A Review Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir by Allison Hong Merrill

September 24, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jennifer Lang

In her debut memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, Allison Hong Merrill chronicles her life from early childhood in an abusive home in one country to marriage to the man of her naïve dreams in another. Night after night, I put my legs up my living room wall or crawled under my covers in bed desperate to know she will survive and overcome the obstacles and challenges along the way: a father who disowns her, a mother who cannot mother her, a cruel husband who uproots and deceives her.

From the first sentence, “I discovered that I became a starter wife from a light switch,” the reader understands that something is amiss. There is a hint of foreign. A curiosity about a starter wife and its connection to electricity. A spark of humor.

When the first Mormon missionaries, Elder Copinga and Elder York, “both taller than the doorframe,” show up in Hong Merrill’s father’s house in Hualien, Taiwan when she is 12, I feel relieved. Hopeful. If her parents don’t understand how to love her and her siblings or how to make them feel safe or free to be themselves, whether healthy or handicapped (her younger sister had cerebral palsy), smart or stupid (Hong Merrill is the former but criticized for being the latter), then perhaps these devout American men and the religion they represent do.

Hong Merrill’s story covers myriad themes—family loyalty, true friendship, the meaning of independence, belief in a higher being, happiness—but the two that stand out are power (or lack thereof) and choice. In the beginning, she is powerless against unloving parents and choice-less amidst a culture that deems women inferior and invisible. But as she grows up, finds the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, meets the Bushmans whom she calls her rebirth parents, and moves to a country where women count, she eventually understands that she can take back her power and make her own choices in life. Because of her upbringing in a traditional Asian culture, she thinks she needs a man to take care of her, but what she learns first in Texas and later in Utah, first married and later divorced and alone, is that she needs to believe in herself. A beautiful message for all women from every culture.

Divided into 11 parts, each of the 99 chapters is short, sometimes only one page. While the story is linear, she moves within and between places, offering occasional time stamps to anchor us. Sprinkled throughout the text are Chinese proverbs, Mormon teachings, Rumi’s poetry, and wise sayings that she explains and refers to in subsequent chapters.

Hong Merrill’s capacity for reflection astounds me. She writes:

Looking back, part of me wants to warn my younger self to get on the next flight and run away from Cameron. He would become my nemesis. His words would replace mine. His voice would silence mine… But another part of me knows that the hardships I was about to suffer in Texas were the refiner’s fire. If I endured well, I would gain more strength and compassion.

And then there’s her wit; to describe the boys she deems handsome, she compares them to Hollywood actors like Cameron is Bruce Willis’s doppelgänger, Drake Hugh Grant.

Along the same lines, she has a keen ability to see and poke fun at herself, enviable for any memoir writer. When introducing herself to the building manager in Texas, a woman who had never heard her speak, she writes:

But the real surprise was hearing myself say the name that my tenth-grade English teacher had given me the way Americans do, without mixing up the L and R—one of the English-language learning curves that most Chinese people struggle with. Not Ayhreesong. I said Allison. The parting of my lips + the tip of my tongue kicking off the back of my upper front teeth + the soft dropping of my tongue + short hissing sss juxtaposed with the nasal ending = Allison. I said that.

This memoir moved me not only because it’s wrought with tension and well written but also because like the narrator, I am an immigrant living in a place where religion surrounds me: an American Jew in Israel. But the similarities stop there because unlike her, I moved here on my own accord in my early twenties, knowing I can always buy a return ticket and go home to northern California or anywhere in the United States no matter what. A freedom that I took for granted until I grew up and saw more of the world.
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Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, Hippocampus, and forthcoming in Consequence, among others. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she and her husband spent three decades packing and unpacking, rooting and uprooting in search of home. Finally, they settled in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and searches for a special press to publish her first memoir in vignettes.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Writing Residency

September 23, 2021 § 9 Comments

By M. Betsy Smith

In 2017 I applied for a writing residency held on an island. I had retired as an insurance professional the year before, and only then declared my second career would be as a writer—a long-held dream. I was a hot mess at the time, and my application was a train wreck.

