March 19, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Popular Mechanics was the only magazine my father ever read. In it were clever plans, such as turning a metal lunchbox into a radio, a VW Beetle into a travel trailer, and a coffee can into an electric doghouse heater. Actually, Dad made the latter, complete with a switch for turning the heater on and off from the house.
Like Dad, I was pretty good at following directions. I could bake just about anything in a cookbook, which gave me the idea that I could do anything—even write great short stories—if I just had the right directions. I was young and naïve when I began searching for good writing craft books. Most were disappointing, giving general advice, such as put your butt in the chair, write every day, read books, make the dictionary your friend, and so on. I really wanted specific directions.
I gave up searching for the writing cookbook, until I found Lee Martin’s Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. It’s not really a writing cookbook. Actually, it’s better. In it are eighty brief chapters of solid advice for telling good stories—and some—not all—have step-by-step directions.
Martin begins with advice on how to create a great opener. He uses, as an example, the opening to Raymond Carver’s famous short story “Cathedral.” The narrator anxiously awaits the arrival of his wife’s former colleague who is blind. The narrator has never known anyone blind—only characters in movies. As his anxiety mounts, so does the reader’s, who’s worrying what will happen to this poor blind man when he finally arrives.
To create such a tension-filled beginning, Martin advises, “Write a line that’s already moving forward, that contains the story’s premise. Then establish the perspective of the main character so we know his or her position, as in: A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” It’s simple, but powerful and strategic, as are the other lessons in this book.
While Martin gives some rather detailed step-by-step prompts, they don’t necessarily lead to a complete story soufflé. Mostly they’re short tricks and tips for building character, scene, detail, dialogue, and more. These exercises feel fresh and original, stemming, I assume, from Martin’s deep well of writing experience and literary knowledge. He is, of course, a premiere storyteller (Such a Life, Bright Forever), teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State University, and has been teaching writing for thirty-six years.
In this book, I’ve dog-eared several sections that I will revisit. One is “Using Photos in Memoir.” In my own writing classes, I ask students to bring in personal photographs to examine closely for details and deeper meaning. As Martin says, a photograph “not only immerses you in the time period; it also provides an emotional connection between you and the people about whom you’re writing.” He gives a five-step guide for not only looking deeper into the photo, but analyzing it for scene, emotion, and metaphor. His way of guiding writers through this exercise is far better than mine, and I hope to borrow some of his ideas the next time I lead students through this exercise.
Another section I’ve referred back to is “Connecting the Particulars.” I love lyric essays, but struggle to write them. Martin more or less pulls back the curtain, giving us a glimpse at the foundation beneath the poetry. He leads readers through a step-by-step exercise, guiding writers to pull together dissimilar objects and people and mix them with abstract ideas. Initially I found this exercise a bit daunting and didn’t expect anything would come of it. However, once I brought my object, person, and idea together, there was a palpable resonance on the page. I had something—just a start—but often that’s all a writer needs to get going. That’s why this is better than a cookbook.
Martin combines writing tips with examples from literature and his own life and teachings. It’s a clever, warm-hearted book for writers of fiction or creative nonfiction. It could be used in creative writing classes or kept on the desk for those days one needs a little shot of inspiration.
I’ve learned from Martin’s website, he’s a fan of this quote from Isak Dinesen: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Throughout this handy, inspirational book, Martin gently urges writers forward and not to give up.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and many other publications. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
March 16, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Tucker Coombe
When Scott and Susan Freeman purchased an eighteen-acre parcel of land in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2004, they could see that decades of logging and unsuccessful farming had taken their toll. The landscape was riddled with noxious, invasive plants––thorny stands of Himalayan and Eurasian blackberry, mats of reed canary grass, and tall swaths of horsetail and thistle. Tarboo Creek, the once-robust salmon stream that flowed through the property, “looked like an open wound.”
In Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land (Timber Press), Freeman describes how he and his family, as part of an intensive, community-wide effort, restore the waterway and surrounding lands. A local excavator sculpts a shallow, meandering stream, then drops old trees in strategic locations to create pools for the fish. Several inches of gravel are sprinkled onto the bottom of the stream bed. Banks are seeded and covered in hay. Finally, water is diverted to its new home. Over the next decade, more than 10,000 native shrubs and trees are planted in the surrounding floodplain and abandoned pasture.
Freeman teaches biology at the University of Washington. His wife, Susan, provides the book’s delightful, pen-and-ink illustrations and is the granddaughter of Aldo Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most important conservation thinkers and author of A Sand County Almanac (1949), the groundbreaking book that advocated for moral responsibility toward the land. The Freemans are, in short, part of a multi-generational family steeped in ecological awareness and land-restoration expertise.
Freeman is a close observer of the natural world, and his descriptions are lyrical and compelling. When salmon return to Tarboo Creek for spawning, they “arrive a fire-engine red and bristling with vigor but are dead in less than two weeks. The females beat the skin and muscle right off of their tails as they dig a nest for their eggs.”
And who knew about nurse logs—fallen tree trunks whose rich, rotting structure serves as an ideal growing site for a new generation of trees? “Once an old tree has been down for a decade or two,” he writes, “it’s common to see a row of four-foot-tall hemlock or cedar saplings lined up along its back, like schoolchildren waiting for the bell.” Freeman also depicts a family that’s deeply connected to the rhythms of the land. On spring nights, Scott and Susan can gauge the warmth of their pond simply by listening to the tree frogs. And it’s not unusual, on an autumn afternoon, for several children to sit shoulder-to-shoulder along the stream bank, watching a female salmon dig her nest and naming the males that hover nearby.
But Saving Tarboo Creek is not simply a happy tale of ecological restoration. Freeman’s superb chapter on salmon includes a grim history of the animal’s near-extirpation. A lovely description of tree-planting morphs into a stark chronicling of global deforestation––followed by sober discussions of climate change, human overpopulation, and an impending mass extinction. “Biological and cultural evolution has now put human beings in a position of immense power relative to other species, and we can be destroyers or stewards,” he writes.
Freeman dedicates this book to the young men and women––his father-in-law, Carl Leopold, among them––who saved the world from tyranny during World War II, and also to the high school and college students of today: it’s your turn, he says, to step up and save the world.
But just how does he propose doing this? Rather than providing thoughtful, practical suggestions, Freeman preaches against what he sees as a “poverty of values” in our society––a focus on consumerism that leaves us unhappy, unhealthy, and out of touch with the natural world. And in trying to illustrate just how out of whack we’ve become––fretting about how many Americans take medication for depression, or alter their appearance through plastic surgery––he goes too far. Freeman risks not only sounding sanctimonious, but alienating those whom he will need to enlist if he hopes to turn the tide on environmental issues. (The fight to save the world needs everyone––even those who’ve had a little nip and tuck.)
I finished this book wanting more information. What does Freeman recommend to readers who are anxious to join the battle, but have no idea where to start? And for those living in high-rise apartment buildings––more likely to line a windowsill with potted ferns than purchase a piece of land––what useful steps does he suggest?
Saving Tarboo Creek shows us a remarkable slice of the natural world. I only wish it offered more advice on saving it.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Hairpin, and can be found at tuckercoombe.com.
March 15, 2018 § 17 Comments
Family history. Why would anyone waste their time with it?
In the summer of 1993, I agreed to do just a bit of ancestral research, at the request of my great-uncle. I was quickly lured into the mysteries of century-old handwriting, sepia-toned photographs, and the personal details in local newspapers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I began to write essays about my ancestors, who were much more interesting than I’d thought. My publication record for these pieces is scant, but I persist. At first, I had to go to libraries or historical societies and do battle with microfilm machines. Now I can do most of my research online, from my home office.
