A Review of Brahna Yassky’s Slow Dancing with Fire

May 20, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Jennifer Lang

By the time Brahna Yassky, author of Slow Dancing with Fire: A Memoir of Resilience, realizes her skin is on fire, it’s almost too late; fifty-five percent of her body, including her right arm—her painting hand—is marred. In her early thirties, she spends three months in a burn rehabilitation unit followed by the better part of a year in her parents’ house outside NYC, where she has no choice but to surrender and accept help with the mundane acts of living, from being fed to being dressed to being driven. Over time and with a tremendous amount of outpatient therapy and unconditional support from her family and her own determination not to be considered a burn victim, she regains enough strength and mobility to return to her loft in Tribeca, where the accident happened.

In the first four chapters, as Brahna floats in and out of a morphine-induced state in the hospital, she flashes back in time to her earlier life: childhood, lovers, painting. The constant switch between her present realities—the medical staff check-ups, the bandage changes, the therapies—and past memories mirrors her foggy state of mind.

Brahna puts a lot of emphasis on beauty, exteriors, and appearances, and on seeing and being seen. But when she looks at her skin and finally understands the extent of the damage and the finality of her body after dozens of surgeries and skin grafts, she wishes she were invisible. For the first time, she is forced to look at the world through a different lens. That shift in perspective becomes a journey of healing, of self-acceptance, and of understanding that beauty is inside.

Her journey, of course, doesn’t happen overnight or all at once but slowly, over time. First, she widens her circle, lets extended family and select friends visit, dares to show herself. Then, still unable to paint, she focuses on others, sharing art with people in need like the elderly, disabled children, and low-income schoolkids. Each experience makes her appreciate how much joy it can bring and how therapeutic it can be to those who are lonely or lost, broken, or burned. Next, she earns her credentials as an art therapist.

But Brahna writes:

In the year since my accident, I’d become obsessed with the intimate knowledge of how life  can change drastically in a flash and was drawn to people who had that experience. I saw other people’s flaws as the most interesting parts of their faces and bodies. Mental and physical wounds were the stuff that moved and inspired me, but I still couldn’t accept them in myself.

To accept her new body means accepting loss, both physical and emotional. The summer after the incident, when she rents a house in the Hamptons and starts living in the world per her doctor’s recommendation, her only sibling and his partner, two of Brahna’s biggest cheerleaders, visit. Dressed in scar-compression garments, she bikes and plays tennis and swims in fresh water every day, but none of it is easy or comfortable. When she expresses her desire to drive to Montauk and buy fresh fish to put on the hibachi that she didn’t dare light, her brother says he came to relax, not to be her chauffeur, which sends her into a tantrum. Much to her shock, the men pack up and leave, unable to and uninterested in catering to her needs or wishes. Their once close relationship becomes distant and painful. And because of some deft foreboding earlier in the book, we know it will not end there or well.

In contrast to losses, Brahna gains experiences she never imagined. Her open-mindedness and willingness to try new things lands her making a short movie about the accident then writing this memoir. Her need to overcome and accept her new body is inspiring and contagious. While I’ve never experienced physical trauma, I’ve had my own version of drama and had to dig deep, to be resilient, to reinvent myself, to start anew every six years after my husband and I moved—countries, continents, cultures—in search of home. Sometimes it takes reading about other people’s resilience to recognize your own.

______________

Jennifer Lang, born in the San Francisco Bay area, lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as assistant editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat—practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003—with her legs up her living room wall, Lang’s experimental memoir-in-shorts Places We Left Behind will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.

A Review of Tarn Wilson’s In Praise of Inadequate Gifts

May 19, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Renée E. D’Aoust

One summer when I was about seven years old, I decided I wanted to set up a little stand to sell things. (I had probably seen a Charlie Brown cartoon where Lucy sets up her lemonade stand.) The problem was twofold: no one ever came by the dirt road at our island cabin, and I didn’t know what to sell. I didn’t have any lemons to make lemonade, and we were on a rural island with no stores. My mum and I brainstormed what to sell: fresh-caught fish, bouquets of fir boughs, funky driftwood. “How about salt crystals?” I spent two days drying salt water to make salt, and I spent a further two days sitting at my little stand on the dirt road with three little baggies of homemade salt. I made a price list. A sign. Mum brought me a chair from the cabin. I was a patient, persistent kid.

