September 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Bruce Owens Grimm
For most of my life, I thought Tarot cards and Ouija boards were for communication with the dead. This is especially embarrassing as someone known for being interested in the supernatural. But lesson learned. What I know now is that both have the purpose of contact, connection. However, Tarot’s a reflection of our own energy back to us rather than an open hotline with ghosts. Understanding the purpose of Tarot is important when reading Cheryl Savageau’s insightful and magical memoir-in-essays, Out of the Crazywoods, as she often consults one of her sixteen decks and explains why early on in the book, “I’m trying to find my life in these cards.” She desires a connection to herself as she learns how to manage her “late in life” diagnosis of “classic bipolar” and how the diagnosis makes her “not ‘normal’, whatever the fuck that is.” It’s a conundrum that many people with mental illness deal with at many points post-diagnosis. Trying to reconcile her past and present self is the reasons she consults the cards. Her search for who she has become provides the current that propels her story.
Out of the Crazywoods contains one hundred and seventeen lyric essays, each no more than a few pages. Savageau, an Abenaki poet and artist, shows her diagnosis rippling through each part of her life in brief and stunning prose. There is struggle, as when she has difficulty keeping a job because she must run to the bathroom, a place she feels safe, due to her frequent panic attacks. There is joy as when she spends time with her grandchildren and cooking for her family. Everyday things shift around her as in the essay “Wet Ashes,” where a smell in her house confounds her because she cannot locate it, “this damn house is haunted with the smell of wet ashes.” Her husband doesn’t smell it. Savageau, who is in her mid-fifties at the time, tells her therapist about the scent and the therapist suggests it’s an olfactory hallucination, which is common for people with bipolar. However, once Savageau and her husband divorce, the stench of wet ashes disappears.
Water guides, reflects. As she says in “Bagw and Tekw,” the books second essay, “all life is water.” Savageau is our guide through her life, and, of course, this book. She states as such in this same essay where the first sentence, “we are studying language together.” This is true in multiple ways. She imparts lessons in Abenaki (“Tekw is moving. Bagw is stillness. River is tekw. Lake is bagw), in this essay as well as throughout the book. But she also provides a way to recontextualize the language around bipolar in terms of stillness and movement rather than up and down, which makes it easier for her to understand its effect on her. It’s encouraging to think of mental illness descriptors in terms of nature. Makes the ebb and flow of symptoms seem less mysterious. Yet, as she says later in the book, “It is so much easier to write about mania…because there’s always something happening…depression is the lying down of desire.” Savageau doesn’t romanticize mental illness but gives us a peek into how she processes it in poetic images. As a poet it’s simply how her brain works.
Like Tarot, a book is a form of communication. At many points while reading Savageau’s memoir, it felt like I was having an actual conversation with it. A dialogue. I wrote responses and told part of my story to her words. I don’t have bipolar, but I do have major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD. Recently, I turned forty-four and through a conversation with a friend, reflected on how many versions of myself I’ve had to let go, let die, so that I could live. It felt like Savageau understood.
Letting past selves go is not easy. In “Blackouts” Savageau “comes out” to an ex-girlfriend, “Guess who’s bi?” I enter it as a subject line on an email to an ex after my diagnosis. In the body of the note, I say, ‘polar that is.’” The two of them meet for lunch and Savageau’s unnamed ex-girlfriend says she is not surprised by the diagnosis, “she knew something was up when I tipped over the dining room table during an argument that time.” Savageau is shocked. She has no memory of this happening, “Blackouts, I’ve been having blackouts. For most of my life, probably. I am not the person I thought I was. And if that’s true, who am I?” When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, often other people want assurances that you are the same as before. However, no one needs that reassurance more than the person diagnosed. As Savageau does here, you question everything about yourself. You have to start the process of finding yourself again or maybe truly for the first time.
