No Writer Is An Island

February 5, 2016 § 17 Comments

Hannah Garrard

Hannah Garrard

A guest post from Hannah Garrard

Sometimes I fantasize about doing a job that keeps me writing in the same room all day. It’s a calm and almost silent space, save for the clack of my fingers on a keyboard. The walls are painted cream, like a fresh new page, and I am sitting at an oak desk, wrapped in a shawl of some autumnal colour made from something silky like angora. My only company is an elegant philodendron with generous dark green leaves that keeps the air cleansed and oxygenated. No one disturbs me; no one makes demands on me. I just write all day in my sequestered writer’s world, stopping for tea when I feel like it.

In the late afternoon I sit at a window seat framed by simple calico fabrics in a high alcove, maybe smoking—even though I don’t like smoking in real-life—having deep thoughts as I gaze across an urban vista. It is an immaculate, uncluttered fantasy in which all the living goes on inside my head, and finds itself, miraculously, on the page.

This is the fantasy I have when my day job as a youth and community worker leaves me weary at the end of a long evening running groups, and my car is littered with sweet wrappers and mud from shoes left behind by the teenagers I’ve had to drive home because the bus didn’t turn up. On days like this I have no energy left for writing, so I retreat into my fantasy writer’ s world, wishing I didn’t earn a living from not writing.

But I am a creative nonfiction writer, and there is no such thing as an immaculate conception when it comes to my own writing—which explores, in its broadest sense, what it means to be human. Without messy, human lives, spilling out around me, making up the frayed narratives and sequential dramas of my own life, I have nothing to hang my creative life on. So I have to go out into the world and live in it, and earn a living in it (mainly to keep a roof over my head and shoes on my feet). To earn my living solely as a writer doesn’t make sense to me; there’s an element missing: other people’s lives. They are the fuel for my writers’ spirit of inquiry, the way a flood needs a river, a dream needs a subconscious, and astronomy needs limitless possibility.

Since I graduated with a Literature degree in English, and then ten years later with an MA in Creative Nonfiction writing, I have always worked in the charity sector with marginalized groups, part time while I studied and then full time when I have bills to pay. I have worked with refugees, people with mental health issues, English as a second language speakers and now young people—who come with all the labels society sticks on them. The teenagers I work with are struggling with their identities as young gay men and women, or with their gender. They are coping with their first experiences of psychosis, or coming to terms with the loss of a parent. They are living in foster care or have just left the system and are now solely dependent on themselves. On an almost daily basis I am confronted with the sharp edges, the soft edges, the dark sides and, more often than not, the ironic and euphoric shades of humanity.

And it is these experiences, these visceral moments, which help fuel my writing life. I do not write directly about the young people I work with—that would be a breach of ethics and confidentiality—but the knowledge I gain through my work with other people comes into my writing space sideways, like daylight seeping through a crack in the wall. It casts light on the things I am trying to understand as a nonfiction writer intrigued by human experiences that are otherwise in darkness because I have not lived them. Put simply, my day job is a salient lesson in empathy.

As a professional I maintain an emotional distance between myself and the work I do, but this does not mean I am detached from it.   My writing is the space in which I am allowed to explore and feel anything I like, and without a life immersed in the world and in other human narratives, I wonder if I would still have the same capacity for feeling? No creative nonfiction writer, I tell myself, is an island.

My day job has taken me into some rich writing spaces: I discovered the female war photographer, Olive Edis, through a museum project I developed with a group of young people one summer, and have subsequently written on her life. Edis’s autochrome portraits of local fisherman provoked rich textual imagery that I otherwise would not have had access to. My latest writing project is around dementia, inspired by the regular visits I have taken young people on to a residential nursing home as part of an intergenerational project. Last year I won my first ever writing prize, for an essay on memory loss and our relationship with place; I am now in the process of finding a writing residency with a dementia care unit, and intrigued to see where this new journey of inquiry will take me and my writing.

One day, I may write about the young people who have come into my life through working in the sector, when there is perhaps more distance between us. For now, I am satisfied with the access to human feeling that the work gives my creative life, even if I do feel that it is sometimes compromised by the physical energy my job demands of me.

I have just finished my first collection of essays, part memoir part biography part literary nonfiction, about the condition of exile. It explores the lives and experiences of the adults and children I worked with when I taught English in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana back in 2006. It took me a long time to process my own thinking, and to find an easily traversable distance between myself and the narratives of dislocation I was so immersed in when I was living in the camp, the conditions of which were sweaty, crowded, noisy and confounding, and not conducive to writing at all. But I would not have written a single word if I had spent my life in the cream-walled room wrapped up in an angora shawl and only a plant for company.