Though I’ve never met Tarn Wilson, I was drawn to her because she spent part of her childhood in British Columbia on an island, which she writes about in her first memoir Slow Farm, and I spent summers as a kid in the same Canadian province on a different island. I first heard Tarn Wilson speak on an AWP panel many years ago and became absolutely hooked.

Wilson doesn’t shy away from hard questions, nor does she hit you over the head with wise answers. One of the most wonderful characteristics of her writing is her capacity for compassion. She has suffered hardship, but her ability to love has not suffered. So it’s no surprise that compassion features prominently among the many salient qualities of her most recent essay collection In Praise of Inadequate Gifts: A Memoir in Essays.

Wilson welcomes us into the many challenges she has faced in her life: a traumatic childhood, a savior complex, a divorce, even teeth that grow wonky and have to be fixed again and again. But not once do we feel sorry for her. Such is her craft and humanity that we journey together toward a better tomorrow.

That tomorrow is today. In each of these twelve essays, Wilson draws the reader into how she discovers that the process of writing is “a disclosing eye, revealing some of what has been invisible.” Wilson is able to write herself into a new way of living: “Obsession imprisons us in repetitive thinking; after my obsession eased its grip, I was able to take action.” In this quiet and lovely book, Wilson frequently breaks the veneer of distance between reader and writer: “I break the unwritten rules of essay writing. I’m not supposed to show you the movie camera at the edge of the scene. But I have no other way to tell you the whole story.”

The “whole story” includes trying to figure out how to be a better human in our broken world. Her hippie family is broken through divorce, assault, and undiagnosed mental illness, yet Wilson tries to have a “perfect little life.” After all, if everything is perfect, particularly if she is perfect, she can control her environment and bad things won’t happen.

But it’s impossible to maintain control as a kid; things are by definition outside a kid’s control. She experiences “flat grief” and loneliness; Wilson doesn’t know how life can ebb and flow and be made whole because her home life has always been turbulent. The perspective of a writer makes healing possible; Wilson writes: “When my story is assembled, always imperfectly, always with a few under or overfilled joints, I look down from the top, as from an airplane.” And yet, even when assembled, ever conscious to be honest, she’s not sure her story “is true”:

How can I know if the story I’ve told is true? I can’t. But I can tell I’m getting close to truth when I’ve found the right pattern, made the right connections, and feel an electricity I don’t understand that pulses through the sentences and makes the story live.

Sitting at my little stand that summer long ago in Canada, I finally sold some of my hard work. I sold my homemade salt on credit, because when the island hippie Richard chanced by our cabin, he ambled down to my stand, delighted to find me patiently waiting for someone, anyone. Of course, he didn’t have any actual money with him. (He said he would pay me later, and he did. A quarter.) He listened to me explain the process of making salt crystals; he was compassionate as I spoke and clapped when I did a little salt dance jig. This is the kind of compassion Wilson leans into, “Love that touches down, moves through a particular person at a particular time, then lifts. Love that might follow [us] anywhere.”
___

Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press). She teaches online at Casper College and North Idaho College. Follow her on Twitter, @idahobuzzy.

In Praise of One Beat Words

May 18, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Linda Button

Here’s to one beat words. Short and sweet and quick. Hot in your mouth, fast to say, they leap from tongue to brain in a flash. They amp up your tone and add salt to your prose. And by one beat words I mean short.

Short words are honed to work fast. Why? Most hail from the harsh north, where each breath is hard won. Blunt like chipped tools. Tough to make it through dark, cold nights. Not like the tongues from the warm south, born of sun filled days, where time stretched out with ease, no rush! and each sound led us down a long, slow path that seemed to have no end.

Words from the north cut to the chase. (A phrase, by the way, from the first days of film, where they meant “cut to the good stuff)”.

My folks, spawn of a long line of hicks, spoke in grunts. Dogs were mutts. You swam in the crick. Fixed the ruf. Each word shot from my dad’s mouth. We paid close heed. We ducked and did what he said. “Git here.” “Go on.”

Then, I was wooed by a posh school. They did not teach me to write well. They loved such long words. Lots of them. Scores. Tomes. Why use three words when you could use twelve? Fill the page, they pressed us. We purged our guts, plied words from our word gods, stuffed our work to awe our profs. Big blocks of text. No white space. No sense of dire. All was flat. We thought that made us sound, not just smart, cool.

But

where

were

our

crisp

bold

thoughts?

Lost in veils. We had draped them in fluff. Masked and dressed for show.