Writing is the bridge between Savageau’s conception of herself before and after diagnosis, it “is one of those places where I am not crazy, the madness of poetry is not the debilitating madness of bipolar.” While she continues to write, she does disconnect from the Native writing community. She increasingly focuses on her Tarot cards – her solace in her isolation. A young writer she’s mentored reaches out, drives Savageau to the mountains, “the land works its magic. I put the Tarot cards away in their boxes. I accept an invitation to do a poetry reading. I slowly climb up from underground.” The climb is not easy. What’s important is beginning that journey. Ultimately, Out of the Crazywoods is a hopeful book. Prior versions of yourself may shatter, but you are not shattered. Out of the Crazywoods ends with an essay about the word Alnôbawôgan, “Becoming Human. It is a word of inclusion. It is the opposite of stigma.” Savageau takes us with her through the whirlpools and calmness so that we may see ourselves reflected, so that we know we are not alone no matter where the current takes us.
Based in Chicago, Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Older Queer Voices, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette, in 2021. He has taught his Haunted Memoir: What Ghosts Reveal About Life workshop at StoryStudio Chicago and at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, which named him a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 21, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Travis Chi Wing Lau
Chronic pain does not require constant remaking of the world and of the self because it creates a new state of being: one becomes a person who lives with pain rather than a person or body in pain. The normative conception of pain as acute and temporary does not fully convey this. ~ Emma Sheppard, “Using Pain, Living with Pain”
Two weeks have passed since I flew during the pandemic from Austin to Columbus for my new job. Mercury, my gray tabby cat, thankfully slept most of the way, but I remained wide awake with my pain. I had reached that familiar threshold of ache—simultaneously sharp and dull—one that reminds me that I have yet again worked too hard against my body. A heavy box too forcefully lifted, a few too many times hunched over to clean a grimy bathtub or the floors. Action, reaction; pained, painful. No singular origin or conclusion, but a living spectrum beautiful in its fullness, in its shifting forms and intensities.
Yet even as I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat and processed the anxiety of relocating yet again to a new city, I felt accompanied by my pain. So often, I hear of pain described in terms of alienation or loneliness—that which someone deals with silently in isolation—but I have since felt a developing kinship with my pain. My pain who has remained a witness to every event in my life, who has provided the terms by which I understand them as meaningful events. This is the queer gift of chronicity: when the fantasy of “this will pass” collapses and the burdens of upholding it end, there is the gift of new kinship forged not from a remaking but a reacquaintance. Not merely resignation but redefining a sustainable relationship with pain who I thought I knew.
Learning to write honestly from this relationship has been the hardest but most profound shift in my approach to being a scholar and writer. Rather than trying to circumscribe my intimacies with pain within the act of writing or using writing to mediate my relationship with pain (which inevitably gives way to a futile, paranoid control over it), I have tried to crip my writing process toward a more compassionate invitation of pain into the precarious act of communicating ideas and experiences. A process that does not shy away from pain’s presence but is in fact constituted by pain and its vagaries. This, to me, is what a truly crip form does: poetry or prose that models the work of cohabitation with disability and chronic illness as kin.
In revisiting older work, I noticed such a desire on my part to speak for or over my pain or even to force out of it something we might call the “aesthetic” that neither respects pain’s complexities nor addresses it on its own terms. Pain’s terms are my terms, after all. Disavowing them or imposing someone else’ terms upon them was, unsurprisingly, that much more painful. As disabled writing is finally gaining recognition, I find myself thinking more about the painful cultures of writing in which we participate. So often we are, intentionally or not, encouraged to capitalize on our pain to be legible to audiences and publishers wholly uninvested in us as people living with pain. As with many BIPOC and queer writers, such rehearsals of our pain are seldom for us and in fact limit the horizons for how we collectively imagine pain and those who have relationships with it. While we might imagine futures without pain for those who have lived too long with it, we need to invest in more than just pain’s validation (we are here, we are in pain) and subsequent containment (a hotline, a statement, a short-lived balm). For those of us whose pain lingers, we have an opportunity to expand the narratives that we have long attached to pain by writing anew from that intimate space of kinship with pain. We can honor pain as a lived reality for so many of us, while also moving toward a less painful culture of writing and publication that fetishizes only certain forms and representations of pain. In the face of our current pandemic, a practice of painful kinship feels that much more urgent if only to enable reckonings with our own painful histories and institutions, our own respective relationships with our pain, and with each other as painful kin.
