June 18, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Elizabeth Garber
It was the first day of summer vacation, about 1960, the end of third grade. I sat in the small rocking chair next to a bookcase in the dining room in our old Victorian house. I saw a faded blue bound book with a title that tempted me. I Capture the Castle. The house was quiet. My brothers were napping. I must have begged off my nap, which was rare because my mother always told me “You, of all people, need so much sleep or you are not good for anything.” I usually read through naps, perfecting my face to look asleep if my mother passed by, ready to slip my book out from under the covers. But that day the house was quiet and it was mine. I remember the light coming in the windows and stretching across the floor where my brothers’ wooden blocks spread over the floor.
I pulled the book from the shelf of grown-up books, and opened to a drawing of a kitchen in an old castle. I knew the book was too old for me, but I wanted to read it so much. It was about a girl writing in a journal. She started: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it: the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I was padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cozy.”
I loved English words like tea-cozy. The narrator was a writer, and I’d begun my first journal. She was sitting in such an unusual way, like someone I’d be a friend with. But at that moment a spindly spider crawled out of the arched space between the sewn binding and the cloth spine and headed down the page. His fine legs like cactus spines tiptoed over the words I wanted to read. I slammed the book shut and threw it down on the floor. My heart pounded. I quickly picked up the book with my fingertips; afraid the spider would pull himself out between the pages and crawl on my hand. I shoved the book back on the shelf, my happiness slammed in with the spider.
I glanced sadly at the book for years, remembering the spider. Even when we moved years later to a modern glass house, the book stayed out of reach.
When I was sixteen, on a quiet afternoon when I was desperate for a book, I glanced at the book shelves, and remembered. I took the fade blue book and opened carefully. The husk of the spider slid off the page. I sat down and as I began to read, the book became mine, written by a girl who wrote in journals. It was perfect. She was me.
I couldn’t bear to let the book leave my bedside table. I’d turn on my side before falling asleep and glance at that book. As if the secret of me was inside. I didn’t believe anyone knew me well enough that I could trust them read the book. It would reveal too much about who I really was.
A year later, I knew I’d truly fallen in love with my first boyfriend when I realized I had to lend him the book. But it was such a risk. Would he understand?
Elizabeth says I have to read a book she loves. She holds the faded book to her chest before placing it in my hands. She’s excited and nervous. I don’t really get how a book written in the 1930’s or something in England could be too revealing for her to share. I smile and reassure her. But I hope I’ll like the book.
Kids at school think we’re kind of weird cause we’re so into books, but that’s part of why I fell in love with her. In English class, we competed over Drieser’s American Tragedy in English class. We’d meet at our lockers to compare pages read. One day she crowed, “I got to page 580!”
I grinned, “Sorry kiddo, I’m at 614.”
So I read I Capture the Castle. In the first paragraph there’s this girl writing in her journal. Her name’s Cassandra. I get right from the start why so many things are perfect for Elizabeth: a long elegant name with no nickname, the narrator is quirky and funny yet insecure about whether her poetry’s any good, and she’s absolutely determined to write everything in her journal. Elizabeth says she finally found someone really like her even though Cassandra’s going on about tea time, and dying dresses with green dye, and exploring the castle. The voice starts to become Elizabeth’s voice, as if I can imagine her writing it.
After a while, the novel becomes a kind of comedy of errors, mistaken identities and hiding under bear skins, all quite light, but through it all the narrator is determined to do the right thing. She works so hard to keep the family together and to understand everyone, and to bring out the best in their crazy father, always hoping that he’ll get better. In contrast to Elizabeth’s dad who keeps getting worse and angrier. The book is a comedy, and the book’s dad actually comes through in the end.
Is this what Elizabeth is hoping, that her dad will get better, and is this really why this is her favorite book, even though she thinks it’s because the heroine writes in a journal?
When I hand back the book, her eyes are so vulnerable. I say, “Yes, the book is perfect. You are Cassandra.” And she cries.
Elizabeth W. Garber is the author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (2018), and four books of poetry. Three poems have been read on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Low Residency Program. She was awarded writing fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming. She is currently pitching her new memoir, Not As Lost As I Thought: The True Story of a Girl at Sea, about when she was eighteen, attended a hippie high school on a derelict square rigger and encountered pirates, avoided a near sinking, was held hostage in Panama, and broke free from tyranny at home. More at: www.elizabethgarber.com.