Living and writing have a symbiotic relationship, and I wonder, in the spirit of this philosophical context, that if creative nonfiction writing requires access to lived experience, be it simply by being in possession of a consciousness, is being alive, for writers the act of writing itself?
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Hannah Garrard has an M.A. in creative-nonfiction writing from UEA, Norwich, UK. She still works and lives in her university city. By day she is a youth worker, and by night a writer of all things creative nonfiction. Her essays and articles have been published in Newfound, Going Down Swinging, New Internationalist and the Guardian, plus other journals and anthologies. In 2015 she won the Flipside New Writing Prize for an essay about memory loss and our identity in place.

The Ways We Try to Erase Each Other: An Interview With Paul Lisicky

February 4, 2016 § 8 Comments

An interview conducted by Jill Talbot:

Paul Lisicky (photo by Star Black)

Paul Lisicky (photo by Star Black)

In a recent essay, Paul Lisicky writes, “It seems like that’s all I write about these days, these people, these places I’ve lost.”  His new memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, traces his friendship with novelist Denise Gess and the loss of her to cancer in 2009 while unveiling the collapse of his sixteen year marriage to a writer identified as M.

According to The New York Times, Lisicky “tells his story by surfing back and forth in time, with memories heaving to the surface and then sinking again into the murk. Yet his structure is hardly random. He tends to pair losses with losses.” Indeed, in a collage of exquisite, aching, and lyric fragments, Lisicky weaves not only these two narratives through the threads of memory and the art of writing, but also through disasters, natural and man-made, to invoke the fragility of the world around us and the world within us.  In one section, Lisicky follows a paragraph about the effects of the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  Later, he wonders, “How much work goes into reining ourselves in at every moment when all we want to do is spill, spill?”

Such restraint contributes to the power of Lisicky’s memoir, as in his quiet urgings to himself (“There must be a good reason I keep my grandeur to myself, but I don’t know it yet.”), the months of silence between him and Gess, and the abbreviation of identity—M. Even the moment he watches a YouTube video of the demolition of Atlantic City’s Sands Hotel and Casino reminds us that what was once there can come crumbling down in minutes, but we will always be able to hear Sinatra sing.

While reading Lisicky’s new work, my blue pen spilled across lines, entire paragraphs, and for one fragment comprised of a heartbreaking list, all the way down the side of one page and onto the next.  I finished the book wanting to sit down and talk with Paul Lisicky for a very long time, so I did what I could—I wrote him a letter. Then I e-mailed him some questions, one at a time.

Since we’re here on the Brevity stage, I thought readers might be interested in hearing about your essay, “The Pillory,” from Brevity 32. The essay includes a moment from your childhood when your father spanked you “Once, twice: who can remember such things?” 

In The Narrow Door, one of the segments dated 2010 begins, “Why is my memory so patchy? Why can’t I remember better from those times? It infuriates me. All I have are fragments, bursts of sound and taste and color.” What do you see as the relationship between memory and the short prose form? 

It’s so interesting to pair those two references. I think the speaker in “The Pillory” might not know how many times he was spanked exactly, but he knows there was an emotional cost to those spankings. He was humiliated, probably more so than he’s been willing to admit to himself. It’s probably more important to him to maintain some kind of equilibrium than it is to confront the fact that he’s been wounded by his father. And maybe that erasure worries him. What is he willing to give up for the sake of reconciliation and order?

I think the erasure in The Narrow Door might be even more complicated than that. Those questions have to do with a different kind of trauma: a kind of repression that’s ongoing, and bleeds through years. It’s the kind of trauma that doesn’t know it’s trauma. The soul believes it’s happy and engaged even though it’s not recording anything. It’s not living deeply enough. I tend to think it’s harder to write about this kind of amnesia in the short prose form. More context is necessary, which asks for duration, length.

And now I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past,” which thinks so acutely about the relationship between memory and what she calls “moments of being.” I haven’t revisited that long essay in years, but I remember it being really important to me around the stuff of erasure and inhabitation and the whole bewildering terrain of memory, which never sits still.

Oh, yes. I love that Woolf essay: “The things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.”

For readers who aren’t aware: “The Pillory” appears in your fourth book, Unbuilt Projects (Four Way, 2012), which is a collection of short prose. I think we need more of those, collections of single-author flash essays.  

In a way, The Narrow Door offers readers this kind of collection as the book consists of fragments prefaced by a year (1988, 2010, 1985, 2009), and while the subtitle is A Memoir of Friendship, I read it as a book-length essay, a collage of flashes.  How do you view it, and how did you choose (or discover) this form? 

I have another collection of pieces underway. I probably have enough for another Unbuilt Projects, but I’m trying to take my time with it. I would like to have a big body of those pieces from which to pick and choose. Like Unbuilt Projects, they go back and forth between nonfiction (short lyric essays?) and what you might call fables or parables: little stories with invented characters and situations. I’m not sure why I tend to write like this. I think it would be a hell of a lot easier to put out a book we could simply call “brief nonfiction” or “flash fiction” but my own imagination is so restless and disobedient, and I think I like the idea of those two kinds of pieces sitting side by side. On one level, I suppose such a book invites a reader to ask questions about genre. But I think I might be more interested finally in different harmonies hitting up against each other, making my own oddball kind of music.

