My Writing Garret

August 8, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Nancy L. Agneberg

I write in a garret.

Do you imagine, when you read those words, someone perched on a window seat in the uppermost floor of a dignified English manor? Is a refined-looking young woman gazing dreamily out at a meadow abundant with summer wildflowers? Perhaps she holds a small leather-bound journal and an exquisite fountain pen. Soon a maid will bring her a cup of tea and a biscuit and ask, “Is there anything else you need, miss?”

What a lovely picture.  Aristocratic, serene, and cultivated.  

My reality, however, is a bit different. 

When our realtor introduced us several years ago to our current home, a 1920’s bungalow in a midwestern city, I was not impressed, for it felt dull and drab. The kitchen was the size of many suburban closets. The living room was long and narrow, and I wondered where to anchor our couch. 

Our realtor, however, uninfluenced by my concerns, could hardly wait for me to go up the stairs to the finished half-story. “Wait till you see your new writing space. You will fall in love,” she coaxed.

And I did.

I love my garret.

A garret is defined as an attic, usually cramped, but doesn’t the word sound more inviting than that? My garret is a private and quiet space, an escape from the normal functioning of our household. A space where I reflect on the meaning and gifts of my life. A space where I play with and arrange words.

At the top of the stairs are two large windows where I have hung a string of twinkle lights. Two skylights add to the brightness and airiness of the space, and the walls are lined with bookshelves and built-in drawers. I often begin my day reading, meditating, and journal writing in a comfortable chair tucked into a nook. Upholstered in vintage tablecloths, the Girlfriend Chair was once located in a feminine-looking guest bedroom. 

My husband and I found most of the furniture—bookshelves, desk, tables—on antiquing jaunts. In our previous home, the shabby chic desk painted turquoise served as my vanity. I stored brushes, lipstick, and creams in baskets on the desk’s open shelves. Now my laptop, along with pages of my in-progress memoir, waiting for the latest revision, have taken over, and the baskets are piled with pens and markers, notebooks, and files.

The view from my desk—no meadow of waving wildflowers—is merely the roof of our garage, but occasionally, I see a squirrel or two frolic across the shingles. When the windows are open, the gurgle-burble of a tabletop fountain distracts me from the urban sounds of sirens and garbage trucks and neighborhood children playing tag or bouncing on a backyard trampoline.

This is where I write. My sanctuary.

I am not alone, however. Many years ago, after my mother died, I met with a psychic, and she told me I have two companions with me when I write. One is a   Native American man named Tony, and he stands behind my chair. He encourages me, she said, to always write the truth. The other is an English woman from the Victorian era. The psychic didn’t know her name, but she told me this woman wanted to be a writer herself, and now she reminds me to follow my dreams, to practice my craft, to create time and space for my work. I think they both approve of my garret.

Perhaps you prefer to write in a public space, a coffee shop or a library’s reference room, and occasionally, I like that, too. Before the pandemic, I sometimes drove an hour away to the college campus where I got my bachelor’s degree and where I met my husband. I set up temporary office space in the new science building. This new building has an area with tables and chairs arranged by huge windows, looking out over a beautiful valley. Between classes students sit and talk at one of the other tables, but for the most part it is quiet. Being in a new space inspires me and encourages me to welcome a new perspective. 

Returning home, I bring the energy of my away day with me and once again I shelter in the garret. Most days I only leave for lunch or to throw another load of laundry into the washer or sometimes to do errands—grocery shop or pick up books from the library or a grandchild from school. And when I descend late afternoon to begin fixing dinner for my husband and myself, he often asks me, “Did you accomplish what you wanted to?” 

If I wrote several more pages of my memoir or started a new essay or found just the right quotation to use in a blog post, I say with honesty, “Yes.” Somedays, however, as ideas percolate, I spend the day browsing my extensive library of theology and spirituality books but may not write a word. I know that is ok, for writing takes time and patience and a willingness to follow threads of interest and possibility.

No matter the task of the day, no matter what I accomplished or if I feel productive or not, the garret supports me with its energy of acceptance, trust, and retreat.

Do you have a garret—a special place, that is, that inspires your creativity and shelters you when you need quiet and restoration? If you don’t have that space yet, imagine what it would look like. What do you need in your own garret space? How can you create that for yourself? I would love to know.

*

Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose spiritual practices include writing, reading and studying, hometending, walking the labyrinth, and doing T’ai Chi. One of the many delights in her life is facilitating a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words, Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice. 

Her essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; Monk in the World; Minnesota Women’s Press; and Coping with Cancer. Agneberg posts every Tuesday and Thursday on her blog, www.livingonlifeslabyrinth.com.  