June 17, 2021 § 9 Comments
Last night, in a webinar for Creative Nonfiction, we talked about sentences. What makes them soar lyrically across the page; what makes them stumble awkwardly into your editor’s inbox. Two great questions came in afterward (Thank you Maria-Veronica and Catherine!). First:
What are the most important or key elements that make a long sentence great? In what way can it have as great an impact as a short one?
I love long sentences. The bane of my MFA existence was classmates who “corrected” what they saw as run-on sentences in my work. Thanks for the effort, fellow writers, but 90% of the time I wanted the sentence that long! Maria-Veronica’s question made me think deeply about why. What makes a long, complex, multi-claused sentence not a run-on?
1) Rhythm: the sentence pulls the reader in with flow or beats, often including deliberate repetition.
2) Direction: the sentence spirals deeper into a moment, or the sentence zooms out to show context as part of the immediate moment. If the direction changes, the reader is clearly brought along.
3) Unity: the sentence has one time and one location, unless there’s a specific reason to go elsewhere; or the sentence uses one metaphor and explores it fully. We’re expanding one moment, not compressing a whole bunch of moments into one.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
– Jack Kerouac, On The Road
Note how the deliberate repetition of “mad”-syllable-syllable establishes rhythmic beats. “To be saved” breaks the pattern and slows us a little as the clauses get longer. Then, repeating “burn” accelerates the sentence through the final, un-punctuated image.
On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.
– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
The sentence starts in a close, intimate moment, then zooms out to the feeling of sexual release and otherworldly expansion. Halfway through, “sliding down a rainbow” navigates the reader from the universe back down toward earth; the things on earth; the people; and the sentence circles back to where we started.
He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.
– Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Forty-five words showing and exploring how one man says, “I love you.”
For fun, try rearranging the words in one of the sentences above and seeing how their power diminishes in another order. (These and many other beautiful sentences at https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/)
I’m also a fan of the sentence fragment, judiciously deployed. Catherine asked about one of the samples on my slides, a fragment from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and here’s the whole gorgeous passage:
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
The ten fragments (and two grammatically complete sentences) are showing death, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, as a series of physical experiences flashing into consciousness and then unconsciousness.
Use whatever sentence structures make your story sing on the page. If that’s fragments, great! If that’s run-ons, make ’em work! The important part is knowing what you’re doing—it’s not a fragment because you messed up, it’s a fragment chosen to best deliver that moment of the story. There is no prize for “best grammar” in the publishing world, no golden star for subject-verb agreement, no blue ribbon for adjective order or time served for use of adverbs, but plenty of writers bend language to their will.
Be one of them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Pre-order Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, or join her June 28 for a free keynote or paid masterclass on writing YA Memoir with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington.
June 16, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Aimee Christian
This spring, I attended my first writing conference, and it was almost embarrassingly life-changing.
For a long time, I wondered how people just sit down and write a book and send it off to an agent and then get it published. Where do they find the discipline? How do they know it’s any good? How do they know when it’s done? And then wait, when we study craft, are we saying these writers did these things intentionally? They didn’t just sit down and dash off sheer brilliance? They knew what they were doing?! So many questions!
I am forty-eight and now I finally know. They don’t just sit down and write perfection. They too had to learn it from somewhere.
For the past year I have been taking the class to end all writing classes. A year long memoir incubator. That name should say it all. A year ago, I had little more than a folder full of bits and pieces of creative nonfiction from fits and starts at writing. I applied to the class with 50 not-terrible pages. They were premature, and I had more ideas, all in desperate need of incubating. So for a year, I wrote. Through the pandemic. Through a change of jobs, remote school for a disabled kid (read: no school) and another kid (read: not enough school), getting and surviving COVID, losing my father, and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And in the process, I learned more about writing and about myself in this year than ever before.
In this class, we also read. We read each other’s half-baked manuscripts, we read excellent memoirs, we read craft books and essays. We picked pieces apart, we studied craft, we learned to give feedback and make edits both developmental and line by painstaking line.
As the third trimester of the class began to near its end, our brilliant and patient teacher prepared us for the conference. Her process was well thought out. We prepped as though we were querying: writing synopses of our manuscripts, picking out agents we might want to meet with, practicing our pitches.
That I was even able to follow the lingo in the conference: prompt, comps, query, proposals, prologues, revisions, writer vs author, memoir vs autobiography, and more, just shows how much I learned in a year. I didn’t know any of that a year ago.