My application didn’t focus on the writing; it was more about my personal struggles with a homeless alcoholic son and a depressed husband. I wanted to write creative nonfiction essays about my journey as the mother of a brilliant but tortured adult child. I was at the beginning of my writing efforts with one published essay, high aspirations and little to back them up. I was desperate for some time off the grid and saw the residency as my escape. And it was free. I had things I wanted to write, but what I wanted more was time alone. Not exactly what the decision makers wanted to hear.

My application was too personal. I was too needy. I was too green.

Although I didn’t see the letters from the women who were my references, I can assume they too addressed my mental health more than my writing ability, especially my Al-Anon sponsor who knew very little about me or my writing goals. What the hell was I thinking?

I did not get the residency; I was crestfallen and took the rejection personally. Four years later, with some solid writing success and a large dose of humility, I reapplied for the same residency. I got this response from the Executive Director:

OMG, this is the most beautiful application I’ve ever seen. Listing your references, separate supporting documents…I’d like you to do a training session for all our applicants!”

Her enthusiasm prompted me to share some Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Writing Residency

First, make sure the residency is a good match. Do your research and create a list. Do your objectives and the residency’s align? Is your project specific enough to match the criteria? Is the location accessible? What are the costs, if any? What is the duration, and can you be away for the time offered? You get the gist.

For example, Jental is a fabulous residency offering in Wyoming. Jentel offers a generous stipend for weekly expenses, wonderful accommodations, and inspiring vistas. I would love to apply…but the location and the duration are deterrents at this time in my life. The need to fly, rent a car, plan my meals, and be gone from home for a month put this one in the future-possibility pile. Jentel, like several others, is a prestigious and competitive residency, so be sure you have the chops to do it before applying. Explore the bios and projects of prior recipients. Can you compete? Is your work of the same artistic caliber? Or, could your work grow to be the same caliber if given a chance?

Note that 2022-2023 is especially competitive, because many programs are planning to honor residencies offered for 2020-2021, but canceled due to the pandemic. Watch the dates as part of your research.

Once you have identified a potential residency or retreat, checked all of the boxes on your logistics list, and are ready to apply, do the following:

1. Be thorough. A sloppy or incomplete application does not impress no matter how good your writing is. The gatekeeper initially reviewing your application is not likely the same person who will evaluate your project and/or your creative work for residency consideration. Don’t let your app be put on the bottom of the pile.

2. Know your purpose for applying. Don’t waffle. If you pass the initial application review, you may be interviewed and asked for more information. Provide concrete details about what you hope to do with the time you are allotted. Share your commitment to your work. Will you pursue your goals with or without the residency?

3. Your project should represent full-time work plus. Let the judges know the residency will be well utilized to accomplish the stated goal(s). That doesn’t mean you can’t take time to explore new and unfamiliar surroundings, and in fact most residencies never check your actual output, but a productive plan is important to residency sponsors.

4. Select appropriate and objective references who can knowledgeably speak to your work and your work ethic. They should like you, but it’s not a requirement.

5. Demonstrate your passion! If you are blasé about your project, don’t bother submitting an application. Believe in what you are doing and it will show in how you present yourself.

6. Be patient, grasshopper. Success, like art, takes time. If a residency will help you to achieve or propel an idea, don’t give up.

I know if I am not awarded the applied-for residency in any given round it is not because of me or my application; it’s because the competition is stiff. Just like submitting pieces of my writing, rejection is a part of the process. I won’t stop trying; nor should you.

___________________________

M. Betsy embarked on a career as a writer five years ago after retiring from her job as an insurance underwriter. Her work has been published by Refinery29, The Write Launch, Entropy, Brevity, and the WriteAngles Journal. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading, a hot cup of British tea, and petting all the neighborhood dogs.

