July 10, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Stacie Worrel
Narrative tension pulses through Jennifer Renee Blevins’s essay collection, Limited by Body Habitus: An American Fat Story. How can a nonfat person write about fat in a fat-shaming society, when even her (fat) family members have told her that fat is wrong? Blevins started interrogating societal perceptions of fat after her father’s catastrophic gastric bypass surgery in 2010. Piecing together doctor’s notes about her father’s medical history with personal stories about her own struggle with body image, Blevins examines how fatness is pathologized by the American medical community. “I am afraid to write about fat,” Blevins says in the preface. “I worry that I’ll piss off skinny people who believe that fat is inherently unhealthy and fat people who believe that fat is never unhealthy.”
I, too, am afraid to write about fat. Like Blevins, I have spent my life policing the fat on my own body while trying to accept the fat on other bodies. In my first year of college, I lost fifteen pounds. Everyone talks about the “freshman fifteen” as weight gained, but it can also be weight lost. I no longer had parents around to buy me groceries and encourage me to eat. When I went home for Thanksgiving Break, my mom said I looked skinny. It was a compliment.
I will always remember the first time a random person called me “petite.” He was a student I tutored. One day when I wasn’t working, he described me to another tutor because he couldn’t remember my name. He called me “the petite girl with glasses.” A thrill shot through me when the other tutor told me the story. Petite. That word had never been applied to me, but I liked it.
In Limited by Body Habitus, Blevins relates her experience being seen as skinny for the first time. Relatives and random coworkers notice her eight-month transformation from size twelve to size two. Blevins is “applauded for taking up less space” and learns that her “old size twelve body was monstrous and unwieldy.” The problem with all of the compliments and attention given to someone who loses weight is that it makes us feel like we must have been “monstrous and unwieldy” before the weight loss. We are constantly afraid of becoming “monstrous and unwieldy” again. We eat less, exercise more, and do whatever else it takes to maintain a low number on the scale.
A fat-phobic society encourages skinny people to fear getting fat while telling fat people to hate themselves. In Limited by Body Habitus, Blevins looks to her mother as an early fat-shaming influence. When Blevins was six years old, her mother told her that she should want to look more like a skinny girl named Elizabeth. Blevins’ mother continued to criticize her daughter’s weight and physical appearance over the course of her life. Blevins comes to realize that her mother’s criticism was “a form of self-criticism” because “I was supposed to be the better version of her—the one who had the brother and father she didn’t, the one who got to live the life full of achievements and thinness that she had not.”
I am lucky enough to have a mother who never criticizes me for being fat, although she does praise me for being skinny. My mom is one of those people who thinks she is bigger than she is. She is always going on a new diet or trying a new workout routine to lose weight, but she’s always been thin. Watching my mom struggle to lose weight when she already takes up so little space helped me realize that we can’t trust how we see ourselves. We see ourselves the way we have been taught to see ourselves in a fat-shaming society. When we look in mirrors, we look for fat.
Blevins’s book encourages readers to recognize socially-trained impulses and move past them. “Decades of conditioning” tell Blevins to see fat people as repulsive, but her father’s gastric bypass surgery helps her realize that a fat person is “someone living in a world that wasn’t built for them—a world that, in fact, actively seeks to annihilate them.” Blevins’s book outlines how American society tries to “annihilate” fat bodies at the cost of people’s health and well-being. Blevins’s book is important to read at a time when even the medical community continues to see fatness as inherently unhealthy, putting lives at risk to make people skinnier.
Stacie Worrel is a creative writing PhD student at Ohio University. She is an assistant editor for Brevity and Quarter After Eight.
July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Levy
For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot. When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.
My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.
Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.
For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.
Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.
In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.
July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments
One of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.
That’s the end of the story.
The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.
Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.
Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?
If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.
Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
We get to choose that, too.
Looking for your ending?
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:
- Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
- Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
- Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.
Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.
- Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
- Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
- List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
- Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.
Yes, this is a lot like therapy.
But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?
