It’s An Illusion

February 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

A few years ago I studied

Entertainment at the annual Brevity office party

at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.

They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?

I said, “But there’s this countdown…”

“Countdown to what?”

And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.

I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.

Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.

Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.

There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.

Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.

It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.

I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.

Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.

It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.

Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”

The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.

________________________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.

Our Words at a Moment in Time

February 21, 2018 § 17 Comments

Version 2By Patrice Gopo

Last month, I returned my essay collection’s approved edits to my publisher. I hit the “send” button and sat for a moment awash in that momentary burst of triumph.

Then threads of worry began to creep into my celebratory mood—threads of worry I tried to banish with the purchase of a book, a necklace, and a donut too. Back in September when I’d first turned in my manuscript, I believed I’d written the best essay collection I could possibly write. Several months later, while reviewing the suggested edits, I spotted adjectives I needed to cut and several paragraphs I found excessive. I rewrote a metaphor and changed the word choice in more than a handful of places.

Now there will be no more revisions. There will be no more changes. The words I returned will be nearly the same words I will see later this year printed in the pages of my book. In the interim, however, I will continue to write and read and study the craft of writing. As a result, the writer I will be when I open my book will not be the same writer I am today. The writer I become in the future will have a greater ability to see the flaws in my work. And this fact scares me.

The rush of triumph—and the celebratory donut—doesn’t negate the worry that one day I may find my work wanting.

*
Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in a writing residency at the Collegeville Institute, a week of quiet, peace, and solitude on a college campus in rural Minnesota. I woke early each morning and took a walk beside a lake, sharing the new day with several deer and a couple of storks. The sun rose above the water, streaks of pink and orange staining the horizon and radiating with what I considered to be writing inspiration.

One afternoon I took a break from working on my essay collection and visited a nearby pottery studio. The manager invited me on a tour. As he spoke about the history of the studio, I stared at a row of rounded vessels almost—but not quite—identical in shape and style, the damp clay still dark grey in color. Full, leafy branches twisted around the curve of each vessel—except for the last one. Here I saw what the other pots would become, the branches soon removed, revealing a delicate pattern imprinted into the clay.

“We have a 300-year supply of clay,” the manager said. He talked of generations in the future when other artists would use the same source of clay the studio uses now. He mentioned how the presence of the clay reminds everyone that the studio is not one artist. Rather, the studio arises from the collected work of many.

I was taken with this idea of enough clay to last 300 years. Long after we are all gone, a potter none of us would ever know would throw pots made of the same material. Immediately I thought of a verse fragment from my Christian faith. “…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” A great cloud of participants in a long creative tradition.

*
A 300-year supply of clay. I return to this idea now in the aftermath of approving my edits. I try to conceive of the vast number of objects artists will create over the lifetime of a 300-year supply. But I also remember those branches with full leaves pressed into the bodies of a row of vessels similar in shape and form. I recall the one vessel with the visible imprint.

Is it possible to feel both small and significant in a single moment? Because I do. The medium I throw on the blank page is not part of a lengthy—but finite—supply of clay. Instead, a supply of words without end. A reality that scoops my work up in the ongoing legacy of writers before me and writers not yet born.

Perhaps what is true is that when we look back on work we wrote four months ago or four years ago or eventually four decades ago, our contributions may seem flawed and inadequate if considered in isolation. Perhaps some degree of all we create will at some point fail to reflect the writer we become—even with our greatest triumphs. That one vessel with the leafy imprint offered a fleeting beauty that pales in significance to all the work that will ultimately originate from not just that potter but—more importantly—also from that supply of clay. But the thought of that vessel alongside hundreds of years of created pottery made me gasp.

Maybe we find the freedom to let go of worry about how we will perceive our words in the future through the act of seeing our creation as one artifact that is part of a greater whole. A contribution to both the words written before and the words that will come after. It is not perfection that defines the worth of my contribution. Rather, it is the willingness to offer to this ongoing creative tradition the best work I can as the writer I am at a particular moment in time.

___

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging will release this summer. Please visit her website to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.

Two By Two

February 20, 2018 § 11 Comments

I’ve never been a writing group person.

We can’t leave until Janie gets back from the bathroom. Again.

1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.

2) It’s hard to find the right group.

Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?

The right people are worth a lot of effort.

The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.

Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:

Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.

Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’

I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.

I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.

Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.

Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.

Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.

___________________________________

Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.

An Ode To Clarity

February 15, 2018 § 13 Comments

Members of the Brevity staff sporting their formal writing daywear

Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:

…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.

It’s not.

It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.

Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–

_________

I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.

Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?

I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.

We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.

We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.

I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.

It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.

It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”

There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Old jalopies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
No-one’s shirking
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.

____________________________________
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Sh*tty First Draft

February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments

Sorry kid, we regret we’re unable to include your pony request in North Pole Review, please keep us in mind for future submissions

Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.

An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”

The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:

Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.

But it’s still hard to believe.

As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.

Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.

As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.

Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.