I learned how to write when I got my dream job in, well, we called it the boob tube. The boob tube. Fourth grade zone. True. We learned to keep it short to reach the most folks. Our goal: keep them glued. “How much time do you have? Wait, wait, don’t go! Stay here. Look, here’s a new fun thing we just found for you. Try this. Try that. Stay with us.”

We wrote scripts for the ear, not the eye. That taught me to be blunt, like my dad. Hack off the dreck. Cut to the core. Clean up your prose. Trim the split ends. We carved each plea to one beat. We got to the point. We caught them in our trap.

Wow, I thought. I can say less and mean more.

Try this

Fill a page with your tale. The whole side. Then, take each word: the four beat, three beat even and, yes, the two beat words. Find a way to say the same thing with one beat. See how you forge a clear stone path of thoughts to the end. See how they change the pace, how the quick steps fuel what you mean.

Our brains eat short words like fast food. That makes sense. Short takes less space. Each word drops in, plunk.

Then, when the time feels right, slip them one glorious note.

Glo-ri-ous. Mmmmm. Stands out, right?

Choose your words with care. Hone them. Make them punch through.

And, please, keep it short. And glorious.

In this blog I have used just one beat words. Tell me, did it work, or am I full of bunk?

_____

Linda Button spent 20 years running an award-winning agency and romping across six continents to speak on creativity and writing. Her essays on relationships have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love  and Boston Magazine. She completed the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street and is working on a memoir about marriage, madness, and how martial arts saved her. https://lindabutton.works

A Review of Olivier Haralambon’s The Cyclist and His Shadow   

May 18, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Cheryl Anne Latuner

For my husband, born in France, there are only two sports: soccer, which he played semi-professionally before moving to the U.S., and cycling. Soccer plays year-round on our TV, and I’ve come to know teams, players, even coaches, as well as terms for play—off-side, corner, penalty, shoot-out—watching the players dribble up and down the field, ball between their feet. But come July, our TV is tuned to the twenty-one stages (race days) of the three-week cycling marathon, the Tour de France. Here are players and teams, too, but the players are virtually unrecognizable, helmeted in their casques, and I have a hard time figuring out how exactly the teams in their same-colored shirts are playing together, scattered throughout the vast peloton, the horde of cyclists making their way along hundreds of miles like ants on the march. There’s the occasional échappée (escape) of the leaders from the pack, but literally nothing much else to watch—heads bobbing up and down, bikes tilting side to side. All I can focus on, beyond gorgeous views of French countryside, is how each cyclist manages to keep up that same repetitive motion of peddling mile after mile, how he endures the climb, day after day, up all those extreme French mountains at grades of as much as seven or eight percent. I try to imagine the suffering.

Now, in The Cyclist and His Shadow, translated from the French by François Thomazeau, Olivier Haralambon tells us exactly what it is to be that cyclist, his suffering—and his euphoria. Haralambon’s book is something quite different from an experiential description you might find in an adventurer’s magazine. It is, rather, a poetic treatise on the existential reality of the cyclist, its prose a mesmerizing pastiche of virtuosic descriptive language and metaphor, as if the author wants not merely for us to understand what it is to pedal in the cyclist’s shoes, but how it renders the cyclist something other than himself—in body, mind, and soul. Linguistically, Haralambon captivates even the never-professional-cyclists among us. As someone who has long loved and studied French, I hear the flavor of the original in what the translator calls the “slipstream” of Haralambon’s language, vividly wrought to inspire our imagination and pleasure.

“Who never fell asleep in front of a Tour de France stage?” Haralambon begins, rhetorically, knowing that for many of us, “cycling races are a dreadfully monotonous spectacle.” He writes,

You might notice, that the pace of [the cyclists’] legs varies, that they accelerate sharply from time to time, that they stand up on the pedals and then sit back in the saddle; you might, should you know the toughness of some climbs at a given place, roll your eyes at the speed at which they tackle them, but…after a puzzled bout of disbelief, halfway between respect and pity for the sight of their suffering faces, you look away and turn to something else.

But cycling was something Haralambon could never turn away from, after the moment he first rode, at the age of thirteen, on a country road, and “found myself in the space opened inside me by the landscape separating my eyes from my muscles…and my soul was ripped open like a fruit whose overripe flesh was a promise of infinity.”