Get Out There Like Gaga

August 5, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Jason Prokowiew

On the press junket for A Star is Born, compilation videos show Lady Gaga repeating the story of how no one wanted to cast her as an actor, but Bradley Cooper did. She said:  “There can be 100 people in the room and 99 don’t believe in you. And you just need one to believe in you, and that was him.” Though I laughed at the repetition, I took the story to heart. If Lady Gaga could stomach rejection, couldn’t I? Is success a numbers game built around not giving up?

Today, I applied for a writing residency at Millay Arts as part of my commitment to submit my work 100 times in 2022, be it to residencies, fellowships, magazines, or potential agents or editors. As I hit submit on my second application to the program in four months after getting a perfectly nice rejection in May, I reached my goal five months early. 

Before this year, I’d submitted my writing sporadically; each rejection knocked me off my game. By not submitting, I kept myself safe from the feeling of rejection…and also kept myself pretty safely removed from getting published. 

As someone as dedicated to his weekly therapy sessions as he is his writing, I’ve tracked where this fear comes from with my therapist. Growing up as the fattest kid in my school, I was significantly ostracized from social circles. I was also clocked pretty easily by my peers as “gay” even before I knew I was. I lived that stereotype of the kid picked last in gym class—and picked on first. 

In therapy I’ve considered how any sort of rejection registers not only as truth about my skills but also my very worth; whereas support for my work registers as luck or sympathy. For decades, I’ve applied this formula with almost no active thought. 

When I was a junior in high school, I gained some traction with my writing, and my angst-ridden, coming-out poetry dominated the pages of my high school literary magazine, in a year when the magazine’s faculty advisor was a sabbatical replacement. When the regular advisor returned my senior year, I heard rumor that he was disappointed in the quality of last year’s magazine, where all my work had landed. I heard his rumored opinion as truth, and it was only in this past year, in my forties, that I challenged these thoughts, and recognized that his “nay” felt like an indictment of my fraudulent posing as a writer, and an absolute truth. As a second example, when I was applying to college writing workshops, one professor told me I wasn’t ready for her advanced, selective classes. Another admitted me to his courses and encouraged me for years. I wondered, though—was the first professor honest and the second merely kind?

Between 2004, when I began tentatively querying agents about my memoir, and the start of 2022, I only submitted my work to about 20 agents or publications. Each rejection felt like a validation of what the naysayers said, and I slinked back to my laptop, trying to muster courage to try again. I often didn’t find it. 

Recently I’ve been encouraged by the writer Emily May, a member of my writing group, who published a piece last fall that had been rejected more than a dozen times. I asked her about her resilience and saw the image of her on our Zoom workshop explaining that with each rejection she brushes off her shoulder and says, “Okay, next,” and tries again. If my brave, talented colleague could move past rejection, couldn’t I?

I also felt ready this year—weekly therapy sessions on the schedule—to face rejections, feel my way through them, and decide what to do with them: let them be the end of trying or just brief hurdles. Each rejection got easier and sank in far less. I’ve practiced brushing off my shoulder like May, and it felt good, a reminder that I can choose to give opinions the weight of dust or the world. 

So far, in my year of 100 submissions, I’ve received 49 rejections, 19 acceptances, and have 32 pending submissions. After some of my work was published, I connected in new ways with estranged my family, often featured in my writing. I’ve been to a writing residency in Tennessee where I wrote two new pieces, an essay and a book review, that were accepted for publication. I have six more residencies on my schedule in the next 18 months. I’ve received eight full manuscript requests from agents, and recently recorded a story I wrote for an episode of the television program Stories from the Stage. The benefits of putting myself out there are great, but more importantly, the fear that once stopped me from submitting—the fear of the omnipresent “no”—doesn’t stop me now. 

That “one out of 100” person I needed to believe in my writing was me. 

*

Jason Prokowiew earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. He’s the author of Raised by Wolves, a braided memoir about his Russian father’s adoption by Nazis during World War II and how his father’s trauma carried into parenthood. His writing has appeared in Scene Magazine, Edge Media, and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. He recently graduated from GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. He’s received residencies and grants from Sundress Academy for the Arts, Prospect Street Writers’ House, Gullkistan Center for Creativity, Write On, Door County, and a Contributor Award in Nonfiction for the 2022 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He runs his own law office dedicated to disability advocacy.

Dear Me, Sincerely You: First Drafts, To-Do Lists & the Forever-Present in Life Writing

August 4, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Dr. Sarah Barnette

Dear Me,

Upon commencement of your task to complete the first full draft of your memoir, I write a set of instructions for its completion.

