July 20, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
On the Upper West Side, over brunch, Marcia and I talk about Educated, Tara Westover’s recent memoir. We are awed by the narrator’s resilience. We marvel at how family norms define us and ponder how much we can’t know is “normal” if we have nothing else to compare it with. We wonder what other horrors and atrocities brilliant Westover may have omitted, what she may have blocked. I mourn Westover’s mother’s inability to attend to her daughter, even as I acknowledge the fact that the mother couldn’t keep herself safe.
Over sausage, we talk about the coming summer—my plan to organize my memoir, by tacking the titles of scenes up under headings on the walls of a purchased, but not yet renovated, small house at the foot of the driveway of the house I still call my mother’s house, though she has been gone for eight years. It may be years before we renovate the new, small house—other projects take precedence, so I decide I might as well use it—when else will I have an empty house to play in? I imagine carrying my coffee cup and my resolve down the driveway from our house to the new house’s empty rooms. I’m hoping a new space will help me make sense of the jumble I’ve assembled. More than 300 pages of disconnected bits, a mish-mash. I’m determined to finish a draft this summer.
“My book is called a quiet memoir—nothing really dramatic. It’s a bunch of scenes organized around the summer months in Eagles Mere. About my family. Sort of a collage,” I explain. No hurling a hiking boot down a mountain, no cruel and abusive family to flee. The energy of my story is smaller.
Do I feel inadequate that I am not Cheryl Strayed or Tara Westover? Some days. Still, I have been working on this collection of fragments and essays for three years now. “It’s not a memoir at all,” a writing teacher counseled. “It’s a collection.” First, that discouraged me, but it’s true. More than a century is a lot to tackle in a narrative arc, especially since I missed the first forty-five years, having not yet been born.
Eagles Mere’s architecture is also a mish-mash. Over many decades, architects fashioned houses full of whimsy. Gothic and Queen Anne homes pose, elegant, next to spacious shingle cottages. Mansard roofs, arched windows, clapboard, board and batten, steeply pitched eaves cohabit. Decorative trim serves no function but to delight and evokes another era. New houses bloom on lots, made to look old. Many original 19th century cottages expand over time. Eclectic turrets and tiny paned windows and wrap around porches make each home distinct. These are houses devoted largely to leisure, to relaxation, but houses, too, in which families expand and contract. My computer often shares a table with a kerosene lamp, artifacts from different eras–a hodge-podge. Right now, my memoir reminds me of this unruly architectural mélange, this mingling of old and new, lots of unrelated bits to shape into an appealing structure.
Marcia, my brunch pal, is a Broadway producer; she tells me about a theatre project in development—a story within a story that has moved her. She notes that, for her, good stories always center on the conflict the main character must negotiate.
I smile, grim: “Loss, grief. That old stuff. It’s not lost on me that I started writing this piece after my mom died—and that I need to finish it before I can write any other big pieces of my life.” Marcia nods. Everyone has a family, knows the pull and the tensions, loss, fear tinged grief—what else may be lost? I’ve built this memoir bit by bit in classes, during the spaces in between, snatching time from obligations, putting off my family with, “Just one more minute; I’m working on a piece.” I explain the generous comment Molly, an online classmate, offered about doing. She said my prose was livelier when I described all we did in Eagles Mere, one summer to the next, generation after generation.
Marcia smiles. “For me,” she says, “Eagles Mere isn’t about doing at all—it’s the opposite. Eagles Mere means all these people who come together because we love you; we stumble into the kitchen, waking up over coffee. Some go to the porch and some to the beach, and I walk around the lake—no agenda. And we meet up again the late afternoon, and we have to make dinner all together because there isn’t any place to go. So, we cook together and we eat a great meal at the dining room table, twenty of us—it’s about community and the ways our lives cross each other’s, with you at the center.”
