Dear Book, Dear Writer

October 18, 2021 § 9 Comments

By Julie Lambert

Dear Book,

I’ve thought about you for so long. I’m a little scared of you. What will happen when I release you? What story do you want to tell? Am I seeing you clearly? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do this correctly, in the way that I want you to be created. I’m stuck right now. I don’t know what you want me to do. Where you want me to go? I think I know the way, but I’m open and listening. Can you whisper to me? I promise I’ll do my best to let you lead the way. I trust you. I really do. Do you trust me? I know it’s hard. I know you’ve wanted to hide. To keep this secret between us. Why do we have to let everybody in on it? I feel that way, too, sometimes. I want to go back to just living a normal life, doing things that normal everyday people do. But I know I wouldn’t be happy. Would you? Do you want to be permanently affixed to the bulletin board, always as a notecard? I mean, what happens to a notecard? It gets thrown away in the trash when it’s no longer relevant, no longer serves a purpose. Or do you want to be pages? Pages in a book? Yes, books are sometimes thrown out, too, but not as often as notecards. I hope people value books more.

Okay, now what do you want to say to me? I know, I haven’t heard your voice in awhile, I’ve been distracted, running after the quick fix, the sparkly trappings of a writer’s life— writing residencies, more classes, more books to read— but I swear I did some of that to develop my relationship with you. So that I could understand you better. You know this is my first time, right? I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what’s required of me. I don’t know what’s at stake. What’s that? Right, I’m talking again. Sorry. I said it was your turn. Okay, I’ll shut up, but one last thing. Could you just drop me some clues every so often, just to let me know if I’m going the wrong way or moving in the right direction? It would really help me to keep going. Not a lot, just a few crumbs. Right, okay, I’ll stop.

Dear Writer,

You’ve asked me so many questions I don’t know where to begin. I’m fine hanging out here on the bulletin board. I’m not in any rush. What I’m saying will have as much relevance today as it will tomorrow. Remember what I said to you earlier today, “hold it lightly?” I know you’ve got so much going on in your life. So many things you’re trying to tune into. I appreciate that you almost always commit Tuesdays and Thursdays to visiting with me. No one else does that you know. You’re the only one who comes up in the attic to talk to me. But I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I’m okay and I kind of like my time alone, but I want you to be ready. I want you to be prepared for when I’m ready to talk because once I begin, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop. Have you set aside some time for me before the kids are out of school? Before this summer? Because we’re going to need it. I need to get off this bulletin board before the summer. I’m kinda tired of being vertical and I can’t hold myself up any longer. I want to behave and lay down on the page. Not for too long, though, because I know once the readers come, I want to be in their heads. I want to dance and play in their minds. Don’t you think that’s the place I belong? I’ve been in your head for so long, I’m finally getting some air and I like it, but we both know the only way I can stay alive is to be passed on to other people. Not in a bad, contagious kinda way, but in an ever expanding sort of way, a continuous conversation. That’s what I want to be. Can you help me?

___

Julie Lambert is a nonfiction writer, poet, and women’s health and wellness activist, currently working on her debut memoir, Shed 1,000 Bodies. For twenty years she’s worked with organizations and individuals to improve women’s and children’s lives through education, health and wellness. In the past five years, she’s studied creative nonfiction and poetry with some of the most well-known and respected writers working in these genres. Her personal essay, “Mother’s Day,” about postpartum depression and psychosis was awarded 2nd place in Hypertext Review’s Spring/Summer 2020 Nonfiction contest. She is a graduate of The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop 2021 with T. Kira Madden, and The Writer’s Hotel 2019 with Meghan Daum. The Illinois Arts Council Agency awarded her an Individual Artist Support grant of $1,500 in 2019, and she’s been an invited storyteller at the KGB Bar in NYC, and the de Maat Studio, Second City in Chicago. She has a BA in English Language and Literature from Smith College, and a Master’s in English Language and Literature from Loyola University Chicago. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and four children.

Yes Writers, You Can Break Form

October 15, 2021 § 35 Comments

By Mary Ann McSweeny

It was one of those writing workshops after which you go home asking yourself why in Heaven’s name you ever thought you could write.

My submission to the workshop was a much-revised essay that a highly respected author had told me needed just a few tweaks to be publishable. The tweaks were made, and I was open to any final polishing suggestions that my fellow writers might propose.

The leader of the workshop said to me, “What’s it about?”

“It’s about compassion,” I said. There may have been a “duh” undertone to my words.

“Even though no one in it is compassionate?” he said. There was definitely a “gotcha” undertone to his words.