I like your formal take on A Narrow Door a lot. This book takes direction from Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, both book-length essays spoken in little explosions of text. The original draft had a terrific amount of white space throughout. During the editing process the individual sections were collected into chapters, and as a result there’s much more actual writing on the page. Design-wise, the original project probably resembled a longer Unbuilt Projects. That version probably looked more difficult, less reader-friendly, than the finished book, which emphasizes the associations and connections between sections. I wonder if that earlier version might have felt, well, fractioned. Emotionally. Not necessarily a lesser book but a different book.

I always feel at home within the tight contained space of the short form, maybe because so much of my writing thinks about boundaries, how our identities are wired into others’, and vice versa. So the prospect of an ending makes for what—a counterpoint? In structure? It helps me to shape and pressurize ideas that might tend to sprawl without that border, which always must be reckoned with.

I, too, am enthralled by asking questions about genre, inciting them through my work, particularly through the role of imagining in the essay.  If I imagine what might have happened or what will happen or is happening in a place I cannot be, how much of that is attached to experience and context and emotional truth and how much of it dissolves into fiction? 

Well, emotional accuracy always compels me before anything else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the facts are important. Somehow, as we’ve tried to manage and process and (perhaps over-emphasize) this binary, we’ve lost respect for freedom. Artistic freedom—shouldn’t that be of the highest value? Why shouldn’t a writer be able to go anywhere—imaginative flights, speculations, etc.— just as long as she gives us signposts, clues that she’s doing exactly that? “I imagine…” Etc.

I’m so glad you mentioned the process and the evolution of these fragments because I wondered about the how of the book, how you came to position and intersect these two narratives. I want to keep focusing on the flash form for now because we’re here in the Brevity-sphere. I’ll return to Woolf’s essay, in which she explains:

“This wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.”

Wholeness from severed parts. In “The Ways We Tried to Erase Each Other,” you write, “It seems like that’s all I write about these days, these people, these places I’ve lost.”  Do you think that loss, the severed part of ourselves, lend themselves to severed writing?  In other words, how much were you thinking about form and content in The Narrow Door?

Oh, good question. I thought about it a lot, primarily because I wanted to give space to the reader and space to the subject. The Denise story isn’t exactly a linear narrative—there are intended gaps in time throughout. The book is primarily an assembly of emblematic moments; it isn’t the Authorized Narrative (capital letters intended) of a conventional biography. I couldn’t live with the Authorized Narrative—the idea of it seems too sturdy and rigid. I actually have an abandoned linear version of the book somewhere on an external drive. Too much connective tissue, too much engineered causality: the poetry of it isn’t on the page. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where every artistic work was required to be a fragment, but I identify and connect with the fragment. It gives us imaginative space, it gives us room to dream and breathe and wonder. It doesn’t want to eat up our own thinking. Listen to any of the songs on Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry—she gets it.

I hope readers are as fascinated as I am about the different versions of The Narrow Door that exist—it shows how art emerges, how long that process takes, how careful we must be when considering the conversation between form and content.  You even have a paragraph about it that begins: “I see how a book becomes a house. But soon you are just a function of your house. The house tells you what you want, how you should live.”

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

As the editor of Metawritings, my pen chases every line that makes a metamove such as that one. There are others, too: “I’m in the middle of writing the previous paragraph . . . when the news come in.”; “The TV is soundless as I write this morning.”; and “By the time you read this you’ll have a better sense of things.”  I’m interested in the relationship you develop between yourself and the reader in The Narrow Door. How important was that to you, to include the reader in the telling and in the process of that telling?

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to record a passage of The Narrow Door. I was in a perfectly lovely space, leaning in before a microphone, looking out the window over Crown Heights. I wondered why I was listening to the sound of my voice as I read, as if the reading and listening were done by two different people. I like how that recording turned out finally, but something become clearer to me as I stood before an audience a couple of nights later. It seems to me that the voice needs the physical presence of a listener (or listeners) in order to conjure up the physical presence of Denise. It needs faces. It’s almost liturgical. The single voice into space isn’t enough; it requires a group of collaborators (concelebrants?) or else the book isn’t fully there.

You’ve been so incredibly generous as we’ve e-mailed back and forth over the past couple of weeks. Thank you. For the final question, I want to turn to the book’s second narrative, The M. Story. In Barrie Jean Borich’s “The Craft of Writing Queer,” from Brevity 40 (Fall 2012), she wonders:

What if all nonfiction writers imagined a queer aesthetic at the center of our discourse? By queer aesthetic I mean not just the work of queer authors but all voices and forms that are equally open to pleasure and injury, that are not afraid of the body, that are both sex-positive and self-critical, that are as interested in intersections and critique as they are in the personal politics of memory . . . . work that breaks rather than maintains codes, doesnt keep secrets to retain power, is eager to pay debts and reveal the means and archives of its own production.

