Missed Trains and Gender Pains: Nonfiction as a Means to Finding the Self

December 5, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Taylor Grothe

Writing has always been an instrumental tool in learning about who I am as an individual. As a fiction writer, writing nonfiction essays is a new craft for me; I only really began about a year ago, meditating on parenthood, the themes of living through grief and loss, and the potential selves left behind at junctions of an earlier life, like trains missed at their stations.

Through the essay, I gained access to multiple sides of myself, sides that hadn’t seen the light of day or acknowledgement since I was a child. I never imagined that writing nonfiction would help me to solidify an identity I thought had been set—by me, for me, by society at large. Nor did I imagine that the craft would propel me into journalism at Verywell Family, where I write about parenting and gender identity.

My journey began when I enrolled in an MFA program through Fairfield University, signing up for a nonfiction writing course in a fit of pique and panicked desperation to find out who I truly was.

The requirement was at least 15 pages of nonfiction. I barely had that. It was hubris, I knew, to enroll; what did I know about nonfiction? Truthfully, and maybe to my instructor and peers’ chagrin, I threw together the few very short pieces I had, explorations that had only just begun to peek at the truths, eyes squinted, under the well-trodden realm of my most visible identities and environments: children, the home, and the pandemic.

To my surprise, I was asked to write more. To go deeper.

When I was a child, writing in journals was a constant preoccupation, my earliest attempt at nonfiction. My parents never grumbled about the notebooks littering my room, never mind that the ones I started rarely contained more than a few pages of chicken scratch. I’m sure for them my writing time was a welcome relief from the thorny child I was: silence, the sound of a pencil against paper. Scrawls from the heart of my prepubescent anxiety, a way for me to touch upon truths about myself I didn’t know how to name.

One of them that I am rediscovering and naming now is gender.

I was a lovely little girl, but one who liked to run into the woods at the slightest provocation, reveling not only in the tutus, dancing, and makeup of my mother, but the rough and tumble, mud-sprinkled, and more masculine-signaled experiences of the boys I knew. A child who took the gender assigned to me and split it in two.

This duality was true of almost everything in my life then. A good reader, but a failed student. A nervous child, but a confident hyper-fixator with encyclopedic knowledge about words. (My most famous trick in middle school was pulling out a dictionary in the hall to read instead of engaging with the bullies’ taunts.) A pretty girl and a tomboy, these terms not two ends of a binary but the reality of my lived gender experience. I did not want to choose. I wanted to be both and also neither. Not superficially, but as a reality.

Back then, I did not have the word ‘duality,’ nor did I have the word ‘nonbinary’ to describe myself. I might have had ‘fluid,’ but not in the manner one can use it now, to describe the way one relates to gender. Now, as an adult with access to the Internet and its myriad communities, creative and otherwise, I have the words.

Seated at the MFA program’s table, a blank sheet of paper and a timer in front of me, I wrote for the first time about the expectation of gender. Of not-knowing, and deep-knowing, peeling the apple until I got to the flesh and then the core. At its center I found not seeds arranged in the shape of a star, but an embryo, a nascent life I meditated on so infrequently precisely because it was so central to my identity.

Writing about my relationship to gender helped me understand its place in my life. My desire to embody this duality, to be at once everything and nothing—on a page, this tangled issue seemed simpler.

A blank page is a neutral place, existing outside of cultural valence, before its words are introduced to readers. A blank page is safe, but it isn’t the truth. The introduction of one’s true self to others is a political act, an act of agency and courage. 

I won’t say the piece I penned for my MFA workshop was good. I was so nervous to share raw words, raw thoughts to this class of strangers. But my greatest fear, that of rejection and repulsion, was not realized. Instead, my peers and mentor gently suggested there might be other stations to visit, other junctures I had not considered, the first of many movements along a new journey. Writing was the start of undoing something that had prickled me since childhood.

I realized that calling me a “tomboy” had been a way for the adults in my life to elide a cultural obligation to see me as I was, truly and wholly. Now, as a thirty-two-year-old parent of two children, to whom I have a responsibility to raise without the self-hatred I experienced and with all the vocabulary I never had, I find writing about my gender to be an accessible nexus of change. Not only for myself, but also in sharing the gift of fluidity with others.

When I became involved as an assistant managing editor with Brevity, our managing editor floated the idea of a special issue on transgender experience open to those, like me, who are exploring and examining the embodied aspects of their gender identities vis-à-vis writing. I am so excited to say that this idea, only a spark at first, has been nurtured to flame. The Transgender, Gender-Nonconforming, and Gender Expansive issue is now open for submissions, graced by guest editors Krys Malcolm Belc, Silas Hansen, and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram.

But also graced by those like me, like us, who are now finding the words to speak their truths, forgotten things they had long ago folded in the chest of the mind, dusty and overfilled with deeply held secrets. Here, now, a place to cast sunlight, to access the darkest things, and examine them in the lovely, golden rays of truth. To don them, and to step onto the next platform down the line.