Her words comfort me. The summer stretches out, weeks ahead to sift and sort through the jumble, to arrange ingredients—houses, meals, stories. My stories center on Eagles Mere—our home the center of the web, whose filaments draw us each summer. Blue and white china is arranged on a long table. Not everything matches. The lake stretches out beyond the front windows. An assortment of people gather around the table to eat and laugh—a summer meal in progress, a memoir to fashion.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection. Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station. She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction. You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog: www.annvklotz.com
July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
July 16, 2018 § 4 Comments
By Michelle Bowdler
I am the designated eulogy giver in my family, a role that became mine years before anyone called me a writer. Writing and then reciting a good eulogy require that I sit my own sadness down on a pew as I walk to the podium, adjust the microphone and speak. At the funerals of my relatives, I work to evoke shared memories that allow family members and friends to grieve as if we are one body. It is our collective eulogy offered up by one of us in the tribe.
We loved her so.
We remember that mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
We recall a turn of phrase, an unruly lock of hair no product could tame, the way she loved yard sales or a pint of beer or the Lawrence Welk Show, or the lap of a puppy’s tongue.
Or, or, or.
My skills have improved over time as the losses pile up. To get a eulogy right, one must edit down a life to fewer than ten spoken minutes or you’ll lose the crowd. One must find words and stories to make the crowd laugh and cry, titrating the feelings out in just the right dosage.
When my Grandma Esther died, I told jokes. She was married four times and divorced twice. She was known for questionable recipes designed to save money. “If the ingredients are good, how can it be bad,” she’d say while using the meat grinder affixed to the wall to combine Monday’s salmon with Tuesday’s chicken with last Thursday’s liver. It seemed we often laughed at her rather than with – like the time she divorced her third husband when she found a bra in his dresser, and admitted later it was probably hers.
When my mother died, inspiration failed me. Our relationship was fraught and her early death robbed me of the chance to work anything further out with her. I pulled up a piece I had written about her and scoured it for anything to share. My mom was half Persian and turned so brown in the summer that as a young woman on vacation in Florida in the 1950s she was asked to sit in the back of the bus and sit she did. “It wouldn’t have been right if I showed them my tan lines like my friends said I should.” Now, that would have been a good story to tell, but I waved it aside. Instead, and the choice baffles me still, I struggled to convey how her physical beauty took all of our breath away – She looked a bit like Sophia Loren mixed with Cher; maybe more like Rita Moreno with a hint of Ann Bancroft. I reminded the crowd how all the married men in the neighborhood came over after my dad died with offers to help out and wouldn’t leave. My mother’s sisters asked me later why I didn’t talk about what a devoted mother she was and how desperately she had loved my sister and me. I learned, then, that a writer needs to know her subject to evoke anything useful.
My aunt Marlene died a few months ago. She was, for me, the exception in an array of deaths of complicated characters who loved deeply yet were challenged at times to convey that love. All efforts to write this eulogy failed. My page stood empty, waiting.
An hour before the service, I found my metaphor. Passover had ended just a few weeks prior to Marlene’s death, and I had sung the song Dayenu multiple times around a Seder table. The phrase itself means: “It would have been enough,” as it honors deeds and blessings for which we are grateful. Even when there might be more good works coming, the crowd asserts dayenu, acknowledging that whatever we already have been given is enough. As I shared each tiny and precious memory of my aunt in a funeral home in Chicago, I said repeatedly – dayenu. Each kindness, each moment of feeling special in her presence, each time I heard joy in her voice when she knew it was me on the other end of the phone. Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu. What each of us wanted so much was that one moment more, but the memories would have to do. They would have to be enough and so – dayenu. It was a Passover death, and this word resonated as the crowd was shouting it with me by the end of the eulogy.
After I spoke, someone came up to me and said, “You are a beautiful writer,” and my heart hardened. It was the only time since I coveted that identity that I did not want the compliment. I wanted only for the grieving crowd to see my aunt and the light she left behind. I wanted my words to be in service of evoking her only. I wished for the writing to disappear and for everyone to see and feel my beloved Marlene fully one last time.
