Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 6 Comments

Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.

I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.

When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.

Where the heck do I start the next draft?

One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.

Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:

1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.

Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.

8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.

This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”

I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.

By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.

13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.

In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:

She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.

It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.

And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:

21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost

It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.

Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

Writing Despite the Obstacles

July 19, 2017 § 18 Comments

avk_headshot--hair_loose (1)By Ann V. Klotz

How much do I really want to write this summer?

In early June, I finish an amazing on-line course with the incomparable Joelle Fraser in which I write faithfully every single day for ten weeks. The content of my memoir grows substantially. I write about my family’s century-long love affair with a tiny resort community in the Allegheny Mountains. I write about losing my brother one summer long ago, about creating a summer theatre program with my husband and then ending that program in that same time.  I write about my mom’s death and how I still expect her to be on the porch when I arrive.  I write and write. I struggle some with tension and conflict, try to set up more obstacles. Once school finishes, I’m going to take a stab at a real first draft; I’m going to use index cards to arrange what I have—three years plus a lifetime of material.  I will write every day.  By the end of the summer, which for the Head of a school means the first week of August, I’ll have a draft.  I tell my teacher and my classmates as if by voicing my intention I will make it so.

Late one June afternoon, I return home from school. My son, twelve for another few weeks, says, “Mom, by accident, I spilled some iced coffee on your laptop this morning, but I cleaned it up.”

“Okay,” I answer, distracted by my father-in-law’s ill health, my husband at his bedside in another state. I am preoccupied with schoolwork still undone, by what to make for dinner. It is several hours before I open the laptop.  The keyboard is sticky.  I wipe it with a damp cloth.  A moment later, I discover the shift key on the left doesn’t make a capital letter.  Puzzled, I tap repeatedly.  The letters cavort in a lowercase kick line. Like a trapped animal, gnawing on its own paw, I shift and over and over again, as if the act of repetition will suddenly remedy the problem.

I can’t make an appointment at the Apple store because I can’t shift in order to enter the capital letters of my laptop’s identification number. Suddenly, I discover there is another shift key on the right. Jubilation.  I make an appointment.  My son, worried now, accompanies me.  A few nights ago, I had dropped his phone on flagstones, shattering the screen.  The fast-talking young man warned us of dire possibilities; my son might lose all his pictures of his cat, might lose his high scores on various games, but in the end, the repair was uneventful.  Everything was fine.  With this in mind, I take my place at the genius bar feeling hopeful.  My kind tech helper appears.

Coffee in the keyboard?  His smile dims.  He offers to send it away for days and days; it will cost $500.  I might need a new computer; moisture isn’t a good thing.  A new computer is only $1200.   He smiles again, encouraging.

“I’m a writer,” I think.  “I’m traveling.  I can’t be without my laptop.  This is my month!  $500?  $1200?  At a moment when our expenses are already too high? No way.”  I droop.  We leave the shiny store.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” says my son.

I vanquish glum self-pity, reassure him that accidents happen. I phone my husband, guilty about bothering him with something as dumb as my keyboard while his father drifts in and out of consciousness.

He recommends rice, so we immerse the whole laptop in a rice soak, burying it deep in a baking dish.  In the morning, the left shift key remains broken, as is the control key.  I head to Pennsylvania to drop my son off at my sister’s, then drive back to Cleveland and fly to Washington, D.C. for a conference.  My father-in-law grows weaker, slips away.  I focus on how irritated I am with my computer.

In a bland hotel room in D.C., “I like writing by hand,” I tell myself, knowing it’s a lie.  I cry.  The shift key and grief.  I can’t untangle them.

I try to teach my fingers how to shift on the right.  It is the summer of 1975, and I am in Mrs. Romanofsky’s typing class at Lower Merion High School:  “A-S-D-F-space; J-K-L-semi-colon-space,” she intones, blonde hair curled tightly and sprayed in a bouffant up-do, an imposing creature towering over minions at typewriters.  My brother died later that summer, so I never finished the class, but I learned enough to trust my fingers without thinking about where they needed to go on a keyboard. I am fast and mostly accurate.  I crank out emails, letters to families, notes, first drafts quickly. But now, clumsy, I fumble, impatient with my errors, tense.

I ask my husband, home again, to look at the offending key.  He who can fix anything, especially computers, removes the key, cleans underneath with a toothpick, gets it to work, briefly, then declares it still broken.  Some things can’t be mended.  He offers ideas to try once get to Pennsylvania, to the house that is the center of my memoir.