Travis Chi Wing Lau is Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College. His research and teaching focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, health humanities, and disability studies. Alongside his scholarship, Lau frequently writes for venues of public scholarship like Synapsis: A Journal of Health Humanities, Public Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Wordgathering, Glass, South Carolina Review, Foglifter, and The New Engagement, as well as in two chapbooks, The Bone Setter (Damaged Goods Press, 2019) and Paring (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming). [travisclau.com]
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments
Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.
Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).
Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now. Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?
Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.
Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.
Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.
Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.
More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.
September 18, 2020 § 3 Comments
By M. Leona Godin
Haben Girma’s memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law contains many gripping moments. For example, in the opening scene, her father is taken off the plane in Ethiopia, leaving seven-year-old Haben, with her limited vision and hearing, to puzzle out the mystery of his absence and how she will make it home to Oakland California by herself.
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law also contains many humorous nuggets about navigating our society’s rampant ableism that creeps even into the mind of her little cousin who demands Haben make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while insisting that blind people cannot make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: “You said a blind person can’t make a PB&J. So how can I make you a PB&J?” she asks him to which he responds: “But I saw you!”
“His personal observations contradict the ‘truth’ he learned from society that all blind people are incompetent,” writes Haben. “I want Yafet to reject ableism. If he says that a blind person can make a PB&J, then I’ll make him one.”
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law strives to dismantle ableism in many ways, one of which is to confront the inspiration porn impulse head on. “Tell her she’s very inspiring,” says a man at a Harvard mentorship social. “I cringe inwardly,” writes Haben. “People with disabilities get called inspiring so often, usually for the most insignificant things, that the word now feels like a euphemism for pity.”
A tenacious and kind impulse to facilitate understanding being one of her most useful and charming traits, Haben does not let the “inspiring” bit get her down. Instead she thinks, “when a nondisabled person uses the word to describe a person with a disability, it’s a sign that they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable.”
This man, whom Haben’s interpreter had brought over at Haben’s request, refused to use the ingenious system she’d come up with to communicate with fellow students in crowded situations where her hearing impairment makes it impossible for her to participate in casual conversation. It involves a wireless keyboard and a braille computer. As the person types, Haben reads the braille on the display and responds with her voice. She explains her system and asks the man if he’d like to try.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m enjoying watching you two. This is my card. It was very inspiring meeting her. Tell her she’s beautiful. You ladies take care.”
He walks away, and Haben’s interpreter asks (via the keyboard he refused), what she thought of the encounter. Haben, like so many disabled people I know, uses humor to diffuse potentially soul-crushing encounters. She rests her chin on her hand and says, “That was…inspiring.”
I read the ebook version of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law using my wireless braille display with my iPhone. Sort of. As someone who started life sighted, spent three decades visually-impaired and only recently became totally blind, I did not learn braille as a child, so I haven’t anything close to Haben’s skills. My go-to accessible technology is text-to-speech software. Often I go back and forth with an ebook—reading braille when I have two hands and listening to my electronic reader when I’m eating or washing dishes.
Perhaps it was because she entered the school system seventeen years after I did—in the post-ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) era, or perhaps because she was losing hearing as well as sight, Haben learned braille at an early age. This is sadly not the norm. Many visually-impaired children are forced into using large print for as long as their eyes hold out and are then encouraged to use speech synthesizers. Often this is because many teachers of the visually impaired do not know braille themselves. The upshot is that only about ten percent of blind people read braille.
Thus I loved reading about Haben’s undergrad experience at Lewis & Clark College, where she was the first braille reader to enter their disability services center, which didn’t “phase them one bit.” With a “pioneering spirit” they embraced the challenge: “They purchased a braille embosser, purchased braille translation software, and then spent the summer learning how to produce braille. They’re not afraid of the unknown; they learn, explore, and discover for the sake of their students and the betterment of themselves.”
Haben demonstrates how her successes are made possible by a system that supports accessibility. Likewise, many of her challenges are the same so many of us face. This is why, I think, she reminds us of the statistics behind her personal struggles: “Around seventy percent of blind people are unemployed.” Although she graduated high school as valedictorian and had an excellent college GPA, “The seventy percent unemployment rate still managed to claim me, leaving me jobless in Jobville, Alaska.”
These reflections come during a summer in Juneau, where she’d sent out application after application to temporary jobs that open up to accommodate the heavy tourist season, and received interview after interview, with no offers: “When you do everything right and society stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will always overcome obstacles.”