You really do get to choose.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!
July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dana Shavin
A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.
I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.
One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”
I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.
Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.
I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.
And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.
Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.
July 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Sarah Evans
Most young girls at one time or another idolize ultra-thin ballerinas, their hair swept back into a tight bun at the nape of their neck, floating across a stage in pink or white sparkling satin. Just count how many girls at the local playground encircle their waists with pink and purple gauzy tutus.
Even I, a tomboy who preferred light sabers over Barbies, have fleeting memories of slipping on satin shoes, carrying a hot pink dance bag, and gaudying up my pre-pubescent face with rouge and eyeliner for my first and only recital.
So when I picked up What You Become in Flight, Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s gorgeous memoir of her previous life as a ballet dancer, I expected a story rooted in traditional, delicate femininity. Instead, I found a thoughtful, poetic reflection on feminism.
As I delved into Whittet’s story, the theme that emerged made perfect sense to both ballet and feminism: women do not control their own bodies.
In the opening pages of the book, Whittet shares the story of an accident during ballet rehearsal where she jumped into the air, fell and fractured her spine. In a move she had rehearsed with her male dance partner many times, she had trusted him to catch her. This time, he didn’t.
The injury was the beginning of the end of her ballet career. But it was far from the only time she damaged her body. A dislocated pelvis, ruptured discs, and limbs thinned by eating disorders were just a few of the many woes she suffered in pursuit of perfection.
“Ballet excuses and glorifies a culture of dancing through pain,” she writes, “and that it relies on women’s bodies to be the tools of its expression, forcing its rigid ideas of beauty even at the expense of safety and comfort. I learned through my injury that making art requires more of me than I was prepared to consent to.”
It’s no accident that Whittet uses the word “consent” in this context. For as long as she can remember, ballet was something she automatically strived for, an art that her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt had all pursued. It seemed only natural that she would also pick up this art form.
Yet, she quickly realized that being a female ballet dancer meant she had to work toward a perfection that even her own mind and body did not, could not, agree with.
That perfection, that ideal of being the thinnest, most graceful dancer, led her and many of her classmates to compete at who could eat the least, who could hide their injuries the best. When Whittet’s foot fractured after her semi-rival massaged it too hard, seemingly with no remorse, Whittet didn’t feel anger. She felt empathy.
The other dancer “only carried through what all of us secretly felt: that other women existed to measure ourselves against, to hurt in invisible ways, to help along when we could,” Whittet writes. “That other women were just another device we used to punish our bodies with our naked, raw desire.”
Whittet didn’t come to these deep, thoughtful realizations about her art until after she left it behind. It was during her post-ballet life, chronicled in the second half of her memoir, that she was able to gain the right amount of distance from her passion to examine it truthfully.
With maturity — for women, at least — comes even more chances to lose control of your body. Whittet experienced this, too, struggling with debilitating stress and trauma after an incident where she withheld her consent during a much more sinister assault on her body. Again, she had trusted a man. Again, he failed her.
Whittet’s memoir may be filled with physical and mental suffering. But it’s also filled with clear-eyed, unabashed joy — a joy for being on stage, for expressing her story in new ways, for discovering her feminist self. The truths Whittet unearths, and the graceful prose she uses to express them, stick with the reader long after she takes her final bow.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who has been published in Mom Egg Review and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She writes book reviews for Hippocampus Magazine. She earned an MFA in nonfiction writing from Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.
July 2, 2020 § 23 Comments
By Erica Goss
My favorite rejections start with “Dear Erica” and end with “sincerely.”
They explain that regretfully, unfortunately, after close review, even though it was lovely, even though it sparked interest, even though they were impressed, even though they enjoyed reading it, even though there was much to admire, even though it stood out from the rest, even though they appreciated the opportunity to read it, my work does not fit their needs.
They often seem disappointed. After all, they read my work with care, with pleasure, with interest, with gratitude, and with the closest attention. I almost feel sorry for them. I certainly feel sorry for myself.