  1. Your Primary Goal: To complete a Minimum Viable Product of your book in its entirety. It does not have to be perfect. It has to be on the page.
  2. Reminder: you are writing memoir and therefore must tackle the tension that exists between preserving the nature of memory and providing narrative structure. Mimic the way you remember (always be true to this element of your thinking) but also, be like the hermit crab in need of a foreign creature’s shell. Use your claw—a part of yourself—as a measuring tool and select a structure that holds your memories best, allowing room for development and growth.
  3. Use Scrivener. You’ve bought it; now use it. And use it well. Mark resources, arrange notes, identify key words, plot character development.
  4. Meditate upon the concept of parallel lives. This has come up in your writing again and again. It is something every reader can experience as personally relevant. The choices we make delimit our lives. You will never study medicine. You will never wear a white wedding dress. You will never again take communion. But our parallel lives never fully disappear. They find ways to run alongside us, within view, out of reach. Write into this.   
  5. Layer what you knew then, living in St. Andrews from 2010 to 2012, with what you know now. Do not be afraid to conduct research. The geological, the historical, the medical, the religious, the mystical, the superstitious. If you find it interesting, trust that your readers will too; if you find it relevant to telling your story, trust that readers will not be able to imagine your book without it.
  6. When your mind asks specific questions, see how far you can go in learning the answers but do not—I repeat, do not—think that you must have answers. To paraphrase Hilary Mantel: books are better as questions than as answers. Put another way: your job is not to solve mysteries but to render them accurately.
  7. Say namaz, the five daily prayers. Listen to recitations of the Quran in early mornings or late evenings. Your rituals—even small ones, like the way you prepare tea from half a sachet of Joshanda—will find ways into your prose. Let them.
  8. Drink water. Stay hydrated.
  9. Consider The Prophet (1923) by Khalil Gibran, the first book Hussain lent to you after you became friends in St. Andrews. It startled something awake within you as you read it at your desk in student accommodation, sitting as you did beneath your poster of William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott (1905) with her wild hair and frantic weaving. That copy of Gibran is still with you, now that Hussain’s library of books has joined yours.
  10. Whenever you come up against an aspect of yourself or your story that you are not prepared to divulge in writing, read this aphorism from The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence by Baltasar Gracián: “In your affairs, create suspense. […] It bespeaks mystery in everything and, with this very secrecy, arouses awe. Even when explaining yourself, you should avoid complete frankness.” You retain the right to keep certain cards to yourself.
  11. Another version of the above, for moments of vulnerability: there is a firm line between life as it is lived and life as it is rendered on the page. Remember this.
  12. Monitor your caffeine intake. 
  13. Keep close that manifesto (of a kind) you wrote, about what to do when memory is absent or vague. Honor the gaps. Acknowledge the spaces. Do not pretend they are not there. Breathe into them. See their poetry. Plant Blue Flowers. Like the Blue Flower of Novalis, of German Romanticism. You were studying Romanticism in St. Andrews then. Build the beauty of that coursework into your narrative. Let memory be frail; invite readers to learn alongside you.
  14. Lists, grids, tables, epistles—these forms organize thoughts, clear a path, deliver purpose. Use them, as I do here, to unlock what is waiting to be released.
  15. Do not be concerned with who this memoir is for, nor with those who may not be happy that you are writing it. Do not be anxious about your future self’s view of things. Ask yourself, instead, what it is we are doing when we think about our future or past selves. Are we investing or divesting? Are we dedicated or distracted?
  16. Reflect. We tell stories to make sense of ourselves; we read others’ stories to make sense of ourselves. Do not write for yourself “now,” nor for yourself “then.” Do not write, even, for your future self. Write for the reader, for the present readerly moment. For persons to glimpse past and future pressed into the forever-present.
  17. When you are ready, print your manuscript. Review it, pen in hand. At the end of every page, make a note of the knowledge a reader has gained and the emotions they are likely to be feeling. Chart this progression. Is it what you want it, or need it, to be?
  18. The time will come to round it out, to round it off. But, even then, imperfection is allowed, even needed. Think of Ruskin, that imperfection is essential: “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.”
  19. Make yourself omelets. Add lots of vegetables and cheese. Once in a while, treat yourself to an ice cream and a walk along the coast.

Sincerely,

You

_________________________________

Sarah Barnette is a Guest Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Copenhagen. She has an MLitt in Romantic and Victorian Studies from the University of St. Andrews and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Her work has been published in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, The Publications of the English Goethe Society, The Journal of Victorian Culture Online, RenovatioOC87, and Behind the Scenes at Nuneaton Museum. She leads experimental writing workshops with Beyond Form Creative Writing and freelances as a writing mentor. Her current project is a hybrid memoir about religious conversion and parallel lives. Find her on Twitter @DrSarahBarnette.