It’s not just Haben’s considerable successes that one remembers from this extraordinary memoir, but also her many invocations of the difficulties disabled people face all the time. Haben’s story shows how necessary and beautiful it is to strive. And continue striving.
Yes, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law contains many exhilarating moments, like when she climbs up an iceberg dropped by the Mendenhall Glacier and then pushes herself down the ice slide into the unseen, unheard unknown, but it’s the quiet reminders of how success and confidence grow slowly and cumulatively, like the process of glacier formation itself, that make this book memorable.
Leona Godin is a writer, performer, and educator who is blind. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, PLAYBOY, O Magazine, and Catapult, among others. Godin was honored to be a 2019 Logan Nonfiction Fellow. She founded Aromatica Poetica, an online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste as a venue welcoming to, but not specifically for, blind readers and writers. Her personal and cultural history of seeing and not-seeing is forthcoming from Pantheon Books.
September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Cameron Steele
At first, I thought I might be able to get away with romanticizing all the not writing I was doing during covid. After all, I reasoned with myself, almost no one wrote about our last great pandemic, the influenza of 1918 and 1919 that killed more people across the world than did all four years of the first world war combined. Unlike the explosion of narratives that have explored illness, human suffering, and pain in the centuries since, scholars agree those early 20th century writers didn’t have either the model or the impulse to make sense of pain the way writers have in the decades since the emergence of HIV/AIDs in the United States. “How to bring the  pandemic and the narrative form together?” Ann Jurecic writes in the introduction to her book Illness As Narrative, “It is as if the project were unimaginable in the early twentieth century.” See? I thought to myself when I began Jurecic’s book in the late spring, it makes sense I can’t write right now. Those other writers couldn’t either. Ignoring the “flood of texts” since “those other writers” that have offered a path forward since then—offered ways to make meaning of, from, through, and against illness—I clung fast to the not writing. My body hurt, I did not sleep, my new baby was sick.
For a long time, my very small, very new baby was sick.
For a long time, I did not write.
Until I did, and here is how I started.
During the coronavirus pandemic, I, a woman living with mental illness, a mother with a new baby who appeared, by the accounts of his pediatrician and a battery of specialists, to be unfortunately, worryingly ill, have not been able to write.
Though I ostensibly have made my living from writing nonfiction about violence, illness, and pain, first as an investigative crime reporter in the deep south, and now as a graduate student teacher whose work examines those years against the backdrop of my own struggle fight diagnosis bulimia, (here the language always fails me, I don’t know what to call this thing I have been doing with food and puke and my body all these years or why the mind suggests it, even after all the books, all the rehab, all the medication, all the meditation, all the therapy, all the drugs), I haven’t managed to write a thing about covid since I locked down myself, my husband, and my new baby six months ago. The words fail me. The desire to read what other people are writing right now fails me.
What I read, I read out of obligation to my college best friend in Detroit.
She DMs me links to articles over Instagram and mails me essays clipped from her favorite magazines: Roxane Gay cooks through the pandemic, David Sedaris walks the footprint of New York daily, Toni Locy, our legal reporting professor from Washington and Lee University, rails against our alma mater’s mythologizing of Robert E. Lee in The Nation.
“I’m fascinated by how writers have been keeping themselves busy during this time,” she texts me. “And what they’ll have written at the end of it. I think it will be really important.”
“I totally agree,” I text back and feel anxiety and shame flame up against the mastitis in my left breast.
The baby shifts in his crib on the monitor. He’s finally started sleeping through the night, but his GI specialist in Omaha, during our last telehealth visit, was talking about feeding tubes, weighing the pros and cons of one down the nose (pro—it’s temporary, it doesn’t require surgery, con—it could actually make his reflux and feeding aversion issues worse) or one surgically inserted through the stomach (pro—less reflux and more sustained results, con—an invasive procedure requiring anesthesia and a hole in my baby’s stomach). I worry about karma, about his Virgo moon, about passing my own chronic mental health and digestive issues onto his new, perfect, tiny little body. I can’t write any more about this. It doesn’t feel good or enlightening or, to borrow a line from Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts when she refuses to discuss her baby’s early illness, “precious or rich to me.” But because my baby’s feeding struggle fight issue is truly the center of my life, the inflamed sun around which my days revolve, with no opportunity to meet up with friends, or escape to my office on campus, or even see my therapist face-to-face, this is all I can think about.