In passage after passage, I hear echoes of the long tradition of French philosophic musing, as Haralambon exposes for the reader the ineffable that he has experienced through cycling:

I loved pedaling breathlessly beside the demon of my shadow. I pulled it behind me mercilessly for tens of thousands of kilometers and it never ever let me down. I sweated, cried, spat, came, dribbled, bled sometimes on the tarmac and the landscape. I have loved the bike and I have loved racing fiercely because they gave me a form of trust in the unfathomable immensity of life, in the verticality of time. Without it, without them, I would never have had the slightest feeling of eternity—not as a myth but as an experience.

Far from being the perpetrators in a “monotonous spectacle,” “the best competitive riders,” he argues, “are among the cleverest and the most subtle individuals in the human race…as delicate as ballet dancers and more astute than many writers.” As if to prove just that point, Haralambon exhibits his skill as a writer on page after page, as in this passage about coming of age as a young competitive rider:

We felt like rising stars…all the neighborhood girls were at their windows, chatting and calling each other. The façade of the building looked like an Advent calendar. Behind them, you could feel the polished kitchens, the put-away dishes and the pink rubber gloves thrown over the faucets like the remains of Michelangelo in the arms of St. Bartholomew on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Though Haralambon gives the insider’s privileged view of all the facets of competitive cycling—the training, the solitude of the individual, the “monstrous” nature of the rampaging peloton, even the doping—it’s his encounter with the existential that drives the narrative. Reading this book, I forgot what I had witnessed, obliviously, every summer on TV. I began to feel myself inside the soul of a person dedicated to two excruciating and unaccountably rewarding activities, cycling and writing, and to see the parallels between Haralambon’s experience as a cyclist and all the endeavors artists undertake that lead to transcendence:

He pushes on the pedals, rotates them, makes them dance, and moves ahead in the direction designed by the road lined by spectators…Yet the landscape that is the background of the show is not the real place of his meticulous effort. He performs and creates from the resonances of his solitude and carves in himself his own share of space.…He works with all muscles on the rough, indistinct, and endlessly improvable material of his most intimate life.
_____

Cheryl Anne Latuner is author of the memoir Baby at My Breast—Reflections of a Nursing Mother and is at work on No Long Island Girl. Her essays and poetry have appeared in journals such as Literary Mama, The Comstock ReviewNaugatuck River Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, and in Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words. She loves taking long walks, practicing piano, and visiting her young adult daughter in Paris.

Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life

May 17, 2022 § 48 Comments

By Carole Duff

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.  -Anatole France

Western culture divides life into three stages: birth/student, work/family, and retirement/death. My husband and I, moving into our retirement years and building a new house, borrowed the Hindu concept of four stages, adding a time of spiritual growth and reconnection between retirement and death.

The third stage of life, Vanaprastha, the name we chose for our mountain home, means retreat to the forest. Not retirement but time to learn, reflect, and grow. Time to take the internal journey and heal past wounds from loss, rejection, and inexplicable disruptions. Time to explore, discover, seek meaning, share wisdom, and serve others. Time to become our truer selves.

As it turned out, I became a writer.

While overseeing the construction of our mountain retreat, I read the books I’d promised myself I’d get to but never had time, walked the dog, and tried new recipes. I wrote about my husband’s daughter, lost to suicide at age twenty-four, a girl I’d never met and wanted to know about as part of my husband’s past. But while reading her journals, hearing her father’s stories, and writing, I found my story bleeding through the pages into hers, because of connections I never expected. Disruptions from when we were five: her parents’ divorce and a home-invader assaulting my mother; mental illness episodes starting at sixteen; troubles in college; rejection in love—stories begging to be written, hiding in our closets. After the house was built, I signed up for writing classes.

Being a novice was humbling after a long and successful career, teaching, designing curriculum, and publishing technical articles. I was no longer a sage on the stage or guide on the side. My teachers were often the same age as my students—my recent students. More to the point, my wants and path-to-purpose had changed. After years of forward motion, raising children, earning money to pay the bills, pursuing success and honors, I looked back and moved toward asking, Who am I?

Third-stage-of-life writers often employ creative nonfiction in memoir and personal essays. They are less interested in earning a living as a writer and more interested in the internal search on the page. This journey for self-knowledge is heroic in the Joseph Campbell sense, fraught with external and internal obstacles and resistance. We all have wounds in our past and tend to evade them at all cost. I was appalled to discover the extent of my evasions, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness, my need for approval, to be right and in control. The “clever” stories I’d told myself and others over the years were often self-serving and sometimes outright lies. My husband’s daughter took the same journey, until her mental illness exacted its toll. To become the master of my story, I had to portray myself as both protagonist and antagonist, to turn victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able; to find a third way to manage fear, other than flight or fight. Only then could I find peace and offer what I’d learned to others.