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Taylor Grothe is a non-binary, Autistic writer of horror fiction, on submission with a psychological horror novel set in Iceland. Shorts of theirs can be found in Coffin Bell Journal, Shortwave Magazine, and Bag of Bones Press. Taylor is the graduate Assistant Managing Editor of Brevity Magazine and an MFA student at Fairfield University, as well as an Author Mentor Match Round 9 Adult Mentor. They are represented by Larissa Melo Pienkowski of Jill Grinberg Literary Management.

Healing a Pulverized Heart: Why I Write Nonfiction

December 2, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Chelsey Drysdale

If you’re like me, while writing your memoir, you spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what everyone will think of you once you publish it. You may even make yourself physically ill like I do. Recently, though, I was reminded why I craft my pain into art regardless.

Eight years ago, my UCLA Extension instructor, and now personal friend, accepted a steamy but heartbreaking piece I wrote about my college boyfriend for an anthology she was editing. We took our published stories in paperbacks on a California book tour, including to the Bay Area where my former love now lived. It was terrifying and exhilarating and propelled me to write my full manuscript. Over the years, I have often wondered what the subject of my story would think if he ever read the essay I shared in public with strangers, family, and friends alike. Despite changing his name, I revealed private, excruciating details of our twentysomething selves, like any diligent memoirist would, finding solace my words only appeared in print, never to be found in a Google search.

The other day, I sent him a happy birthday message on LinkedIn, the only place we’re still connected. I hadn’t spoken to him online or otherwise in a decade and hadn’t seen him in fourteen years, since the night I met the woman who would become the mother of his children and, much later, his wife. One night after Christmas in 2008, I had dinner with them when they were in the honeymoon stages of dating, and I was still nursing wounds from a broken engagement and previous divorce. At the restaurant, I admired his then girlfriend’s bright, infectious smile and hopeful, sparkly eyes. Her eyes twinkled like mine did before he broke up with me with little explanation, shocking nearly everyone. I left dinner thinking, “Please don’t hurt her.” That night, for the first time in eleven years, I rejoiced over feeling like I was finally over him, despite the remnants of my heart most likely still swirling around the parking lot outside a certain former coffeehouse, where he once said, “I don’t think this is going to work out.”

In my LinkedIn message, I told him I have a knack for remembering birthdays, and I wished him and his family the best. He wrote, “How are you?” How does one explain the last fourteen years in a LinkedIn message to the man who pilfered her innocence? I gave him the short version: I’m still single. I never had children. I quit my job. My nephew is ten, and I wrote a memoir. I said I’d send him a copy someday when it’s published. He responded, “I would love to read your memoir. Good luck finishing it up.”

“My memoir is finished!” I wrote. “I’m just trying to find a home for it.” (Still.) This felt like an opening. “I actually wrote about you, and everyone liked it because it was a very nineties pre-internet look at a romantic relationship. If you want to read the [published version],” I can send it to you. He said he was “nervous reading a critique of [his] twenty-year-old self, but [he’d] take a crack at it.”

He thought he was nervous.

I sent him the published essay and the material I added to my manuscript when I was working with a book coach in 2017. He emailed he was busy but would “give it a solid read” when his time freed up. “No hurry!” I replied, meaning, “You don’t have to read it. Forget I ever mentioned it.”

The next morning, I received an email when I was in my bathrobe at my desk next to a handyman who was fixing the track on my sliding closet doors. The love of my young life and source of endless sadness wrote, “I have to admit, I really enjoyed reading these. I may have to set my computer on fire to destroy evidence, but I loved reading them.”

Then I received the clarification and apology I hadn’t realized I still needed after twenty-five years. “I’m really sorry how poorly I handled the breakup.” He called his former self “weak” and “super emotionally immature.” He had “needed more time to be free and date other people but didn’t know how to tell [me],” which, of course, most people need when they’re barely an adult. “I’m really sorry I caused you so much grief.”

Nowhere in his email did he ask me to change one word of anything unpublished I’d written, something I offered to consider if he had any major objections—particularly about the time I found him passed out drunk on the sidewalk or the day we passed sexy secrets back and forth quietly in a notebook during a philosophy lecture.

This felt like validation. This felt like the young him had loved the young me after all. This felt like my version and his finally gelled and made sense. We’d collided before he turned twenty and was a “mess,” back when I was naïve and wore my heart as a necklace outside my body—a recipe for a strychnine cocktail. While our breakup was inevitable, its abruptness had steamrolled me, but now I had more proof I wasn’t inherently unlovable.

After reading his email, I left my bedroom to head downstairs and watch the rare rainfall outside the backyard window, lest the old dude fixing my closet door see the tears streaming down my face. I thought about how a memoirist can’t predict a person’s reaction to her words, and in this full-circle moment, I could finally tell that twenty-three-year-old girl whose heart was pulverized for the first time that someday pouring her soul onto the page would be worth it. She would be seen, and she would finally receive the transparency and understanding she’d craved but never expected.
__

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Coachella Review, and others. She edits at drysdaleeditorial.

