March 22, 2019 § 3 Comments
We’d love to see our readers and writers in Portlandia, and we’d love you to see us. We don’t have a table, but we’ll be around plenty. Maybe buy us some avocado toast?
Here are some scheduled events featuring Brevity‘s finest:
THURSDAY, March 28th
- Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will be part of the panel Que savent-ils?: What Classic Essays Can Teach Contemporary Essayists even though he can’t pronounce part of the panel title (10:30 am to 11:45 am)
- Dinty W. Moore is also reading and speaking as part of the 25 Years of Creative Nonfiction: An Anniversary Reading and celebration, alongside Lee Gutkind, Brenda Miller, and other fantastic writers and surprise guests (1:30 pm to 2:45 pm)
- Nonfiction luminaries Phillip Lopate and Michael Steinberg, along with Assistant Editor Ana Maria Spagna, will debate the proper role of “I” in CNF (3:00 pm to 4:15 pm)
- The panel The Yellow Wallpaper: Women Writing Mental Illness in 2019 includes Assistant Editor Penny Guisinger, who promises that she will be “showing up with all her crazy” (4:30 pm to 5:45 pm)
- Penny Guisinger is also part of the Incite: Queer Writers Read event from 6 to 7:30 pm at Literary Arts, 925 SW Washington Ave.
- Assistant Editor Colin Hosten will participate in a reading and reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown, featuring numerous Woodhall Press authors, co-hosted by Hosten’s MFA alma-mater Fairfield University and Woodhall Press, which Hosten co-founded in 2016.
FRIDAY, March 29th
- Assistant Editor Ana Maria Spagna signs copies of her latest book Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going Friday noon to 1 p.m. at the Artsmith table T10095
- Founding Editor Dinty W. Moore will be signing copes of Flash Nonfiction Funny on Friday, from 3 to 4 pm, at the Fairfield University/Woodhall Press Booth 3013
- Social Media Editor Allison Williams will be reading at the Hippocampus/Under The Gum Tree/River Teeth/Fourth Genre offsite event at the White Owl Social Club, starting Friday at 5:30 pm
SATURDAY, March 30th
- Social Media Editor Allison Williams will be keeping it brief on the panel The Most Versatile Essay: Flash Nonfiction in Any/Every Classroom (10:30 am to 11:45 am)
- Five women writers will get Back to Basics in order to untangle environmental truths, moderated by Ana Maria Spagna (12:00 pm to 1:15 pm)
Be there, or be square.
March 22, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Shamae Budd
I escaped the mayhem of the birthday party with a slice of cake, sinking with a sigh into the woven fabric of the front sitting-room couch. I was there to support my friend—mother of the birthday boy—but none of the screeching children belonged to me. A ten-year-old girl sat near the window, knees pulled into her chest. I said a few words in greeting, but she didn’t respond. I assumed she was shy. I let her be, spearing a piece of cake—enjoying the quiet. But as I lifted the fork to my mouth, a woman entered the room and asked tiredly, “Are you ready to apologize?” The girl shot back a withering, “No.” My mouth still slightly agape, I realized I had unwittingly settled myself in timeout.
Their terse conversation continued, and I seemed to see a past version of myself in the girl, a future version of myself in the woman. Certainly I had played similar scenes alongside my own mother as an irascible teen. And now, nearing thirty, my husband and I had begun talking about starting a family, having children (who would inevitably become teenagers, as this girl was reminding me). I seemed to be seeing double: a moment that could have been pulled from both my future and my past.
Much like this quiet exchange between a mother and daughter, James M. Chesbro’s debut collection of essays, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, invited me to consider the duality of parenthood. He writes, “All sons are heirs and successors to the way they are fathered.” Chesbro is a devoted husband and father of three, but he is also the son of parents who fought and separated, a father who died young—and these two sides of Chesbro’s experience with parenthood consistently inform each other. Similar to E.B. White in “Once More to the Lake,” Chesbro sees flashes of his deceased father in himself, and flashes of himself in his son—a circularity that becomes both a gift and a challenge.