You brilliantly achieve all of these in The Narrow Door, and Im interested in hearing not only how you view the intersection between being a queer author and embracing the queerness of the essay, but also how you see your work within the context of other recently published queer works, whether in authorship or artistry? 

I love that passage from Barrie, so smart and nuanced and compassionate. And thanks for saying everything you say here. It’s such an incredible moment and I’m not even sure I have the distance to see it yet, to name what’s going on. This probably sounds corny and overly enthusiastic, but I’m so lucky to be writing at this moment. A gorgeous, devastating novel like Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You? It might not have been possible two years ago. I mean Garth could have written it, but his agent probably would have had a harder time finding a respected trade house to take it on, as wondrous as the book is.  A queer writer would have assumed he wouldn’t be allowed to explore that kind of material with such directness. The route would have to be convoluted, sneaky. Maybe he’d have to subordinate it within a narrative in which heterosexual characters were the focus. It makes me sick when I think about it now. What a waste of time. What crap. Crowd-pleasing! That probably explains some of the resistance to crowd-pleasing in a piece of mine like “The Boy and His Mother are Stuck!”

About ten years ago a pal, who happens to be an esteemed gay writer, and I were cracking each other up about the subject of manners in bathhouse culture, and he happened to say, casually, it’s too bad we can’t ever write about this stuff, and I instantly felt a deep pang because I didn’t know that we couldn’t, or I didn’t want to believe that we couldn’t. Now it feels like we can begin all over again. And what a relief to think that the reader, any reader, regardless of orientation or gender, could identify with our stories. The world is in horrendous shape right now, but this is one area in which I feel hope, big hope.

 __
Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, The Offing, Ploughshares, Tin House, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University, Camden and serves on the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012).

The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Reading

February 1, 2016 § 51 Comments

Woodblock print by Artemio Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican artist

Woodblock print by Artemio Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican artist

I have a love-hate relationship with readings. On the up side, it’s awesome to get an audience response to work in progress, and it’s great to hear fellow students read at a conference, because we all bust out our best writing and often bring pieces outside our workshop genre.

But we’ve all heard That Person read. You know—the one who burns eleven minutes in a five-minute slot, or the one with the graphic sex scene that has everyone squirming in their seats (the bad kind of squirming), or the whispery reader no-one can hear.

Even with good material, some writers struggle. They may lack experience reading their own work aloud, they’re nervous, or they chose a piece that doesn’t make sense without a larger context. Sometimes a writer just got stuck being #26 on a list of 30 readers.

You don’t have to be That Person. Or even That Writer Who Was Probably Good, What I Could Hear Of It. There are Seven Deadly Sins of public readings, and every single one of them is avoidable.

 

SLOTH: Do your work, and do it in advance.

Have a specific, timed, chosen piece in a format you can see. If you’re reading from your phone, put it in airplane mode because your mother will call in the middle of your first sentence. If you need reading glasses, have them on your face. Try not to read from your laptop—on most podiums, the lid blocks your upper body, and it’s an old theatre trick that when the audience can see your chest, they feel more emotionally connected to you. Knowing in advance what you’re going to read goes double for workshop leaders—I’ve seen a fair number of teaching writers arrive at the podium with a book full of bookmarks and spend time leafing around. Really? You didn’t respect your students enough to carefully choose the pieces you wanted to read and in what order?

 

GLUTTONY: Don’t be greedy with your listeners’ time.

Know your time. Come up short. Nothing is more inconsiderate than taking longer than the allotted time—you’re saying “My work is more important than everyone else’s,” and you’re part of a domino effect that ends up screwing the last five readers. Most conferences are tightly scheduled, and even if people are polite enough to stay past the official end to hear the last readers, their brains are already at the bar. If you don’t know what the time limit is (or if there is one), ASK. If there’s no limit, assume it’s five minutes and be the saint who stops at four. This also means you must know how long it takes to read your piece out loud, so do that, with a stopwatch, OUT LOUD. It’s much longer than to read it silently, even mouthing the words.

 

LECHERY: Just don’t.

The sin of Lechery is often called “Lust.” But it’s possible to lust joyfully, to lust for one’s spouse, even to spend your springtime morris-dancing if that’s what you’re into. Lechery, on the other hand, is lust foisted on the unwilling. And believe me, your audience is unwilling. No explicit sex. No pedophilia. No rape. Detailed violence falls into this category, too. You don’t know who in your audience got raped last week, molested as a child, or is just plain squeamish. Reading graphic content changes the emotional feeling of the room in a way your audience didn’t ask for, and that penalizes the next reader, who now has to start from that mood. (God bless the reader at my most recent conference who cleared the air with a limerick after a particularly gruesome piece, and took that out of his own time.)

 

GREED: Read one thing, and only one thing.