Can Writing Memoir Trigger Old Emotions? Within The Hidden Landscape of Our Heart

September 22, 2021 § 13 Comments

By Mary J. Breen

In the many memoir classes I’ve taught, I’ve blithely told my students that since writing might stir up old and difficult feelings, it was good to pay attention as they can teach us a lot. By old feelings I meant flashes of anger or frustration, or the reawakened pain of old wounds. I assumed the arrival of these stirred-up feelings would be very obvious.

Then I started writing about my mother.

Some background: I was born in 1944, the only child of 41-year-old, devout Catholics. To my kind and loving father, I was a miracle; to my mother, I was a gift, but also a project. She was going to be the exemplary mother of an exemplary child, and to achieve this, she would use the same guiding principles that had made her an exemplary teacher: be completely in charge and know all the answers. And so, she set about trying to have absolute control over me: what I ate, wore, read, played, said, and learned. To get my compliance, she didn’t hesitate to use sudden hard smacks and loud anger. (I wonder if she ever understood how afraid I became of her, and if she thought this was how it should be.) When I was a teenager and later an adult, she continued her attempts to mould me through relentless criticisms of my looks, actions, thoughts, opinions, and decisions. But it didn’t work. I became her great and embarrassing failure, and a heathen to boot. Her shame, her stubbornness, and her fury increased with every passing year to the point that she wouldn’t allow me and my children to visit, and in her will, she left most of her treasured things, including her house, to people I didn’t even know.

Forty years after her death, I no longer hear her scoldings playing in my head, and I would have said that I have, for the most part, put her criticisms behind me. Of course, I’ve talked about her and thought about her a great deal over the years. I’ve also published many memoir pieces, but I hadn’t before tried to spell out in detail the exact nature of my mother’s tyranny. I didn’t unearth new significant memories during the writing process, but the writing certainly helped to give me a better understanding of my parents and their choices. It also led me to feel more sympathy for her, and it showed me that her loneliness in her later years was not all my doing. It also gave me the freedom to say publically that, despite how many people—including my dear, dear father—loved and admired her, she was wrong to have treated me this harshly. It’s even allowed me to move closer to accepting that, like it or not, she was my mother.

While I was writing, I felt neither sad nor angry nor fearful, just very preoccupied. Then, a month or so in, I began to feel nervous and vulnerable at home—but only at home. My partner would say something like, “What have you been doing today?” and I’d immediately feel afraid, sure I was going to have to account for how I’d spent my day, and sure this was the beginning of the kind of interrogation my mother specialized in that would lead to criticism and punishment. More and more, I found myself within a fog of apprehension, with moments of genuine fear when I was asked to make decisions about utterly minor things like what we might cook for dinner. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t yet connect these new feelings with writing about my mother.

And then, a few weeks later, I happened to read something that reminded me of how memoir writing can trigger old emotions, and the penny dropped: could it be that I was actually being ambushed by old feelings of fear and anxiety because I was writing about them? Could it be that the writing had rekindled the feelings I’d had so often when I lived with her? Was this why it seemed as if I had been thrown back to a time when my mother governed me and my life? With this realization, the thinking part of my brain woke up and set about reminding me that my mother would not be descending from above—as she had been wont to do in real life—ready to persecute me for whatever I had chosen to do. Moreover, it reminded me that I do not live with someone who picks on me, and reacting to this patient, kind person in my current life as if he were a threat was very unfair. As I paid more attention to the feelings, the incongruity between what I knew and what I felt became more understandable and less overwhelming. And within this process, these distressing feelings mostly faded away.

I don’t know if what I experienced is commonplace. I don’t know if feelings from the past often arrive like a kind of covert mission, infiltrate the brain unannounced, and then appear as if they belonged in one’s current life. I don’t know how long these periods typically last, nor how intense they can be. I also don’t know the best ways to handle them.