Saying Yes When the Heart Says No   

December 1, 2022 § 31 Comments

By Heidi Croot

The boisterous host running a women’s networking event in downtown Toronto smiled as she waved her index finger about the room. “And don’t think we don’t know,” she said, “that some of you are already scheming how to duck out early.”

Was she prescient? That’s exactly what I was doing.

Knowing laughter rippled through the crowd.

My fellow “introverts” I would later realize.

It was a label I would eventually claim with everything in me. But not before a good friend ghosted me for my solitude-loving ways.

I last saw Carol more than 30 years ago. We were hanging out in my back yard on a sunny summer day. It had been my turn to host, and I’d dragged my feet in bringing it about. Carol was full of energy and chatter that Saturday afternoon. While happy to be with her, waves of fatigue were preventing me from keeping up.

I was “scheming how to duck out early.” 

At the time, I’d just started a new job as corporate communication manager for big tech, and life was intense, a daily performance. The constant intersection with people—in meetings, in the hall, in my office as I waited on high alert for the inevitable knock or ring—separated me from myself. I typically left work empty and overstimulated. Most evenings and weekends, I wanted only to duck my circle of family and friends and drift. Read. Write in my journal. Exchange the occasional stray word with my fellow-introvert husband.

When many years later I resigned from corporate life and went freelance, clearing space for me to swim in the creative writers’ pond, I finally found my clan. On my first writers’ retreat in Ontario’s Hockley Valley near Orangeville, our instructor laid out the rules: no talking before noon. We were to conserve our energy for our writing.

No talking! Permission for interiority! Reprieve from small talk! 

Early morning light found me in my plain, small room, bent over the keyboard as I tapped into the writer’s zone, a creative energy humming through the walls as my fellow writers up and down the hall tapped into theirs. 

It was as if I’d been away, and now I’d come home.

More recently, along came the pandemic offering a retreat of a different order. This time, government laid out the rules. Yes, I said, of course I would do all I could to protect myself and my family. Yes, by all means I would maintain a safe distance. Yes, you bet I would stay home.

Survivors’ guilt aside, I was suddenly sleeping better. Waking up happy, calm, expansive. Measuring time with words on the page.

Brain science explains the dopamine effect, “the ‘feel-good’ chemical that affects the brain’s pleasure center,” says reporter Roxanne Roberts in her Washington Post article, “Meet the introverts who are dreading a return to normal.” Extroverts need more of it to be happy and energized, she says, whereas for introverts, “a little dopamine goes a long way, and too much of anything can be exhausting.”

Introverts, she adds in my favourite line, savour their ability to go “for hours or even days without speaking to another person.”

It’s not that as an introvert I can’t socialize. Oh, on good days I can hold my own and with aplomb—especially if the talk dips below small to deep. It’s that with every passing hour, a little more of my energy slides down the drain like flat champagne.

Which is what was happening on that long ago summer afternoon with Carol.

She resisted when I hinted it was time to bring our visit to a close and scolded me for not making myself more available. I saw myself in her rebuke but lacked the insight to explain, either to her or myself, why my desire to be alone wasn’t personal. So, there we were, two friends on opposite sides of the introvert-extrovert continuum. Me, unable to mirror her effervescence. She, unable to mirror my reclusiveness. Neither of us having the words to bridge our divide.

She left and never came back. When it dawned on me why, I grieved her absence (still do) and blamed myself for being a bad friend.

Now I know I wasn’t so much a bad friend as someone who just didn’t know who I was. Who had more to learn about my obligation as a card-carrying introvert to stop saying yes when my heart said no. 

I may have found an enduring way to meet that obligation. I discovered it in a dictum most writers with writing goals know well: butt in chair. For some, a cracking of the whip. For me, a permission slip to stay home with my keyboard. 

I wear the three words on my T-shirt like a talisman. Like a shield.

No, wait—more like a self-embrace.

I miss the face-to-face visits with friends. My people-pleaser self still pressures me to say yes to every invitation. Life is short, this side of me says sternly.

Meanwhile, my writer self, the engine of my beating heart, gently hooks my chin with her finger, turns my face to hers.

Your butt in the chair, if you please, she says. The one friend you need to please is me. And life is short.

___

Heidi Croot is an award-winning corporate writer and a Brevity Blog editor. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity Blog, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Ontario’s Northumberland County and is gathering courage to query her memoir. You can reach her on Twitter.

Words, Words, Words

November 30, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Marcia Yudkin

During one of my entrepreneurial projects, I stood in a recording studio at Berklee College in Boston performing a script I’d written on increasing one’s vocabulary. Another woman and I took turns saying each word, defining it, then illustrating it in a sentence. During a break, the other woman turned to me and commented, “You really feel words, don’t you?”