Also I think about a Twitter fight I observed with more than a little casual interest in my seventh month of pregnancy. Novelist Lucy Ellmann gave an interview in The Guardian where she laments the force of motherhood on new mothers, how the needs of the child winnow the mom’s attention down to only them, whittles away the capacity for focusing on much else. (“People don’t talk about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive, and thankless parenthood is,” she said. And: “illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents”). So many women writers on my timeline were outraged—oh, the indignity of another woman saying that, what a retrograde opinion, I published three books while I raised my three kids under the age of five and got a divorce—that kind of stuff. I was frustrated then, reading the response to what seemed like an honest interview from a woman who’s done both her fair share of publishing and of having children. And now, during the pandemic, not writing anything, trying to raise a baby who’s been ill for the first four and half months of his life, trying to keep myself from relapsing into my own illness in isolation, I find myself living out Ellmann’s words, my attention narrowed down to a red breast, a baby scale, a hypoallergenic formula, a hospital bill, a tarot card and a few sentences scrawled out each morning to keep me sane, to keep me from feeling completely silent.
“Compassion can only flounder,” Susan Sontag wrote In Regarding The Pain of Others, when confronted with mass suffering like a pandemic, like a war, like state-sanctioned police violence. And yet, Jurecic argues (and models) in her book published six years after Sontag’s death, compassion can radically attend to the complexities and needs of intimate, everyday life. I want to say it was reading this, it was reading Jurecic that got me on the page again. But in truth, I had begun to write—more and more, every morning, for myself, in my journal—weeks before I encountered her book, and how it felt right and real to me. “Like any good book,” Lauren Slater writes when she encounters the work of philosopher Williams James in her own illness memoir Lying, “it did not teach me something new, but draw out the wisdom that was already there, inside me.”
The baby began to get better. The doctors disagreed over what went wrong. They still disagree about how to feed him, when to start solid food, what kind of weight he should gain to be healthy.
“I guess you can say this is where medical treatment is more of an art than a science,” our pediatrician told me. I guess so, I think I said, needing something more than that.
I hung up the phone. The baby cried, hungry and finally willing to eat, and I, finally willing to draw the wisdom out, rocked him, thinking : gotta start writing all this down later.
Cameron Steele is a writer and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essays and poems have appeared in SFWP Quarterly, Poets.org, Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, Entropy, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her poems won first place in the Gaffney Award for the Academy of American Poets in 2019.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 16, 2020 § 1 Comment
In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.
Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!
You can read the full discussion here.
September 15, 2020 § 1 Comment
The “Experiences of Disability” issue is guest edited by Keah Brown, Sonya Huber, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Artwork by Jill Khoury.
September 14, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Fiala
Melissa Matthewson in this essay collection, Tracing the Desire Line, examines her mid-thirties as she longs for intimacy outside her fourteen-year marriage. Her husband, a hard-working farmer, finds it difficult to accept Matthewson’s sudden longing for others. Thus, this book centers around conflicts that arise from the husband’s mixed feelings about an open marriage and Matthewson’s conflicted feelings about being a dutiful wife and mother on a rural Oregon farm.
I have never been married nor do I have children or live in a rural setting; yet, I resonate with Matthewson’s feelings. As a single woman, I can date whoever I want, go where I want, and do what I want without permission. Yet, I found myself, like Matthewson, desiring to be more than just a wife, mother, and daughter. As a woman in my thirties, going back to college to earn a master’s degree, while many of my peers are creating families, I want to be identified outside of the stark confines and expectations of marriage and motherhood.
Through Matthewson’s collection, ranging from memoir and lyrical essays to confessional letters and prose poems, the reader is treated to a no-holds-barred exploration of desire, place, and autonomy. Tracing the Desire Line is organized linearly into parts (the before, during, and after of the open marriage), though there are plenty of experimental essays and prose that meander meditatively, exploring motherhood, sex, and nature. Perhaps most surprising is Matthewson’s role as a pirate radio DJ. Her writing about radio and seducing her first lover (with her husband’s reluctant blessing) via an on-air playlist could be a book itself.