What I do know is that when my students are writing about the past, I plan to be much clearer in my warnings about how subtle and challenging these feelings can be. It certainly has been a huge reminder that we can never fully understand the landscape of our hearts.

If Brevity readers have thoughts about this issue, I, and maybe others too, would love to hear them.

___

Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including The Toast, Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Windsor Review. She also spent several years writing and editing easy-to-read health information. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada where, among other things, she sometimes teaches creative nonfiction and memoir classes while continuing her fruitless search for a publisher for her memoir.

Gathering the Pieces

September 21, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Melanie Spencer

For most of my life, I’ve written from two different worlds—one technical and public, the other personal and private.

In science and business, my writing has a clear purpose and known audience. It is bounded by subject matter and structure. Evidence and facts must be produced and gathered. The writing must convey the right information in the right way—accurate, novel, interesting. It must be persuasive enough to convince its audience to make a decision or take an action or pursue a line of inquiry or simply to learn. That is its function. Without function, it is unnecessary.

For many, this kind of systematized writing may seem dry and uninspiring. I would argue that it is an infinitely creative endeavor. Within its rigid confines lies an intellectual puzzle. How does one create a factual story line that is both objectively defensible and interesting? A manuscript that will exceed the expectations of journal editors and survive the peer-review process? A technical manual that thoroughly instructs and will still be read? A presentation that is compelling without venturing into hyperbole?

For me, these challenges have been addictive. They allowed me to flex my creative muscles.

Without going too deep.

Without revealing too much.

Without taking an emotional risk.

Without confronting the things I’d rather leave buried.

Tucked away in drawers,

in obscurely named folders that follow me from one laptop to the next,

in journals, never finished,

on slips of paper stuffed

in pockets of calendars or lab notebooks or random envelopes.

Only written when I was brave enough (rarely) or distraught enough (mostly) to do nothing else.

Even then, I could barely write to the edge of what lies within, uncertain that the limits of my strength were enough to keep it contained, terrified that I might become someone else, someone that my family, that I, no longer recognized.

Except I was already a person they did not fully know, who I did not fully know.

On occasion, I would venture into the paper labyrinth to read whatever bit happened to be at hand, to remind myself how much I had once loved to write from the heart, not just from the mind. Sometimes, I found something beautiful, something forgotten, a glimpse inside my own soul.

Then I’d notice the amateurish writing, the overwrought phrasing. I’d laugh at my momentary delusion, sweep the crumbs away and hurry back to my concrete fortress of facts and numbers and logical, cerebral distraction. Unable or unwilling to approach vulnerability.

The tragic circumstances surrounding my cousin’s sudden death finally broke me, into pieces that were scattered far and wide, to be gathered one by one, examined to find layers and curves and cracks, that defined how they matched and fit. I could no longer deny the reality of who I was, could no longer write fragments that revealed too little when I knew too much.

I began to write in earnest, to catalog what was revealed. The pieces became warp and weft, then whole cloth made from what was old and discarded. I discovered myself within the fabric’s incandescent colors, its dingy, frayed threads, its surprising mix of textures. Writing forced me to face my self-deception. In the pandemic suspension of time and normalcy, I wrote the intersection of my pain with pain I saw all around me. I watched seasons march onward. Flowers bloomed. Tides washed the river higher and lower. I found beauty in the mundane and the tragic. Simple, everyday observation became revelation.

My writing has moved beyond function, has become a joyful, limitless, unsettling thing, freeing me from boundaries that defined who I was, to become the person, the writer I have always been.

______________________________

Melanie Spencer is a scientist, writer and educator who lives in North Carolina and Philadelphia.  She holds a PhD in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and a Masters in Business Administration.  Her scholarly writing appears in refereed journals and in Harvard Business School’s case study collection. Her current work includes scientific collaborations with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist as Professor Emeritus and her first creative non-fiction book, written from the heart. Find her on Twitter @MelanieDSpencer

A Review of Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last

September 20, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Sarah White

As a memoirist who most often chooses the brief essay form, I’ve wondered how my personal essays might hang together as a collection. For that reason, I was drawn to Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last. Having discovered, earlier this year, her 2019 book Late Migrations, I welcomed the chance to spend more time with her closely observed, intensely humane, and always brief writing.