I looked at her. Did I?

Euphonious: nice-sounding. The salesman disarmed me by speaking in euphonious tones.

In elementary school, tinkering with words was as natural for me as other kids playing with trucks or dolls. An aunt gave me a hardcover anthology of poems for children, and I was hooked. The sound of words and ways they could rhyme captivated me. I would read verses from The Golden Treasury of Poetry out loud and in a wire-bound notebook scribble stanzas of my own. At age seven, I read two of my creations on a local TV show, swinging into the echoes of “know” with “snow,” of “spring” with “king.” That aural resonance was the thing 

Flaunt: display flagrantly. Though he had so much he could never spend it all, Richie Rich tried not to flaunt his wealth.

From the enchanting sound of words, I moved on to their meaning. With my weekly allowance I bought a paperback called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It cost 35 cents. Before going to sleep, I studied it, learning words like “ascetic,” “querulous” and “vindictive.” I especially devoured a chapter called “Words for Mature Minds” containing words that the author, Wilfred Funk, said nine-year-olds would not be able to understand.

Not long afterwards I injected one of those words—“maudlin”—into a composition for my third-grade class. “You see, I was not the maudlin type,” I wrote, noting how surprised I was that other kids cried their first day of school. “So there, Dr. Funk!” I thought with great satisfaction (although my use of “maudlin” was a bit off kilter).

Apotheosis: culmination or highest point. Marilyn Monroe was the apotheosis of Hollywood glamour.

Words also gathered associations. Today I can’t hear the word “obstreperous” without thinking of my grandfather. Self-educated because he’d had to leave school at 13, he read mysteries and histories in a high-backed wing chair in our living room, tapping the lit tip of his Havana cigar into a beanbag ashtray. Even when we kids behaved well, he called us obstreperous, I think because he enjoyed having that complicated a word roll off his tongue. 

Since I too read like a fiend, I collected phrases from books that stuck word for word in my memory. This might consist of a bombastic nonfiction title, like What You Should Know About Communism and Why, or a snappy line from Catcher in the Rye, such as “If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff.” And as a grownup, I felt thrilled when I was able to insert—appropriately, wryly—Jane Eyre’s “Reader, I married him” into one of my books. With just four words I could breathe a puff of Charlotte Bronte’s passionate intensity into the tale of my own clandestine romance.

Visceral: felt immediately in the gut. Her opponent’s insult had a visceral impact on the governor.

As my Berklee College script-reading partner had intuited, for me words have one more element. Besides sound, meanings and associations, they have oomph. Words can shoot out of you like pellets of energy or at you like a baseball hitting your solar plexus. “Obstreperous” has oomph. So does “albondigas,” a punchy word from my seventh-grade Spanish class that I loved so much I would say it again and again with exaggerated vigor. (It means “meatballs.”)

Sometimes the oomph is personal. I spent a year working in China at a time when outsiders stood out. When I traveled, kids would run after me and my blond companion, gleefully shouting “Waiguo ren!” (“Foreigners!”). When I rode the bus in Beijing, adults would stare. After eleven months of this, a five- or six-year-old boy leaped into the air with “Waiguo ren!” when he saw me, flicking a switch I didn’t know I had. Without thinking, I stalked toward the boy. Just as quickly, the boy’s father stepped in front of his son. “He’s welcoming you, you see,” he said in Chinese, giving me a worried look.

Catharsis: emotional release. After so much struggle and pain, the funeral represented a catharsis for the poor man’s family.

Ah, words. In any language, they dance, sing, point and sometimes sting. 

__________________

Marcia Yudkin lives in the woods of Goshen, Massachusetts. The author of 17 books, she publishes a Substack newsletter called Introvert UpThink, in which she critiques society’s myths and misunderstandings about introverts. In addition to her newsletter, you can follow her on Twitter

I’d Rather Work for Free

November 29, 2022 § 22 Comments

“Platform” and “literary citizenship” are the same behavior with different hats.

By Allison K Williams

Almost all of them tipped. Sadly, it was in Macedonian dinars.

I blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools in the company of other artists in the same stage of development. I mentioned these learning opportunities are rare for writers: we have plenty of write-your-feelings workshops and respond-to-pages workshops, but not much that goes past schooldays-grammar into building strong sentences and paragraphs. One commenter thought I’d missed the mark–she felt her K-12 education had been rigorous and adult writing classes she’d taken had covered plenty of technique. She also jabbed

But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here.

Ooof.

It hurts because it’s true. I do write blogs here and elsewhere to advertise my classes. I write long posts in Facebook writer’s groups where I’ve personally made the rule “anyone advertising must give immediately useful information; group members should benefit from your post even if they never click the link to explore your services.” I tweet threads breaking down editorial concepts or writing craft elements, then mention relevant webinars. I host The Writers Bridge, a free biweekly series on author platform, and yes, I mention my current offering in the emails with the Zoom links.