So when the newspaper database I use added two decades of issues from Muncie, Indiana, I set aside some time to search. I already knew a line of my family had lived there from 1888-1912, where my third-great uncle, A. A. Arnold, owned a small manufacturing business. His own education ended when he was twelve, and began to learn a trade, but he sent all three of his children, two boys and a girl, to college before 1910. His older son became a priest and eventually, a bishop.
Skimming my search results, I stopped dead at this, from September 3, 1905:
followed by my uncle’s business and home address, across the street from the Catholic church, where he and his wife were godparents for a good portion of the families in the congregation.
This can’t be right, I thought. Surely, if he had some kind of illicit side business, he wouldn’t have advertised so blatantly…would he?
My negative stereotypes about power and institutions have been reinforced daily of late, and I know things were even more skewed toward powerful men 113 years ago. It’s not that I expected my ancestors to be perfect, but this didn’t fit with anything else I’d learned about them. I did a bit of research: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the age of consent in Indiana had been raised from 12 to 16, but the laws were not applied consistently. This did not make me feel any better.
As I put away my papers and poured a pre-dinner glass of wine, the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” morphed into “Stripper Girl” and settled in as my personal earworm.
The next morning, after some strong coffee, I sat down with my folders of notes on my Muncie ancestors. I am only an amateur historian, as evidenced by the stacks of photocopies I constantly—and unsuccessfully—try to organize. I began to search through them, not sure what I was hoping to find. My persistence was rewarded when I removed the binder clip from a stack marked “Background/Misc.”
One of the first steps in cigar-making is to remove the thick vein from the middle of the dried tobacco leaf. Now it’s mostly done by machines, but pulling out the stem by hand doesn’t require a great deal of strength, so before automation it was often a job performed by women. My uncle was a cigar manufacturer.
Occupations were included in the early city directories and by searching for “A. A. Arnold,” I could identify some of his employees. In the 1893 directory I found a Katie Gallivan, “tobacco stripper.” A quick search of the census showed she would have been twenty in 1893.
Health hazards from tobacco hadn’t yet been established. But my uncle advertised “union made” cigars, so I like to think his workers were treated well, at least by late 1800s-early 1900s standards.
The Beach Boys quietly surfed out of my head.
If I had the sort of neat and legible journal that could serve as a reference for future essay writing, I would turn to a fresh page and start a list. Instead, I’ll blog it here:
- Remember: words matter, but they can have multiple meanings.
- Consider context.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Write your own stories, and the stories of other people, with care. If something doesn’t fit, it’s worth trying to figure out why.
When I found the “stripper” want ad, I could just see my dad shaking his head and saying, “Always let sleeping dogs lie.” I prefer to poke them with a stick, gently, and see what I can learn. It’s risky, but far more interesting.
Melissa Ballard’s work has appeared in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel, and other publications.
March 14, 2018 § 8 Comments
By Chelsea Biondolillo
I still remember the first nonfiction chapbook I ever found at the AWP bookfair. I’d walked up and down all the aisles and talked my voice hoarse, and maybe I was asking the wrong question, but nobody had one until the SweetLit table. There, I bought Amy Monticello’s Close Quarters, and when I got home, I ordered Donna Steiner’s Elements. I cherished those two for the possibilities they represented (and for the wonderful writing.) The next year, I head about a few presses who were expanding their flash fiction chapbooks to “prose.” And each year since, whenever I’ve been able to attend, I add a few more CNF chaps to my collection.
When Randon Billings Noble mentioned organizing a panel for this year’s AWP on the nonfiction chapbook, I jumped at the opportunity to participate, but life had other plans and I knew by August that I wouldn’t make it to Tampa to join her, Bernard Grant, BJ Hollars, and Penny Guisinger at the front of the room. So, I offered up my participation on “All About Creative Nonfiction Chapbooks” in the form of the below list. These presses have all said (at one time or another) that they would consider nonfiction/prose/hybrid chaps.
This list is bound to be out of date the minute it goes live, because the literary landscape is a shifty thing. Also, many in the list only consider chap submissions during defined contest periods, so please read up on any press policies before hitting send. And don’t forget to buy CNF chapbooks, too. Be the market you wish to see in the literary world.