The nuts and bolts of writing can be daunting. Pitches, proposals, publishing, platform. The bottom line of becoming a writer in the third chapter is growth, both personal and professional. Write, write, write. Take classes to grow your craft, read craft books and recommended models, join writing groups, attend conferences, create communities. Open yourself to criticism; be honest and generous in return. Study, learn something new, sing, garden, volunteer. Do all those things and more—and have a grand time!
______

Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, serious flutist, avid naturalist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine, The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor, and other publications. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, writer K.A. Kenny, and two, large overly-friendly dogs. She will present a session on “Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life” at HippoCamp 2022 in August.

The * Fact * of * Memory

May 16, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

THE

The challenge Aaron Angello set for himself is daunting, maybe a little insane, borderline brilliant, and truly fascinating. For roughly four months, Angello woke at 5 am, brewed himself a cup of coffee, carried his cup to a small writing desk, and wrote – one per day, in order – a word from Shakespeare’s 114-word 29th Sonnet.

One word. The word “the,” for instance, or “of,” or “bootless,” or “possessed.”

He sat with the word a while, and then, “Once I felt I was filled with that word—as if the word filled my body, not just my mind—I began to write.”

FACT

The fact is, a single word can take you anywhere. The mind works that way. The word “Beweep,” for instance, a very Shakespearean word, leads Angello to imagine a Gallery of Forgotten Words, “pile after pile of bodkins and blunderbusses, jolly-nobs and junts, lacerts and lam’s grass.”

But The Fact of Memory is not a book about Shakespeare, or even just a book about words. It is a book about how the mind works. About memory. About rumination. Fabrication, And narrative structure.

The sonnet is deconstructed word by word, and then built back up again, to find stories Shakespeare himself had never imagined.

OF

The simple word “of” appears only once in Shakespeare’s sonnet, and Angello’s brief chapter – the book, essentially, is flash nonfiction, with a robust lyric bent – imagines a vintage movie, a projected backdrop, two actors, a scratchy old 78 rpm record, skipping on the song lyric “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” the way our minds skip over and over a remembered detail, an old song, looking for truth maybe, or just a story, or what may pass for a story, what may pass for a truth.

The way images break apart, reform themselves into narratives, remembered, felt deeply, but ultimately not real.

MEMORY

The 29th Sonnet does not use the word “memory” anywhere, but the word “remembered” appears once, as in “For they sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

Angello remembers his own sweet love, youthful love, a rooftop in New York City, jealousies, guilt, and failure. No wealth, or kings. It is a different time, a different thinker’s thoughts.

He remembers detail after disconnected detail of this tragic past love, then writes, “But this isn’t a confession. I’m making all of this up.”

Which we sometimes do when we reconstruct memory. When we try to reconstruct our truths, word by stubborn word.

The fact of memory is not simple. The Fact of Memory is complex.

__

Dinty W. Moore is the editor of Brevity.

On Making Art: Quietly, then Loudly, for Personal Comfort

May 16, 2022 § 11 Comments

Negotiations Have Failed, Nina Gaby

By Nina Gaby

There’s so much to do, “real” stuff, the endless “real” stuff of life that we feel we have to finish before we can go do the unreal stuff. Before maybe a stroll, or writing an observation about that stroll, or scribbling a color found on that stroll. Whatever. We put all that aside so we can finish the vacuuming or the taxes or the real stuff of the day job. Maybe because we feel lucky that we have a day job or a floor to vacuum, we pay penance and we disregard the stroll and the scribbles even though we know they’re important for our health. Then we even pay penance for our health.

And yet today I succumb to the pull of my studio to continue an old series of artwork for my own personal comfort. I don’t even take the time to justify this (after all I’ve had six months of medical tests that included a needle to my head and January’s Covid and February’s GI Flu and March’s Upper Respiratory Flu) so I could have excused myself for my own personal comfort. For a day.

A spate of stinging rejections has left me in front of the TV watching the news with bags of Skinny Pop strewn at my feet, thrilling the dog who licks up the wayward kernels so I don’t have to drag out the damn vacuum cleaner. I simultaneously scroll Instagram for images of others; others who probably don’t have that spate of rejection. I watch them cavort at AWP, which I could have of course gone to, but why.