Don’t think “oh my piece is so short and I get five minutes so I’ll read two.” If your flash fiction is one minute long, revel in the joy of your fellow readers that you’ve made the night run faster (and make the piece a knockout). Poets, you may read two poems if they are short. If so, announce at the beginning that you will be reading two so the audience isn’t surprised when you start up again. It’s better to start with the shorter one, as an appetizer. Keep the transition tight, so you end up with only one round of applause.

 

ENVY: Yes!

Revel in your envy of other writers’ pieces. Admire those who read well and make mental notes about their delivery—what can you copy? What makes their piece good? Use your admiration as a chance to start conversations by telling another writer you loved their reading (great for shy conference attendees). Clap enthusiastically for every writer as they walk up (if format allows), and again when they finish. It’s scary and hard to read your work in front of a group, and just standing up and doing it is worthy of praise.

 

PRIDE: Yes!

Pick a piece you love, that you enjoy reading and are proud to share. If you’re feeling like the writer struggling the most in your workshop (and we all are), this is a chance to show your already-polished work. If you’re choosing between two pieces, pick the shorter one. If you have an option to read something funny, go funny.

 

WRATH: Contain it.

1) This is not the time for paybacks. At one conference, the workshop leaders stopped attending the student readings after one too many “Well, Distinguished Writer hated this in class, but I’m reading it anyway.” You are showing your public face, so make it one people respect and want to spend time around.

2) Wrath will one day bubble up inside you, the listener. You will be at a reading where someone reads porn. Or violence. Or pedophilia. For eleven minutes. If looks could kill they would be eye-murdered by fifty restless listeners. It’s still your job to maintain a supportive and attentive expression, and yes, to clap when they are (finally!) finished. You may downgrade your clapping from “enthusiastic” to “polite.” You may mentally revise your own work; you may assume an earnest expression and write kill me now in your own journal as if you are taking notes; you may daydream with your eyes open and startle into applause as if you were lost in the world the writer has created. You may even (as I did last week) stand up at an un-hosted reading and volunteer to keep time and make gentle ding sounds to signal each writer’s last fifteen seconds. But you may not eye-roll or mutter. Just note the deadly sins, and resolve never to inflict them on an innocent audience yourself.

 

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Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shout-out to Katharine Bost, my classmate at Writers In Paradise, for “eye-murdered”!

The Books We Love

January 27, 2016 § 10 Comments

1464de82d0a6c60f15f447ba9f9021ecA guest post from Claire Amy:

Tenth of December

The man I am in love with and can never have is, of course, a reader. If he were not, probably my heart would have been in less danger when I sat opposite him at the lunch for which I had paid with a considerable donation to charity. He wanted to know if I’d read George Saunders. I’d walked past Tenth of December in my nearest bookstore, picked it up and put it down again, thinking, someday. I had done this countless times. After The Lunch – after the phone calls to the two or three friends who had wanted immediate updates– I walked to the big independent bookstore in his town and bought the Saunders book. In the email I sent my lunch partner the next day, I told him I would start it on the plane back to DC. But there was a late night and a rush to the airport. (There was also a missed plane, which in the romantic comedy based on my life would surely be when he caught up to me.) I wasn’t awake enough to do the book justice.

In any case, he didn’t email me back immediately to begin the dialogue I had hoped would start with extensive discussions of books and end in a marriage proposal. (Though hopefully not over email. Hopefully on a beach at sunset, or at a rooftop bar overlooking the White House. I am a conventional girl.) So it didn’t matter, from that perspective, that I didn’t read the book on the long journey home. I spent the ride instead with my eyes closed, my head leaning against the side of the plane, trying to remember every sentence we had spoken, every facial expression of his, and damn it, was it a soy latté or a soy cappuccino he ordered? And why, when he asked me what the novel I was writing was about, did I simply say “doomed love” instead of coming clean that it was about a girl with a crush on an actor? Would the conversation have taken a different turn if I had said that? Would I even be flying home at all?

Desperate for any connection with him, I read the book he had so loved. I savoured it over a few months. It blew me away. When I finish some books, truly exceptional books, all I can do – all I want to do – is sit with my emotions. This was one of those books. And it was one of those books not only because of its brilliance, but also because it drew me closer to him. Because it made me fall in love a little more with the man who had fallen in love with this prose.

Freedom

Way back in 2010, long before The Lunch, he and I had communicated for the first time, albeit indirectly. He was being featured on an interview show, and questions had been invited from us humble folks out there on the Internet. I had just seen in a magazine piece that he read a book a week. So because I wanted my question to be original enough to get chosen, and because the books people love are, I think, key to their soul, I asked: what is the best book you have read this year? He didn’t hesitate on this one. Freedom, he said. I bought it, of course, though not immediately. I had not long finished The Corrections; I’d very much enjoyed it, but I wasn’t ready for another Franzen just yet. I finally ordered Freedom in early 2012; it sat on my shelf in Belgium for a while and then moved with me to America, where it sat on my shelf for much longer. But soon after I finished Tenth of December, I spent a few days in bed with a cold and Freedom. There’s no denying that Franzen is a master of prose and deeply insightful about the human condition; there were moments, however, when I thought if I read the words cerulean warbler one more time I might throw this book at the wall. When I was done, I wanted to take the book that the man I love so much had loved so much and whack him over the head with it repeatedly. In play, of course. In jest. In flirtation. There would be a kind of shared experience in that too.

