November 16, 2018 § Leave a comment
by Cameron Shenassa
“I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious…” begins the first essay in Erica Trabold’s Five Plots. She is standing in a cave in New Mexico. The cave is dark, and its depths announce an intention for the book. We are going to look into the unknown, to adventure somewhere foreign. What comes as a surprise in this tightly affective collection is that Trabold’s mystery is derived not from forays into unknown places, but from going into a wholly familiar one—her childhood in Nebraska. Whether looking at herself, her family and friends, or the landscape of the Midwest, Trabold uses these essays to ask how we can reconcile familiarity with a place with the mysterious and destabilizing feelings of being far from home, even when we are in it.
Perhaps this is the struggle for all of those who write about the middle of the country: how to render the strangeness of a place we think we know. Just the term “heartland” likely conjures a certain image for many of us, before devolving into the shorthand vocabulary often employed by those who would seek to point to its shortcomings: flat, wide, white, big sky, Republican, etc. Lately that vocabulary of monotony has become laced with tragedy, and we could well add decline, addiction, and others to the list to round out a simplistic modern view of the center of our country. Though these words are an indication of our own complacency, a conviction that “the heartland” can only be the setting for two kinds of stories: one of decay, the other an impossibly retro vision of small town life, pandered to by politicians and desired for the nostalgia it affords us.
Trabold doesn’t exactly push against these assumptions, though she does situate herself as an objective viewer in this terrain. Her life has taken her away from Nebraska, rendering her a complicated stranger upon her return, and though she doesn’t play into the obvious tropes, there is still tragedy, both personal and of the land. One essay focuses on the destructive means of digging used to shape the housing developments where she has come of age. In another essay, a friend’s mother is found dead of suicide at her house in the country. Add to these stories a feeling, one that tinges all the pages of the book, that the author’s absence has alienated her from the Nebraska of her home and childhood. As Trabold writes in one essay: “To the prairie, we are always returning, as if from exile.” It’s this sensation that unites all the pieces in the book. Underneath the daringly staccato forms, one can recognize a familiar story: that of returning home to find it different from when you left.
It’s fitting that many pages of the collection are devoted to chronicling the settling of the area surrounding the Platte River, as Trabold moves from paragraph to paragraph with a current that flows, meanders, seeking meaning through the arrangement of its segments. Trabold relies on implication-through-juxtaposition as an essential tool to create tension and release, and to join disparate narratives together. Though at times, I wondered if this tendency to imply rather than explain didn’t muddy the waters a bit. Particularly in the center essay, “Borrow Pits,” I found a promise of narrative gush reduced to a swirling eddy. I couldn’t figure out how the pieces worked together, or if they had a destination in mind.
Contrast that piece with the brilliantly structured “A List of Concerns,” in which a return trip to Nebraska to reconnect with old friends serves as occasion for a handful of narrative streams to come together, tributaries to each other, with great propulsive effect. Trabold is at her most intimate in this piece, engaging most directly with feelings of betrayal, aware of the lens through which she sees her Nebraska people now, and grappling with it before landing the essay in a deeply unsettling place.
These are the moments when Trabold is most compelling, when she fulfills the promise of mystery, destabilizing the reader in the process. In this tale with tight prose and twisting, highly juxtapositional storytelling, I too was jettisoned into unfamiliar territory, in an unrecognizable place, alone in the heartland, looking around, rediscovering.
Cameron Shenassa is a writer and instructional designer from Chicago. His stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Hobart, PANK, and other places. He is a dual citizen of the US and Luxembourg.
November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Sometimes, when he’s working in rural Colombia, my friend Mau will take advantage of a moment of signal to send me his location. It appears in our chat as a red pin in the middle of a blank, white square with a tag that says something like: Mau: 4,732 millas de distancia. The terrain around him is so remote it is unmarked unless I zoom way out. He is not just far away, he is unreachable.
Memoir writing is often a bid for closure. Memoirists face the challenge of how to get the approval they crave from the people they’re writing about so they can let their story rest in peace. I had Mau’s blessing to write our story, but I didn’t want closure, I wanted him here.
November 2017 was the last time we were in the same place. I visited him in Bogotá and instead of touring the city, he arranged a series of photoshoots re-creating romantic scenes in iconic movies, but with my wheelchair in them. What started as re-creations became real romance. I wrote everything down. What we said, what happened, how it felt to me. I sent it to him.