Chelsea Biondolillo’s List
- Etchings Press Chapbook contest
- Rose Metal Press
- Cutbank (cross-genre)
- Eastern Point Press
- Slashpine Press
- Porkbelly Press
- A-Minor Press
- Sweet Lit
- Origami Zoo Press
- Palooka Press
- Matter Press
- New Delta Review
- Split Lip Magazine – Turnbuckle /Uppercut Chapbook Contests
- Batcat Press
- Birds Piled Loosely – Hard To Swallow Chapbook Series
- Damaged Goods Press (essays, hybrids from Queer and Trans Writers)
- Devilhouse Press
- Disorder Press
- Eggtooth Editions
- Garden-Door Press
- Hermeneutic Chaos Press
- Lightning Key Review – Wilt Chapbook Prize (CNF only!)
- Long Day Press
- Newfound Prose Prize
- The Operating System
- Underground Voices e-shorts (experimental)
- Throwback Books (prose)
- Arcadia – Ruby Irene Poetry Chapbook Contest (I know, but it says CNF, too)
- Bateau Press – Keel Chapbook Contest (hybrid prose)
- The Florida Review – Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Award
- H_NGM_N (prose)
- Homebound Publications – Little Bound Chapbook Series
- Gold Line Press Chapbook Contest
- The Cupboard Pamphlet’s Chapbook Contest (prose)
- Ghost Proposal Chapbook contest (essays, multi-media, experimental, post-genre)
- Gazing Grain Press contest (prose)
- Lime Hawk
- Mason Jar Press
- Ursus Americanus Press (prose)
- elsewhere Chapbook Prize (prose)
- Sundress Publications chapbook contest
- Sutra Press
- Epiphany Magazine (published in magazine)
- The Head and Hand Press – Breadbox Chapbook series
- Iron Horse Review prose chap competition
- Vinyl 45 Chapbook contest (YesYes Books) (prose, mixed genre)
- Paper Nautilus Press
- Pithead Chapel Press
- Ugly Duckling Presse
- Anchor & Plume Press
- Ghost Ocean Mag – Treelight Chapbook contest
- smoking glue gun – chapbook contest
- Red Bird Chapbooks
- Vine Leaves Press
- Special thanks to:
- my own declined file in Submittable,
- Allison Joseph’s priceless CRWROPPS list,
- Entropy Mag’s ‘Where to Submit’ monthly feature, and
- The Review Review—
these are all the places I check when I want to know who considers CNF chaps.
NOTE: YMMV. The literary landscape is a many splendored thing. Some of these are annual contests, some of these might not exist anymore. Some charge money, some offer money, some don’t do one or the other or both. And some ran wee-wee-wee-wee all the way home. -Chelsea
Download the Word File: CNFChapbookmarkets
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of the prose chapbooks Ologies and #Lovesong, both from Etchings Press, University of Indiana. Her essays have been collected in Best American Nature and Science Essays 2016, Flash Nonfiction Funny, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, and others. She has an MFA in nonfiction and environmental studies, and currently teaches writing workshops online. She lives well outside of Portland, OR, surrounded by farms and old growth forest, and blogs intermittently at roamingcowgirl.com
March 14, 2018 § 3 Comments
by Magin LaSov Gregg
Near the end of the fall semester, I facilitated a campus discussion on shame, vulnerability, and storytelling. To begin, I introduced community college students to the work of Brené Brown, who has called shame our “most powerful master emotion.” Brown maintains a two-part antidote for disrupting shame’s ability to silence and inflict harm: We must tell our most shameful stories. And our audiences must meet those stories with compassion. Shame “cannot survive empathy,” Brown has said.
But what happens when the audience we need fails to offer empathy? And what is at stake for a human life if shame is exploited, not disrupted?