Renkl was offered a monthly New York Times op-ed column about “the flora, fauna, politics and culture of the American South”—a dream job for any essayist. These columns were published between 2018 and 2020, and that period from mid-Trump-reign to full-on pandemic inflects in nearly every one.

Renkl considered organizing principles for the collection such as chronology (strict or loose) and grouping by approach before settling on “a kind of patchwork quilt, the art form of my maternal ancestors.” Oh, those ancestors! As in Late Migrations, they leap off the pages here. In “Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings,” about stage fright during her book tour for Late Migrations, Renkl writes, “…I prefer to think the family matriarchy saved me, that my beloved elders closed ranks around me, my mother and mother-in-law on one flank, my grandmother and great-grandmother on the other, to shore me up and give me strength.” In “Remembrance of Recipes Past,” she slew me with, “For me it is always both heartbreaking and comforting to open my mother’s recipe box on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” (My mother was no cook.) If you loved Renkl’s writing about nature and family in Late Migrations, the sections of Graceland, At Last grouped under Flora & Fauna, Environment, and Family & Community will delight you.

Graceland, At Last could easily be used as a text for teaching journalism. The essays in the sections on Politics, Social Justice, and Arts & Culture are exemplary—reviews of concerts and museum openings, op-eds that touch on the complications of life in Tennessee as “a red-state liberal,” argument essays against issues like the death penalty and unrestrained gentrification. “We may never agree on what real justice looks like, but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do,” she writes in “An Act of Mercy in Tennessee,” about clemency granted to a sixteen-year-old who killed her pimp. As a journalist, she practices Appreciative Inquiry—finding and covering the good going on in the world. Her journalism is always cogent but blended with personal reflection that ties public events to her singular, sensitive soul.

And how I love Renkl’s gift for language! From the introduction: “To love a person is always to love in spite of the faults that intimacy reveals, and so it is with a place. To love the South is to see with clear eyes both its terrible darkness and its dazzling light, and to spend a lifetime trying to make sense of both.” From ”The Flower that Came Back from the Dead,” about preserving the Tennessee coneflower from extinction: “There’s a great danger in hope, as Roxane Gay has pointed out: ‘Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others….’” From “The Misunderstood, Maligned Rattlesnake”: “I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that the peaceable kingdom is anything but. All day long and all night long, too, … every creature … is both trying to eat and trying not to be eaten.” 

Renkl is so likable, as a writer and an individual, with her rich family traditions, her concern for justice, and her observant and unsentimental love of nature, that every paragraph feels like a conversation with a friend.

One quibble, unavoidable since all these essays appeared as New York Times columns: the word count of each is nearly identical. The book is better taken in brief dips rather than sustained reading, where the lack of variety in pacing starts to annoy. At some point, I started to long for a sense of a larger narrative. There is none, but the juxtapositions created by Renkl’s selection and ordering of these more than sixty columns is thought-provoking. The book is full of gifts for the reader but even more for anyone who, like Renkl and me, enjoys writing in the essay form.
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Sarah White provides writing services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities from her home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Typical projects include books, articles, and life histories. She also teaches memoir writing through small-group workshops and one-on-one coaching.

Lessons in Memoir from Self-Portraiture

September 17, 2021 § 1 Comment

Our new issue includes a fascinating Craft Essay from author Kim Pittaway exploring the need to convey depth and shadow when writing the self, how “a slimly pen-stroked ‘I’ isn’t a portrait,” and what we can learn from visual artists and self-portraiture.