For the past several years, in the middle of the night, my father-in-law would sometimes phone, frantic:  “Seth, Seth—“ he would cry, oblivious to the hour.  My patient husband would, long distance, soothe his dad, and solve the problem.  My broken key is not a desperate situation, merely an annoyance.

I adapt, revise my practice.  My computer automatically capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and almost always makes ‘I’ capital, so that’s a gift. It is tempting to hold a grudge against the shift key, but this is my month.

Finally arriving in Pennsylvania for our fleeting summer, I take my laptop to the porch and begin.


Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night.  Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats.  She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.

What Do You Love More?

July 18, 2017 § 28 Comments

Not even her best backbend

Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”

I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.

I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.

My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”

She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”

I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.

What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.

My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”

I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)

Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?

Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.

There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.

And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”

In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:

Publication or not getting hurt feelings.

What do you love more?



Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Stylish Negotiations: How a Blind Writer Finds the Right Journals

July 14, 2017 § 9 Comments

Emily K. Micheal TEDx promo photo 9.2016By Emily K. Michael

Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Because I seek publications that share my interests – ecology, feminism, disability, music – all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s “About” page and submission guidelines. Here’s where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, “send us your best work” or “we only publish good poetry.” I won’t let my students use “good” and “bad” as standalone terms, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities:

“Writers with disabilities can submit poems on any topic. For topics unrelated to disability, [The Journal] will ask you to confirm that you have a disability upon acceptance. Non-disabled writers must submit work that relates in some way to disability.”

“Submissions may be either by an individual with a disability or anyone who is part of the community.”

“[The Journal] is a forum for people with disabilities to speak for ourselves. We hope that our allies will support this endeavor.”

These guidelines echo the common thread among disability-related publications: work by writers with disabilities or work about disability. While some journals open submissions to friends, caregivers, and other allies, others only want work by disabled people – presumably for a disabled audience.

The style of the guidelines matters. With lists of fussy rules and blocks of prescriptive reminders, a journal seems overbearing. When I answered a recent call for blind writers, the editor wrote to me, “Make sure to use plenty of vivid details.” I felt like a freshman in a creative writing class.

But perhaps I should have expected this kind of micromanagement. The guidelines for his publication read: “We want to hear first-person stories not merely about blindness, but about what it takes to survive and strive as a human. We want to establish a new venue for exploring direct experiences surrounding the often misunderstood and under-appreciated aspects of blindness.”

What fascinates me here are two concepts: striving “as a human” and “the under-appreciated aspects of blindness.” These phrases sound subtle alarms. Even before this editor reads my submission, I must prove myself “as a human.” This is a journal that wants human stories, not more-than-human, not nonhuman. It’s a journal devoted to personhood.

The “under-appreciated aspects of blindness” are the compensatory gifts of disability, cleverly disguised. In their very next paragraph, the guidelines instruct the writer: “The most important thing is that [the submission is] honest, unafraid, and rooted in an experience of visual impairment.” I put this line in conversation with the editor’s advice to “avoid talking about your diagnosis and focus on the experience.”

The editor wants blindness, but not my blindness. While I support the journal’s efforts to cast disabled people as more than their diagnoses, I don’t appreciate the reminders. If I choose to focus on medical details, that choice is not a shortcoming or a sign of my ignorance: it’s a rhetorical move with desired effects.

These guidelines are a reaction to a powerful threat hibernating in the presence of disabled artists – that we might dare to speak of our experiences without courage, that we might offer the nondisabled reader a few lines of fragmented, unpredictable reality. Against this threat, the guidelines erect new definitions: Our reality is now unreality. They won’t acknowledge our experiences or publish our work.

They want clean lines.

But the desire for clean, polished renderings of disability is not confined to nondisabled readers  – who receive plenty of blame for the bad attitudes we face each day. On another call for disabled poets, posted to social media, a writer asked, “What kind of poetry are you looking for?” And the editor offered a fabulous phrase:

“I don’t want microaggressions. I want good poetry.”

Now I know what the editor means: she doesn’t want poetry that whines or complains, poetry that fusses over the little irritations of each day. She wants something more than a poet’s note to herself – poems that would resonate with readers beyond the original writer.