Peter Gajdics’ exquisite first memoir The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir artfully examines these questions, and provides a compelling case study vis-à-vis Gajdics’ harrowing experiences in gay conversion therapy as a young man coming of age in Vancouver. Through this visceral and captivating book, Gajdics exposes how shame entrenches itself within the body and hides deep inside our cultural and family systems. As he explores traumatic events within his life and the lives of his parents, Gajdics powerfully reveals the intergenerational legacy of shame. At its heart, The Inheritance of Shame is a book about what it means to fight for one’s humanity, and what we risk in the battle to save ourselves.
Growing up in a conservative Catholic family, Gajdics internalizes shame handed down by his faith, learning early in life that, “There was no happy ending for the homosexual.” Teachers at his parochial school taunt him with his own name, then pronounced Gay-dicks because Gajdics father was unaware of the idiomatic connotations of this pronunciation when he chose it after emigrating to Canada from Hungary.
“But I was everything they named me, and more,” Gajdics recalls. “My name was like marrow, built into my bones. There was nowhere I could go to escape my insides.”
He learns quickly to hide his sexuality, and at the same time longs to explore his attraction to men. As his secretive encounters are increasingly stripped of intimacy, Gajdics seeks the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, who prominently displays the opening lines from A Course in Miracles over his desk: “This is a course in miracles. It is a required course.” Perhaps those statements should have been a clue to flee; yet, Gajdics is a vulnerable and trusting narrator, which makes him compelling. He remains innocent of the harm Alfonzo will soon inflict on him. When Alfonzo tells Gajdics, “God created Adam and Eve … He didn’t create Adam and Steve,” the young man sadly believes him.
The psychologist, in turn, subjects Gajdics to violent psychological methods that employ sexual shame as a weapon. Alfonzo refuses to acknowledge a rape in Gajdics’ childhood and further silences him by saying, “Your sexuality will take care of itself.” Alfonzo grounds Gajdics’ treatment in questionable re-parenting theories and a book called The Primal Scream by Arthur Janov. Patients reenact childhood traumas in sessions called “primals” –– full of screaming, as the name suggests –– and they are “re-parented” by other patients. One danger of this therapy, of course, is its suggestion that a failure of nurturing caused Gajdics’ homosexuality, and that nurture will change him. Alfonzo sees Gajdics’ sexuality as an error, and Gajdics internalizes this belief.
As time goes on, Alfonzo medicates Gajdics to dangerous levels without Gajdics’ consent, and Gajdics eventually moves into a house with other patients. Their lives revolve around primals and the preparing of elaborate vegan meals for Alfonzo. While friends and family fear Gajdics has been swept up in a “therapy cult,” he clings to Alfonzo for years, losing touch with any reality that exists outside therapy, with the exception of his creative writing studies at Vancouver Community College. In the most trying moment of his life, storytelling offers Gajdics a lifeline.
The turning point in his life and this memoir occurs when he watches a male and female patient fall in love, and he realizes, “If real love truly was based on a kind of ‘nakedness,’ I thought, then there was no logical reason why two men, whose souls were neither male nor female, couldn’t experience it as well.” The fact that Gajdics reaches this conclusion while entrenched in Alfonzo’s treatment is the true miracle of his story. And it is only by telling stories once imbued with shame that Gajdics extricates himself from Alfonzo, first by complaining to a medical board and then by initiating a lawsuit against the psychiatrist.
It is illuminating to read The Inheritance of Shame at this cultural moment, when stories of sexual trauma interrupt shame on a global scale. Through storytelling, Gajdics resists the narratives of his abusers, learns to privilege integration over abjection, and finds self-worth. His journey as a writer runs parallel to his journey toward self-acceptance. And his portrait of what it means to disrupt shame –– and it co-conspirators of secrecy and silence – values the interconnection of family, history, and culture, which makes his writing especially resonant now.