Her essay includes links and examples, and a series of excellent, unusual prompts such as:

What catches your eye? Throughout a day or a weekend, snap images of where your gaze settles: the irritating scuff on the white-painted stair riser heading up to your bedroom; the dog’s wagging tale as its dream delights it; the way the water pools on the barbecue lid in the rain. Print out the images. What insights might a stranger discovering your collection draw from these photos?

Who’s in your group? If you were to paint a group self-portrait of you at 17, who else would be in the frame? Describe them—both the real people and the influential figures who loomed large (your Virgin Marys). Now step back and describe yourself as each of them sees you. Try it at 27. 57. 77.

Wish I’d been there: What moment in history would you most like to have witnessed? Research the scene—and then place yourself in it, but at its fringes. Are you Caravaggio holding the lantern? The short-order cook at the Greensboro Sit-In? The kid behind the kid who caught a World Series home run baseball? Be as true to you as you can be: What do you see of yourself in this imagined scene that you might miss revealing in a more factual moment?

You can read Pittaway’s full craft essay here.

Writing the Animal Other

September 16, 2021 § Leave a comment

In a new Brevity Craft Essay, Heather Durham examines how authors like Sy Montgomery, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, and Brian Doyle have redefined the ways in which we depict animals in our nonfiction.

She writes:

It seems simple enough. In creative nonfiction we don’t lie. We may write other humans, even strangers, as long as we do our best to learn what we can on multiple levels and from various sources, cognizant of power dynamics and wary of stereotypes. But if non-human animals are involved, we’ve learned, best treat them as objects, just part of the scenery. Humans are so special, so uniquely evolved in the animal kingdom that we couldn’t possibly share anything beyond the most rudimentary biology.

Which is, of course, nonsense.

Science seems to be coming around faster than writing conventions, thanks to animal behaviorists and neurobiologists who’ve continued to wonder, ask new questions, and—like any diligent writer—reject assumptions. The closer and the longer they’ve looked at other animals, the more those traits we’d thought exclusively human—complex languages, tool use, self-consciousness, play, reasoning, foresight, remembering, deceit, feeling grief and joy—have been observed in other animals. Not imagined or assumed, but scientifically confirmed.

Read the rest of her fascinating essay here in the September issue of Brevity.

Fifteen Fabulous Flash Essays

September 15, 2021 § 1 Comment

Brevity’s 68th issue launches this morning, with brilliant new essays from Kimiko Hahn, Sven Birkerts, Ryan Van Meter, Richard Robbins, Suzanne Roberts, Kathleen Rooney, Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, Sarah Cedeño, Laurie Easter, Gary Fincke, Charles Jensen, Kathryn Nuernberger, Mary Ann O’Gorman, Katerina Ivanov Prado, and Alyssa Sorresso.

In our Craft Section, Abigail Thomas reminds us that vulnerability is a memoirist’s strength, Kim Pittaway examines what we can learn from visual artists about self-portraiture, Heather Durham discusses changes in how we portray animals, and Tarn Wilson details the power of noticing. 

Plus stunning photography by Amy Selwyn.

Please take the time to read our brilliant September issue.

Rudderless

September 14, 2021 § 9 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Portrait of Kirsten Voris ©Bill Hatcher 2019

When I first started kayaking, I made sure to reach the departure point early so I could snag the kayak with the working rudder. A kayak rudder, for those who don’t know, is that little piece of plastic hanging off the end that you angle one way or another with your feet, to steer.

More often than not, rental kayaks have broken rudders. Some are rudder-free by design. I like a rudder. They help you stay perpendicular to the waves. Which you do, to keep from being swept out to sea. Or late for lunch. My tours in rudderless kayaks have been marked by anxious paddling and fear of group shaming. Lest I end up like that woman who was drifting off towards Greece before anyone noticed. How, I fretted, do I make it to the lunch spot without a rudder?

This year I had hoped to steer my writing life by a project that feels overwhelming. I’m avoiding it. I have homeless essays, fresh off the latest round of rejections. I’m ignoring them—and covering my to-do lists with new essay ideas.

I feel unsettled, fearful, and unmotivated. Rudderless.