Don’t Start at the Very Beginning

August 2, 2022 § 20 Comments

By Allison K Williams

When Julie Andrews sang “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music, she stressed the building blocks. Her seven Austrian stepchildren-to-be needed to understand the scale before yodeling their heartfelt emotions through the Alps. As writers, we need building blocks, too—a sense of the seeds of our story, the events in our background shaping our family’s behavior and our own, our cast of characters, an overview of the dramatic structure.

Our readers don’t need this information.

There are four future memoirists in this picture

Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start. Following a classic “worst part of the problem” prologue with chapters of backstory leaves the reader asking when we’re going to get to the good part. If your childhood is the story, great! But if the bulk of your dramatic action takes place in adulthood, get the reader there quickly. You can always flash back later if there’s a key childhood moment that explains, justifies or undermines the present dramatic action.

Readers, agents and editors make decisions—often subconsciously—from the first sentence, first paragraph and first page. Will continuing to read be an effort of will or an act of obligation? Or will the story scoop them up and carry them along?

Three common mistakes that disconnect readers from your first-page(s):

1) Starting with backstory. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter plunge the reader into the story? Or is it environment, set-up, or explanation of events to come? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph, maybe even the first two paragraphs.

For a book, see what’s actually needed in the first 50 pages. Ask a friend who hasn’t read the manuscript (and ideally, doesn’t know your story) to read pages 50-70, with no preliminaries. Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier. Have the reader also list what they wish they knew or didn’t understand. Keep those elements from the first 50 pages, but consider whether they belong before, or should be woven in later.

2) Prologue-as-overview. Editing memoir manuscripts, I see an awful lot of prologues summarizing the story to come, carefully laying out the upcoming difficulties in dealing with the situation described on the back cover. It’s common to be worried that the reader won’t “get it,” and as memoirists, this is a scary proposition. What if someone reads my story and doesn’t understand me? What if I don’t make sense? But explaining the plot in advance distances the reader and removes dramatic tension.

We already know you’re going to make it—you wrote a book about it. Keep us guessing how you’ll get to the end of the book. Take a long, hard look at your prologue—is it making an enticing promise to the reader about a powerful dramatic element or intriguing character they’ll meet later? Or is it an overview of why you’re telling this story, listing key moments and situations to come, explaining “why I’m like this”?

3) Too many nouns. When multiple people, places and things are immediately introduced, the reader doesn’t know who or what is important. If the essay opens with six family members are at the dinner table, which ones should they carefully remember? If the reader encounters a detailed group in your opening paragraphs, they get confused and mentally back off, trying to see the bigger picture and decide what/who matters. They can also start wondering if this essay is aligned with their interests, instead of getting hooked by connecting with a key character or theme in the first page.

Count the number of nouns in your opening paragraph or page. If there are more than three people, places or things, ask yourself if the reader can track them—and why they’d want to.

If your memoir has a technical element (like sailing or horseback riding) or takes place in a specific subculture (like a particular religion or ethnic group), get the reader into the flow of the story before breaking down individual unfamiliar elements. If you’re in a racially or ethnically distinct group, you don’t have to “tour guide” your culture for white readers. Rather than defining unfamiliar words or practices, let readers outside your experience bond with your larger purpose and teach themselves the details from context—there’s always Google if they’re stuck.

As for “Do-Re-Mi”? To be honest, I’d cut those first two lines. Sure, the deer is an interesting sub-character, but you could get her in later when she directly affects the action. And do we really need to know it’s sunny right away? Start with who “Mi” is, establish there’s a long, long way to run, and start running.

Allison K Williams is the Brevity Blog’s Social Media Editor. Struggling with your beginning? Join Allison and Creative Nonfiction Magazine for Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings August 24th (yes, there’s a replay!) More info/register here.

How Truthful are Memoirs?

August 1, 2022 § 27 Comments

In his essay “How Truthful are Memoirs?”, Roy Peter Clark, a journalist and Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, offers a detailed list of ten “rigorous steps to an honest form of writing,” making a firm argument that there is a clear line between fact and fiction in memoir. We present his steps below, followed by a link to the full essay (featuring Mary Karr and Vivian Gornick). We’d love for you to weigh in through our comment section as to your level of agreement with Clark’s standards:

  1. Any degree of fabrication turns a story from nonfiction into fiction, which must be labeled as such. (A story cannot be a little fictional.)
  2. The writer, by definition, may distort reality by subtraction (the way a photo is cropped), but is never allowed to distort by adding material to nonfiction that the writer knows did not happen.
  3. Characters that appear in nonfiction must be real individuals, not composites drawn from a number of persons. While there are occasions when characters can or should not be named, giving characters fake names is not permitted. (They can be identified by an initial, a natural status “The Tall Woman,” or a role “The Accountant.”)
  4. Writers of nonfiction should not expand or contract time or space for narrative efficiency. (Ten conversations with a source that took place in three locations cannot be merged into a single conversation in a single location.)
  5. Invented dialogue is not permitted. Any words in quotations marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source.  Remembered conversations — especially from the distant past — should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation, such as indented dashes: — like this –.
  6. We reject the notion in all of literature of a “higher truth,” a phrase that has been used too often as a rationalization in nonfiction for making things up. It is hard enough, and good enough, to attempt to render a set of “practical truths.”
  7. Aesthetic considerations must be subordinated — if necessary — to documentary discipline.
  8. Nonfiction does not result from a purely scientific method, but responsible writers will inform audiences on both what they know and how they know it. The sourcing in a book or story should be sufficient so that another reporter or researcher or fact-checker, acting in good faith, could follow the tracks of the original reporter and find comparable results.
  9. Unless working in fantasy, science fiction, or obvious satire, all writers, including novelists and poets, have an affirmative duty to render the world accurately through their own research and detective work. 
  10. The escape clause: There may be occasions, when the writer can think of no other way to tell a story than through the use of one or more of these “banned” techniques. The burden is on the writer to demonstrate that this is so. To keep faith with the reader, the writer should become transparent concerning narrative methods. A detailed note to readers should appear AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WORK to alert them of the standards and practices of the writer.

_____

You can read Clark’s full essay here at Poynter.org, and please take some time to let us know your thoughts, agreements, disagreements, questions.

Writing What I Don’t Remember

July 28, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Helen Bouchami

For the first two years of my life I lived, with my parents, in the coal cellar of my grandparents’ boarding house. In the immediate post-war years, housing was scarce, but other rooms in the house, proper bedrooms, were available but kept locked, reserved for visitors who might seek respite from the ‘dark satanic mills’ of inland Lancashire in this, their favourite seaside resort.

I suspect this experience had a profound psychological effect on me, the more potent for being unconscious. But how to write about what I don’t remember?

At a Rebirth Your Book writing retreat in Tuscany last October, a prompt by Dinty W. Moore led me to tackle this very challenge.

What were my sources?

  • What my father told me
    That although our living quarters were in the cellar, we had a bed – just one – in an attic room, too small to accommodate a cot. So, I wrote:

At night, my parents plucked me from the cot and carried me up the cellar steps, then two flights more, to the tiny room beneath the eaves, barely large enough for the one double bed.

  • Written materials
    From a short story my father wrote, using the cellar as a setting:

The whitewashed brick walls bore pencilled scribblings where the previous occupant, an undertaker, had calculated coffin measurements – length, width, depth –here a six-footer, there a tiny baby. So many lives reduced to scrawling on a cellar wall.

  • My mother’s recollections
    She described the animosity with which were treated. My grandmother often locked her (and me in my pushchair) out of the house, shouting abuse through the door, and if, when passing through the kitchen, I ventured a ‘Hello Grandma,’ she turned her back.

Was I so unappealing as a toddler, so unworthy of a grandmother’s doting attention, unwanted, unloved? I would later understand that the sins of the father had been visited upon me, but not before I internalised these messages, made more powerful because of my lack of childish understanding.
 It must be me.

  • Locale Visits
    I’ve seen the boarding house from the outside (my grandparents later moved)

The only daylight penetrating the gloom of the basement came from a grating, standing some two feet above ground level, and casting prison-bar shadows across the bare floor.

  • Photographs

From tiny black and white images, I know my parents took me to Blackpool’s Stanley Park.

There I sit, a tuft of fine dark hair sticking up in a quiff, plump legs splayed beneath the skirt of a white dress, my hands reaching for a beachball. My father lounges alongside on the grass, formally dressed in jacket and tie.

  • Research
    I know the park well from later visits, and online research confirmed that the buildings and layout hadn’t changed over the years. But before I speculated that feeding the ducks might have been an obvious activity for a toddler, I also discovered that bread rationing was in force.

At the nearby boating lake, ducks and swans clamoured for crusts but few, residents, or visitors, could spare any bread from their ration. And the art deco café, overlooking the formal Italian gardens, guarded by two stone Medici lions, could offer no more than a cup of tea while post-war privations endured. But whatever its limitations, the park offered respite from our living quarters, where hostility seeped out of every brick of that house, that cellar.