“What do you think?” I asked. I was asking as a woman. I wanted to know if I got it right. Was it just me? Do you feel this way, too? But I am also a writer. I publish the stories I write. On Instagram, on my blog, on the internet, for the public.
Mau’s work restricts what he reveals about himself in public. My work is the exact opposite. So I was also asking, “Is this ok to say?”
When I send subjects my writing, I sometimes get minor corrections, and always happy permission. But Mau gave me more than permission, he got into it. His suggestions went beyond protecting his work into line edits on mine.
“I hate the word ‘aqua,’ and I think ‘saltily bobbing’ sounds weird,” he said about one of my early vignettes.
I responded with impeccable calm: “Editors don’t tell writers what words to use! I pick each word very carefully. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS!!!! Also, the Mediterranean Sea is aqua when the sun hits it.”
He doesn’t get it, I whimpered to myself. But I also had to admit his input was remarkably good.
“I think the ‘ghostwriter’ thing is perfect, and the piece should end there. I would cut the last two paragraphs that feel like they might be part of another piece.”
Mau was right. But more than that, his investment in my writing felt like intimacy.
I kept writing about us until I had 8,000 words of an essay that didn’t feel complete.
“I think you need to put in everything that happened. Not just the photo shoots, but when we met, and all of that. Even the ugly bits,” Mau told me.
I took the classic writing advice, opened a vein and bled on the page until I was over 12,000 words.
It took two months before Mau could read through it. An agony to any writer. A time that seemingly brushed past him without much concern for my suffering.
“I want to be able to devote myself to it,” he said, when I pestered.
“Yes. That’s good,” I said, without relief. It would be easy to wait if I just wanted his approval. But I wanted his devotion.
Finally, he took the essay to the library in Bogotá. “It’s very beautiful and romantic, I love libraries.” He sent me two emails worth of notes.
I had hated the waiting.
I resisted his notes even more.
I loved every second of his attention on the longest and most personal writing project I had ever undertaken.
“You need a punchier beginning,” he wrote. “My speech is too long. Starting with it somehow makes it seem like the focus of the essay is on my bisexuality/HIV.”
“The beginning is so flawless.” I said, demonstrating how I would prefer he commented. “Using your whole speech makes the reader wonder how you could be cynical about love, while I feel so sure we are falling in love at the same moment. I love that part!”
“It’s just that it reads to me like the thing is about ME, and it’s about US. But I see what you mean. Maybe just breaking up that paragraph into two at, “eating off his plate”?
I broke the paragraph in two.
Early in our collaborating, when his first suggestions involved deferring to the bureaucracy he works for instead of the integrity of the piece, I emailed my writer-friend Misha, in a fit of tangled appreciation and frustration. She responded:
To include him in the writing, you have to relinquish some control. Is this something we have to do to include people in our lives more generally speaking? Is this a challenge that will absolutely constrain your work, or after the understandable frustration subsides, might there be a creative possibility that will allow you say what you want while ensuring it’s in bounds for Mau?
She was right. I was bristling against the constraints exactly as I would if he was living in my space and making me adjust my solitary life to his presence. We had decided to not be in a long-distance relationship, but inside my writing we were…relating. Arguing, reaching for understanding, connecting, collaborating, compromising.
When memoirists write about those we love, we risk a harrowing disapproval of how we saw and experienced things. We also risk the equally harrowing experience of being seen as we are and accepted.
If Mau and I had proximity, our affection could be physical. And if it ever came to that, as a writer, I would feel nostalgic for this. For 4,732 millas de distancia, with nothing but white space, a blank page, and his attention, waiting for me to fill it with words.
Erin Clark has been published in 21+1: The Fortune Teller’s Rules, and Life as Ceremony Vol 4. Her essay “Pee Spot” won Beecher’s literary award for non-fiction (as judged by Joy Castro). Her most recent work is Love All The Way, a mini digital memoir weaving video clips and professional photographic recreations of classic romantic movie scenes with Erin as heroine, her wheelchair on full display. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Photo credit: Diego Moncayo
November 13, 2018 § 17 Comments
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.
Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.
Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?
You want to write a bestseller.
You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.
Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.
You’re still here?
No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.
There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.
Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!
Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.
Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.
Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.
Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.
Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.
We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.
Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”
I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.
OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!
Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.