Michelle Bowdler has been published in the New York Times, and her writing has been seen in Burningword Journal, Gertrude Press, The Rumpus, and other literary magazines. She has two essays in a book entitled: We Rise to Resist: Voices from a New Era in Women’s Political Action (McFarland 2018). She is a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for Non-Fiction recipient, a Ragdale Fellow, and a Boston Grub Street Memoir Incubator alum.
July 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Tucker Coombe
Winter on Overland Mountain––some 3,000 feet above Boulder, Colorado––could be exhausting, writes Karen Auvinen. Snow fell “a foot at a time” and temperatures could plummet to twenty-five-degrees-below zero. Winds “howled and clawed at the cabin, rattling the gass panes like a live thing.”
Surviving winter, however, was by no means her greatest challenge.
Auvinen’s intimate and unforgettable debut memoir, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, tells of the decade or so she spent on the outskirts of civilization. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Rough Beauty offers a glimpse into a life that’s pared down to its essentials, open to unexpected, even profound, change.
Auvinen was nearly forty when she began living in a rustic cabin about four miles outside the tiny town of Jamestown, Colorado. She supported herself by running a rural postal route, teaching writing at a nearby community college, and cooking once a week at the Mercantile Cafe––the town’s only business establishment.
Auvinen depicts her younger self as awkward and a bit prickly, “[p]roud to be called ‘fearless’ and ‘tough,’” she writes. When her first rented cabin burned down––leaving nothing but her truck, her beloved dog (a semi-feral husky named Elvis) and the clothes on her back––the Jamestown community “arrived like the cavalry.” One friend took her shopping for clothing essentials, another bought new supplies for Elvis, and customers on her postal route left her envelopes of cash. The town even held a benefit in her honor. But she couldn’t abide the attention or the goodwill. “I roasted on the twin spits of chagrin and embarrassment,” Auvinen writes, “…more uneasy with condolences and well wishes than I would have been with condemnation and blame.” She loaded up Elvis and headed to Utah for a few days of solitary camping.
Who among us hasn’t at least considered a life of solitude? My own attempt, decades ago, was short-lived and humiliating. One autumn, shortly after college, I decided to stay in a somewhat isolated, bare-bones house on Cape Cod. I’d envisioned long, peaceful days spent reading and writing, but instead found myself becoming unmoored without the comforting noises of summer. At night I’d wrap myself in a blanket, listen to the tick of an old shelf clock and recall in vivid detail every horror story I’d ever been told. I didn’t last a week.
Auvinen’s memoir purports to focus on her years of relative isolation on the mountain. But it’s the stories she tells of her childhood and her teenage years that are most affecting; without seeming melodramatic, they have a real sense of poignancy and immediacy.
An irreverent, headstrong kid, “I licked the sidewalk because I liked the taste of dirt,” says Auvinen, who grew up in a family where women were “parsley on the plate––accessories or helpmates.” Her father, an Air Force career man, ruled the family with tyranny and occasional violence.
Auvinen writes of her father’s decision, during her middle-school years, to relocate the family to Hawaii, and to euthanize the family dog rather than bringing her along. Before the dog’s final trip to the vet, he carried the struggling animal outside and tried to fit her into a wooden box he’d chosen for her burial. Karen watched in horror: “I couldn’t control the sound coming from my chest––the guttural, animal wail of grief.”
Karen began marshalling considerable will against her father’s bullying and “forged a dark armor to protect me and keep others at bay.” Before entering graduate school––in a symbolic rejection of her father––she changed her last name. He threatened to track her down. She eluded him by quitting her job and moving into a tent in the woods. She and her father would not speak for another decade.
Living alone, in relatively rough conditions, seemed to suit her. “My preference was for the earth, with its rough beauty, its inscrutability, its mixture of shit and muck,” she writes.
Gradually, Auvinen began to feel grounded by the rhythm of the seasons and to sense a slow “unraveling” inside herself. Perhaps most importantly, she was both buoyed and steadied by the stubborn companionship of Elvis. For years, even as she avoided friends and family during the holidays, she relished cooking dinners––roast chicken, perhaps, or rosemary lamb––to share with her dog. Opening her heart to Elvis, she later realized, was life-changing.