In its 2000 position statement on so-called reparative therapy, the American Psychiatric Association maintains, “anecdotal reports of cures are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm.” Gajdics’ memoir actively resists this harm, and goes far beyond anecdote to demonstrate the life-threatening dangers inflicted on LGBTAIQ+ people to this day, in the name of religion and medicine. Today in the United States, only nine states have outlawed gay-conversion therapy for minors, and powerful Christian institutions such as Focus on the Family and The Family Research Council apply continual pressure on Republican lawmakers to oppose anti-conversion therapy laws. Yet, Gajdics’ memoir gives me hope that when the professionals we turn to for counsel present the greatest threat, narratives asserting inherent human worth and dignity may prevail.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Post, Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website, and she swears she will finish her memoir in 2018.
March 13, 2018 § 14 Comments
In third grade, we practiced our reading aloud in homeroom each afternoon. If we didn’t falter, Mrs. Karrick sent us to Assembly Hall for the last half hour of the day, where a group of better readers gathered with the head of the lower school, Mrs. Drysdale, to practice.
I remember when I was sent to Assembly Hall. I felt so smart, walking down the green linoleum hallway, through the swinging doors of the great Hall reserved for morning meeting, the pledge of allegiance, and school plays. I chose a seat in the semi-circle of gray plastic chairs closest to Mrs. Drysdale.
My turn came to read a passage. I stood with the book splayed open in my hands and stared at the sentences before me. The words were longer than the ones I read with Mrs. Karrick and they contained too many letters. The words in this book looked like a foreign language to me; so many vowels! My eyes looked down at my Buster Browns.
“Begin, please,” said Mrs. Drysdale. The big word danced.
“The genie in the bottle said…ab…ba, aba…ab…ra, ca, cad…cada…”
“Abracadabra,” Mrs. Drysdale said. “Next?”
Back to homeroom I went, scuffing my shoes, promising myself I’d try harder next time. The following week, I read flawlessly for Mrs. Karrick, but in Assembly Hall I stumbled over the word physical for Mrs. Drysdale. Where was the “F” in that word? The commute went on for another week, until finally I wasn’t asked back again. I felt stupid, and relieved. Unfortunately, feeling stupid was the feeling that lasted.
I discovered I had dyslexia—a language-based learning disability characterized by trouble spelling, reading, decoding and pronouncing words— at age forty, when my own daughter was being tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. I picked up a pamphlet on the table in the psychologist’s office, waiting for her appointment to end. Take this test, it read.
Do you have trouble sounding out words?
I just skip over them when I read to myself, never out loud (shades of Assembly Hall).
I hire freelance editors for everything I write.
Do you have difficulty memorizing?
F is for French…and chemistry.
An inability to spot mistakes when proofreading?
See “hiring freelancers” above.
Trouble knowing left from right?
There’s a difference?
Was it hard for you to learn to tie your shoes as a child?
I was eight.
I was nine.
Teachers told my parents I was smart, but lazy; some said I was stupid and lazy. I loved to read but read slowly, skipping the words I didn’t recognize. I tested terribly. I couldn’t get in to the college of my dreams, but when I finally got to a college, I learned to compensate for my impairment by finding classmates looking for extra cash to either proof and type my papers, or tutor me in math. I always wore a pinkie ring on my right hand.
When I worked in New York, I paid secretaries to correct and type my reports because I couldn’t figure out the word processor in my own office no matter how many tutorials the company sent me to. I simply couldn’t remember the instructions.
My dyslexia hasn’t changed, but I learned to recognize it. I continue to thank the computer Gods for spellcheck and write checks to editors.
Recently, I posted an ad on Facebook for a writer’s workshop I held in my home, and was publicly called out for typos, none of which I saw after what I considered a careful proofread. The commenter said she’d never attend a writer’s workshop when the writer couldn’t spell. I thanked her for locating the mistakes, but my eight-year-old self went slinking back down the hall to Mrs. Karrick’s homeroom, as the Assembly Hall doors slammed shut behind me.
Although I tell myself I graduated college cum laude, plus two graduate-level programs despite my handicap, it’s still hard not to berate myself.