________________________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.

Of Fonts, and Fate, and Marcel’s Letters

February 12, 2018 § 3 Comments

CollageBy Heidi Fettig Parton

In 2002, Carolyn Porter, a graphic artist by trade, was shopping in the picturesque downtown of historic Stillwater in Minnesota. Nestled on the banks of the St. Croix River, Stillwater is a place where antique and up-cycled-vintage stores abound. It was at one of these stores where Porter discovered a bundle of vintage letters and postcards. She didn’t know it then, but these letters would alter the course of her life.

Back when Porter purchased the letters, she wasn’t thinking about writing a book. Instead, her trained eye recognized that Marcel’s beautiful handwriting was both aesthetically and numerically complete enough to serve as a model for a font design. Porter had never before designed a font, but she was eager to try her hand at this creative use of her design skills.

Porter purchased the letters and immediately began the work of designing a font during the stolen weekends and evenings not devoted to her clients’ projects. Porter worked off scans of the letters and kept the originals pressed flat between the pages of a book she put away in her closet, not to be looked at again until 2011, when Porter found herself struggling to get a particularly difficult letter right. That’s when Porter pulled out the original letters for inspiration. In doing so, she was reminded of their beauty.

“I’d been looking at them in black and white for so many years,” Porter told me, “I’d forgotten the stripes in the background and the beautiful buttery yellow color of the paper and how some of the ink was denim blue. I’d forgotten about the ‘letters’ themselves as physical objects because I’d been looking at the words only as characters in an alphabet.”

At that point, nine years after she’d first purchased the bundle of letters, Porter still only knew that the letters had been written by someone named Marcel and that they’d been postmarked, “Berlin, Germany.” Porter decided—on a whim—to have one of the letters translated. It was like opening a Pandora’s box.

IMG_1124-web.jpg

Heidi Fettig Parton

Marcel, it turned out, was a man who had written a disarmingly affectionate letter to his three young daughters. He’d asked one daughter if she’d fetched the milk for her mother while she was away in Paris, he’d cautioned another not to pick blossoms from the trees, but to pick violets in the woods, and he’d asked the smallest daughter if she was still sucking her thumb. This was not the letter Porter had expected. She began to wonder why Marcel had been in Berlin.

Porter decided, at some expense, to have the other letters translated into English. The other letters were written to Marcel’s wife, although some included affectionate paragraphs to his daughters. Porter, however, still didn’t know why Marcel was in Berlin. An inquisitive person, she began looking for answers. Each discovery seemed to lead to another; the deeper Porter plowed, the more she felt a sense of responsibility for a story that seems to have found her.

Meanwhile, Porter continued her work on the font and in 2014, completed the design of the beautiful script font, “Marcel,” now licensed through a firm called P22. About a year after that completion, Porter was walking through a bookstore and spied her font—in the wild—on the cover of Anna Quindlen’s book, Miller’s Valley. When asked if she had any doubt whether the font was Marcel, Porter told me, “No. It’s like seeing your own child. I know every nook and cranny of those letters.”

Porter never set out to be a writer, but in 2017, Porter followed up her awarding winning font design by publishing the book, Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate. In Marcel’s Letters, recently nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Porter tells both the story of her incredible search and, ultimately, the story she would piece together about Marcel’s past. The quest led Porter on a transnational journey, looking for answers. Those answers unfold gradually, layered throughout this book in a way that mirrors Porter’s own work to excavate the man behind these beautiful letters.

When Porter and I met for brunch to discuss her experience writing Marcel’s Letters. Porter brought along a few photos. One showed Marcel and his wife on their wedding day. Marcel’s bride was dressed in black because the couple was mourning Marcel’s mother’s death. In spite of the black dress, this photo shows a hopeful young couple, ignorant of the trials that stood before them.

Before setting the photo on the table for me to see, Porter held it to her chest and ran her hand across it a few times, as if smoothing out imaginary creases. Porter’s reverence for this photo was obvious. I could see something akin to love in Porter’s eyes, like the love shining in the eyes of a mother, proudly showing off a photo of her child. Porter’s eyes remained on the photo a few moments before she looked up to take in my reaction to seeing this photo. She would have seen tears moistening my eyes. I was moved, and not just by the photo; I believe it was the sincerity of Porter’s quest that filled my heart that day. Porter had been entrusted with a unique responsibility and she said yes.

When asked about her experience with Marcel’s letters, Porter told me, “The world is bigger now; I know more about history or, I should say, feel connected to history in a way I’ve never been before. I see how people are touched by this story.” None of this, however, would have happened without Porter’s remarkable ability to embrace curiosity and act boldly.

It’s entirely possible that the letters found Porter every bit as much as she found these letters. Through her tenacity and dedication, Marcel’s beautiful handwriting has been memorialized and his incredible story has been brought to light.

__

Heidi Fettig Parton holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her work can be found on Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Agate Magazine, Grown and Flown, The Manifest-Station, Topology Magazine and others. Currently, Heidi is submerged in the risky business of memoir making and often forgets to make dinner. She wishes someone would invent the equivalent of cat food for young humans: an easy meal delivered from bag to bowl, deliciously providing all the nutrients children need (no, it’s not cereal). Follow her on Instragram @heidi_fettig, where you can see way too many pictures of her writing companion, Bilbo—the almost cat.