In “Footsteps,” Chesbro recalls nervously sitting in a cardiologist’s office, not long after his father’s pulmonary failure: “I want to live longer than my dad,” he says, determined not to inherit his father’s legacy of heart disease. And in “Overtime,” he describes himself stomping to the attic after a disappointing football game, reflecting:
When Dad was alive, as I grew older, I vowed to keep football in perspective… And yet, this is how he would have reacted—stunned into silent anger. Dad shakes his head in my memory, and I shake mine back at him. Get a grip, Dad, I think to myself. But here I am in the attic.
These tensions felt familiar—I, too, have been startled by little habits and tones of voice that remind me suddenly of my mother. I see her in a gesture of my hands while I am speaking; I see her in a woman at a birthday party, and am startled when I see myself there, too. What lifts Chesbro’s essays from mere recollection into insight is his ability to move between everyday ephemera and self-scrutiny, revealing the complexity of a self that is at once both son and father.
These sometimes competing roles of father and son intersect compellingly in “Trains.” Chesbro hopes that an inherited set of toy trains will help rekindle a connection with his father, but as he unwraps the trains in the attic he finds only “the paper used as packing material: a bank envelope, an auto insurance business reply card that said I saved $12.30 on my auto insurance with Allstate, and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog Bargain Flash.” The heartbreak is in the mundanity of the detail—the devastating ordinariness of the objects appearing in stark contrast with Chesbro’s hopes for almost transcendental discovery. Eventually, Chesbro allows his son, James, to play with the precious toy trains, which leads, unexpectedly, to the father-son connection Chesbro was hoping to discover: “James struck the red train against the track over and over and over again, like a match to a matchbook. By the time my son went to bed, my mind was aflame with father.” In the hands of his son James, the trains—and memories of Chesbro’s father—come back to life.
This shift from empty-handed grief toward renewed life and wonder in “Trains” beautifully reflects the movement and organization of the collection as a whole. Chesbro’s father—who is so forcefully, even painfully present in Part I of the collection—seems to drift quietly into the background as the collection winds down, not disappearing entirely, but informing Chesbro’s fathering in ways that cause him to connect, to be present, rather than to disengage. Part II—often humorous and filled with slice-of-life essays on parenting—becomes a celebration of Chesbro’s own fatherhood, and especially his young son, James. Chesbro’s re-enactments of wildly rambunctious family dinners, ER waiting rooms, and tumbling block towers reminded me of Brian Doyle’s laughing reverence for family life. And Chesbro’s honest depictions of the joy, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder of fatherhood ultimately left me smiling with anticipation for the day when I will be the mother of that belligerent little girl at a birthday party: participating in a scene I have so far only experienced from the perspective of a daughter.
Shamae Budd received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. She lives in Utah at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, and when she is not writing, she can generally be found among the aspen and pine, on a yoga mat, at the craft store, or walking her big red poodle in the park.
March 21, 2019 § 11 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
March 20, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Elaine van der Geld
I have always been terrible at drawing. I’d planned to drop art after the mandatory 9th grade course, but then, in our last year of high school, my best friend talked me into signing up for 12th Grade Art. She was talented— effortlessly drawing portraits while I mucked around with stick figures, but I was interested enough in theory and history that I figured I’d scrape by.
We landed an amazing teacher who wore black leggings and Doc Marten’s everyday. She was fresh off of a three-year job teaching art to juvenile offenders and did not expect us to possess any particular talents or skill, but neither did she stoop to assigning dumb activities, as previous art teachers had. Instead, she invested time in teaching us to be artists, which, for her, meant teaching us how to see.
On the first day she held up a landscape painting and asked us to sit quietly and observe the colours. After a couple of minutes she asked us the colour of the trees. We said, “green.”
“And what else?”
One person ventured, “forest green.”
“And what else?” our teacher said, a keen smile on her face.
“And?” She looked so hopeful we had to keep going, but, frankly, the whole thing seemed silly. The trees were green. Lots and lots of shades of green.
Finally, somebody said, “blue.”
“Show us,” the teacher said.
The girl hesitantly pointed to a couple of spots where, as if by magic, navy blue suddenly popped off the canvas. How had I not seen that?