Overall, the conference was humbling. The content was both about writing and about all the steps that come after it, and because it was virtual, we didn’t have to choose one session over another. They were all recorded, so we were able to see one and then go back and watch the others later. It was a lot of information, all varying degrees of useful, all of them leading me to one (long) conclusion, which is my new mantra:
I am not quite done with my manuscript, I have a community of writers around me, I have lots of resources, I need to avail myself of them, and when I am ready to query I will know it, and I will be successful even if it takes me a very long time and success doesn’t look the way I think it should right now.
But most of all, I WROTE A BOOK. And I know it’s gonna be a good one, too, because now I have help I didn’t have before. My friends and I read each other’s work and we can see easy improvements in each other’s pieces that we can’t see in our own. I can move paragraphs or sentences around in someone else’s essay in minutes but hang on to pages and pages in my own manuscript for dear life that a fellow writer can take a quick red pen to and say “this has to go” and when she does, I know immediately that she’s right. Or she can offer a pointed “Like what?” or “How?” to a sentence which makes the story I’m trying to tell so much clearer.
I know I am late to the party here. You probably know all this. But now I know, too. I won’t go it alone anymore because I don’t have to. This is how writers learn and grow. It makes us better writers, better editors, and overall better members of the writing community. Count me in, for however long it takes.
Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.
June 15, 2021 § 4 Comments
Hello? Ex-Husband? Why you were such a terrible person?
Interviewing people in your memoir can fill in details about settings you were too young (or emotionally unable) to remember, and explain personal logic behind choices that hurt you. But how the heck can you have a civil conversation with your abuser, your estranged parent or your ex?
Writing a good memoir means connecting deeply with your own feelings and experiences—then setting them aside and approaching potentially traumatic conversations with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker.
Don’t start with “Why’d ya throw me down the stairs, Dad?” If you’re there to make a point, challenge your sister’s truth, or get your mom to agree with your version of events, your interview is already tainted. They’ll feel it. They’ll get defensive. And there you are, right back in the relationship you were trying to process and move past. When interviewing perpetrators of your trauma—or just plain awful people—focus on knowing and understanding another person and the logic that made their own choices make sense. Truly listening doesn’t mean you agree!
Start easy. First interview people you enjoy talking to. Even if you clearly remember a positive event, they’ll fill in more detail. Your best friends can gently remind you of times you weren’t on your best behavior, and those belong in your memoir, too.
Lower the stakes. Set up interviews in comfortable, reasonably neutral locations.
- Record on your phone if needed. Microphones feel “official.”
- Talking in the car can yield intimate, thoughtful conversations—you’re sitting close, but without uncomfortable eye contact.
- Avoid assigning blame or questioning their integrity. Instead of “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” ask, “When (specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?”
Give fair warning. Anna Sale of the podcast Death Sex and Money says:
First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. “I’ve been wondering about something,” or “I need to tell you something I haven’t.” With this groundwork, you are signaling that you want to go into a different mode together. Again and again… when I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed…
Prepare…then go with the flow. Make a list of questions, but let the conversation roam. Near the end, pull out your list and see if there’s anything important you haven’t gotten to. You can say ‘I really want to hear more about…’ ‘Can we talk about…?’ or ‘I’m going to take a jump here and ask you about…’
Let them feel heard. The Body Keeps the Score author Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Being validated by feeling heard and seen is a precondition for feeling safe, which is critical when we explore the dangerous territory of trauma.” Use validating language like:
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- I hear you.
- I appreciate that this must be difficult for you.
Nonverbal cues, like nodding or “hm/uh-huh” can be helpful. If someone gets emotional:
- This reaction is normal considering what you’ve been through.
- I’m sorry you had to go through that.
Use silence. Let the silence stretch after you ask a question. After an answer, avoid jumping right in with the next question. Often, your interviewee will feel the need to fill the silence, and their spontaneous response may be more revealing.
Stay aware of body language. Watch for closing-off gestures like folded arms, looking away, or legs crossed away from you. Listen for short, clipped answers or vocal tension. These are cues to back off or leave this subject for another time. If your subject is open and relaxed, you can probably push further.
Bring them back to normal. If you leave your subject happy, they’re more likely to talk again. End your interview with a positive question:
- How’s your day-to-day life now?