One of the things that attracted an agent and a publisher for my book, Seven Drafts, was proving through social media engagement and mailing list numbers that people think I’m an expert. Why do they think that? Because I’ve spent years giving away advice, and I still do. Last year, on a blog about freelance editing, a commenter asked

…do you give free advice online for writers? If so, my question is—do you think it is worth your time and effort?

I responded in part,

I do write blogs and participate in FB groups, and that way writers see the quality of the information I can offer.

That’s how we become experts. People try our free advice; if it resonates, if it makes their life or their work better, they come back for more. Memoirist Ashleigh Renard shows up on social media every day answering every direct message she receives. Her advice helps people. It also lets her know exactly what her audience needs. Love her free marriage counseling? Get some more at her retreat in Tulum!

We stay experts by making our free advice part of our income flow. I might spend an hour writing a blog, or three hours editing other authors’ work (free editing for them!) for the Brevity blog, or five hours preparing and running a Writers Bridge episode. Each time, I sacrifice billable hours for volunteer hours. Creating a new webinar–marketing copy, lesson plan, slides, workbook, execution, follow-up Q&A–is 16-18 hours. Attendees pay $15-25. They say things like “I got more out of this than a semester at my MFA!” and I can deliver that quality for $25 because a few hundred people show up. How do I get a few hundred people? By giving free advice to twenty thousand.

When I was a street performer, we delivered a theatre-quality show with acrobatics, aerial silks, duo trapeze, fire-eating, whip-cracking, audience participation and comedy. After each show, we passed the hat. Our job was to deliver a show so impressive, so captivating, that even though the entire audience could scatter without paying and suffer absolutely no penalties, they would choose to stand in line to hand us money. Plenty of people watched our show without paying. Some of them were cheap. Some of them were unhoused, or in hard times. Some of them shook our hands and apologized for not giving, and we said, “We’re just glad to have you at the show!”

We meant it.

Yes, we were working for money. Yes, it was our real job, and we needed people to pay us. But the joy of genuine communion with the crowd, of sharing regardless of profit, was part of what made the show worth seeing. The great artistic paradox is that the more you write, or paint, or dance, for sheer love of the work, the more monetary reward you’ll see…as long as you’re strategic.

As a trapeze artist, I said it in the hat pass: “Our greatest gift is your smiles, your laughter, and your applause. Unfortunately, we can’t go to our landlord at the end of the month and go”–clapping–“Good apartment man! Good apartment! Go power bill!” I’d say that the people who can pay subsidize the people who can’t, but everyone gets to see the show. I watched people look around, assess how many people were present, and pull out a ten or a twenty instead of a five.

In my editing and teaching career, I rarely say it out loud: Writers who pay me $3595 for a program or $4495 for a retreat subsidize every free blog post. Writers who buy an $1850 edit or a $685 book proposal evaluation have subsidized 50+ episodes of The Writers Bridge. I have privilege from income, whiteness, lack of children, and a supportive spouse, subsidizing my ability to lie in bed for an hour dispensing writing advice on social media and answering blog comments. I’ve made the calculation: I’d rather charge for value delivered than hours spent. That means doing about 1/3 of my total work hours for free, and pricing paid hours high enough to stay joyful and excited about volunteering. And I’ve learned that part of not feeling guilty about charging high prices (or advertising!) is not bothering to work for cheap–just happily working for free.

___

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. OH LOOK SHE’S ALSO SELLING SOMETHING: Just cranked through NaNoWriMo? At the end of your draft and unsure what’s next? Please join her for the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Book December 14th. It’s $25. If you prefer to track down and print out every blog Allison’s ever written about story & structure, put them in a binder and work from there, it’s free!

Mapping New Essay Terrain

November 28, 2022 § 2 Comments

An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

By Erin Vachon

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

I am considering relocation to another part of the country while reading Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s new essay collection Halfway From Home, a lyrical search for home across geographical landscapes. The serendipity astounds me and sets my pen curving red topographical lines around paragraphs on each page. “Everyone can be a cartographer,” she writes. “Roaming makes coming home richer, for when we explore places beyond our understanding and experience, we see connections between places we never imagined.” The essays in Halfway from Home roam across California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, deftly unpacking violence, grief, and nostalgia through their diverse habitats. In an interview wandering through the rich terrain of her writing, Montgomery and I explored the purpose of making your own map when uprooting your personal history.

Erin Vachon: On Dirt: In Halfway From Home, the ground unearths surprising truths through artifacts, graves, and time capsules. How has the passage of time changed the way you write about long buried events?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery I’ve always been interested in digging up what has been buried. As a child I dug for treasures — rocks, pennies, old trinkets. As an adult I dig for histories — familial, political, environmental. Lately I’ve become less interested in the artifacts and more interested in the acts of burial and unearthing, in the transformation of stories and selves over time. I’m interested in refocusing the work on this evolution, on the reasons we bury or uncover, on what happens to us through the act of concealing or revealing.