  • Imagination
    Otherwise, I relied on my imagination, signalling it as such

Though neither of my parents mentioned it, I don’t imagine a coal cellar offering en-suite facilities. Perhaps they made use of a guest bathroom. I picture my mother, in her flowered tabard apron, bent over a bathtub scrubbing clothes or bathing me, straightening occasionally to ease her back, her belly big with my yet-unborn brother.

Or about the bed, I speculated-

It was probably my mother’s before her marriage. She had arrived at the boarding house in search of work at the age of fourteen, freshly escaped from the convent orphanage where she had been confined since she was six, until this, her last, and finally successful, breakout. Knowing her love of reading, I imagine her escaping the drudgery and ostracism of her day in the pages of a book. Would my grandmother have afforded her the luxury of a bedside lamp, or the use of electricity into the later hours, or did she read covertly, by torchlight under the blankets? By the time the war started, my parents were courting, but even on leave periods, I doubt that they ever shared a bed before marriage, given my mother’s convent conditioning and my grandparents’ disapproval of this match.

But almost certainly, this was the bed in which I was conceived.

These sources: photos, visits, research, photos, what I’d been told and what I’d read are at least as reliable as the personal memories from which I create my memoir – a scaffolding, the warp threads of my canvas, though which I can weave the weft of my imagination, adding detail and colour.

Helen Bouchami is a UK-based writer and author of a memoir, Am I Still a Mother? When not writing, she keeps busy squandering her grandchildren’s inheritance on travel, the arts and good champagne. Find her on Twitter.

The Brevity Blog: Should We Rebrand?

July 27, 2022 § 58 Comments

As both Brevity (the magazine of original essays) and The Brevity Blog (discussions of craft and the writing life) both grow and expand their audience, we see more and more folks confusing the two. That’s not a huge problem, and mainly we are just happy you are here, but maybe some folks don’t realize we have twice the flavor.

So a small thought for a late July Wednesday: should we rebrand The Brevity Blog as The BrevityBlog, or maybe just BrevityBLOG to make the distinction more apparent?

Vote in the comments, and thanks in advance:

Finding Joy in the Struggle: Kathleen Rooney’s “Where Are the Snows”

July 26, 2022 § 5 Comments

Kathleen Rooney, photo by Beth Rooney

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore sat down to discuss the line between essay and prose poem with Kathleen Rooney, author of Where Are the Snows, chosen for the 2021 X.J. Kennedy Prize by Kazim Ali, who calls the work “a smart, fierce, and intelligent take on contemporary life that everyone should read.”

Rooney’s book is also heartbreaking and wickedly funny

And hard to classify.

 *

DINTY: It strikes me that so many of these poems could easily be presented as flash essays, albeit quirky and unusual flash essays. Do you have a pivot point where you see prose poem turning into essay, or vice versa. Is it simply a matter of honesty vs. imagination, or something more to do with form?

KATHLEEN: One of the differences between a poem and an essay, for me, is how much of the connecting is going to be done by the reader in comparison to how much is going to be done for them by the writer. In an essay, even a fragmentary one which eschews transitions, there’s usually a grouping or an order that suggests stronger connections or relationships from one chunk of content to the next. In a poem, you can be more elliptical and suggestive. I see the stanzas of these prose poems as operating more associatively than argumentatively or narratively, and in an essay—though of course there are exceptions—that’s not as much the case.

DINTY: That is a fresh, and fascinating, delineation of where the prose poem ends and essay begins, one I haven’t seen articulated so clearly before now. Of course, we published one of the poems from Where Are the Snows in Brevity recently, “The Sweet and Fleshy Product of a Tree or Other Plant” (as an essay of course) and I’m struck by how what seems at first a simple meditation on fruit builds into something more political, spiritual, and complex. That happens again and again in the book; ideas come out of nowhere and the experience of reading takes a fascinating turn, one that seems entirely necessary by the time we reach the bottom of the page. Can you talk about how this works, and your deeper intentions with this book?

KATHLEEN: Thank you! As you know, I am fascinated with these sorts of questions and distinctions and like to explore them in my own work and in the work that Abby Beckel and I publish with Rose Metal Press. It’s cool to me that “The Sweet…” is hybrid enough to hop back and forth over whatever fence can be said to exist between prose poem and essay. There’s a feeling I associate with childhood of looking super-hard at a seemingly simple object – the square in a window-screen, a pine needle, a fleck of glitter – and then tumbling into a kind of Grand Canyon of contemplation, just free-falling past layer after layer, stratum after stratum of realization and association and even politicization and argumentation. It’s a sensation of curiosity with no bottom, a potentially infinite feeling of being mesmerized by the tiniest thing, which then goes from being tiny to infinitely huge. With each piece in the book, I tried to have a given topic in mind – fruit, like you say, or cemeteries or birthdays or the priesthood or real estate – and then let myself free fall through my thoughts and emotions on that topic for as long as possible until I felt like the writing was done and I’d reached some new understanding of whatever I’d been looking at.