I have been here before. Self-study is one way out: which confidence-destroying, time-sucking habits am I currently indulging? These tend to fall into two categories: structural and spiritual.

Structural challenges (i.e., time wasting):

  1. Sometimes, I do for someone what they can do for themselves. For years I did my boyfriend’s laundry. I thought he expected it (he didn’t). I thought I was my job (it wasn’t). Now, my boyfriend’s socks are gray and I have more time to write.
  2. Sometimes, I behave as though things are emergencies when they aren’t. How long does it take the average person to respond to email from their cousin? Longer than it takes me. Learning to make people wait is my new favorite spiritual practice.
  3. Sometimes, I confuse structure with tyranny. My ability to focus is episodic and this has been true since I first parked myself in front of the TV to do homework. I couldn’t understand how writers sat still long enough to write books. Recently, I discovered you can schedule writing time in tiny chunks and sprinkle them throughout your week. And things still get written.
  4. Sometimes, I refuse to stop. Do you need a vacation? I do. And I’m taking one. Which brings up a ton of guilt. Because I should be…productive? Not taking meaningful breaks is one way I punish myself for not producing the phantom thing that will earn me the right to rest. When I’m mean to myself like this, I start seething. Writing turns into the job I had picking bad cherries off a conveyor belt. I deserve a vacation. So do you. When we return home, refreshed, things will seem different.

Spiritual challenges (i.e., grave self-doubt):

  1. I forget why I write. But when the mean voice in my head becomes deafening, I affirm to myself that sitting down to write protects me from despair. Having written something, anything, never feels like I wasted my time. And on some days, it seems like the most important thing that I do.
  2. I forget I can write. So when a kind person says something complimentary about a thing I’ve written, I remind myself to say “Thank you.” Then I can’t pretend I didn’t hear them.
  3. I compare myself to others. The only thing that releases me from this dead end is writing. And re-reading the New York Times piece Green-Eyed Verbs by Sarah Manguso. “All writers,” she says, “will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility.”
  4. I feel self-indulgent. I come from a book-devouring family. Mom got up hours before work so she could read first. She didn’t love her job. And why should she? People were supposed to have safe jobs with regular hours. Jobs that anyone could grasp. Jobs that made grandmas nod and beam. Writing those books that Mom read? That was self-indulgent. Writing about yourself was worse. That’s airing dirty laundry. So I strive to remember the years I spent crying on the way to my regular, normal-person jobs. My gnat-like attention span. This lets me conclude that writing is the only thing that makes sense.
  5. I can’t find my rudder. After a string of rejections, I’ll look at an essay and think: I should burn it—or rewrite it. Of course by now, the essay has grown on me. It’s my baby. I’m not going to rewrite it; it’s perfect. So I wait. After a month or six I am less sensitive/reactive/attached. I can read with curiosity. Perhaps humility. And revision feels a little less like eye surgery.

So I’ll get back to it. Once I figure out where I’m hung up.

Years ago, on day 2 of a 4-day Turkish sea kayaking adventure, my rudder broke. After two long days of over-paddling, whining, and stabbing wrist pain, I figured out what to do. Steering with the paddle is harder to learn, but just as effective. Actually, you can turn on a dime with a paddle. And you can move forward with one. Habitually showing up for my writing practice is the one thing that unsticks me when I’m stuck. I may feel rudderless, but I’m still paddling steadily towards the lunch spot.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

Diversion, Delight and Pleasance: Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany

September 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

In 1348, Boccaccio writes in the Decameron, Florence was gripped by plague. Seven young women and three young men (about the ratio of most writing events) meet on a Tuesday morning in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Living in the city right now sucks, they agree, and so they’ll  

betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country…and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason. There may we hear the small birds sing, there may we see the hills and plains clad all in green and the fields full of corn wave even as doth the sea; there may we see trees, a thousand sorts, and there is the face of heaven more open to view…

In an isolated hilltop castle, the characters set up quite a life. Servants make their beds with fragrant sheets, bring meals and wine, put flowers on the table. In the afternoons, the ten relax in a shady meadow, but rather than spend their minds on gambling, they decide that every day for ten days, each one of them shall tell a story. Those hundred stories form Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Writers, too, need diversion, delight and pleasance in their surroundings. With retreats, the setting is often as important as the work done there. Bringing ourselves to a new location allows focus and stimulation—and a surprising amount of creative power is unleashed when someone else handles meals.

Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams are leading an October retreat in Boccaccio’s hometown, Certaldo. In a small hilltop castle, on a terrace overlooking Tuscan fields, we’ll help ten writers create their stories every day.

Is it…responsible…to travel overseas right now? Is it risky?

ALLISON: I spent July in Tuscany, went to the USA, and was in Florence again last week. I needed negative PCR tests to board international flights and showed proof of vaccination to enter Italy, to dine inside, and to enter public indoor spaces. Tuscany has half the lowest per-capita Covid rate of any US state, has a fully-vaccinated rate of 63% and climbing, and masking indoors is required and mostly followed. I felt much safer there than in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

Much like Boccaccio’s storytellers, we’ll be largely keeping to ourselves, with private airport transfers and our own dining areas and lodging in a small, family hotel. We’ll also be testing before returning home.

What’s the difference between a workshop and a retreat?

DINTY: A Workshop is primarily designed for feedback, where we look at draft pages around a table and ‘critique’ what is working and what is not quite coming across. Our Tuscany experience is instead a Retreat, aimed at both freeing up time to expand the writing and freeing up the necessary head space to think holistically about a large writing project. We will “retreat” from the burdens and distractions of our regular lives, to aim our attention on the joys and struggles of putting words on the page and turning pages into completed books.

What exactly will Allison and Dinty do all week?

DINTY: Some days have formal classes to help get the wheels spinning, and as Retreat leaders, we’ll be sitting down with everyone individually to work through manuscript problems (and opportunities). But we will be available as coaches at every step along the way, to discuss small issues in the text or larger concerns about sustaining your writing project. Plus, we will steer you to some lovely Tuscan destinations when the time comes to relax.

ALLISON: I truly love being “at the table.” When a writer hits a tough spot, we can step out and talk through the challenge, getting them back to the page. We’ll meet with each writer via Zoom before the retreat to make a clear plan for what they want to accomplish (writers can bring an idea, a full draft, or anything in between), and meet again after returning home, to sustain the momentum.

Also, gelato. I will be eating a lot of gelato. Some of it onion-flavored. (It’s a local thing, and way better than it sounds!)

DINTY: I may not be eating the onion gelato. But I’ll be eating gelato for sure!

I’m not ready for this.

ALLISON: That’s OK! We might see you virtually in January, in Costa Rica in Feb/March, or next year in Tuscany! This is not your only chance to retreat with us. Meanwhile, please make time for your work when you can. Check into a local AirBnB for a weekend, or train your family that Wednesday afternoons are sacred. Or focus the emotional power you have on keeping yourself and your family safe in this weird time. Writing will always be there when you come back.

DINTY: These are difficult times. I admit some initial hesitancy about travel right now, but I researched how airlines are enforcing masking and safety and how Italy looks right now and I feel confident, especially given the precautions we will all be taking. A trip like this is just what I need. Maybe it is for you too, but if not, stay safe. We’ll see you another time.

I’m totally ready for this.

DINTY: We still have spots for two writers and we’d love for you to join us. Here are the full details including cost, daily itinerary, FAQ, and photos from the 2019 Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Get in touch through the contact form with questions.

At the end of their retreat, one of Boccaccio’s young men says,

I have seen and felt here a continual decency, an unbroken concord and a constant fraternal familiarity… I hold it meet, if it be your pleasure, that we now return whence we came…

That’s what we hope our writers will return with, too.

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