The teacher proceeded to show us a painting of an apple, a sparrow, a lake. Each time, the pieces started out looking simple—the apple was red, the sparrow brown, the lake blue. Then, slowly, we’d come to see straw yellow, maroon, jade.
The world cracked open. Prior to that, I’d gone through life seeing only the straightforward colours of a crayon drawing. Now I could see as Rembrandt had, or, if not Rembrandt, then Bob Ross.
When we finally got to the actual art-making, we started with figure drawing, using live models. We were not to draw the model per se. In fact, if we did that, we were doing it wrong. This was a relief—it bought some time before anyone discovered the fact that I could not draw. We started with timed gesture and line drawings. Volunteers climbed up on a wooden platform and struck various poses. Sometimes they’d hold for 30 seconds before moving into the next one, other times they’d hold for a few minutes. We were to look at the model, rather than the page, keep our hand moving, and, most importantly, we were to look— really look. At first we were told to notice the shades and light. Then we were to notice line. Then we could put it together. We would do 10, 20, 30 drawings a class. They were quick, partially finished things with only abstract resemblance to the model. We were to keep our hands and bodies loose, move quickly, making true marks on the page.
I’ve since called that class, “the one year I was good at art.” No longer reaching for what I expected to see, but instead, putting down what I actually saw, the drawings improved. I no longer automatically kept the whites of the eyes white, but noticed the way light hit on the sclera, iris, pupil. Amazingly, after a couple of months I could draw reasonable portraits simply by focusing on lines and the light and dark planes of a face.
At the time, I was also taking creative writing, and immediately put my new sight to work in stories, boring down into specific surface details. When characters or settings fell into cliché, I’d use pictures to get down accurate, yet surprising, details. There, too, it was a revelation.
Twenty years later, when starting mindfulness practice, I remembered that art class. It occurred to me that while the artist’s eye allows us to see the external world, the mindful eye allows us to see the internal world.
In mindfulness, practitioners are invited to observe the way the mind works, without judgment or resistance; how thoughts leap from one to the next to the next in tangents, but also how emotion lives and moves in the body. The simple act of sitting with what is, the observation of granular detail, the separation of what one expects from what exists were all familiar. Mindfulness requires us to attend to the world of external detail, but also invites us into the rich world of internal detail by noticing the workings of our own minds and bodies.
The body scan, a cornerstone of mindfulness, revealed my internal world, just as Grade 12 Art revealed the external world. In a body scan, you start at one end of your body, noticing how it feels, spending time with whatever is there— hot, cold, numb, sore, itchy, whatever, just noticing. Not resisting, not wishing it were any other way, but simply feeling it. Then move on to the next body part, going through bit by bit until you’ve felt your whole body.
The body scan helps me find fresh descriptions for interior states. Instead of writing clichés about how my heart pounded or breath caught, it reveals the other, more surprising, ways emotion moves in the body. How vulnerability tingles in the shoulders, or how fear bolts down the hips.
When writing, small, mindful pauses help when I need to access some interior state. I close my eyes, get quiet, and breathe. It takes less than a minute, but in that time I often find a step forward. The mindful pause helps me to sustain attention and maintain access to wilder, unconscious, creative states when I’m getting tired or lazy and want to settle into easy, automatic clichés. When editing, it helps me to cut through to small details, to a moment’s essence. I simply close my eyes and sit with the scene. With memoir, I try to re-experience how it felt in the body.
The artist’s eye and the mindful eye grant authors clear-eyed vision of both inside and outside, revealing, in the quiet, the places where the two meet.
Elaine van der Geld’s fiction has recently been published in Kenyon Review online. Her nonfiction writing has been shortlisted for the EVENT Creative nonfiction award and has been published in Off Our Backs. She works on the editorial board of PRISM International, and is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Find her on Twitter: @elainevan.
March 19, 2019 § 11 Comments
“I just wrote it down, sent it out, and now I feel so much better. It was totally like therapy.”
I get why people say that. In my personal essays, I write narratives that thread through my life, and sometimes that feels really cathartic and revelatory and all of the wonderful things we associate with therapy.