When Auvinen first set out to live on Overland Mountain, she believed that her “commitment was not to a person but to a place: “…I placed my bet on landscape, putting all my chips on wildness.” But for all its focus on mountain living, what this memoir really seems to be about is the difficult terrain of human love and connection.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature, education and dogs, and lives in Cincinnati.
July 11, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Leslie Schwartz
In 2014, after 14 years clean and sober, I relapsed into drug and alcohol addiction, and nearly destroyed my life. The genetic intensity of addiction is no joke. For many of us, stopping is all but impossible once we start. At six months into new sobriety, I was sentenced to 90 days in Los Angeles County Jail for three misdemeanors related to offenses I committed while loaded. Jail was the end run to a relapse that not only damaged my friends and family, but nearly took my writing career with it.
As a person who was born feeling different and always expressed and calmed myself through my writing, it was comforting to know that many writers have suffered from addiction and mental illness: Virginia Woolf, Raymond Carver, Leo Tolstoy and Sylvia Plath to name a few.
The link between mental illness and creativity has been well established. Researchers like Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison have definitively established the connection between writing and mood disorders, many of these associated with addiction, depression and social anxiety disorders. Some theorized that Emily Brontë may have had Asperger’s Syndrome. Reclusive and at times violent – she nearly blinded the family dog after punching it – Emily was famously known to have been antisocial.
The idea that literary genius is more likely to stem from distress and struggle than from complacency and contentment seems true when we look at some writers well-known for their mental illnesses. Sylvia Plath, Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf all lost a parent in childhood, and all suffered from addiction or some form of mental illness later. The impetus to connect to their loss and find release from their sadness was surely expressed in the stories they wrote.
This is not to say that mental illness is a requirement for literary prowess. There are plenty of stable writers out there who produce works of genius without keeping a bottle at their elbows or like Coleridge, opium. (As his addiction progressed he expressed the view that his illness was moral or spiritual in nature and often spoke about the boils behind his ears.) But for some writers the yoke between mental illness and writing is a strong one. It seems like those who are mentally ill yet also exhibit intelligence, sensitivity and resilience are often hardwired for creativity.
In my case, addiction and the mental illness that follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time. Even though I was unable to write while in active addiction, it was precisely the fallout from it that gave me the courage and impetus to explore themes like the holiness of suffering and the redemptive nature of literature. (Spoiler alert: The good news about jail is that there’s an excessive amount of reading time available.)
Only through the suffering and loneliness of my addiction did I gain particular insight into the human condition. While not all people suffer from mental illness or addiction, all people suffer. Falling into the depths of my disease allowed me to experience first-hand both the nature of human pain in all its varieties, and also the brilliance of renewal and transformation. The loss of so much, and the reckoning with shame and the hurt I brought on others was like an empathy expander. And it is empathy that writers require to create meaningful stories.
Andreasen in her study on mental illness and literary creativity determined that many writers who experience the loneliness and emotional upheaval of their disorders encounter grave frustration with their attempts to relate to people in socially acceptable ways. But writing freed them from their sense of isolation. Writing for many like Milton and Emily Bronte, was an outlet for communication and even perhaps a sense of grounding sanity. When I write, I feel sane. When I don’t write, I am lost.
I wouldn’t wish my addiction on anyone. I’m sure that Virginia Woolf would rather have not stuffed her pockets with stones and walked into the water. But I am grateful for the abundance addiction and the mental illness that stems from it while it is active has brought me back to my life, and my writing career.
Leslie Schwartz is the author of two novels, Jumping the Green and Angels Crest. Her memoir, The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time is out this month from Penguin/Random House.
July 9, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Donna Talarico
It’s conference season! Wait. I think it’s always conference season. There’s always something happening, from coast to coast—and beyond. The literary and publishing world is filled with events of all shapes and sizes where we can learn, share, network, explore, and grow. And if writing isn’t your only job, your other industry(ies) may also offer some amazing professional development opportunities.