- How do you like to unwind or spend the weekend?
- What’s the best part of your life right now?
- Do you have any plans for after we talk?
Ask twice. If you can, talk again a couple weeks later. Often, people remember more details after your questions have been on their mind.
Interviewing with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book. You’ll also be able to contextualize poor decisions other people made, or times they hurt you, if you allow them to tell you their logic at the time. You don’t have to forgive them, or forget what they did. But asking real questions and allowing truthful answers (even from shitty people!) yields information you need to write your book. Let your readers judge their character. Your job is to extract more truth with less trauma—for you or anyone else.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her Wednesday (tomorrow!) for Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. A recording will be available to registered participants if you can’t make it live.
June 14, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Robyn Fisher
When the question, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” comes up at author events and conferences, as it often does, I lean forward, hoping to hear something different from the usual “Oh, I knew as soon as I could hold a crayon that I wanted to write down my stories!” I have yet to hear a successful author say, “Gosh, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer till I was well into my 50s.”
I am a writer now, well into my 50s, but I didn’t always know that’s what I wanted. When I was kid, I liked crayons and books, for sure, but I also liked paint and dirt and the piano and TV and rocks and bugs. I was extroverted and interested everything out there. Writers spend their time in here. Back then, showing off my cartwheels on the lawn with friends was way more attractive than spending time alone in my room.
To be fair, to say I was one of those who didn’t know she wanted to be a writer till late in life is a bit of an overstatement. In high school, I was known to write angsty songs on the guitar, and the journalism room was my home away from home. In college, though, I didn’t even find the journalism department until my junior year, and that was because I thought I wanted to be a news photographer.
During my senior year of college, I applied for a photo stringer job with the largest newspaper in my state. I went on assignment with my Nikon and my Tri-X, and my contact sheets had several good shots worth submitting. I thought I was pretty good. And then there was the freshman who also wanted the stringer job. Every single one of his shots was better than my best.
I had better work on my writing I thought. Time to get real. I didn’t have the passion for shopping for, buying, having, and carrying around heavy photography equipment, but I knew I was in my element talking to people. And, I loved Writing Lab. We student reporters brought in our beat notebooks and typed up our stories on IBM Selectrics while our instructor made the rounds and helped us sharpen our prose. We wrote alone, but together, and as we created, we received immediate feedback, not only from our instructor, but also from each other. Writing Lab was social, my skills improved, and that made me want to keep doing it.
After college, I worked in public relations for a non-profit where I wrote articles and columns, then later, I wrote for a weekly newspaper. Seeing my byline in print was addictive.
Eventually, I married a man who was a writer and a musician, and I became a high school journalism teacher. My brilliant, introverted husband would go out to his studio, put on some Vivaldi, fall into a trance and write. I was jealous of the way he could tune out distractions and not seem to need the external validation. He made his living writing about economics and teaching as an adjunct, but I especially loved the way he documented our family life with his stories, poems and songs.
Years went by, the kids grew up, and we found ourselves facing a medical crisis: Lewy Body Dementia was ravaging my husband’s body and brain. The decline was steep. I quit my teaching job to be his caregiver, and it became my turn to be the primary writer in the family.
I wrote regular updates to keep our friends and family in the loop and I always read them aloud to my husband before I emailed them. “Your writing brings me such joy,” he told me. “Not many people know what writing can do.” My updates and essays about our days navigating this disease grounded him when he felt reality slip away. “You remind me who I am,” he told me.
My writing helped ground me, too, when anxiety came to call. The positive responses, from both my husband and our circle of friends, made me want to keep writing. I honed my updates until they became essays. After he died, I hired a writing coach who helped me turn those essays into the skeleton chapters that eventually became my full-length memoir. Rest, long walks and writing have been the only activities I have felt driven to do in my grief.
Today, I am a widow with grown kids, shopping a memoir, writing a blog, submitting essays, reinventing myself, posting photographs, getting rejected, getting published. These days, I spend considerably more time in here than I used to. When I am not writing, I think about writing. Sometimes, I even put on Vivaldi.
I’ve never been one to fall fast in love. My husband and I were friends for years before we chose each other as life partners. Now, like a lover, my writing is the first thing on my mind when I wake up each morning, and the last thing on my mind before sleep. It’s a lover’s attention: beautiful and life affirming, and it chose me.