EV: On Sea: Overall, this collection examines unseen violence from family, partners, and strangers through lyricism. In particular, “Carve” is a tidal wave against bone-rigid gender violence: “How to hide in the sea with your bones on display, your hurt exposed and inviting. How to survive when your weapon is a wanting.” How does lyricism’s heightened beauty function when reclaiming violence?

SFM: We often ignore brutality because it is too painful, too pervasive. We recognize certain narrative structures and styles and stop reading in order to save ourselves from personal pain and collective responsibility. Lyricism is a way to command a reader’s interest and compel them to engage. This isn’t to say that I use lyricism to soften or distract from violence. Instead, beauty becomes a way to present violence more viscerally. I use lyricism when writing about brutality — domestic violence, social and political violence, gun violence, environmental violence —because it is the only way I know how to make a world inundated with grief take notice.

EV: On Grass: “To me, the Plains are neither cruel nor kind. They are indifferent.” You write lovingly about the unpredictable Midwest landscape, a place existing to “remind us of our impermanence.” How is writing about the character of a place different than writing about a person?

SFM: Both people and place invite intimacy, but we are often more accepting of place. When we accept the indifference of place, we also accept our unimportance. Place invites us to be insignificant, a process that encourages us to broaden our stories beyond ourselves. When we write about place, we decenter ourselves from the story, focusing instead of ecology, geology, natural history, community. It’s harder to do this when writing about people. When writing about the people in our lives we often become the center of the narrative and this can reopen old wounds, invite resentments and sorrows. Writing about place teaches me how to write about people. It invites me to set aside judgment in order to encourage compassion, empathy, in order to understand how a particular human stories fits within larger communities.

EV: On Forest: You write, “Trees hear one another because they listen.” Halfway From Home acknowledges the frustration of the ongoing pandemic as a single tree in a forest, emphasizing the need for community and resilience. Now that the collection is published, have these essays made the world feel larger or smaller by comparison?

SFM: Initially I hoped these essays would expand small portions of the world — the California grove of eucalyptus trees where most of the world’s monarchs spend each winter for warmth, a stretch of unbroken Nebraska prairie, the wetland woods that surround my Massachusetts home. I wrote much of this collection in the early days of the pandemic when my entire world was confined to my small home. By noticing the rich abundance of my small stretch of forest, I was able to expand my experience beyond the borders of my home. I learned trees, for example, are connected by a rich underground fungal network that allows them to share resources and take care of each other in order to ensure survival. During the pandemic this seemed — and seems still — a small lesson that we could invite in order to make a large difference. Now that the collection is published, it’s not so much that the world feels larger or smaller, but that we have rushed back to a “normal” where we don’t allow the small things — tide pools, prairie birds, moths — to be important, where we don’t learn what might be possible if we were to simply take notice.

EV: On Stone: In “Tumble,” you explore the relationship to your father alongside the meanings of crystals. What do you think Halfway From Home’s personal crystal might be?

SFM: I’ve long had a fascination with rocks. My father was a fence builder who taught me to dig in order to see what stories exist beneath the surface. At work sites, he pulled treasures out of the ground and taught me to use a rock polisher to make what was ordinary shine. If this collection were a rock, it would be obsidian, a stone associated with truth. Obsidian is formed when molten lava cools, when what erupted with violence cools to gloss. It is not actually a rock, instead glass, meaning the story is not what it first appears. Obsidian can be sharpened as a knife. It teaches us that what is beautiful can also wound. It is not showy like quartz or amethyst, does not boast colors like fluoride or citrine. It is dark and opaque, black like nothing. But look closely and you will notice how it reflects your own image.

___

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Erin Vachon has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Brevity, and more. They are Hybrid Editor for Longleaf Review and an alum of the Tin House Summer workshop. You can find more of their writing at www.erinvachon.com or Twitter @erinjvachon.

Thanks, From Brevity

November 24, 2022 § 4 Comments

We give thanks today for the thousands of readers who visit our pages, for the dedicated teachers who feature us in the classroom, and for all of the talented writers who send their essays to Brevity and to the Brevity Blog, trusting us with the work they have labored over for many weeks or months.

We are thankful as well to our volunteer staff, who are the heart and soul of our literary enterprise. We don’t thank you enough, volunteers, but we truly value what you do and the generosity with which you do it.

And for those who contribute large and small sums to keep the lights on, a special thank you. We are proud to be able to pay the writers we feature in Brevity, and could not do it without you.

Finally, we are thankful for the readers, writers, and volunteer staff at countless other magazines that form our literary galaxy.

Art saves lives!

~ Dinty W. Moore, Brevity editor-in-chief

How to Write Respectfully About Nonbinary People

November 23, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Rey Katz

More than 1 million nonbinary adults live in the U.S., about one in every 330 people, according to an estimate in a 2021 study. As a nonbinary, queer writer, I reported on how to write about trans people with respect. Nonbinary people are underrepresented in journalism and publishing. It is so important to include our community when writing creative nonfiction.