I’ve been attending conferences since 2006 as part of my marketing career, and I fell in love. Hard. I adore conferences so much that I now run one. (It’s called HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers.)
To help you prepare for your next conference as an attendee or speaker, I’m sharing some tips on how to make the most of your event, from how to stay organized to how to stay healthy.
Take Notes…. By Hand
Research shows we often remember things better when we write them down vs. typing. I’m a big fan of hand-writing notes. If you’re a visual learner like me, you can also doodle in the margins or format your pages in a way you like for better recall. (Example: I use a lot of arrows and circles when I take notes.) By all means, jot down your ah-ha moments the best way for YOU, but consider going back to analog. Plus, you’ll have a tangible memory of your time at your conference!
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
One of my favorite conferences each year is called HighEdWeb—or, Higher Education Website Professionals—and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a speaker at this event each year since 2011. My first HEWEB, as we call it, I heard a piece of advice at the conference orientation: to go to a session I’d never think of attending. Now, for a conference like this one, the subject range is really broad, from highly technical to content, so there may be more to choose from, topic-wise, than a niche, writing-related conference. But still, peruse the schedule and find something that gets you out of your comfort zone. You may surprise yourself by what you learn—and what new inspiration you leave with.
As a professional marketer and content writer, at web conferences I’d gravitate toward the “word stuff,” but now I always take in at least one technical session so I can expand my horizons. I may not ever be a die-hard programmer, but at least by exposing myself to content from brilliant folks outside my specialty, I can learn a little more about “how the sausage is made” and meet people I may never have met.
Take Breaks & Unwind
I’ll admit that when I present at a multi-day conference, I often sit out the session before my talk so that I can have a “zen moment” before I go on. (I don’t like missing conference content, so if it’s a one-day event, I might not skip a time slot…) I found that when I’d race from one session to get to mine on time, I’d be flustered, winded even. So, I now take a moment for myself to regroup. If the event is in the same hotel I’m staying in, I’ll go to my room and not exactly meditate, but just spend some quiet time so I can be focused and ready to engage the crowd. Otherwise, I’ll find a quiet place, such as a sitting area in a far-off nook.
Whether or not you are speaking or volunteering at a conference, it can be helpful to take a breather from the action. To decompress. To reflect. At HippoCamp, we realize people may need some downtime, so starting in 2017, we introduced a Relax & Recharge room that has some tables, chairs, couches, and chargers. People can escape to this room to recharge themselves and their devices. Many conferences, in fact, have started creating “introvert corners.” So be involved in the conference as you can—that’s why you’re there!—but take care of yourself.
Participate in the Back Channel
This is my favorite one. I should have put it first, but I wanted it to be a gem in the middle of this post. Twitter, I think, is what made me fall in love with the conference community. Or maybe it was conferences that made me fall in love with Twitter? I’m not sure which came first. But back in 2008 when I worked for an ecommerce company and we were exhibiting at the Internet Retailer conference in Boston, I did my first live-action Twitter contest. To this day, at Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference, I toss out trivia questions as part of the Hippocampus Magazine booth (with prizes.) That’s on the exhibitor side. For the attendee side, the back channel can be a wonderful place, long before the conference even takes place! I’ve seen friendships blossom on the HippoCamp hashtag (this year, it’s #hippocamp18), and then get to witness people meeting each other in real life for the first time at the event. (To help facilitate this, we put Twitter usernames on badges when they’re provided at registration!) It’s even better when I see the conversations continue after the conference.
During the conference, though, you can use the hashtag to share nuggets of wisdom from speakers—we also put speaker Twitter handles on the program to make it easy to quote them. Some people I know even use Twitter as a way to take and save notes.
I do firmly believe you should be present at a talk and pay attention to the speaker, but tweeting a few times during a session is acceptable in my book. After the conference, then, people can look through the hashtag to see what happened in sessions they didn’t attend. An active back channel is an amazing way to bring people together, to show the amazing things happening, as well as get people “watching at home” excited about the event too.