After Robyn Fisher’s husband died in 2017, she went on Pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, sold her home of 25 years and finished her forthcoming memoir, You Remind Me Who I Am: A Memoir of True Love and Lewy Body Dementia. She is a writer, blogger, musician who writes about life reinvention after loss. She has appeared on the Daring to Tell podcast, Pilgrimage to Self blog, and was named recently a finalist in the Women on Writing Creative Non-Fiction contest. She is a vagabond who divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Maui. More info www.robynpassowfisher.com.
June 11, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Lisa Rizzo
At seven years old I fell out of bed, slicing open my chin. I woke up with blood pouring onto the rug. My mother scooped me up, pressing a towel to my face as my father sped through empty streets to the hospital. The towel, originally white with a bright polka-dots, slowly turned red.
I tried not to cry at the stinging shot of Novocain and a blue cloth placed over my face. Overhead lights shone through the material turning the shadow of the doctor’s hands into terrifying five-legged animals. No pain but the tug of needle and thread piercing my skin. Afterwards, I shivered at the row of black stitches crawling like a spider out of my face. Now the only reminder of that night is a thin white scar across the bottom of my chin.
My experience, while frightening, cannot compare to the devastating, life-threatening injuries Marcia Meier suffered as a five-year-old. Her book, Face: A Memoir, shortlisted for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize and an honorable mention in the memoir category, opens on a bright summer day in Muskegon, Michigan. Marcia, proud that she has just learned to ride her new red bicycle, was in the middle of a crosswalk near her home when she was struck by a car. She writes:
I had been dragged, caught with my bike under the car, nearly two hundred feet…
I was lying on the street under the driver’s side. The bike was stuck under the carriage;
I was still holding the handlebars. The left side of my face was gone.
She begins recounting her recovery with the question What is a face? Her memoir asks the reader to consider what a face represents to a person as well as those around her, and how losing that familiar face could affect who we become. Weaving the past and present together, Meier seeks answers to help her heal. Using a braided structure, she moves deftly from the voice of a hurt child to that of the reflective adult seeking to make sense of how that initial trauma influenced her life.
Meier spent her childhood in and out of hospitals, enduring twenty surgeries until, as a teenager, she gained the courage to refuse more operations. With her injuries partially mended, she began to build a better life for herself: graduation from college with a degree in journalism, a successful newspaper career, marriage, and motherhood.
A few days before her wedding, Meier’s father gave her an envelope filled with photographs and documents related to her medical treatments. Unable to face them, Meier tucked the packet away along with other unwanted items in a storage unit, just as she tucked away thoughts of those treatments, believing she had accepted her past and its scars. But in 2006 when her marriage began to fall apart, Meier realized she had to confront her childhood.
Many of the book’s chapters open with epigraphs using excerpts from the surgeon’s notes of her procedures. In much the same way that Joan Didion returns again and again to her husband’s heart attack in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, these notes create a circular pattern, returning to the little girl in her hospital bed before spiraling into future events. The repetition of medical terms reminds the reader of the terror Meier as a child must have endured, even as she deals with how that suffering influenced the adult she became.
Similarly, Meier cycles back to the people in her life: her mother and father, husband and daughter, siblings, the clergy and nuns of her parish, and the surgeon who reconstructed her face. This highlights her struggle to understand how the aftermath of her accident affected them as well as her relationships, particularly with her mother. Even as her mother kept vigil at her hospital bed, she remained emotionally distant from her child. Meier seeks answers to what happened between them and how her mother’s own tragedies influenced their interactions.
Meier makes good use of her background as a journalist by including investigation into subjects such as Jungian psychology, the history of skin grafts as well as research about childhood complex trauma. This information is skillfully woven, moving from objective facts to personal narrative, giving the reader the impression of the author stepping back now and again before coming close to confront the extent of her pain.
This is a memoir of self-discovery on both physical and emotional levels. Meier learns to accept her body scarred from skin grafts as well as her damaged face through horseback riding as a teenager and practicing yoga as an adult. She learns to accept her mother’s distance with empathy. She confronts her feelings of betrayal by her religion, recognizing that she blamed her parish priests and nuns for not giving her the solace she craved. And, most importantly, she learns compassion for herself, accepting the wounded child she was and in some respects will always be.
In the end, Meier returns to Muskegon where her story began, completing the cycle. She makes a pilgrimage to the important places of childhood: her family home, the site of her former school, the intersection where she was struck by the car. Completing the cycle by facing those places from her past helps Meier begin the next part of her journey.