I finally jump up and announce to the dog, “I’m going to the studio.”

I sit at the table my grandfather made for my grandmother a hundred years ago, in front of the scattered mess I left months ago. The dried up glue, the X-acto uncapped, gorgeous rolls of imported paper unfurling, the blade of the trimmer left upright. So much to get back to.

I tell myself, “You don’t have to listen to the news, you don’t have to witness everything.” So no news while I’m working, just old singer-songwriter playlists with words about Christopher Robin and two cats in the yard, ghosts and empty sockets. No paragraphs, just sentences that I like from old paragraphs maybe in that pile of rejections, in old notebooks, on old artwork that didn’t sell. I think of Sarah Manguso’s comment on the back cover of her 300 Arguments –“Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” And I laugh. Maybe I’ll use no words at all.

I smear some gesso and burn the edges of the tiny Italian cards that I’ll use for pages, sticking them, accordion style, in vintage mini-envelopes from the basement of a dead neighbor, and give myself a hint of migraine from the blending stick I use to do a design transfer. Little books emerge from the mess.

Before I know it I’m singing my heart out to “Graceland.” Yelling a bit, maybe. I love it all so. Again.

___

Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist and psychiatric nurse practitioner who has contributed often to the Brevity blog. In June she will be displaying her little artist  books and mixed media collage with Abigail Thomas and Beth Kephart in a pop-up exhibition — Writers as Artists: Showcasing the Handwork of Abigail Thomas, Beth Kephart, Nina Gaby, and Friends — in Woodstock, NY, at Nancy’s of Woodstock Artisanal Creamery, Friday, June 10th, 12 PM to 4 PM.

A Review of Melissa Febos’ Body Work

May 13, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Brian Watson

I wasn’t expecting my mother’s question.

She knew that I was working on my memoir; I had called early in September 2021 to let her know that a publishing company had requested the manuscript—an exciting turn of events that later led to a kind rejection from the publisher.

I had given her a very rough outline of the manuscript. How I had grown up gay, how my failure to process my father’s death when I was fourteen affected me, my choice to move to Japan in 1988 in the hope of escaping the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the United States, and how my ten years in Japan unfolded me.

Can you send me a copy? I want to read it.

Imagining my mother reading about my roughshod sexual education (my first adolescence as a frightened queer kid) and emotional evolution (my second adolescence where feelings were finally allowed to join the physical) had me suddenly nervous. But I ordered a copy of the manuscript from the local print shop and mailed it off.

My stepfather called first, telling me he loved it and couldn’t wait for it to be properly published. My mother, he said, was still reading it, going more slowly.

She called at some point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that point in the year when, by law, family drama must occur. I overstate it, of course, but the conversation included this moment:

You write very well, Brian.

Thank you, Ma.

I like it. But I have to tell you something, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.

Yes?

I had to skip over parts of it. There were things I just didn’t want to know.

That’s okay, Ma.

It reassured me to know that, as close as she and I had become over the years, we still had mutually respected boundaries.

There are some details in a grown child’s life that no parent is meant to know, especially when that grown child has the kind of early adulthood pastimes that I had.

I didn’t write a memoir to free myself, though in the process I did.

The first few pages of Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative hit hard, and I started to vibrate, emotionally. My first adolescence, the ten or so years before I left for Japan, was an awful combination of urgent sex and fear. Fear of grief—my father died when I was fourteen—and a fear of exposure as a gay man to my family.

I had put some raw content on the page (and revised it and revised it) and it unnerved me. And it was more than my learning how to cruise other men in Manhattan at age fifteen. It was a trauma I was walking back through. I had concerns beyond the writing and its impact on me, however.

Anyone who writes the story of their individual trauma, and especially those of identities that have been historically oppressed and abused, is subject to the retraumatization by ongoing perpetrators: the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonizing nation(s) in which they must live and learn to heal.

I have taken classes with other writers of memoir, I have taught a few as well, and I hear the fear. Women, queer people like me, Black Americans, and other people of color? We were vulnerable to trauma even before we started writing. Were we about to allow others to dig deeper in our wounds?