I will always need an editor. A kind soul who won’t make me feel stupid or lazy—just polished after my drafts are proofed. For many years I worried I was the only one—that everyone else had this secret power I lacked. But at the NonfictioNow conference in Iceland this past spring, author and keynote speaker Karl Ove Knausgård revealed he too, has never once in his entire career worked without an editor by his side.
I was in the right room at last.
Ryder S. Ziebarth is the founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series (Creating Memoir From Memoir workshop upcoming June 10). Her work has appeared in N Magazine, The New York Times, Punctuate, The Brevity Blog, Tiferet, Assay, Proximity and Past Ten. She serves as TRUE columnist for Proximity and as a committee member for the Nantucket Book Festival.
March 12, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Gayle Brandeis
When I was a freshman at the University of Redlands, I took a seminar called “Construction and Deconstruction of the Self.” The professor, Kevin O’Neill, was always asking provocative questions—how would life be different if we procreated with our hands? What if our backs were our sex organs—how would clothing and furniture change? What would we do if we woke up in a differently gendered body? One morning, he asked us whether we look in the toilet after we poop. Only one person in the class said no, claiming he had evolved to a more spiritual plane. Kevin didn’t believe him.
“We ALL look in the toilet after we poop,” he said, “because it’s something we created. Our bodies want to see what they have created.”
I like birth as a metaphor for the creative process, but it’s a bit of a cliché, plus it’s not accessible to everybody (make that every body). I can see how another bodily function could be an apt metaphor, too, one we all share. You may have heard of the children’s book Everyone Poops? It’s true, we do.
Think about it. The creative process is a lot like the digestive process. We take life into our bodies. We let it travel through us. We absorb what we can. We express those things that need to come out.
Bear with me here.
Sometimes poems and stories come out in a messy, smelly, gush. Sometimes we are surprised by their colors, by the kernels of life embedded inside. Sometimes we strain and strain and all that comes out is a little pebble of language, maybe nothing at all. Sometimes a piece of writing slides from our bodies and we feel cleansed and light.
Does this make you uncomfortable?
Shit does make people uncomfortable.
I amicably parted ways with my former agent, a woman I really like and respect, after she wanted me to remove any reference to Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, from my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis. While the memoir is centered around my mom’s suicide, it also explores my own complicated history with illness; this aspect of the story gets to the heart of my relationship with my mom unlike anything else, but my former agent was concerned the bodily chaos in the book would make people uneasy; it made her uneasy. I was similarly taken aback when, before my book was released, I read this passage in an essay about medical memoir: “…inflammatory bowel disease, which threatens life as well as its sufferer’s sense of self and sexuality, has never found its way into a great memoir. It seems unlikely that no worthy writer has had these diagnoses. Maybe some conditions just aren’t inherently memoir-worthy.”
I can’t say whether my memoir is “great”, but I steadfastly believe we shouldn’t declare any material from our lives unworthy of memoir—we should be able to talk and write freely about every aspect of the human experience, even the most disagreeable, shitty, ones. If we don’t, we perpetuate silence and shame.
After I had surgery to remove a length of diseased small intestine, I devoured books by authors with Crohn’s disease— Meaty by Samantha Irby and The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner, which both mine our shared illness for great comic and dramatic value, as well as Matthew Siegel’s poetry collection, Blood Work, and Chris Kraus’ autobiographical novel, I Love Dick, which address the authors’ Crohn’s experience with tremendous honesty and craft. These books made me feel less alone; they helped give me courage to take that part of my own story out of the shadows.
Let us embrace all parts of our lives in our work, including the parts that are uncomfortable and gross, the parts we’re told to not discuss in polite company. Polite is overrated. Polite keeps us from our truth. Let us write words that still steam from the heat of our body. Let our lives become rich, dark, fertilizer; let us see what grows from the dirt.
Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. Her other books include the poetry collection, The Selfless Bliss of the Body, the craft book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and the novels My Life with the Lincolns, Delta Girls, Self Storage, and The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize of Fiction of Social Engagement. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.