Lisa Rizzo is a poet who has to turned nonfiction. She is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work has appeared in various journals including Calyx, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Brevity blog. A newly retired teacher, she lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she is working on a memoir. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com.
June 10, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Linda Schifino
I’m two years old sitting in my highchair and my mom is feeding me pieces of donuts from a paper bag. I can see her face smiling at me; I can smell the sweet aroma of the donuts each time she opens the bag; I can taste the sugary bits.
Our earliest memories reveal how we tell stories to ourselves and then learn to tell them to others. By reconnecting with events from the past and then, like an archaeologist, excavating additional bits and pieces, we create our version of true stories. But recovering old memories is challenging in that they are often faulty, frequently vague, always contextual.
I find it helpful to start the process of evoking memories by making lists of my recollections using categories such as places, people, sensory memories, and artifacts. Each of these touchpoints helps to bring forth a memory that can turn into a scene that can create a story.
Place grounds us, so memories are often rooted in place. Visiting a neighborhood, street, or room can return us to a scene. I’ve driven down the street of my childhood home several times in the process of writing. Sadly, most of the buildings are long demolished. Yet, I can envision them – our apartment, the stores, my school. At one point, I created a floor plan of our apartment, an exercise that unlocked many memories, generating multiple scenes and stories.
It’s also helpful to make a list of people. Family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, can spark the memory of an event. Consider interviewing the people on your list if you can. If not, try to connect with others who knew them. I interviewed the grandchildren of Mr. Corazza, the man who owned our apartment building and the grocery store below. They shared photos and filled in details about the store and the neighborhood, all of which fleshed out my own sketchy recollections.
Often our strongest recollections are connected to senses, like the smell and taste of those donut bits preserving a precious long-ago memory of my mother. Be overt in getting in touch with sensory memories. Ask yourself what your grandmother’s kitchen smelled like. Closing my eyes and thinking back I can conjure up a combination of garlic sizzling in olive and my great-grandfather’s cigars encroaching on the food smell, sensory memories that opened a flood of recollections of Grandma’s house and inspired several scenes in my manuscript.
Artifacts are also key. Newspaper articles, maps, and census records help corroborate recollections and are often easily retrieved online. Personal artifacts can stimulate memories of the people connected to them. The chair your dad sat in, a piece of jewelry your favorite aunt wore, or personal mementos like recipes or letters are all valuable in resurrecting memories.
After my mom died, my sister and I cleaned out her attic. We found boxes of artifacts: her rosaries, old church bulletins, a photo album that held prayer cards memorializing the death of family members, friends, and neighbors (yes, there’s a theme here), and hundreds of photographs. For me, photos have been extremely useful in summoning memories, inviting me to step back into the scene in a process of re-enactment.
Digging through my mom’s boxes of old Polaroids, I found one of my dad and me sitting on a blanket in the park. I look about five years old. I can’t recall the exact event depicted in the photo, but the tenderness in my father’s face places me back in that moment, basking in his love.
When examining photos, we typically zoom in to the central message or main focus. But it’s also valuable to zoom out to examine the background. In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says that, “a single image can split open the hard seed of the past and soon memory pours forth from every direction.” A photo taken the day of my First Holy Communion – squinting into the sun, trying my best to look dignified – resurrects the memory of that day.
Yet the photo also reminds me of my first confession a couple of months earlier when Sister Carmelita dragged me by my braids to the back of the church for singing a popular song by Patti Page instead of a hymn. I can’t imagine what my mother was thinking when she posed me in front of Ursula’s beer store, but I remember the Budweiser sign in the picture’s background. It lit up at night and shone into my bedroom window in our second-floor apartment across the street. Each element of the communion photo splits open a seed.
Memoirists excavate memories by revisiting the places, people, senses, and artifacts that populate our lives. Each detail gifts us with some essence of our past that can be captured and developed to form a scene, a story, a bit of our truth.
Linda Schifino is a writer living in Pittsburgh. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Carlow University where she is also professor emerita of Communication. Linda is currently writing a memoir describing growing up in an Italian-American enclave in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. She has had essays published or forthcoming in Adelaide Magazine, DoveTales Literary Journal, Northern Appalachia Review, and Voices from the Attic Vol XXIV and XXV.