The Cranes Dance

Around the time I finished Freedom, a book by Meg Howrey called The Cranes Dance popped up on my Goodreads feed. Great look into ballet, mental illness, and sisterhood, my friend had written. Ballet! Another connection. He had talked at The Lunch about his teenage daughter’s love of dance, the potential future steps he and her mother were exploring for her, his pride in her another nail in the coffin of my ability to ever think about any other man. (He talked about his other children, too, almost as if careful to make sure they got a fair and equal amount of time with me.) Maybe this book would captivate me; maybe I could email him after I had read it and recommend it to him for her. Maybe this would be the thing leading to the long email exchanges I had been daydreaming about since I read about his one-book-a-week aspiration in the magazine article. I loved the novel, but that was in part because of the cynical, jaded voice of the narrator. Not appropriate for his daughter, I decided. I wanted to shield her from cynicism, from jadedness. I feel very protective of his kids. A therapist would, no doubt, have a lot to say about that, and even more to say about the ballet lessons I started taking after reading the book. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, I would tell her: after it, therefore because of it. I read a book and it inspired me. Nothing to see here. Certainly nothing to question. But we would both know that isn’t true.

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Claire Amy lives in Washington, DC. She graduated with her MFA in May 2015, and currently interns for a magazine and for an organization which promotes reading. She is a regular contributor to a popular books website, and her essays, poems, and journalism have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from writing and lifestyle magazines to a national newspaper.

To Quit or Not to Quit, That is the Question

January 26, 2016 § 7 Comments

Angshuman Das

Angshuman Das

A guest post from Angshuman Das

 

I remember a book reading several years ago by best-selling British author Jeffrey Archer at a major bookstore chain in Mumbai, India. A new book by him was being released. While speaking of writing, he answered many questions from the audience with charm, authority and wit.

At one point, in answer to a question, he pointed to journalists seated in the front. “If you want to write stories, you should quit your job.” Archer said writers can’t do their best job on producing creative literature if most of their energy has been spent on their day job.

Archer, it seemed to me, could say that with conviction because he was speaking from his position of eminence – and confidence that comes from success. But he is not the only guru who says this. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee tells aspirants, in his famous book, Story: “You must find a way to earn your living from your writing.” He gives pretty much the same reason as Archer.

To quit one’s job or not – that is the question. Quitting one’s day job is a life-altering decision, like getting married or divorced.

The question begets a whole lot of other questions and issues. To be able to live without a job, writers need to publish their writing and earn enough money from it. But many published writers would say a writer is, well, a writer because she writes. Publishing doesn’t make you a writer, says Robin Black in a recent article in The Review Review magazine. But how does a creative fiction or nonfiction writer earn a livelihood if he is not published? Is quitting a job, then, an option? Yes, if one’s father is in business and he says, “Son, go ahead and chuck that job. You’ve got $50,000 for a couple of years from my kitty to complete that novel.”

For the rest of us, though, such generosity and luck would be a dream. And, yet, it makes sense to devote most of your best energies to your passion, not to your day job.

One the other hand, if you ask other established writers, some of them might say – and you would tend to believe them – that a day job can be an asset to an emerging author. A job teaches you many things; say, for instance, how to conduct yourself in a business or professional setting, or about certain professions and industries or human behaviour in the corporate world. Some writers, like John Grisham, have used this kind of real-world experience to weave fictional stories. Furthermore, some writing advisors say, “See your day job as funding your writing aspiration.”

What, then, is a struggling creative writer keen to pursue his passion supposed to make of this morass of conflicting advice? I have been a communications professional and a business and technology writer for years, and I have been grappling with this question for as long.

Writing itself is difficult – memorable writing, in any case – and being a full-time creative writer is more so. Getting published in even a literary journal is more challenging than getting accepted into Harvard or winning a lottery. Lit mag publishing experts, like editors, would tell you that the acceptance rate for submissions is indeed low. The Antioch Review receives about 4,000 of them a year and publishes less than 1 percent. In 2014, Colorado Review accepted less than 1 percent of a total of 4,809 submissions. For most aspirants, therefore, so much easier would be to get a job at a corporation, which, for instance, would pay $40,000 a year.

Yet, thousands of wannabes keep flooding lit mags, literary agents and book publishers with submissions. The resilience of the literary dream is remarkable.

I have thought about quitting my day job many times. Then, looking at my young daughter’s face, I have demurred. Would I have the luxury to afford mushroom and broccoli? Can I continue to send her to school?