A Review of Brian Doyle’s Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace

February 9, 2018 § 4 Comments

4191CqM7LWL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_by Melissa Matthewson

There are moments in my small rural life that make everything else fall away. These moments make for a good life—sitting around the dining room table with my children and friends, drinking wine or cider, telling stories about Edward Abbey or anarchy or the dissent of the western environmental activist, all while the fire burns in the stove and candles shaped like hippos, turtles, and butterflies drip wax onto the table. Or when I walk up into the woods with my daughter where she finds warped river teeth and turkey tail mushrooms and ferns as big as her head and she whispers to me that Gargamel must live nearby, but maybe just some bears and deer. Probably raccoons. Or when I chop wood with my son, the day cold and clear, and we squabble over the acuity of the axe and he insists on splitting the wood himself, and as I let go of the worry and control, I watch the boy who will grow into a man here, shaped by the land we live on. These are the moments I cherish, and whatever version of these moments are yours to value as well, these are the occasions which Brian Doyle writes with grace, beauty, and polish in Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace.

In Eight Whopping Lies, one of Brian Doyle’s last books before his death early in 2017, Doyle, a frequent Brevity contributor, offers fifty-eight short essays on a variety of subjects, some barely more than a page. These essays orbit around such topics as brotherhood, family, murder, rosaries, lies, pants, birds, guilt, love, but together, the essays create something akin to a book of prayers, a celebration of life in all of its forms. Doyle writes these pieces in simple, but profound short prose with a voice that is distinctly and entirely Brian Doyle. Each essay is like a private note to the reader. It’s as if, as I read, Doyle is telling me stories by the woodstove with wine and Edward Abbey in the corner laughing it all off. I found myself reading many of the essays aloud to my husband both of us shaking our heads, smiling, “Yes, Yes, Yes. That’s right. He’s so right.”

To read a Brian Doyle essay is to understand story. To feel something, anything. I’m a better human after reading a Brian Doyle essay. I’m a better writer after reading a Brian Doyle essay. And he does all this through brilliant mechanisms that only Brian Doyle can employ. For instance, lists. Doyle’s sentences are epic and rambling, but always, moving toward a finish line that is unexpected and beautiful. In “Illuminos” he writes about his son (he writes very tenderly about his family in this entire collection), “The third child held hands happily all the time, either hand, any hand, my hands, his mother’s hands, his brother’s hands, his sister’s hands, his friends, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and teachers, dogs and trees, neighbors and bushes…” and on. A lesser writer than Doyle would not be able to accomplish the precision of the rhythm and repetition as he does. Doyle stretches the sentence, uses language in unusual ways, answers questions I didn’t ask in the first place, but for which I need an answer anyway. The essays in this book ask you to pause, reflect for a moment on the themes: what did he just say of God, of faith, of all of us who thirst—oh yes, that’s right, and then the clarity of meaning and purpose washes over you. Often, the titles of the essays are prompts as Doyle jumps right in to offer some profound human insight or gesture. In “On the Bus” he begins, “Here’s a story for you. Here’s a story that you will think about the rest of the day” and you do. The story endured as I picked up my son from school and boiled water for pasta.

Doyle surprises the reader in ways you don’t expect. He’s dogmatic, without being dogmatic, or perhaps I’m mistaking it for confidence. He believes and he believes deeply. In one of my favorite essays in the book “A Tangle of Bearberry,” Doyle writes of driving with his mother to a summer job interview. He writes, “My mother is driving me through the rain to the beach…The rain is thorough and silvery. We do not speak. The trees along the road are scrubby and gnarled and assaulted by reeds. I am huddled in my jacket. No one else is on the road. You never thank your mother enough. The road is so wet…” Here, he interjects in the middle of the sentence—you can never thank your mother enough—with an unexpected truism and we nod our head in agreement, accepting the interruption. In fact, loving the outburst. Doyle’s endings are also seamless. In the same essay, “…we drove home through the ranks of the bent twisted little trees. There were pitch pines and salt cedars, and here and there beach plums, and thickets of sumac, and I thought I saw a tangle of bearberry but I could not be sure.” A perfect rhythm, an ordinary list, but a calm moment to end a simple essay about the ways we love and appreciate our mothers.

This book is a gift. After a year of uncertainty and turmoil, we can all find a little grace in Doyle’s words, and even more so now that Doyle is gone. We can savor these small memoirs, return to them for the Doyle wisdom as we need them, especially as we circumnavigate the difficulties of humanity, but also the beauty of people and the goodness we have to offer. And that’s the contribution that Doyle imparts in his beautiful book: splendor. When I witness some tiny thing on my farm, whether the light has just warmed the icy grass or my daughter comes running toward me from the barn with a dead bird in her hands, I’ll think of Doyle and his wisdom: “The things that we remember the best, the things that matter the most to us when we remember them, are the slightest things, by the measurement of the world; but they are not slight at all. They are so huge and crucial and holy that we do not yet have words big enough to fit them.”
___

Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in GuernicaMid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, and Sweet among others. She teaches writing and literature at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm.

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