But this statement erects a binary between “microaggressions” and “good poetry.” It’s as if the editor is not just critiquing submissions, but the inspiration for those submissions. As I look through my work, I should censor myself, interrogate each poem for a suitably elevated motivation. In forming the “good poetry” or the “courageous” depiction of vision loss required by these editors, I am supposed to rise above the everyday irritations of disability, distill my experiences into a fine, sparkling elixir.

In their syntax, these guidelines divide me from my sense of how writing transforms my experiences. I can summon up my exhaustion at the end of a long day of intrusive questions, my frustration with the pity of strangers who don’t bother to understand me, my loneliness and longing for other blind companions. The process of art may transform these feelings into something grander, something more transcendent. And it may not. Art begins with our mundanity.

As with the language of compensatory blessings, the editors avoid the word “inspiration.”  Perhaps they know that we’ve gotten hip to its real meaning. We recognize inspiration – the kind expected from stories of overcoming – as code for erasure.

But the unsuspecting blind writer can face other signs of erasure out in the open. A website called TheReImage offers a seemingly noble mission: “TheReImage will share stories focusing on all aspects of life. Each story will feature individuals with different degrees of vision loss, but rather than concentrating on that one aspect, we’re examining the emotions, feelings and experiences we share as humans.” Here is a website dedicated to stories of our shared humanity – doesn’t that sound wonderful? Finally, a publication that acknowledges disabled writers as people!

Again I see “as humans.” I am on edge.

In their submission guidelines, I find that stories should: “Provide a well balanced authentic perspective on living with vision loss. Focus the story on the human experience, not the vision loss. Promote public awareness and greater understanding of vision loss and the capabilities of people with vision loss. Be of interest to the sighted/general public.”

These guidelines hide a sinister contradiction. They encourage writers to offer a balanced, authentic perspective of “vision loss,” and they contrast this brand of authenticity with a “focus on vision loss.” So a story that focuses on disability, that explores some medical or anatomical concept, is therefore deemed inauthentic and unbalanced. Further down the page, The ReImage tells writers to, “Use the term ‘vision loss’ instead of blind or visually impaired,” and “Put the vision loss aspect in the background.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking feature of these guidelines is the mandate: “Be of interest to the sighted/general public.” TheReImage wants to promote better stories of blindness, but not for a blind audience. They’re rallying against that dark threat again – the notion that we might dream of offering our own experiences, unfiltered through inspiration or courage. And they’re not just circumventing our stories, they’re actually renaming us.

Even though I have dozens of delightful experiences, I can’t write for TheReImage. I am resolutely a blind poet. Not a “writer with sight loss.”

These guidelines tell half a story, and it’s the half that many people want to hear. TheReImage claims to be giving us back our personhood – offering stories where the disability doesn’t overshadow the humanity. But in order to give us membership in their tribe, they must acknowledge that someone has taken it away. You can’t return a stolen vase if it hasn’t been stolen. So disability itself becomes the thief, and they conquer it with style.

TheReImage asks for balance and authenticity, yet it banishes the self-identified blind or visually impaired writer, forcing them to go by another name. What is authentic about having to rename oneself for  a “general/sighted public”?

These guidelines are not designed for my questions. They are not drafts but finalized decrees. I can’t place my trust in a one-sided conversation.

Editors, I am looking for dialogue, a mutual coming-to-terms. I am looking for textual empathy.

I have seen such empathy unfold in real time. In 2015, I responded to a call for women writers. The editors were creating a feminist anthology and seeking diverse and “differently abled” women. Because the project looked interesting, I told the editor that “differently abled” wasn’t a term that I as a disabled woman would choose for myself. I explained that disability wasn’t a dirty word and asked if she would include it in the call for submissions.

To my surprise, the editor immediately altered the language of the call and confessed her desire to use the appropriate term. She said, “It’s hard to know what’s preferred unless you’re in the group,” and I agreed. Ours was a brief exchange, a handful of comments and links shared on Facebook, but it represented a commitment to dialogue.

This commitment to negotiation is what’s missing from so many of the off-putting calls for disabled writers. An editor or panel of editors decrees what “version” of disability I am allowed to submit, and if I don’t comply, they’ll move on to a whole queue of submissions willing to barter for personhood on someone else’s terms.

Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Disability Rhetoric, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction BlogAWP Writer’s Notebook, and Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability. Emily’s work centers on the themes of ecology, disability, feminism, and music. Find her at her blog On the Blink, and watch her TEDx Talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

Heart Restart

July 13, 2017 § 30 Comments

By Susanne Fletcher

On the cusp of 60 years old, I ran away to Baja California Sur, Mexico to let my heart bloom. I needed to escape–at least briefly–37 years of marriage, 35 years of office work, and 22 years of motherhood, to reclaim an old dream, so I signed on to a writing retreat, Writing Down the Baja. I intended to reframe my life in seven days. I hoped not to recognize myself when it was over.

I panicked on the plane. I restrained my arm with the opposite hand, jamming it into the armrest so I wouldn’t press the flight attendant call button. My head said relax. My heart threatened to bust out of my rib cage and plunge from the plane without a parachute. I wanted to yell “Turn the plane around and let me off. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’m not a writer!”

I arrived at Serendipity Bed and Breakfast on the fringe of Todos Santos as palm shadows stretched across the desert. Relieved, I sprawled on a warm plastic lounge chair facing the ocean and let my eyes absorb light and distance. My muscles lengthened and my sight lingered on the line dividing the Pacific Ocean and sky. Gradually the adrenalin surge of rushing through three airports and release from confinement in a spot as small as a honeycomb segment, and the sweat of self-doubt, settled.

The Pacific side of the Baja, a long hot finger of sand and cactus, felt cool and the wind off the ocean raised goosebumps. I saw a little white eruption against blue. I sat up, raised my hand over my eyes and stared. Again and again fountains burst out of the water. Whales.

Each morning, I chose a spot at the outdoor writing seminar table with intention, for inspiration and a view. While the teacher led us through morning writing exercises or we read aloud the previous day’s homework, the horizon pulled my attention to its edge, every gush in the water like a jolt on an electrocardiogram interrupting the gentle waves of my sister-writers’ discussions.

Afternoons I propped myself up on a lounge chair facing the breached blue and swaddled myself in a beach towel, knees up, blank page waiting, pen poised. Mostly I watched as a blooming cactus plant suckled hummingbirds as plentiful of marsh mosquitoes. I counted six, their long needles sipping nectar from funnel-shaped flowers and zinging to the next and next and next.

At the end of each day, I lounged under a palm tree, eyes to the horizon, book in hand, where I dozed and dreamt. An egret visited me once. Awakened by my book dropping in my lap, I looked up to see her a few strides away. White and slow, she picked up her chopstick legs, her toes opening and closing like a blown-out umbrella as she moved through the gravel with a soft tick, tick, tick. She stood forever and together we stared at the hummingbird cactus. Me, amazed. She? I don’t know, but I welcomed her stillness.

I attempted writing in a covered circular tower above my room–a Mexican garret–standing up this time. My pad of paper rested on a ledge. The wind ruffled the pages. I removed my glasses for short-sightedness to work in my favour–no more whale-gazing and daydreaming. What would I daydream about anyway? My heart reassured me I was where I wanted to be.

Head down, ink flowing onto the page, the lines filled as I pumped out prose like a gasoline nozzle–high octane, unleaded, intoxicating. Something darkened my peripheral vision. I looked up and, despite my blurred eyesight, recognized a hummingbird hovering at shoulder-height less than half a palm-frond away. I’d worn a coral-coloured t-shirt that day and undoubtedly she thought she’d found the biggest flower ever–the treasure of the Sierra Baja. Me immobilized and enchanted, she greedy and hungry, so close I heard her 80-wing-beats-per-second–or perhaps that was the rush of blood to my brain. I blinked. She buzzed away with a trrrtrrrt, a tiny defibrillator.

My heart shocked, I exhaled and wrote nothing familiar, something about jacaranda pods and penises and eyes the shade of scentless bougainvillea and Baja mutts the colour of sand. A different persona had appeared and I hardly recognized myself in my words. I was still me–wife, mother, office worker–but something else had emerged with a freshly started heart. A week at a writing retreat had pushed back the fear of claiming a new name for myself to add to the existing string–wife, mother, office worker, and writer.



Susanne Fletcher writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Read more about her Baja retreat time and her work at her blog, Wuthering Bites.


Gretel Ehrlich to Judge River Teeth Book Prize

July 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

7877The fine folks at River Teeth have just announced that acclaimed nonfiction writer Gretel Ehrlich will judge our 2017 book contest.