If one has true passion, quitting one’s job is possible as a leap of faith. There have been great writers, like Margaret Atwood, who have decided that creative writing is the only vocation they can pursue. “It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do,” Atwood says in her writing memoir, Negotiating with the Dead.

Until an emerging creative writer gathers the faith and courage to chuck the security of a regular job, there may be other options. A sabbatical, perhaps? Writing fellowships or residencies? I wish there were more generous foundations and endowments in the world supporting the International Fraternity of Emerging and Prone-to-quitting-day-job Authors and Artists.

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Angshuman Das is a writer and blogger based in Kolkata, India. He also works at a day job as a marketing communications professional at an IT company. He is currently a 2016 blogger for Ploughshares journal. In an earlier avatar, he worked as a journalist at newspapers in the United States and India. His writing has appeared on the Ploughshares blog, and in The Hindustan Times, InMamasKitchen.com, and other online publications, including Prairie Wolf Press.

 

On “the Terrible Efficiency of Gaslighting”

January 22, 2016 § 14 Comments

e.v. de cleyre

e.v. de cleyre

By e.v. de cleyre

On Saturdays, my mother brought me to the fabric store where she worked and taught me to measure yards. At home, the sewing machine whirred us to sleep, as my mother stole moments of creativity for herself. Slivers and scraps of fabric became something else entirely when stitched together—somehow more whole. As the work grew, stretching across the dining room table, we ate in the kitchen, displaced by quilts. Batting done, borders hand-sewn, the quilts disappeared, re-appearing with blue ribbon awards at the local quilt fair.

My mother stopped quilting after the divorce. She resigned from her position as a teacher and sales associate at the local fabric store, and returned to nursing. The connection was not made explicit, but as a child I inferred that creative pursuits were a luxury, not a livelihood; a hobby, not a career. Toiling at a fabric store, though creatively fulfilling, was not viable. At a certain point, we must make compromises in order to live, and oftentimes the first to be cut from the cloth is our creativity.

**

When asked about the reading, male-writer-friend replies that the visiting author was “a babe.” When pressed for more information, male-writer-friend adds that what doesn’t get conveyed in the recording is the author’s bubbly personality, the way she smiles, says “yeah,” and plays with her hair. He makes little mention of the content of her talk, or the quality of her work, only that one answer to an audience member’s question was “interesting.” Nevermind that the author topped the New York Times best-seller list, and landed a two-book, seven-figure deal.

The temptation is there to divorce writing from publishing, to delineate and distinguish the two as separate. The VIDA Count exists because there is still a discrepancy. One could argue that it is harder for some—women, transgender individuals, people of color—to publish than others, and that this obstacle makes it harder to write. If no one is publishing your work, at a certain point, the writing—if its intention is to be read—feels futile. If no one is compensating you for your work, the writing—which needs little to be done—may be pushed aside in favor of more practical matters, like paying the rent.

In the essay “On Pandering,” published recently on the Tin House blog, Claire Vaye Watkins relays her experience of being dismissed by a male writer as not a writer, not even a human, treated instead as a piece of property. Dubbing an author “a babe” is a similar dismissal—the refusal to acknowledge her as a writer, instead a direct infantilization.

Claire Vaye Watkins continues: “I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. […] I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.”

When the author bemoans to a friend that she has “nothing to write about,” the friend reminds her of motherhood, a newborn child, the “struggle to make your marriage work.” Vaye Watkins writes, “when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women.”

**

When I introduce one of my favorite authors to people who have not heard of her, I mention that she was once married to a male novelist, as if the mention of his name validates her own genius, a kind of genius by association. Her work is brilliant. Staggering. It does not need to be associated with anyone or anything, no man nor marriage, and yet I find myself engaging in the same sort of gaslighting mentioned in “On Pandering,” unintentionally diminishing this woman’s work—and my own in the process. In order to be taken seriously as a writer, I buy into the (false) notion that I have to write serious things.

Again: No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.

**

I am twenty-seven and married in the same way my mother was twenty-seven and married. After my MFA, in between revisions of a nonfiction manuscript, I returned to sewing, joking that it was a creative pursuit that didn’t involve rejection.

Like my mother, I am afforded the luxury of time for creative pursuits through the support of a spouse. Writing should be easy, and is made easier, because I do not have to choose between creative pursuit and material comfort. But what if this connection is severed, along with this illusion of permanence and security?

As I feed fabric under the needle, hyper-aware of the limitations of my skills and the re-emergence of some dormant knowledge, I feel quaint—strung between wanting to create garments and quilts with fabric, and feeling hemmed in by the inherent femininity of the pursuit. It feels trivial to even speak of it; when I explain my new pursuit to a male-photographer-friend, before he jets off on an assignment to South Sudan, I find myself trying to justify it with facts and figures gleaned from a documentary—placing my creativity in a larger context, assigning it more importance than necessary. Really, all I need to say is, I like to sew. Yet beneath that, Vaye Watkins’s words echo in my mind: Domestic. For Women.