DINTY:  And then there is humor. Where Are the Snows is a very sly book, and despite some deadly-serious commentary on the dire state of our world today, the individual poems, essays, or whatchamacallits are packed with tongue-in-cheek surprises, even, at times, unexpected joy. “Can beginner’s luck apply from moment to moment?” you ask. “Not sure, but I hope so.”

Well, we all should be so lucky. So tell me, is the mix of humor and hard reality an intentional move, or does it just come to you naturally?

KATHLEEN: I am so happy you found it funny because I meant for it to be hilarious and for the humor to be entertaining, but also maybe to serve a political end. In his essay “Funny, but Not Vulgar,” George Orwell says, “A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Right now in America, the right-wing is adept at being funny in a manner that is vulgar, offensive, and frightening; their proudly coarse and deliberately ignorant and false forms of humor are proving effective for their oppressive, exclusionary, and destructive aims. I want the left to have more fun and get funnier too. Seeking solidarity through humor and fellow feeling could help combat a lot of the self-seriousness, dreariness, and grievance that make the left prone to eat its own, and could help us channel our energy into avenues that, as Orwell mentions, could be revolutionary. Finding joy in the struggle, as the saying goes, is one of the things I hope this book evokes.

___

Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and author of Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction, among other books.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose poetry on demand. Her most recent books include the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, and her criticism appears in The New York TimesThe Chicago Review of BooksThe Brooklyn RailThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay, and teaches at DePaul. Her novel From Dust to Stardust is forthcoming from Lake Union Press in Fall 2023.

Trolls Can Be Teachers, Too

July 25, 2022 § 25 Comments

By Candace Cahill

I scrolled. 

Past the title, the social media share icons, and the “listen to this article now” button. I slipped by the newsletter sign-up prompt, a “Read More Like This” section, advertisements for Covid Vaccinations, and a notice for a Van Gogh exhibit in Anchorage. 

And there, just beyond the sponsored content and the “Popular in the Community” segment, I came to my destination: the conversation. 

More commonly known as the comments. 

I’d been warned. Chat rooms, writer’s circles, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds offered clear instructions: if you have an essay published, do not read the comments. But this wasn’t just any essay; this was my first essay in a top-tier publication.

In the days following publication, I received numerous emails and direct messages. I responded personally to each one: I owed it to those who reached out from a place of vulnerability to honor their bravery and willingness to engage. 

But the comments section of the online magazine was different. 

The morning the essay came out, my partner suggested I not read the comments. He wanted to protect me, which I understand and appreciate. However, I’d already read a few: I couldn’t stop myself. But when I came across the first statement to call me out – to label me an abandoner – I broke out in a cold sweat and stopped. I’d written about a topic that elicits a range of emotions depending upon the reader’s frame of reference: adoption relinquishment. 

I never intended to reply to the remarks or add “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but I knew that reading the comments, no matter how “hard,” would be a unique opportunity to sit with my reaction without having to respond. Although I’ve spent most of my life avoiding confrontation and pushing away uncomfortable feelings, I’ve finally learned that what I resist persists, and what I feel I can heal.  Emotions are temporary if I can create space for them. The capability – and capacity – to process what my reactions would be to any inappropriate or unpleasant comments is a valuable tool I was unwilling to forgo using.

My spouse continued to dissuade me as the days passed, so I agreed to wait until the sting of exposure eased.

And after a week, I scrolled down to the comments.

There were posts with the clear intent of inflicting pain, like being charged with using my dead son as a money-making tool. Initially, that felt like a punch in the gut, but after sitting with the discomfort, I could reflect on my true purpose in sharing this story. My goal is to encourage dialogue—I believe that is my role in this convoluted, painful life experience called relinquishment, and to do so without feeling the need to explain my circumstances. I want to acknowledge the myriad ways each person in the adoption constellation is hurt while recognizing that there also can be joy and beauty. One does not negate the other – both can, and are, true.

The built-in anonymity of the comments section frees commentators up to speak their minds without engaging further but this also provides space for reflection on my part, and the opportunity to respond, if desired, with intention.

I think some people labeled trolls are merely responding from their own place of pain and vulnerability. I remember a time I, too, reacted in knee-jerk ways to comments and suggestions, especially regarding my status as a birth mother. 