I still need therapy. I believe that everyone deserves to have the opportunity to unpack their experiences with the guidance of an empathetic professional. Not just because it has made me a happier, more well-adjusted person—it has also made me a better writer.
My therapist H. is a psychiatrist and I’ve been working with him for about a year. His office is in Brookline, MA—if you live in Boston, you’re probably nodding because everyone’s therapist is in Brookline. H. is compassionate and thoughtful and incisive, but none of that really matters for my purposes as a writer. What is special about H. is that he practices Internal Family Systems (IFS), which has been incredibly effective for me, especially as a nonfiction writer.
IFS is a therapeutic technique that posits that inside all of us are distinct parts that serve important purposes. As we move through life, our experiences give birth to different elements of our personality, elements that protect and advocate for our central self, sometimes together and sometimes in conflict with one another.
In my case, there’s a big cast of characters. The queen bee is my intellectual part, who steps in to analyze whenever I become remotely uncomfortable. “I see you’re feeling overwhelmingly sad as you talk about the sudden death of your father,” she likes to say, leaning back in her leather armchair, “Let’s redirect—mention an article about grief you once read in The Atlantic!”
My quietly building part tries to keep me on track with long-term good-for-me goals, but she is often neglected: “You have a shelf of books you haven’t read—why are you watching Gossip Girl again?” Then there’s my people pleasing part. She works overtime at cocktail parties and in job interviews, but she’s at her loudest when my mouse hovers over the “submit” button: “You can’t send that essay out, what if it makes people mad?”
If it sounds a little awkward, that’s because it is. Actually, it’s almost unbearably awkward, at least at first. But it’s worked—over the past year or so, I’ve gotten better at understanding the different components of my personality, developing compassion for myself, and gently shifting all the parts of me to work together with something approaching harmony so that I can live the life that I want to live.
It’s no coincidence that my year in therapy has been very fruitful creatively. Once a week, I talk to an audience who expects me not only to tell a story, but to be really clear on who my narrator is. H. will often gently press me—“Kat, I get the sense that another part just jumped in. Is that accurate?” And I have to take a beat and assess: now, who was that speaking? Was it my intellectual part, swept up in analysis and losing the emotional thread? Was it the part of me so desperate to connect with others, she never says anything controversial? Was it my inner warrior, who wants to defend me, even when I have behaved badly? I have to understand, because H. is sitting right there, in the chair across from me, and he wants to understand.
I have started to bring those kinds of questions with me when I sit down to write. As a nonfiction writer, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking of my narrator as me, with baggage I know by heart. But someone reading my work doesn’t know all the parts of me. As an essay writer, I have to introduce myself to my reader over and over again, clearly and concisely, in a way that allows me to get to the truth of what I want to say in a given piece. IFS has forced me to think about which parts of me are driven to write an essay so that I can allow those parts to step forward and be in the spotlight. It’s helped in the crafting of essays, too; I know not to let my intellectual part lean too hard on research, and I dial down my inner warrior so my narrator doesn’t come off as defensive.
It’s easiest to speak the truth when I am really clear on who is speaking.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering: this essay was written by my intellectual part, and my people-pleasing part really hopes you liked it.)
Kat Read owns way too many cookbooks and is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program. Find her online at www.kataread.com.
March 18, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Katey Schultz
One of the most challenging hurdles I’ve faced as a writing teacher is persuading a writer that learning how to work with their imagination is a necessary skill if they want to become their own best editors. What I’m talking about is the difference between the writer who wants to live forever in that hum-buzz-state of generating new work, versus the writer who has matured to realize that generation is only one small part of the process. Slowing down enough to “search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say, hidden inside the sentence you’re making,” as Verlyn Klinkenborg says, is where I personally have the most fun, but it’s an invisible process. How do you teach something you can’t see? How do you articulate a decision you may not even realize you made?
One approach I’ve had some success with is teaching a superstructure for flash fiction and flash nonfiction that I call the present moment ~ flashback ~ present moment structure (how’s that for imaginative?). Working as Writer-in-Residence for Fishtrap in the Oregon public schools, teaching adults at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and MFA candidates in several low-res programs, all have resonated with this approach and a fair number have also been able to “turn a corner” in their own work as writers, finally embracing that revision isn’t just “editing” and it most certainly isn’t boring, either. No, revision is re-visioning, and if we listen to what the structural components of our drafts are telling us, we can revise more confidently as we take our stories where they most need to go.