Shortly after [Abandon Me] was published, during a post-reading Q & A, a woman stood up and asked me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’

Another fear that I and other writers of memoirs share is blowback. Within the traumas we write about, there are often specific persons we can point to as those who victimized us or who intensified the trauma. People love to share the Anne Lamott epigram, If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better. I’m partial, myself, to one of the lines that Allison K Williams has taught me to use, I can’t wait to read your memoir, Aunt Martha.

Memoirs have the potential to burn bridges, to destroy relationships. I feel this keenly as I write.

…I wanted to be able to tell both stories. That felt more fair. Still, I felt the violation of that narration. [The other person’s] version was not my story to tell.

Telling my story is enough. Talking about my choices, the impacts of other people on me, and my ultimate successes—getting the manipulator out of my life, finding a way to be out of the closet professionally in Japan, of all places, and discovering the changes I could make that allowed me to finally fall in a truer love—are the ways my story will reach readers, the people I want to be present for.

As memoirists, we, too, speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others. While I know that the person helped most of all is myself, part of my own healing has come from the hundreds of strangers who have written to me, claiming that I told their story, too, and that reading it showed them that it was possible to tell.

Body Work is a work of courage. And in reading it, I was imbued with a new courage myself. What a wonderful gift to the writing community.

Thank you, Melissa.

___

Brian Watson is currently revising and querying his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Saitama, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. His recent essays have appeared in Brevity’s online blog. His other book reviews have appeared in Hippocampus magazine. He is the author of an upcoming article on marriage equality in the US and Japan for JETs on Japan magazine and was recently interviewed for a May episode of the Second Adolescence podcast. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com and Twitter  @iambrianwatson.

On Husbands, Fathers, and Seeking Approval

May 12, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Melissa Fraterrigo

When I published my nonfiction piece, “The Night of the Fire,” which details a kitchen fire we had growing up, I sent the link to my husband. A few days later, I wanted to ask him what he thought. But I already knew the answer: he hadn’t read it. And writing these words even now, my stomach turns.

The rational part of my brain speaks up, says: You have to believe in your work above all others. Exactly what are you hoping for him to say about your piece? Why is it so important that he reads your writing?

I don’t have a definitive answer, just a number of hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: You are seeking his approval.

It’s true. I didn’t come from an artistic family. My dad took me to the library on a weekly basis, but once I was in high school and talking about college plans, he made it clear that writing was not a job. Nursing—like my mom—would be a much better choice. Dutiful daughter that I was, I went along with his advice until I shattered a beaker in the middle of a chemistry lab and 24 pairs of safety goggles bore down on me, their looks saying the one thing I’d been thinking since our first day of class: You don’t belong here.

Hypothesis #2: I’d like for him to understand what I do.

It’s true that even now at extended family gatherings few ask about my current projects—and I don’t offer. I wish I was the kind of writer who didn’t need the support of her family, but I crave it now as much as ever. I remember once many years ago, during my first fiction writing class, I handed my dad my first story and asked him to read it. It was about a woman who worked at a factory naming shades of lipstick. She hated her job and I recall spending a fair bit of time coming up with exotic names for her to assign to each new lipstick color. I remember asking him later what he thought. “It was good,” he said.

I took the typed copy back to my bedroom and flipped through the pages looking for any sign of what he’d really thought—a bent page, maybe a smudged word. I was looking for him to tell me if I was on the right path. If I could write and if he thought I should keep going.

Twenty-some years later it seems I’m still seeking the answer to this question.

I have a new writing group. Once a month we gather for two hours over cheese and crackers and write. We take turns hosting at our kitchen tables and offering a prompt. Last week L brought a box of old children’s books. The month before, K piled the table with art books and encouraged us to find an intriguing image. I found a picture of a Norman Rockwell print of a preadolescent girl sitting in front of a mirror in her slip, chin in hands. In her lap was a glossy tabloid with an actress on its cover. Will I ever be pretty? the girl’s expression seemed to ask. We had the identical print framed in the basement of my childhood home. After everyone had tired of The Brady Bunch or Eight is Enough, and went upstairs, I’d stand there in our wood-paneled basement looking at the girl, feeling her ache, and matching it with my own sense of inadequacy.

The power of this new writing group is that we write. There is no critique. Sometimes we’ll share generally what we worked on, but the reverberations of sitting at a table and writing in concert with fellow writers lasts for days.

I have always been a people-pleaser. A rule follower. A box checker. And yet writing pushes against this time and again. I am compelled to write through my own determination. There’s no grade involved. No one knocking on my door asking to see the pages I worked on that morning.