By reading the comments, I allow myself the time I need to find the equilibrium to respond with kindness and compassion. That’s who I want to be – the person who listens and acknowledges other perspectives and feelings.

No matter what, I want to see that they are not trolls but complex human beings.

*

Candace Cahill’s memoir Goodbye Again, about losing her son twice, is scheduled for release in November ’22 from Legacy Book Press. You can find out more about her work at candacecahill.com or follow her on Twitter @candace_cahill_. The Newsweek article referenced in this essay can be found here.

You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth

July 22, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

I’m 11 years old and reading under my covers by flashlight, trying not to get caught by my mother awake past my bedtime. I’ve discovered Judy Blume books, and I don’t mean her stories for little kids about pet dogs and turtles and dogs named Turtle, but the ones about ‘tweens, a term that hasn’t yet been coined in the late 1970s.

Blume writes about bullying, periods, masturbation—taboo in kid lit until she disrupted the genre. At school, my friends and I pass her books between us like trading cards. We can’t get enough. We feel seen. Represented. 

As an adult, I devour memoirs, voracious for the humanity and raw intensity of real life stories. During my first two years of motherhood, when my baby is admitted to the hospital again and again for an escalating series of medical emergencies, these books become my refuge. 

I read by the glow of my Itty Bitty Book Light in the darkness of my daughter’s hospital room, and the words infuse me with hope. If these writers can survive their own circumstances of illness or loss, or find happiness after their lives are upheaved like sand from a beach blanket, perhaps my family will be okay. 

On its surface, the pleasure of reading is pure escapism—I can slip into another person’s life, “lose myself” in a book. What’s even more exhilarating is when I find myself instead. My favorite books are studded with shimmering emotional truths that connect me to the story on a deeper level. They reward me with a shiver of validation: I am not alone.

It’s only after I begin writing my own memoir that the thrill of recognition I’ve always loved as a reader unexpectedly turns to dismay. 

I’m nine months into my writing when I read Suleika Jaouad’s gorgeous memoir, Between Two Kingdoms. Ironically, it was Jaouad’s pandemic-born online writing project, The Isolation Journals, that put me on my current writing path. 

Reading her memoir, I am struck throughout by the similarity of moments we’ve both experienced contending with life-threatening illness. In more than one instance, she beautifully articulates a thought that not only resonates personally, but relates to themes I am exploring in my own work. I catch myself thinking: Oh crap, she beat me to it. 

Yet, our stories are vastly different. 

Jaouad writes of being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer just as her adult life is starting, and the cross-country road trip she takes in order to move forward after years of treatment and isolation. I write about raising a daughter with cystic fibrosis, and how the hypervigilance that once protected me in childhood becomes a greater threat to our relationship than her deadly disease.

I start to notice parallels in other books. Becoming a writer has changed how I read. It’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon—when you first become aware of something and then suddenly you encounter it everywhere. I’m so focused on my work-in-progress, I see bits of it wherever I look. A relatable passage in one writer’s book, a similar turn-of-phrase in another, a tone of voice that rings familiar to mine. It rattles me. 

I worry my own writing might inadvertently echo another’s. I worry that if I don’t hurry up and finish my manuscript, land a publishing deal, and get my story out into the world, bits of it will escape prematurely, preempted by other writers with similar experiences. (I told you I’m hypervigilant.)

Reading comps for my proposal only amps up the urgency. I’ve confessed in this blog of my writer’s FOMO, but this is about more than fear of missing out. I’m eager to join the conversation—excited to add my story to the ones that have inspired me, changed me, validated my beliefs or challenged them, and taught me how to navigate difficult days.

“Tell the story only you can tell,” we hear as writers again and again. Maybe our challenge is not to express only those thoughts that have never before been written, but to trust in our unique viewpoints, write as authentically as we can, and not psych ourselves out in the meantime. 

Our stories don’t have to be discrete to be worthy of telling. A good writer presents the gift of a different perspective, a powerful lens through which we can examine an event or idea and glean new meaning. Isn’t that why we write? To pan through the soil of shame and trauma and even the mundane (especially the mundane) for nuggets of gold? And as readers, aren’t those nuggets what we live to discover?

Universality is what draws people in and creates an intimacy that flows between the writer and reader. When our experiences and opinions overlap and our voices blend, maybe the result is not redundancy, but harmony. 

The truth is, I can’t recall a single line of prose from any of the memoirs that gave me pause. In the moment there was recognition. And after, just gratitude for the beauty of solidarity. I am not alone. 

***

Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, Hobart, The Manifest-Station, WIRED, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant. Abby is currently writing HYPERVIGILANT, a kaleidoscopic memoir about her journey from trepidation to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.

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