Radio is all intimacy and wildness through the airwaves. It becomes a unique outlet for Matthewson’s desire. She writes, “How to explain the ways radio filled me: the nuance of desire, of waves and vibration, both sound and longing, the need to create a charge of want, to stretch heat and flush over the surge of radio.” Is there a Spotify playlist for that?
Pirate radio DJ, like so many of Matthewson’s selves explored here, pushes against her role of “farmer’s wife” and a woman with a husband. In “On Identity: The Farmer’s Wife, Etc.,” Matthewson ruminates on a visitor’s remark: “She called me the farmer’s wife, my identity defined by my husband. I thought, I am not just one story. I’m not just a farmer’s wife, though at times I guess that is what distinguishes me from the rest.” In many ways, Matthewson’s desire for intimacy outside of the marriage is entwined with a desire to know herself: “I’d always wrestled with the idea of self, searching for the peace of ‘This is who I am,’ though I knew I’d never find it.”
It is during a solo trip abroad, Matthewson realizes that in order to “be a free woman” and to truly know herself, “[she] must unlock from marriage.” Opening it becomes a manageable compromise—though not without guilt. Yet, this is not simply a desire of sex for sex’s sake, but a deeper need: a desire for autonomous identity. Thus, it makes these new lovers more layered and complicated.
The rural farm becomes a substantial character with the author’s achingly beautiful descriptions of the Oregon landscape and farm life. It’s the home grounds, as Matthewson calls it, that becomes a connecting point between the various players and their desires. She gravitates to the wildness of her land, writing, “These things are unruly—wasps, bees, dandelion, cotton, mustard, teasel. This weight of summer: the grasses overrun with seed. I haunt the apple trees. In a canoe, I drift.” This duality of nature that she explores, its quaint fields and summer wildfires, mirrors Matthewson’s own duality: her need for stability (a monogamous life with her husband) versus her ache for change (an Edna St. Vincent Millay appetite for more). I couldn’t help but associate this with the book’s cover of a forested path, starting in sunlight and leading around the bend into unknown, untraveled territory.
Matthewson’s writing pulses raw, full of wanting—at times almost harried and frenetic, like someone pacing, chain-smoking in the summer night air. It was hard for me to breathe while reading her words, and readers of Tracing the Desire Line may find themselves turning back and re-digesting morsels like this one:
All I wanted to do was dance to the heavy guitars or kiss a man I didn’t know, or at least, let one desire me, let one strip off my brown jacket in the woods behind the house, let the pine needles tangle in my hair, let the mushrooms stain my lace skirt even though it was cold, even though it was November, even though I was married, even though I’d get sick, I didn’t care, he would strip my brown jacket, maybe pull up my shirt to the cold and fulfill that untouched place most men want to go, but can’t, because there is no way a man can every fully know what a woman holds inside her; it’s so deep it burns even into the morning when the light has washed away all dreams, sins, impossibilities.
Like the wild territory that Matthewson calls home, desire shifts, changes, and morphs with new meaning. The prose’s balance between contemplation and tension keeps the reader alert and the pages turning—this is Tracing the Desire Line’s unique charm.
As I followed the author’s journey and the trepidations that threatened her marriage, I found myself wondering whether or not Matthewson’s marriage or her hard-sought identity would win out. Can she possibly have both, or are they doomed to incompatibility? Can a woman be more than the roles society allows?
As to the ending, you’ll have to discover that for yourself. However, if Tracing the Desire Line has taught me anything, it’s that change through destruction sometimes brings new and better growth…sometimes more sustaining. Matthewson’s path through desire, like a forest fire, blazed hot. Reading about her journey makes me feel a little less alone and a lot less foolish as I follow my own passions and truths. In Matthewson, I found a kindred spirit, and isn’t that what we all desire most?
Elizabeth Fiala is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When not busy battling against the squash beetles in her garden, she enjoys stress-knitting after midnight and falling asleep to true crime podcasts.
September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
September 10, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Amy Berkowitz
A few months ago, a friend told me they were watching a concert on YouTube Live when they were suddenly overwhelmed by grief. They were enjoying the music so much, and then they thought about how temporary the pleasure was: once quarantine was over, they wouldn’t be able to go to shows anymore, as most venues aren’t accessible to them.