“Exactly!” I said. Because that was the whole point of the essay and I was surprised he had to ask. He sat back in his chair. The raised eyebrows revealed his judgment of me as a writer.

One of the other participants jumped in. She tapped a page of my manuscript with a glossy red fingernail. “You’ve broken form,” she said.

My head tilted. My eyebrows did their own thing: drew together in puzzlement.

“You can’t break form,” she said.

Now my head tilted a little more and my mouth dropped open.

“You. Can’t. Break. Form,” she enunciated, as if the grey in my hair also indicated a hearing loss.

Several years later, I still don’t understand what she meant about my essay, but I have reached a verdict about her emphatic, unequivocal statement. My conclusion—and it’s not an original idea—is:

Form is meant to be broken.

The Beatles. From “Love Me Do” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a matter of three years. Tell me about breaking form.

Bob Dylan. Who broke form by giving a pop music artist the Nobel Prize for Literature? The poet or the Nobel Committee for Literature?

Jo Ann Beard. The Fourth State of Matter breaks form by working creative nonfiction to the point where I had to look up the events to be sure they really took place. One of the most brilliant aspects of the piece is the insertion of the narrator’s imagination as a detached witness-character to relate the horrific details that didn’t happen in the writer’s physical presence.

Instinctive innovation is how I would describe breaking form. It’s as if something—perhaps Lorca’s duende, the unstoppable creative power that commands an artist—tells you the words aren’t flowing together or don’t quite express what you want to say, and so you dare to work them in a different way, your way, not a way that imitates, but a way that releases the deepest energy of your narrative.

You have to start with the basics. You have to know how to write a sentence. A simple sentence. Compound sentence. Complex sentence. Know where to place a paragraph break. Learn about tenses and points of view. Now you can break form and write run-on sentences or a stream of consciousness story or mix up tenses or switch between viewpoints, or, like Virginia Woolf, write with sympathetic understanding from the inside of a mentally unstable person’s mind, or, like Baron Wormser, intersperse quatrains with prose in a novel—on purpose.

And you have to know language. You have to understand nuances and connotations and sounds. Carlos Fuentes described Spanish as “a language that can be kidnapped, impoverished, sometimes jailed, sometimes murdered” to make the point that language cannot be separated from the people who speak it or the experiences they endure. Learn to use language as a dynamic event on the page.

When John Lennon wrote a song based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he probably didn’t have a notion that this song would influence the path of electronic music. He had a compulsion to turn a vision of a soul-longing into words and music. The vision and the longing and what he created from them is what I would call breaking form.

When Joan Wickersham turned the chapters of her memoir into the entries of an index as she looked for the solution to her father’s death, her willingness to break form not only avoided a predictable chronological narration, but also underscored a desperate need to bring order to the never-ending repercussions of the family tragedy of suicide. Read The Suicide Index.

When James Baldwin worked with a variety of voices—meditative, preaching, journalistic—in The Fire Next Time, each voice became a servant to his prophetic teaching. Breaking form is hardly an adequate description of his genius.

My writing tends to be pretty conventional. Subject, verb, object. But I also listen to that inner urge that sometimes presses me to take my love affair with words beyond flirtation. So here’s what I’m saying: If the experience you’re on fire to put into an essay, story, or poem demands it, ignore the reproving fingernails and the skeptical eyebrows.

Break form.

____

Mary Ann McSweeny is an educator and instructional designer. Her essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Brevity, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, and So It Goes literary journal. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.

Community vs. Solitude for Writers

October 14, 2021 § 21 Comments

By Lisa K. Buchanan

Workshops, writing groups, classes, and conferences can all be lifelines for writers.  It is only as a grateful beneficiary of such bounty that I’ve also come to know when it’s important to work alone.

In an online writing group awhile back, I received the happy news that a short piece of mine was chosen as a finalist in a competition. Savoring the treat, I kept it to myself, grinning stupidly. Meanwhile, a fellow writer in the group announced her own finalist win—but with exasperation. Her piece had “finalisted” many times already. Always the bridesmaid… Accordingly, colleagues’ congratulations were more sympathetic than celebratory. Finalist again? Aww, sucks! Next time, for sure! I stifled an impulse to post a bumper sticker: Cartwheels Not Condolences. I knew my own finalist win would help counteract rejection and boost my stamina for subsequent revisions and submissions. Ultimately, both my piece and the piece by the disappointed finalist were published. At the time, however, I cherished the award, but kept my cartwheels private, sidestepping the risk of group sympathy.