June 9, 2021 § 10 Comments
by Melissa Scholes Young
At a reading for my first novel, a reader waited patiently at the microphone and asked, “Why would someone like you write about people like this?”
My friend in the front row shook their head. The bookseller hosting me inched closer. I smiled and asked back, “Someone like me? People like this?” The audience laughed. It relieved the tension.
It was actually a good question, albeit loaded. My rural accent thickens when I speak into microphones or sit in rocking chairs on porches. My debut novel, Flood, is set in my hometown of Hannibal, Missouri where I reimagine Tom and Huck’s famous friendship as female. My second book, The Hive, traffics in the political divide of rural communities and tells the story of sisters, secrets, and survival. Both books are set in the Midwest and my characters look and sound like the country people who raised me. I write from my roots, but my roots aren’t always visible in my presentation.
The implication of the question was that I couldn’t possibly be the product of working-class people in rural America. She saw them perhaps as unsophisticated in their manner and uncouth in their behavior. She saw me as a successful author and esteemed university professor. Her question was innocent enough, though it revealed more about her own bias than about the many and sincere parts of my identity.
At best, it was a backhanded compliment. At worst, it revealed exactly why I write about the community that raised me. We all deserve to be complicated on the page. If you can’t imagine that a person without a formal education can be brilliant and nuanced in their thinking or that economically disadvantaged folks don’t also have desire, than maybe you’re not bringing an open heart and mind to the page. My people aren’t stuck in a life they don’t want; they choose to devote their talents to a life they’re familiar with and want to make better. I write worlds I know but I read worlds that I have never occupied.
My work in fiction and nonfiction traffics class because I have the unique vantage to do so. I move freely within the cultural divide. I was raised in a conservative community but I’ve built my career in a liberal one. I lean on my rural roots and cling tight to the values of self-sufficiency, hard work, and grit from guts. Shared stories are an invitation to challenging conversations. At the dinner table, it’s safer to discuss characters, their values, and choices perhaps more than our own. The discussions are possible when they are about fictional plot rather than personal story. It’s vital that readers have representation on the page. It’s important, too, that readers don’t only seek out stories from characters who share the same values. Books should challenge us to imagine beyond our own experiences and to inhabit a world we may not otherwise have access to. It doesn’t threaten my beliefs to read something I disagree with. It makes me think harder about my foundation.
On the stage, celebrating my debut novel, the question from the reader about the distance between my reality and my roots felt like an indictment. I grew up on a country road, speak with a Midwestern twang, am the first in my family to graduate from college, and make my living as an author and professor of Literature. Her question implied that those identities couldn’t coexist, yet they absolutely do and we should expect them to.
The real win of my reader’s question that day is that my publishing story provides perspective into a life she’d never live but could see more clearly. The truth is that I was in awe of her ability to even ask me such a question. I was taught to behave and to be quiet like good girls do. Not all of us were born into progressive families that valued our voice. We’re still clearing our throats.
Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novels The Hive and Flood, and editor of Grace in Darkness and Furious Gravity, two anthologies of new writing by women writers. She is a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Ms., Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Residency Fellowship and the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Quarry Farm Fellowship. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, she is currently an associate professor in Literature at American University.
June 8, 2021 § 8 Comments
Everyone hates on adverbs.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.William Zinsser, On Writing Well
But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.
When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?
Replace redundant adverbs.
She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.
But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.
She thumped her coffee on the counter.
Skip the “duh” adverbs.
If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.
Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:
Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)
Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.
Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:
“Tell me right now!” she said
Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.
As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:
RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?
SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.
Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)
Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.
“That’s him,” she said accusingly.
“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.
“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.
“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”
With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:
He turned angrily and raised his fist.
He whipped around, his fist raised.
He spun, his fist raised.
Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.
He smiled bitterly.
They ran haltingly.
She danced jerkily.
Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”
In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:
Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.
The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.
Plumb the adverbs in your own work:
1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?
2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.
3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.
Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.
June 7, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Cynthia DiTiberio
A couple years ago, when the first copy of one of the books I had written arrived from the publisher in the mail, I held it proudly, seeing all the words I had carefully pieced together beautifully designed on the page. I then flipped to the back of the book, to unearth my name from its contracted place in the acknowledgements.
You see, it was both my book, and not my book at all.
I am a ghostwriter. The books I write don’t really belong to me. Though I have sometimes written every single word that appears on each page, oftentimes my participation is hidden, by design.