Once in a while, the rejection comes with the explanation that they received so much high quality work it made their selection process extremely difficult. This is hard. I understand. I assume, of course, that my submission was part of the high quality work they refer to.
There is often a fee for rejection. This is also called a reading fee.
After I receive my rejection I’m frequently asked to buy something else. I’m invited to make a donation, buy a subscription, enter a contest, contribute to a tip jar, and recommend that others do as well.
Of course, due to the volume of submissions, they cannot respond personally.
It makes me happy when I’m asked to submit again, even if it requires another reading fee.
I keep track of my rejections. No rejection is ever forgotten. It lives forever as an entry in my spreadsheet.
I don’t like to see the word “rejected” in my spreadsheet. I prefer “declined.” It’s easier to see “declined” over and over, page after page, year after year.
I look back at my spreadsheet. I calculate my acceptance rate. From my figures, it seems I have mastered this rejection thing.
When I’m bored, I’ll see if the rejection email from a particular journal has changed. Some journals have sent me the same rejection email, word for word, for years.
There’s a thing called a “tiered” rejection. From a menu of rejection emails, the journal chooses one based on how much they liked your submission. From the rejection emails I have received, I can see that I’ve gotten rejections that range from terse to encouraging and back to terse again, from the same journals. This is true of journals that have accepted my work, as well as the ones that have rejected me over and over.
I try not to send my work to a journal that stipulates, in words similar to these, “If we haven’t responded in x number of months, consider yourself unchosen.” I want an actual, emailed rejection to seal the deal.
However, for reasons that aren’t always clear, those rejections might not come. Fairly often, the journal goes under and fails to inform the writers. When that happens, it’s hard to know what to put in my spreadsheet. “Never heard back?” “Ghosted?” “Crickets?”
I’m never sure if I should consider my work rejected if I haven’t heard back in a year. You’d be surprised how often a year goes by before you hear from a journal.
Sometimes, like curses or wise men, rejections come in threes, on the same day, in the same hour. Sometimes, this is how the day starts.
Rejections have a special look to them. The subject line almost always starts with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”
I’m an editor as well as a submitter, and much of the above applies to me when I receive submissions of other people’s writing. If I have to decline a submission, I try to inform the writer as soon as possible, and in as kind a tone as possible. If I liked their work, I invite them to submit again.
Every time I send a rejection, I remember how it feels to get those emails that start with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”
My rejection might be that writer’s third in one day.
Some days are like that.
Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer. She served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. Her essays, reviews and poems appear widely, including in Lake Effect, Atticus Review, Contrary, Convergence, Spillway, Cider Press Review, Eclectica, The Tishman Review, Tinderbox, The Red Wheelbarrow, and Main Street Rag, among others. She is the founder of Girls’ Voices Matter, an arts education program for teen girls.
July 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
My father, age 84, is ill and for the most part, I am not writing about it.
I don’t want to write about it, beyond forcing myself to record some basic facts in my journal for the future me who may want to reconstruct how everything went so terribly wrong. For example, one morning while I was staying with my parents last month, my father woke up and said, “We were robbed last night.”
Aware this hadn’t happened, I said, “Oh really?”
And he replied with great certainty, “They were convicts.”
I jotted down the moment in my journal like you might a bad dream.
My journal entries are brief now. “One small pleasure these days? Saying the word ‘apocalypse.’ A-poc-a-lypse. Apocalyptic is even better. Not only because the bread aisle is barren, but also because the father who was intent on not going ‘gently into that dark night,’ to quote his favorite Dylan Thomas poem, may wind up going gently after all, nestled as he is under an avalanche of blankets on the couch in the living room, where he remains day and night.”
But to write much more than that would require that I acknowledge something absolutely essential has been lost, through the sudden collision of a longstanding cancer diagnosis with a freak leg injury. And it will never be recovered. It won’t be like when you search the house high and low, and ultimately find the missing object. Or how I can search the hundreds of files in my Dropbox to find a sliver of thought I had one day.