Here’s a link to a brief video that’s part of an ongoing series of flash craft lessons headlining my blog right now. Learn about the present moment ~ flashback ~ present moment superstructure and how each component builds toward what Stuart Dybek aptly calls the moment when a character’s “yearning shines forth.”
Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War (stories) and the forthcoming novel, Still Come Home, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Ten years ago, she founded Maximum Impact, which provides transformative online curricula for writers, helping them articulate their best work through mentorship and high-touch online classes. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com or follow @kateyschultz
March 15, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Vivian Wagner
David Shields’ The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power is a wide-ranging and sometimes chaotic look at masculinity in our culture, as well as an exploration of his own personal and idiosyncratic experiences as a man.
I have to admit that this is not an easy book to read, not because of the subject matter so much as its strange, free-wheeling structure. Ostensibly addressed to his wife, the book is only partly in Shields’ own voice. Most of the book is actually a wild collage of quotes and paraphrases from books, articles, essays, chatrooms, and interviews. These other sources are cited in brackets at the end of paragraphs, but the citations are cursory, just names or brief mentions of context, and there’s no traditionally academic bibliography to account for them.
Often, while reading this text, I’d come across an interesting passage and mark it, thinking it was part of Shields’ own story, only to find that it was another’s voice or story or comment, something from Brigid Brophy, say, or Bret Easton Ellis or Walt Whitman or Donald Trump.
After being caught this way several times, I realized that the book’s odd structure is not a bug but a feature. It’s what this book is about. It’s a book, at least in part, about resisting a coherent story, about the perils of intimacy, and about the ways that we’re inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live. In the book’s universe, these dozens of other voices are, in all their bewildering and contradictory variety, Shields’ own.
Still, I found myself hunting through the text for Shields. I looked for those passages that were his and his alone. I wanted to know his story. I began to mark those places with a star and “HIS.” And yes, I started to see how these pronouns were inevitably gendering both the text and my response to it.
The few paragraphs that are actually Shields reveal this: He’s writing to his wife. He wants to express both his love for his wife and his frustration with his marriage and himself. He wants to get at what it means to be a man, what it means to be married, and what it means to be on the twenty-first century’s roller coaster of sex and gender.
As he says in a rare moment of straightforward candor in the opening chapter, “This book aims to be a short, intensive immersion into the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy. How did I get this way? What is this way? Our marriage involving this way. Attempt to stop being this way. Implications of being this way.”
Shields explores the ways that he came of age as a man in a culture that equates vulnerability with weakness, and this book struggles against this paradigm. He wants to be vulnerable. He wants to tell a different story. He wants to wade through all the vagaries of male sexuality to discover what’s at its soft heart.
In short, he wants to tell his wife that he loves her.
At the end of the final chapter he finally stops quoting and paraphrasing the cacophony of others. It’s him. HIS, I wrote in the margin: “I dearly/desperately want a real marriage—whatever that means. I think it means two people standing before each other completely naked; does such a thing exist? I don’t know, but in opposition to that essay we read in praise of marriage made of masks, I still want it (the unmasking).”
And then, there’s this direct address, vulnerable and pleading and somehow heartbreaking:
Do you love this book? Do you hate it? Will it mark the end of our marriage? The beginning of it? Putative (true?) goal for this book: a greater intimacy (at a minimum, candor?) between us.
The nicest thing you’ve ever said to me (admittedly, this was an eternity ago—on the inside of a card on our third anniversary):
What you think of as your weakness I think of as your vulnerability, which I love.
This passage is addressed his wife, yes, but it’s also addressed to the reader, who has, perhaps, been addled by the pages full of cultural flotsam to the point of giving up. Don’t give up, Shields seems to say. I’m here. I want to connect. I want to change. I want to be with you. Please don’t leave.
And I didn’t leave. I’m not going anywhere. I’m turning back to the book’s first page to try again.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.