In this post, I share 3 pieces of advice to make your creative nonfiction more inclusive towards trans, nonbinary, and agender people. Inclusive writing will increase your audience. The trans community and allies will promote work that speaks respectfully and correctly about trans people.

  1. Use people’s correct names and pronouns.

If you’re quoting or referring to anyone, trans or cis, please take one minute to double check which pronouns they use, such as “they/them,” “she/her,” or “he/him.” This information is often found on a person’s website, email signature, or social media bio. If you’re not sure and you are in contact with a source, you can simply ask, “What pronouns should I use for you in my piece?” It can be frustrating and hurtful if a piece is published with the wrong pronouns, especially in print where the mistake cannot be corrected. People’s pronouns should be treated as one more fact that should be checked for veracity, just like the spelling of a name, credentials, or title.

They/them pronouns can be straightforward to use with a little practice. When most people talk about an unknown person, they use they/them pronouns naturally. “Someone brought an apple pie and I want to thank them, but I don’t know if they left already.” If you are writing about someone who uses they/them pronouns, trust your intuition for what sounds right when referring to this person as “they” or “them.” For example: “Rey Katz met with me to discuss their research. They have been working in this field for five years, after finishing their previous project.”

Verbs should be singular when used with a person’s name, but plural when used with “they.” “Rey is here,” is correct, not, “Rey are here,” even though “They are here” is correct.

If a person uses “she,” “he,” or “they” pronouns, you can go ahead and use the correct pronouns without explanation. If someone uses multiple pronouns (e.g. both “he” and “she”) you may wish to provide a brief explanation.

  1. Write about trans and nonbinary people in a similar way as you write about cisgender people.

Ask yourself, is this person’s gender identity crucial to my piece? If not, don’t mention it. Focus on introducing a source or reference with the information that matters to your narrative, for example, their name, occupation, organization, or the name of their book.  If you don’t mention that one of your sources is a male, cisgender scientist, don’t mention another source is a nonbinary, trans scientist later in the piece. Your sources’ gender might be relevant to a story about workplace discrimination, but not if you’re interviewing a medical researcher about a new breakthrough.

Don’t use the phrase “identifies as.” For example, “Rey Katz, a nonbinary writer, met with me at a coffee shop…” is more correct than “Rey Katz, who identifies as nonbinary, met with me…” Saying “identifies as” implies the writer is skeptical that this person’s identity is innate and real, which is disrespectful. Don’t say “identifies as they/them,” either. A person is not the same as their pronoun.

  1. Share and elevate the work of trans, nonbinary, and agender people, especially Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

A writer who I respect called me out on this point years ago and I am grateful. I, a white nonbinary person, had workshopped a personal essay about being nonbinary, and the only person I quoted was a white cisgender man. My classmate, a queer person of color, told me it’s important to choose whose voices we share. I replaced the quote in my essay with a quote from a trans person of color.

In your book reviews, recommendations, and lists, consider work by nonbinary and trans authors, especially people of color.

Consider citing trans experts, even if (especially if) your piece is not about being trans. It matters who you quote or interview. The authors and other experts you bring into your work gain a larger platform every time their words are shared with a new audience of your readers. Pay attention to the diversity of people you cite and interview and do the work to find and reach out to people from underrepresented communities.

We need more nonbinary and trans representation at all levels of publishing, including editors, agents, and leadership of news organizations in addition to journalists and writers. If you are in a position to hire, please consider qualified candidates who are not cisgender.

Every small step towards more widespread positive representation of trans and nonbinary people makes an impact. Together, we can uplift and share the true stories of the experts in our LGBTQ community.

___–

Rey Katz is a nonbinary writer with an undergrad physics degree from MIT and a black belt in aikido. Their writing appears in publications such as Catapult, The Postscript, Massive Science, and Drizzle Review. They blog at nonbinaryconnection.com and post on TikTok and Twitter as @reywrites.

Surviving the Season

November 22, 2022 § 23 Comments

Hide a book in the bathroom in advance.

by Allison K Williams

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me

Twelve bosses texting

Eleven toddlers shrieking

Ten addiction triggers

Nine tacky sweaters

Eight guests arriving

Seven spouses slacking

Six in-laws nagging

Five traaaafic jaaaaams!

Four unwanted presents

Three loud screens

Two barfing pets

And an obligation Christmas party.

I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live three thousand miles away in a country where December is celebrated as, and I quote “Winter Shopping Festival.” Our neighborhood lights were for Diwali, and they’re already down.

I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past twelve Christmases, usually in a non-English-speaking and/or non-Christian country, and this one I’ll be in Bali. Not everyone is that lucky.

My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”

My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”

An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules (“I can’t ask them all to do overtime this month”) while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three crutches in three weeks.