Nope. That argument he and I had over Christmas? That will probably be the last real argument we ever have.
I can imagine how crazy that sounds. Why mention an argument? But he and I have always argued. He and I argue, in part, because I am his doppelganger. I am the female version of him. I argue as homage.
Not that I don’t regret it bitterly — I do. So much time wasted sparring with him when right now, I think he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met. He’s the person I would most like to converse with – if only he were well enough to converse the way we used to.
(The way we used to – I could write a whole book about the way it used to be, except I CAN’T. That’s what I am trying to say.)
But I think about arguments because we won’t ever truly argue again. And that’s because he probably won’t ever be quite himself again so I won’t ever risk fighting with him again. We won’t argue again because on account of his ailments, which include advanced stage blood cancer and liver trouble, he won’t have the strength or inclination. And if this exacting, brilliant engineer doesn’t have his lifelong inclination to argue, to provoke, to strike a contrarian note, then it’s all over.
And that leaves me speechless. This is about as far as I can go in writing about him and “it.” To write much more than that would require that I acknowledge I’ve bungled another death (or am about to). That I’ve wound up with another body on my hands. Up until now, the death of a loved one has meant only one thing for me: regret. How could this person die before I was ready? Before I could be a big girl and lend him the attention he deserved. That’s how I would describe the feeling that remains buried inside, long after the death of an uncle and a school friend, among others.
I have tried to write about it, unsuccessfully. In one case, I have what I think of as a winning title: “Requiem for the Man I Called My Father-in-Law.”
But instead of writing about the person or the person’s death, I wind up writing about how I failed to prepare. How whatever I was planning, and whatever I hadn’t said or asked or observed no longer mattered.
And not only don’t I want to go back and examine, I most certainly don’t want to go forward. Forward into a future of what I call caretaker conversations with my father. Does he need something to drink? How is he feeling today?
By the way, don’t be fooled: All of this is surface writing. Safe writing. The more difficult examination will come when I realize that I am wholly unprepared to live in a world without him – and I have no choice but to do so. In an abstract way, I certainly understood how fixed a figure he was on my personal landscape of people and relationships (like the people who affirm God’s existence by insisting they don’t believe in Him or Her). But not in a tangible way.
Now I understand he’s a wall of my personal house. His existence forms part of my leg or maybe my right hand. How do I write about that?
The deaths of others have been enough to skew the picture I have of my world. But his absence from that landscape? I think it will look – feel! – like the surface of the moon to me. The rings of Saturn. The underworld.
Many mornings I wake up, ready to write, and as I open my laptop, I think, what should I work on? Maybe the flash nonfiction piece I am writing about my juvenile obsession with the land of my ancestors (Ireland) or another about how breastfeeding made me high.
But I don’t think to myself, I should write about Daddy. Because if I walked through fire, I don’t think my first thought would be: Let me write about how the flames singed my hair.
I’ve actually learned that some of my most urgent thoughts – the mental wallpaper that I alone see as I navigate the world each day – don’t make it into my journal. (Which makes journaling feel absurd at times. Write down what you’re thinking – but not that).
And yet in some personal anthropological vein, it’s worth documenting my father’s illness. For starters, I didn’t really realize that the man had never been sick. That I’d never seen him weak or frail or uncertain. I’d never seen him sprawled on the couch for hours, days, weeks.
There’s more. I’d never realized – wait for it – that he would die.
At Bennington, when I was studying for my MFA, one teacher harped on my clichés. If she had been a nun, she would maybe have tried to beat them out of me. But I came to believe that there was a reason clichés became clichés – that they revealed something true about the human condition over the course of decades and centuries.
I know I am only one person in a long line of humans contemplating the serious illness and eventual death of a parent. They, too, have been spooked by what feels almost like a secret – your parents are doing to die.
I certainly have nothing new to say about that spooky non-secret. But I still have to say it.