Hydrate & Take Your Vitamins
Self-explanatory and obvious, I know… but especially if you’ve flown into the event from another time zone, you may already have some adjusting to do. I know many people, myself included, who always feel a little off after traveling. (If not a cold, at least a little fatigue!) So, stay hydrated and healthy! Maybe pack some Emergen-C or Airborne.
Be Positive & Cordial
One of my favorite graphic t-shirts says, “Work hard and be nice.” It’s a fitting shirt for how I like to live life and, well, it’s also a nicely fitting shirt because the fabric is so cozy. Along the lines of that t-shirt saying, one thing I hear often about HippoCamp, from in-person feedback or post-conference surveys, is that it’s a warm and welcoming environment. I love that our conference exudes friendliness, and that’s thanks to our attendees! Each conference begins to have its own personality and vibe, and I am so proud of what we’ve cultivated together at ours.
I’ve attended conferences—in various industries, not just writing—where the environment wasn’t as nice. No matter what event you’re attending, you’re bound to find a differing opinion, a session that wasn’t what you expected, a dessert bar that didn’t have something you liked, or something else you weren’t 100 percent sure about. However, to help make whatever conference you’re attending to remain on the “nice side,” I encourage you to save any useful critique for after the event, such as in private post-conference surveys or notes to the organizers, rather than turn to your neighbor or to Twitter to vent in a stream-of-conscious-y kind of way simply because negativity can be infectious. (For example, I’ve seen some hurtful things posted about conference speakers at an event or too, and this negativity bothered me.) Instead, in general conversations and the back channel, try to be positive to one another and keep that uplifting spirit going. I think doing so adds to the energy of any event!
Find Your “One Thing”
Back at my first HighEdWeb, I also heard the line: “find your one thing.” While you will leave a conference with lots of great ideas and new information, it can also be overwhelming to have so much activity in that brain of yours. So find that “one thing” you want to focus on first. What is your number one takeaway? This is not to say you can’t implement various things. Rather, set some short- and long-term goals.
Stay in Touch
Keep the conversations going, online or off. If you exchange cards (yes, many writers still have amazing paper business cards, and I love them!) or emails with someone, follow up. Even if it’s just a quick, “Great to meet you at Conference XYZ! Please stay in touch!” One of the most rewarding things about running a conference is seeing what develops between people after the event. Book ideas. Assignments. Workshops. Just lots of collaboration between people who didn’t know each other yet. And that, my friends, is why conferences are such a good investment. It’s not just about taking in X-mount of hours of classes or meeting ABC instructor. It’s about EACH OTHER. We try to help facilitate this at HippoCamp with a conference Facebook group, at least to get people started before they take conversations offline, where the magic really happens.
Everyone conferences differently. These are just some tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me make the most of my professional development events, and many of them which I tried to use as a conference organizer to enrich the experience for my own attendees. Feel free to share your own conference tips in the comments!
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and marketing consultant by day, and she also is founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its books and conference divisions (Books by Hippocampus and HippoCamp.) She loves greasy spoon breakfasts and road trips, lives in Lancaster, Pa., and has work in The Writer, mental_floss, LA Review, and others.
July 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
From our Friends at The Matador Review:
Alternative art and literature magazine The Matador Review is now accepting submissions for the Fall 2018 publication. We publish poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction, inviting all unpublished literature written in the English language (and translations that are accompanied by the original text) as well as many forms of visual art. The call for submissions will end August 31, 2018.
When asked by author Angela Yuriko Smith what we’re looking for, Editor-in-Chief JT Lachausse replied:
“We want what you haven’t seen. Allow me to be dramatic: Imagine that every piece of art is represented by a stone. Many stones make up the mountains and buildings, but even more hide beneath the surface. We are so familiar and fond of the overground rocks, but in the caves and oceans-deep, there are stories that tell things wildly. Desperately, furiously, without great laborious sanitizing or editorial puncturing.”
More information on submitting to The Matador Review can be found at our submissions page.