I’d like to be the kind of writer who just writes for herself and doesn’t need anyone else’s approval—only I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. Maybe it’s the drive to be seen that keeps me going.

In a culture that is not focused on literature or the creative arts, I’ve created an environment where I feel accepted and at ease. The process of making such a space has been life affirming: each time I meet with my writing group, I am saying I chose this. And this and even this. And that won’t change no matter who reads my work.

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press), which was named one of  “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). She founded the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, which offers live and virtual classes on the art and craft of writing. Coming June 23: You + The World: Expanding the Scope of Your Memoir with E.B. Bartels, a virtual workshop on writing and planning your hybrid memoir.

Memoir of My Marriage: Finding the One [Version, Revision, Iteration, Incarnation] that Finally Worked

May 11, 2022 § 14 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

Six years ago, when I was confidently writing my first memoir, I broadcasted to the whole world, blogging about what I should—and shouldn’t—tell my teens about my cross-cultural, inter-denominational marriage, how I filled in memory gaps with old letters to my mother and friends, and why my manuscript eventually hit a wall.

Really, though, I started writing this story long before that. For my first workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts two years earlier, I shared “Root and Reach,” my essay contrasting my ungrounding moves with grounding yoga poses. The feedback: write a book. Each move should be its own chapter, and each chapter needed more scenes. Overwhelmed, I put it away.

After reading my essay about running for shelter during an Israeli military operation in 2014 and during the First Gulf War 23 years prior, my mentor suggested I write about my marriage, about love and compromise. By graduation a year later, I’d written 65,000 words. The facts were straight, my emotional truth was clear, but something bothered me. The writing was flat, uninteresting; the story overwritten.

Time passed. A writer-friend in northern California and I offered each other feedback on our manuscripts. She, like one of my VCFA mentors, suggested I ask a different question, write more my journey, less my marriage. 

That same week, I read the British magazine Mslexia’s call for submissions:

J is for… a piece of creative non-fiction, up to 300 words.

A word jumped at me: jury. I opened my manuscript and found the sad day when my spouse and I sat in our White Plains, New York sunroom, deliberating about his need to return to Israel, where we met and married 20 years earlier, and my desire to stay stateside. I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled until my long, dull chapter reached 294 words and sang. Every month, I answered their calls for K (for Kasher), L (for Lire), M (for Mess), slowly working my way through the alphabet.

That spring, I took a flash workshop with Kathy Fish, responding feverishly to her prompts, each capped at 500/300/250 words. The result: the fewer my words, the clearer the writing. The group feedback: write a memoir-in-flash about my Israeli life.

On fire, I reframed my question, focusing on my search for my authentic self since landing in Israel in 2011, writing short vignettes of varying lengths, each under 1,000 words.

Then, last year, a reader-friend in southern California, encouraged me to consider putting together a chapbook. Did I have anything I’d already written centered on a certain theme?

I opened my first memoir. Zoomed in on the beginning, the middle, and the end: when my husband and I met in Israel in our early twenties, when we raised young children in America in our thirties and early forties, when we returned to Israel at almost fifty. Again, I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled, aiming for short and concise. I searched for prose chapbooks, entered it in competitions, and received a slew of rejections. Six months later and still submitting, I stumbled upon an open call for experimental prose. Clueless and curious, I opened my vignette called Zigzag and spread the text across the page to reflect the title. In Pro-Con, I formed two columns and used the + and – to show my list. On and on I went to follow one mentor’s sage advice and play on the page. The result: an experimental memoir-in-shorts (which I call memoir-ella), complete at not quite 10,000 words.

In early November, my manuscript was one of four finalists and received encouraging feedback from the editor. It didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Later that month, I submitted it to Vine Leaves Press, a traditional publisher that prints vignette collections. A few months later, I awakened to an email with subject line: OFFER OF PUBLICATION and a two-page, in-depth letter of evaluation, highlighting everything that works and why. My heart bounced—with relief, with gratitude, with awe. For the learning curve, the process, the persistence.

One night, between REM and some other disturbing midlife sleep state, I realized that I have two memoirs: this shorter, playful part I about my marriage and a longer one, also in vignettes, about me part II. My greatest hope is that it doesn’t take me another decade and five more iterations to find a special press that says yes.
___

Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat–practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003–with her legs up her living room wall. Her experimental memoir-in-shorts, Places We Left Behind, will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.

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