When my oldest daughter walked into the room and I held the book up for her to see, she looked at me, her blue eyes crinkled in confusion.
“But where’s your name?”She asked. “Shouldn’t your name be on the book, too?
I paused as I stared down at the cover. I couldn’t deny I felt the same way. But I had agreed, many months before, that my contribution wouldn’t be credited. Now, however, it no longer felt like a good deal.
“That’s not how it works,”I explained, trying to convince her as well as myself.“My role isn’t public. The ideas in the book aren’t mine. I just helped someone write what was in their head all along.”
“They would never let us do that in school,” she said, matter of fact, already self-assured at eight-years-old. “Promise me, Mommy, next book, will you make sure they put your name on the cover?”
There was something about hearing those words from my daughter that made me finally wonder if credit was something I deserved.
Then 2020 hit and with it, untenable working conditions. When I turned in a manuscript in May, I was burnt out. I had written eleven books in eight years, the last one during the grueling experience of shelter-in-place and remote school. When you are a ghostwriter, they expect you to write fast, otherwise, what are they paying you for? Everyone thinks they could write their own book, if they only had the time. The pace was exhausting. I needed a break. And after that conversation with my daughter, I began to wonder if maybe it was time to see what it felt like to write something of my own.
I had always wanted to be a writer. I had filled notebooks as a child; idolized Anne Shirley and Jo March. At age twenty-two I had a specific book idea, with a title and subtitle, written in my journal. At twenty-three, I was on my way, landing a dream job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house specializing in religious and spiritual books. Having graduated the year before with a major in religion, I felt triumphant to be able to prove that my degree wasn’t so useless after all.
I spent nine years working my way up to senior editor, learning the tricks of the trade. But when I had my first child, and returned to full-time work with a 60-mile commute each way, I realized I was ready for a change and set out to create a freelance editorial business. The work that I most enjoyed, the actual editing, happened outside of the office anyway. I knew that we hired freelancers all the time. I had goodwill and all the contacts to make a go at it.
To start, I worked predominantly for my previous employer. But then I began to take on projects with literary agents I had worked with in the past. Having once sat in the very seat of power, in the editorial board meetings where book proposals were dissected like frogs, I knew what it took to get noticed. Soon, writing book proposals turned into writing the books themselves. Before I knew it, I was a ghostwriter, writing other people’s books for them.
I loved it. I spent hours on the phone with authors, identifying the themes they wanted to explore, getting a sense for their voice and the cadence of their teaching. I never had writer’s block, because the ideas weren’t mine; I just had to figure out how to translate them to the page. I didn’t have to worry about whether the books would sell, or how to sell them; my job was just to create. I got to live in the sweet spot, with none of the risk, but also, little of the reward.
As this year forced a pause on normal life, I thought, what better time to finally try and find myself on the page? I didn’t even know what I sounded like anymore. I hadn’t written in my own voice since college. But I knew it was time to try.
I often joked that the reason why I was so selective about which authors I worked with was because whomever I was writing for lived in my head the entire time we were working together. For eight years, I had leased space in my brain to others. Once the tenants were out, I realized that my own thoughts had been drowned out by the psychic energy of others. To have my mind to myself again felt like the greatest luxury.
And yet it was also terrifying. Though I had been a “writer” for eight years, never before had I felt the prickle of fear that crawls up your neck when you see the rawness of your heart bleeding on the page. I had always written with someone else’s blood, nothing at stake.
But I knew it was time to let my words stand on their own, unshielded by someone else’s name.
I know it is a long, grueling path, the life of a writer, trying to find places to publish, unearth people to buy your book. But maybe the point isn’t even to get readers, to be read, but the act of writing itself. Maybe I’m not writing to change others but to change myself.
To listen to my own voice for once. And believe it has worth.
Cynthia DiTiberio is a writer and collaborator who has worked in the book business for the past eighteen years. Books were her first love and remain her favorite thing in the world. She worked as an editor at a division of HarperCollins for nine years before becoming a ghostwriter. She has just started writing on her own after collaborating on eleven books over the last eight years. She was born in St. Louis, went to college in North Carolina, and has called the Bay Area home for the last nineteen years. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children. Highlights of her career include getting to work with Frederick Buechner, having her second collaboration optioned by Reese Witherspoon, and being featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty-seven for her work launching a new line of Christian fiction.