**

Writing does not leave me with pinpricks along fingertips. Writing does not scald like a hot iron. Writing is not a body ravaged by cancer. Writing is not a garment factory in Bangladesh, or a cannery in Alaska.

In this way, writing is easy. But it is still an internal struggle to carve out time each day to devote to the craft, to actively ignore or refute the terrible efficiency of gaslighting. It is a struggle to honor stories and experiences often dubbed trivial, quaint, and to consider them valid enough to voice—stories about struggling newlyweds, divorce, a novice seamstress, a woman trying to marry creative fulfillment and fair compensation. It is a struggle to do justice to someone’s life and work, to not reduce them to simplistic narratives: mother, quilter, divorcee, newlywed, nurse, daughter, sister, woman. It is a struggle to remain open, to be fully human, and to render others as such in prose—but you must remember, must believe, that it will be so worthwhile.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

 

A Review of Amy Ferris’s Shades of Blue

January 21, 2016 § 4 Comments

zz shades-of-blue-coverBy Nancy Jainchill

Shades of Blue is a book about depression, the blues, and suicide, yet it manages not to be depressing because of its humor, hope, and courage. This anthology of thirty-four personal stories, edited by Amy Ferris, concerns what’s locked up inside us. Ferris is open about her own struggles, her young girl attempt to kill herself, and how Robin Williams’ suicide prompted her to take on this project. “I live in a community where most folks don’t talk about suicide, or depression or feeling blue. It’s just not that kinda town. It’s gorgeous & quaint & oh, so beautiful. Filled with the most eclectic group of humans…. A couple of years ago we lost one of our favorite business owners—from a self-inflicted gun shot….”

That kinda town isn’t unusual, highlighting how lonely depression can be—how dangerous that is—and how important it is people are beginning to go public about it. I’m a psychologist and some of my patients travel distances to see me, to keep their visits confidential.  Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue is a courageous publication.

Because of my work, I’ve a singular interest in depression. I’m hyper-alert to suicidal thoughts, to signs of hopelessness and despair, to a person losing sight of the future. Yet, even with my experience, I remember reading William Styron’s memoir, Darkness Invisible, years ago and suddenly having a different understanding of that tunnel devoid of light. His book had a quiet presence—but it was Styron’s story. Shades of Blue isn’t one person’s story, and that’s why it’s significant.

The essays include accounts of personal experiences with depression, more than half which I’d describe as organic—depression that seems to be in a person’s bones, in the blood running through their veins—while others I’d consider more or less situational or reactive, as when the vicissitudes of life become overwhelming. There are also “witness” essays, in which the writer recounts the struggle of someone close, often a suicide. The impact on the person left behind is described as “a long memory—a complicated grief….” Another writer reflects on the shock of the unexpected; three friends laugh their way through college, and the one who was larger than life, who wore the tiara, becomes the revolving door patient of psychiatric hospitals until she can’t take it anymore.

Several authors are especially adept at engaging the reader in conversation. I could easily be sitting across the table from them, listening to their stories. Differing in their intensity, I sometimes needed to step away, especially if the narrator is still grieving; yet others are hopeful, and a number of essays offer unique voices and welcome humor.

The use of medications is discussed. Antidepressants may be a lifeline, particularly when depression starts early in life and becomes as much a part of the person as eye color. Others find alternative ways to cope—a protocol of meditation, right eating, yoga or alternative exercise, even skydiving—strategies more common when the unhappiness appears to be reactive or transitory.

Occasionally I get deep down depressed, although I’m not prone to the blues, and I remind myself it will pass, that I probably won’t feel like this a week from now. The contributors to this collection emerge offering a similar message learned through their personal experiences: Tomorrow will be better. Hang on; hang in.

When I was sixteen years old and seriously miserable, I swallowed six aspirin—and took several swipes across my right wrist with a razor blade (I was left-handed). Fortunately, I wasn’t seriously interested in dying. The teens and early twenties were the unhappiest times for me. I’m not alone. Adolescence is fraught with agony, especially for young people who are more vulnerable whether it’s because of brain chemistry or exogenous circumstances or a diabolical interaction of the two. Reference to unhappy childhoods is a common theme in this anthology. The “youngest” contributor is a woman still in college, who offers as much insight as anyone into her battle with the deep down blues and the solitude of the experience. Our culture continues to stigmatize mental illness, silencing the public acknowledgement of depression and its impact on those who suffer. Shades of Blue is insightful, compassionate, and heartening. It speaks to those who grapple with mental illness, those who love them, and those who want to better understand their experiences.

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Nancy Jainchill is a practicing psychologist who, in pursuit of a long-delayed writing life, received an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars Program in 2013. She has an essay included in the anthology Every Father’s Daughter, and her work has appeared The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Calyx, Free State Review, Entropy, and The Woodstock Times.

 

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