, knowing only love can return after publishing a post bolsters a writer for the kind of fortitude required to take on such intimate themes as the “Bedroom Saga” that inspired my Brevity piece.
I aspire to create some such haven in my classroom—however briefly—by having students read aloud 2-3 paragraphs from their essays before they turn them in. On that day, students receive only applause, praise, encouragement, for the next class period they will need to open themselves to feedback from their peers during workshop.
Receiving criticism is not a moment in the writing process I have tended in years past. Though I have long asked students to share a section of their strongest work with their live audience, I have only recently begun to pause and linger before allowing discussion to say “Yes!”—allowing that feat to be enough (even if their 2-3 paragraphs net only three pages of their required eight). Later we will discuss suggestions for the required revision, but I want them to revel and remember reveling in having written—for only that joy will sustain the best of them to return to the page the many times it takes to crystallize meaning, image, insight, closure.
Might all writers be similarly fortunate to find readers and editors (and teachers!) to help them at every level.
My Cowbird “Bedroom Saga” piece, including a photograph of the bedroom/beekeeper’s house is online at: http://cowbird.com/story/37140/Oh_Heart/
September 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This lyric essay comes out of an assignment I give my Introduction to Creative Writing students at San Jose State University. I ask them to listen for and write down interesting lines of dialog overheard in different settings: the cafeteria, the library, sitting on a bench. Not the whole conversation, just some intriguing snippet.
Their collected lines become fuel for a story or perhaps a poem, whether for themselves or another student when shared in class. The exercise also gives them practice in paying attention to the world around them.
As often happens, the assignment turned back on me.
The incident that became “Afternoon Affair” occurred later the day of the assignment when I was on my way home from campus. What seemed at first to be an opportunity to capture an interesting line of dialog to use in the next class meeting became instead an unforgettable personal encounter.
Would the encounter have occurred had I not been attentive, as I had encouraged my students to be? If you’ve ridden much public transportation, you know that the norm is to keep your head down. No talking. No eye contact. “Popeye” and I sat next to each other, but my usual wariness was displaced. He spoke first, and I was fortunate to engage and to write down the encounter soon after.
The exercise is simple and often provokes something completely unexpected. All it takes is the intention to pay attention.
For the assignment, I ask my students to record one overheard line each day for a week, more if something catches their ear. I’m hoping it will. For an example of how to use these fragments, I give them a line I once heard on my way to class, spoken by one student to another. “I feel sorry for her, but . . .”
I ask them to finish that sentence in their journals and then continue the dialog between 2-3 characters of their invention, creating a scenario that carries on to some conclusion. It always amazes me what diverse dramas and comedies come out of that one catty phrase.
Memorable stories swirl around us everyday. You just need to listen.