The amount of high-quality arts programming that’s been made available online during COVID is dizzying: on any given night, I can check out a poetry reading, an artist talk, a concert, and a comedy show. But while this glut of diverse entertainment is exciting, it’s also bittersweet. For one thing, well, it’s the result of a devastating global pandemic. And on top of that, it’s only being provided now that everybody can’t go to live events. For sick and disabled people, it’s been painful to watch accommodations that have been denied to us—or even framed as impossible—for decades immediately manifest as soon as able-bodied people need them too. All of a sudden, remote work and virtual learning are the norm, and you can go to a reading without getting out of bed.
As a chronically ill writer who wrote a book about chronic illness (Tender Points, rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019), much of my experience navigating accessibility has been around literary events. Right before shelter in place started, I did two readings back to back in New York and DC that have made a lingering impact on how I think about accessibility.
I generally make an effort to read in accessible spaces, and I was particularly committed to finding one for the New York event because I was appearing in conversation with a filmmaker whose work also centers chronic illness. I emailed my disability community friends, my art friends, my publisher—do you know an accessible, large-ish space that we could use for free?
I got a lot of almost-but-not-quites: it’s accessible, but the bathroom isn’t; or it’s accessible but it’s small, so the audience will have to stand. And then my publisher put us in touch with Mara Mills, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies, and all of a sudden our event was being hosted by the NYU Center for Disability Studies.
The reading at NYU was the most thoughtfully accessible event I’d ever been part of. It’s not that I hadn’t been around accessible events before; in 2016, I co-organized Sick Fest, a free Oakland event that featured readings and performances by sick and disabled artists and writers. We did our best to make Sick Fest accessible, but we were winging it: we had no budget and none of us had ever organized a large event before, accessible or not, so we had to educate ourselves about what accommodations to provide and then somehow figure out how to provide them for free. While we did manage to find a wheelchair accessible space and arrange for ASL interpretation and other accommodations, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out until the last minute.
But at the Center for Disability Studies, as you’d imagine, accessibility was built in. There was plenty of space for audience members in wheelchairs; a CART captioner typed our words as we spoke and they appeared on a big screen. I’d never seen CART captioning before, and I was a bit distracted by it, in part by the narcissistic pleasure of seeing my speech appear in big green letters and in part by the joy of seeing this accommodation provided for the first time. And it hadn’t even been something I had to ask for or fight for or scrounge up funds for. The Center for Disability Studies provided it because that’s how their events are. For them, it was routine; for me, it was utopian. What if all events were CART captioned? What if accessibility was a thing you didn’t have to wrangle? What if it was always built in, assumed, part of any space?
Three days later, in DC, I appeared in conversation with a memoirist whose publisher had arranged for our reading to be held at an independent bookstore. It was a great venue, except for one thing: the event space was down two flights of stairs. I have a couple of friends in the DC area, a fiction writer and a poet. The fiction writer came to the reading; the poet, who gets around on crutches, did not. As I walked down those stairs to the event, I thought about how they were keeping my friend out and I wondered who else they were keeping out. But once the reading started, the venue’s inaccessibility fell from my thoughts, replaced by nerves and excitement about the memoirist’s book. For the two or so hours we talked and answered questions from the audience, the fact that we were in an inaccessible space didn’t cross my mind.
Remembering my reading at the bookstore helps me understand how easy it is for most people not to think about accessibility. If you’re able bodied and go to events in lots of inaccessible spaces, you might think there’s no need to have your event in an accessible space because you don’t know any wheelchair users who like poetry or film or memoirs.
And thinking about my reading at the Center for Disability Studies helps me envision exactly how beautiful access is, how it brings people together, makes everyone welcome, includes everyone in the conversation. How access is an act of love, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes.
I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about these gains in accessibility lasting any longer than able-bodied people need them, but maybe the future will prove me wrong. I don’t think we’ll have live streams of every reading and show, but I could see some arts organizations rethinking their online offerings. I do think this is a great time for everyone—including and especially (currently) able-bodied people—to be thinking and talking more about disability and access.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015 and rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019. Other writing has appeared in publications including Bitch, McSweeney’s, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing a novel.
Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020