November 12, 2018 § 4 Comments
We are proud to announce our nominees for the 2018 Pushcart Prize anthology and Best American Essays. The choice wasn’t easy in any way, because we’ve once again been blessed with so many talented writers and outstanding essays, but we’ve narrowed it down and sent off our nomination packets to the editors of the Pushcart and BAE anthologies. You can read the nominated essays by following the links just below. Congratulations everyone, and thanks to everyone for sending us your stellar work.
Our 2018 Pushcart nominees:
Solving for X
by PAM DURBAN
Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet
by LANCE LARSEN
Women These Days
by AMY BUTCHER
The Farmers’ Almanac Best Days for Breeding
by JOHN A. MCDERMOTT
Ace of Spades
by JULIE MARIE WADE
by XUJUN EBERLEIN
Our 2018 Best American Essays nominees:
The six essays listed above, as well as:
by BEVERLY DONOFRIO
by FLEDA BROWN
What I Took
by HEATHER SELLERS
November 9, 2018 § 3 Comments
by Margaret L. Whitford
“My mother saw demons,” begins Kelly J. Beard’s stunning debut memoir. Though I feared the narrator would show me the cruelty and violence of her parents’ chosen faith, she does so with such a commitment to understanding the sources of her family’s suffering that I had to follow her narrative.
Religious fundamentalism and poverty, the latter made worse by the former, fracture the narrator’s family into unrecoverable pieces. Only her parents appear unscathed by the “steel belt” of their faith. They remain devoted to each other, their intimate and loving relationship a stark contrast to the isolation of their children.
“Over the years, I’ve wondered,” Beard writes, “why it seems other families endure similar or greater deprivations without siblings turning rivalrous or mean…. I wonder what particular ingredient combined to make our compound combustible. Our father’s complicated anger? Our mother’s changeable heart? Or that one singularly unstable ingredient: their hard faith?”
Beard examines all three influences from the perspective of a sensitive and perceptive child and that of an adult looking back, the two voices essential to memoir. Some of the most beautiful passages arise when both of these narrators co-exist. “It was the last time I remember our family laughing together. We were headed into mean years none of us could see. Still, when Dad turned the car around, we all looked back, staring at the road behind us as though our laughter were a tangible presence lingering there, dark swifts in twilight, darting and diving before vanishing into the distance.”
A quiet grief, evident in this passage, infuses much of An Imperfect Rapture. Regret, I am starting to believe, is an emotion with which all memoirists struggle, a tendency to engage in if only thinking in our examinations of the past. My regrets are not the same as Beard’s, but I recognize the feeling.
Organized in three parts, the memoir follows a loose chronology that begins with the narrator as a small child and concludes with her graduation from college. The third section, aptly titled, “Taking Leave,” focuses on the ways in which the narrator pursues distance as a strategy for self-realization. She recognizes that her survival depends on leaving, in both a psychic and physical sense, the literal and figurative desert of her childhood. She studies first in France, and then, following graduation, departs for the Pacific Northwest, a place where no one knows her and where she might “fathom” her own heart.
I also looked to travel overseas as a means to claim something separate from my family, starting with study in France. And, like Beard, I came to understand that the distance I needed to achieve was more complicated than mere geography.
Beard’s journey is primarily a spiritual one in search of her own inner voice, a whisper more powerful than the bellowing of the God of her youth, “an omnipotent schizophrenic,” whose “moments of grace were stitched into years of grief.” And yet, the narrator recognizes and cherishes these rare instances of grace—in the survival of a beloved dog, in the time to pursue the wrong questions until the right ones emerge. Rather than accept the punishing dualism of religious fundamentalism, whose lingering influence she acknowledges, she nurtures a more complex and healing faith.
In a book rich with vivid description, one image stands out for me—a small wooden table the narrator’s father gives her. He’d crafted the piece when he was twelve years old, the first thing he’d ever made. Proud of his accomplishment, he gave the table to his father, whose only response was to put his cigarette out on the wood’s smooth surface, leaving a permanent scar. The narrator keeps the table in the passenger seat as she departs for the Pacific Northwest. “It comforted me to feel the wood’s grain in its scalloped legs, to stroke its smooth surface, to whorl my finger around a scar he could never buff away,” Beard tells us.
Some wounds leave marks. The key to living with grace, it seems to me, is to balance recognition of the scars with an appreciation of the beauty that remains.
Margaret L. Whitford is a writer focused on personal essay and memoir. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, The Fourth River, Brevity, and elsewhere.
November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”
The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.
[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]
Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.
In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.
Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:
Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.
This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”
Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.