You may have similar items on your holiday list. Touchy in-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was out of town the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Bad art friends.

But your holiday experience is up to you. Often, things that felt like obligations were only customs. We don’t “have to” do anything—we may prefer doing something unpleasant over the consequences of not doing it, but that’s still a choice.

So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, choose your favorites, and purposefully dismiss the rest of the list. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do, so you can say, “sorry, I’m not available.”

All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.

What a shame our schedule filled up so much—have a great time!

Our budget has just vanished in a flash this year.

Wow, I can see that situation really bothers you–I hope it all gets sorted out.

Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “That sounds terrible. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”

If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)

Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. Make it not your job even to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I can take on, but you’re welcome to plan it—let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”

Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Rosario has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Maria’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.

Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, bail to your guest-free refuge while muttering “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.

And if all else fails? Hit me up. We could use a housesitter to water the plants in Dubai.

___

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This holiday season, she’ll be by the pool, writing lesson plans for Project Memoir, an 8-week high-intensity writing program. Check it out.

Piano Lesson

November 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Kresha Richman Warnock

In Mary Oliver’s “Music Lessons,” the piano teacher exchanges places with the student. As her fingers hit the keys, “Sound became music, and music a white / scarp for the listener to climb / alone.”

My own piano teacher is a young woman less than half my age. She is gifted and trained and apologizes for correcting me, which I try to tell her is what she’s paid for. On the days when I miss note after note, I would be happy if she would sit at the piano and play for me. Her favorite is Tchaikovsky.

I asked my husband for piano lessons for Christmas and here it is the next fall, and I’m still with it. I will never bless a saloon, a church sanctuary, and certainly not a concert hall with my plunking, but I am moved to watch music coming out of my fingers as I go through the daily rituals of practicing scales and melodies. It turns out that when you start piano as an adult, you get to skip “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and plunge into lyrical music. I have almost mastered a lovely arrangement of “Danny Boy.” 

My brain is not as flexible as it once was. It’s not the timing or even the right notes that I struggle with; I’m musical enough to hear how the songs should sound. It’s the physical, muscle memory—which finger should be on which key for each note. I don’t have a schema for that, and it is taking time and practice to build the brain synapses so I can consistently get the music right.

Just as notes swirl out of the piano keys to make melody, words flow from computer keys to make story. When I took my first creative writing class a couple of years ago, I did it out of curiosity. Reading a million books and writing my share of grants, lectures and newsletter articles didn’t completely prepare me to be the wordsmith I thought I might want to be, to tell stories in a way that was moving and compelling, though it did give my brain a framework of how to set meaning on paper. How do you take a love of words, of great writing, of story, of seeing inside other peoples’ lives, and turn it into your own meaningful personal essay? 

In the middle of the pandemic, I logged into my first Zoom writing session—Creative Nonfiction 101. There we were, enlarged heads and necks, reading interesting essays by the famous, following prompts, sharing our work with other novices, gaining wisdom from a teacher who was a real writer!

The first essay I composed for that class was about my daughter’s struggle with a chronic illness. The draft told a story, even contained some wit…and was sloppy and confusing. I pretentiously titled it with a quote from a famous essay, opened a Submittable account and sent it out for publication. Several rejections later, it’s been retitled, rewritten and reviewed by astute writer friends. I’ve tried to make each word, each sentence tingle. I’ve even replaced double spaces after periods with singles to demonstrate I’m not still in the manual typewriter clique. Maybe no one will publish the essay, but at least now when it’s rejected, I can tell myself it just hasn’t found the right literary home. I’ve put the work in, and certainly practice makes better, if not perfect.

Each time I sit at the keyboard, I notice how it relates to my experience of playing the piano. I do ten or fifteen minutes of scales daily, and I develop a little more muscle and brain memory. Right now, I play scraps, holy scraps, but scraps of beautiful music. Who knows how far my piano playing will go?

The writing is harder to evaluate. It is often not clear what is the best word or how the damn thing all fits together. I hear the words of the great teachers: Just get your butt in the chair. Write for ten minutes without taking your pen off the page. Bird by bird. Avoid adverbs. Show don’t tell. Make sure to reflect. Read! I gobble up their advice. I take classes from amazing teachers. I share with and learn from writing friends. 

And I do the work. I “practice” my writing each day. It is thrilling to be a student again, of both piano and writing, and I am amazed to see the muscles strengthening, sinews lengthening, and neuropathways developing. Although I promise not to perform publicly on the piano, I do want to share my words. I have some accumulated wisdom and poetry in me. Maybe someday that’s the white scarp I can create for someone else.

___

Kresha Richman Warnock lives with her husband, Jim, in the Pacific Northwest, where she has spent her days since the pandemic taking writing classes and writing her memoir. Her essays have been published in Eat, Darling, Eat, Devil’s Party Press, and Jewish Women of Words, and in the anthologies American Writers Review 2022 and Pure Slush.

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