Which I guess means I need to write about what I am not writing about. Maybe this is a start.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers
June 30, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Jennifer Ochstein
I’ve begun seeing my dead mother’s face in the mirror. Mothers have been dying all along, so this is no new phenomenon. But it surprised me. While I’ve seen her in some of my gestures and actions (honking weirdly like a duck in an attempt to be funny or not answering the phone when I don’t recognize the number), it wasn’t until she died that I saw her ghost in the mirror.
My fixation forms on a common feature, our mouths, the way we smile when caught off guard. Stretched dry and crooked, it replaced her full lips as multiple sclerosis took over. It’s the same smile that causes me now to sometimes stand in front of the mirror like a teenager trying on different smiles or to delete photos in which I detect that same shape on my mouth. I practice and search for the smiles that allow me to see my own face again rather than the shadow of hers. Maybe it’s a matter of vanity, the recognition that I’m a few years older than the age she was when diagnosed with MS.
But more than that, I think it’s the need I have to distance myself from the fact of her death. Her physical absence is most difficult. I don’t want to only see her as a shadow in me. Without her physical presence in the world, I’ve felt more alone than ever. I had certainly imagined her death beforehand. But on the other side of it, it’s the fact that startles me. Sometimes I mutter a liturgy to myself, “My mother is dead. My mother died.” How could she go? How could she be dead? Oddly, I don’t know how to answer those questions. She was here. Now she’s not. I miss her.
I’m also reminded that I’m trying to do what many of us do when it comes to our parents: discover inheritances while carving out space for how those inheritances evolve. I was reminded of this when, about a month after my mother’s death, I read Apple, Tree: Writers On Their Parents, edited by Lise Funderburg. In the introduction to the collection of essays, Funderburg writes, “What other inheritances could be explored through those flickers of likeness we stumble upon … I decided to ask people … to consider that space between the apple and the tree, to make meaning of it.” As I see it, humans are a meaning-making species, and to consider the people we’ve become based on how we’re shaped not only by our inheritances but also those spaces is necessary work. I knew my mother would die and yet I didn’t. How could that be? What does that say about me?
Not all of the writers featured in Funderburg’s collection have seen their parents die, but they, like most of us, try to make sense of the likenesses, inheritances, and the spaces that make us who we are while examining with a keen “I” and eye toward the influence of parents on their children. It’s hard business.
One keen examination of the “I” in light of the eye comes from Kyoko Mori’s essay “One Man’s Poison.” Mori describes her abusive father as a “complete narcissist” (with good reason, which she details throughout), but concludes that the same narcissism has a home in her as well. “The pragmatic selfish streak he passed on to me is undoubtedly a poison,” she writes. As she recognizes the poison in herself, she also realizes that it can be medicinal rather than deadly. Inoculated with small, recognizable doses, the poison acts “like a weakened virus that immunizes us against life-threatening illness.” And in these small doses, she’s able to overcome the legacy her mother left: depression and suicide. Maybe even more importantly, she writes, “ … I inherited the right amount to immunize myself from the greatest danger of all: my father himself.”
Contributor Mat Johnson’s examination of his mother’s multiple sclerosis in “My Story about My Mother,” resonated in particular with me, probably because his mother has MS and my mother died from complications associated with MS. As he details his caregiving and her decline, I see my own mother’s experience as well as my own. This is part of what makes this collection so sharp. The examinations are broad. Rather than sentiment, these essays make use of clarity, the most powerful eye, the kind we all need when considering our inheritances.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor. She’s published essays with America Magazine, Sojourners, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, Lindenwood Review and more.
June 29, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Josh Sippie
You’d be surprised what people say. I know I was. When I took my first memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop, the third week of class was designated to dialogue and the homework assignment was to go eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it to share in class the following week.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical. What could people actually say? But I did my due diligence, headed to Union Square, sat on a bench and stared blankly at my book, focusing my ears like antennas to pick up a conversation that I could then write into a page of dialogue for class.
There, I heard two women talking about how they were sick of pho because it was too widespread. They liked the Vietnamese soup back when it was unique and hard to find.