Gretel Ehrlich’s books have been translated into six different languages. Among her many publications are the essay collections The Solace of Open Spaces (1985) and Islands, the Universe, Home (1991), her memoir, A Match to the Heart (1994), and several books based on her travels. Her awards include: National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a Whiting Foundation Award, and many others.

The contest winner will receive $1,000 and have his or her manuscript published by The University of New Mexico Press.

Submissions will be accepted until October 15, 2017. All contestants will receive a one-year subscription to River Teeth. For more information on entering please see Contest Guidelines.

A Review of Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage

July 12, 2017 § 5 Comments

51bLL4m4WeL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_By Emily Heiden

Dani Shapiro’s new memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage is an investigation into what happens when two people promise to abandon their individual paths in life and go down the same one together. It asks what we lose and gain in making the choice to link our life to another’s. It looks, too, at the selves that fall away in the process—the individual traits we hide to meet a partner’s needs, as well as the past selves that slip aside, unbidden, as we age. These past iterations of us dissolve with the decades—and the decades in turn disappear in a blink.

Shapiro offers beautiful meditations on the passage of time in her prose, telling the reader in one especially memorable section that “the decades that separate [the] young mother [she once was] from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and [she’s] back there.”

At times ruminative and nakedly candid, the narrative succeeds at bringing the reader into Shapiro’s mind, marriage, and past. The reflective nature of the text is its strength and downfall at the same time. It asks us to examine the questions Shapiro asks herself, and this allows us to contemplate time, love, and conjoined fates with her. Like a real, human conversation—which is an art eroding as quickly as the framework of Shapiro’s woodpecker-ravaged home in rural Connecticut—the text’s pensive lines and white-space-laden structure allow the kind of insight only possible when a story has the space to breathe.

A passage such as “Oh child…the future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches as you vanish” reveals a masterful collapsing of time, situating its unending forward motion within the framework of an omnipresent past.

Shapiro’s narrative stumbles in its lack of a central story. I enjoyed spending time in its pages, seeing from a perspective that as a never-married thirty-three-year-old I can only access indirectly; yet, I found myself wishing for a traditional through-line. What she gives us is more meandering. We weave through time with the author, learning that her now sixteen-year-old son almost died as an infant. We become privy to details about her prior marriages and the painstaking process of learning to stay in such a union. We learn, too, about the skins her husband M. has shed with time, that is, his “past lives” as a journalist in war-ravaged territories and his love of danger. In some of her most honest moments, Shapiro wonders if he had to stop being him in order to be with her. When M. is particularly enlivened by a brutal snowstorm, saying, “It’s like a war out there,” Shapiro admits bluntly, “I hate him.”

These raw admissions are what compel me to read, rather than a sense of story—because there really isn’t one. Shapiro herself admits this three-quarters of the way through the book: “Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, then why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it? Which is to say: before the story has become a story?”

At a previous time, she believed an event could only be told after the fact, a view she has since abandoned. She now believes that the “onrushing present” is the “only place from which the writer can tell the story.” This is intriguing, and I appreciate it from an aesthetic stance, but to this reader such a statement raises the question: What if Shapiro has simply run out of stories?

The present can be just as intriguing as the past. But we look to the writer to arrange its events just as she would’ve if they’d already reached their culmination. Shapiro’s book mostly eschews the notion of arc, offering reflection without the counterbalance of real narrative. It made me wrestle with the question of what gets to be a book.

I struggled, too, with the presentation of my state. As someone born and raised there, I could not help but think it was not my Connecticut present in its pages. A memoirist can only show us their life—but still, to read that Shapiro and her family “decamped for the wilds of Connecticut” shows only the most unidimensional stereotype of what is actually a complex place.

I was born, for example, in Bridgeport, a town that grapples with gang violence and sends its students home with backpacks full of snacks so children won’t go hungry over the weekend. For those children, and for me, Connecticut was far more than a bucolic place of respite or an escape from the city. I had no idea as a child that the notion of my state as a playground for the wealthy was based at all in reality. The income gap in the state is the starkest in the country, and Shapiro’s Connecticut may as well have been a world away. I spent my childhood in a suburb, but we did not own a yacht or go to private school. It’s hard to see the place I grew up dubbed the countryside when I know it to contain strata of diverse and complicated lived experiences.

I enjoyed this memoir for its thoughtful, skillful lines, for the sharpness of its insight about how we change as we move through life, and for the questions it made me ask, too: Who gets to tell stories? Who decides what narrative is? And just what do we see as reality?

Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.

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