It may seem pointless. Who cares about the popularity of pho (other than these two women)? But it’s not about the subject matter. It’s the passion, the context, the subtext, the dialects, the manner in in which they speak. The woman who I heard the most from was incredibly impassioned about pho and being a frontierswoman of the great pho wilderness, while the other woman mostly just nodded consent and agreed with her. Though even without looking, I could tell that she probably enjoyed pho just as much as she used to.
Hence, subtext. On the surface, it’s just two women agreeing that pho has become too popular and thus the taste suffers. But when you actually break down the dialogue, it looked like this (what these women actually said, by the way):
“Can you believe that there are four pho places in Union Square now? I don’t even want to go anymore because everyone goes now. Y’know what I mean?”
“I mean, it’s ridiculous. I remember when you actually had to look for pho.”
So yes, these two women are agreeing about the prevalence of pho. But is the other woman really agreeing, or just actively listening? And what does she think about pho? Is she annoyed with her friend? Because it seems so. Maybe there’s something elsewhere. Does she suspect her friend of doing something unsavory? Are they up for the same promotion at work?
When you read dialogue, if it’s written in such a way to reflect how human beings actually talk, you don’t have to overstate. You don’t have to tell your reader how to read it. They’ll hear it.
Using context and the actual conversation, the reader knows what that “Sure” means. And maybe it also cues up how you might have done things differently. Would you have gone along with the conversation, or would you have taken a different approach? By letting your dialogue outside of its comfort zone, you are opening it up to improvement. The kind of improvement you don’t often get from talking to your television screen or cat. It’s actually a hard thing to listen to yourself talk in a natural, human voice. That’s what other people are for.
Dialogue is at its peak when it is truly human, but you’re not going to get it human through guesswork and writing it according to the Chicago Manual of Style. People don’t pattern their everyday speech based on a manual, they pattern it based on emotion and impulse. If you want your narrative nonfiction to reflect the humanity of the situation, then there better be some actually humanity in it.
Hearing how actual people talk will let your mind start piecing together your own dialogue the way you have heard actual people talk. And it all starts with having open ears. So take out your headphones on the subway and just listen. Maybe you’ll hear something that triggers your imagination, or reminds you of a conversation you had. It doesn’t have to be about pho either (thankfully).
Remember, there is nothing that you overhear someone saying that can then become “unrealistic” dialogue, or an unrealistic way to speak. It’s as real as it gets. And while it’s unlikely that you can just pluck a conversation from your walk to the grocery store and plop it in your essay, actual human voices will be floating through your head, not just words on a page. You’ll hear the inflection of voices, the subtext obtained through simple, curt responses, accents, dialects, made-up words, made-up words said in funny dialects. Every day is an opportunity to improve your dialogue writing if you just put yourself in a position to actively listen.
And what better way to try to cure writer’s block then by sitting yourself in the middle of someone else’s story and hearing the way they tell it? The world is full of voices; you just have to be willing to listen to them.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
June 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Ian Maxton
Drones are probably killing someone right now. These words appear in small print at the top and bottom of each page in Sarah Vap’s most recent collection Winter: Effulgences and Devotions. These words are like an alarm going off quietly in an apartment that one searches for everywhere, but cannot find. They are the nagging sense one has forgotten something. They are an earworm of imperial decay. Someone is probably being extra-judicially dispatched, but between those moments, Vap attempts to write. That is to say, she tries to live and work, just like the rest of us.
Winter presents itself as a collection of prose poems, but really, it is a collection of fragments toward a poem. For twelve years, Vap attempted to write a poem about winter. This book is the result. Written in the stolen hours right after waking, her sentences often cut off. Thoughts are left hanging. She keeps getting tripped up on the “I.” “O, the tenderness, I – ,” goes a typical invocation of the self. And these are invocations. Vap is trying to get to the “I” with which Whitman sings himself.
However, things keep getting in the way of poetry. The drones, for one. The death of whales by sonar is another. Her young sons intrude, and she keeps having more of them and loving them anyway. Their voices and hers meld in the same way their bodies once did. She and her family move. She and her partner work degrading adjunct jobs. They keep losing their health insurance. They live, for a time, in an out of the way shack on the Olympic peninsula, a logging road their only connection to the outside world. In the background, winter itself is coming to an end in this region. The impetus for the poem, its occasion, is disappearing.
One of the ways Vap tries to cut through is by putting all of this anxiety on the page. Trying to make visible this country’s vile, invisible wars is an obvious example of this, but whole pieces are devoted to stray thoughts: that the valley they live in may flood irreparably one day, that the flu ripping through their home may never end, that her father’s illness will lead to his death. These last two items are part of how Vap accesses the “I.” It is not through poetic transcendence, but through the body and its daily, grotesque functions.
Vap’s sons are shit-obsessed. They sing odes to poop. They play in chicken feces. They find it all very funny, but in that way that children’s humor is deadly serious, too. They rely on their mother (and Vap’s role in the household as primary caregiver is hard not to notice in the book, even if it goes mostly unremarked upon), after all, to wipe their butts and laugh at their jokes. The asshole becomes a site of both humor and vulnerability. As an absence, Vap transforms it into symbol of the inner self—a place of potential enlightenment. Because it is a site of abjection, as well, enlightenment never quite comes.
The language in these pieces can be haphazard, flat, and rough. It is thrilling to read precisely because it feels unfinished, because it feels as though it has not been worked to death of a dozen years, but accumulated—like mold. Vap’s style can be direct at times, withholding at others. She can indulge in archaic poeticism or blank diarylike entries.
Winter can, at times, feel overwhelmed by guilt, by the knowledge that even the stolen moments that make up its composition are a privilege that comes at someone else’s cost. In an essay for N+1, published in 2006—right around the time Vap began to conceive her winter poem—Elif Batuman wrote that “the single greatest obstacle to American literature today” is guilt. This, she says, “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence.” Batuman contends that this has led to the stunting of our national literature, that our collective way of dealing with this guilt has been an obsessive focus on “craft,” which whittles our writing down to nothing. Writers, she says, act “as if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits.”
But it is difficult not to feel guilty. I sit down to write and the attack begins. My cat is dying. The cupboards are getting empty. There is too much work to do. There is not enough time. Drones are probably killing someone right now. And they are doing it for me. They are doing it for Sarah Vap and her children, too. So we can all enjoy the last few winters we’ve got left. Things keep getting in the way of enjoyment. Shit keeps getting in the way, literal shit. And for some reason we are writing at the same time that drones are probably killing someone.
This is the logic of capitalism. It is perfectly happy to heap its guilt on individuals. And because there is nothing you or I or Sarah Vap can do, on our own, to amend the deep wrongs of our time, despair becomes the status quo. In this perverse logic, if the whales are dying, if the drones are bombing, if winter is ending it is all your fault and there is nothing you can do about it. Vap writes, at what seems to be the end of the book, “Tomorrow, I think, I just won’t try again.” These words read, at first, as a resignation to this logic, as a final defeat. Because if writing is self-indulgence, if writing is a useless act in a world collapsing around us, then the only logical—the only moral—thing to do is to stop writing.
The book does not end with these words, though. In the epilogue, Vap sets the scene for the reader one last time. She is at her desk. It is a dark winter morning—“the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a thought: I am happy.” Thus, the book ends.
There is perhaps nothing more perverse in our time than to admit to happiness. But it is essential that we find it, because despair cannot fuel revolution. Happiness, as a kind of hope, can do just that. Batuman ends her essay with a similarly buoying injunction: “Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things . . . write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.” Winter is, ultimately, the rare book that can take up writerly guilt as its subject and achieve not just dignity, but happiness.
Ian Maxton is a communist writer and critic. He is an associate editor at Passages North and a contributor at Spectrum Culture. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Protean, and Cease, Cows.