In addition to online communities, I’ve also enjoyed destination workshops, a two-year MFA program, and, more than one enriching run of monthly meetings in the living rooms of fellow wordmakers. Most of my colleagues in these groups nurtured and respected and celebrated and commiserated in just the right way. In one particular constellation, though each of us had published shorter forms exclusively, I received thoughtful responses to scenes from a novella I’d been writing. My colleagues were helpful and astute, but the piece decided to stop, butt-to-concrete, mid-sidewalk like a tired toddler. Long after the group had amicably disbanded, I was traveling in Ireland, and asked a bookseller for a reading recommendation. When he asked for a title that had recently thrilled or disappointed me, I cited a thick novel I’d eagerly begun; after a gripping thirty pages, however, I’d irrevocably lost my connection to it. The bookseller had too, calling it “a novel that should have been a short story.” The impact was swift and startling; the recognition, absolute. The bookseller’s comment only reminded me that I had suspected as much for my tired toddler. On the ten-hour flight home, I began condensing my novella into a story. I also began to see that my writing-group hadn’t been well positioned to assess the arc and momentum of a longer work. I’d shared only individual scenes, out of order and separated by weeks or months. By design, we didn’t sit with each other’s work in advance, but usually read aloud and discussed our excerpts or flash pieces in-progress. Though my colleagues had been kind and encouraging, I’d benefitted greatly as well from a stranger who didn’t know my novella existed. Additionally, the bookseller pointed me toward Foster by Claire Keegan, a powerful work that had been published both as a long story and a short novel.

Lastly, I find that pain often begets writing, and colleagues often beget comfort—which can, in turn, blunt the pain that drives the writing. In an elevator at an AWP conference, I overheard one writer explaining the plot of his novel to another writer. They seemed to have only just met. The listener was kind, the novelist was stuck, and as the plot summary had a well-rehearsed sound, I doubted the novel would be finished anytime soon. Had the writer inadvertently transferred too much energy from the page to the (possibly numerous) confidantes? Or perhaps, I had it all wrong, and it was this very telling, whether the fifth or the fifty-fifth, that enabled the novelist to work out a literary problem. In contrast, I often find that the less I say about a work in progress, the stronger the writing. When I witnessed a stranger’s suicide a few years ago, I knew I wanted to write about it. I also knew I needed to keep my shock and sorrow intact. By taking notes and denying myself the relief of conversation, the emotional pressure continued to build until the words were finally ready to find a form. I worked on the piece quietly and sporadically for about four years. A writers’ group might have sped and smoothed the process, but then I might not have ended up with the published piece as it is, potent and still sore to the touch.

I recently heard a journal editor cite “community” as one of three essential components of writerly success. While I wholly embrace the first two components, (reading in and about one’s chosen genre), I initially bristled when I heard the third, that of participating in the exchange of writerly feedback. I suspect the editor’s intention was to caution against insularity or isolation; hard to argue with that. But when I’m lucky enough to be immersed in words—from both reading and writing—I’m usually engaged and rarely lonely. When I next feel the need for community, I won’t hesitate to embrace it. For now, however, I’ll keep cartwheeling alone, just a little while longer.

___

Lisa K. Buchanan’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus, New Letters, Narrative, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Awards include the Sweet 2020 Flash Nonfiction Contest (winner), The Bristol Short Story Prize (shortlist), and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (honorary mention). She likes The Charleston, black rice with butternut squash, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three. She lives in San Francisco. Find her at www.lisakbuchanan.com

Reading for the First Time After a Drought

October 13, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Holly Hagman

The heat of summer still sizzles on the pavement outside when Mom asks me to pick up the sandwiches she’s ordered for lunch. Having slept in, I am still in my pajamas, braless, shorts and flip-flops, clutching my coffee mug in my fist. Despite the warmth outside, I throw the nearest hoodie on top of my sleep-wrinkled clothes and drive to the sub shop. The cool wind from the air conditioning hits my face, and I finally breathe. I walk over to the refrigerated cooler to grab a bottled iced tea when an older woman scratching a lottery ticket looks up at me and smiles.

“Me too,” she says, the noise of her nickel against the table clattering in my ears. I stare at her, confused, under-caffeinated, and hot. She points at my sweatshirt. I look down and read the words in bold blue print: “Book Nerd.” I smile back and nod, grabbing my iced tea and the sandwiches before I check out, leaving the woman and the lie I just told her behind me.

Honestly, at the time this exchange occurred, I hadn’t read a book for pleasure in months. With the required readings for the English classes I teach and the general state of the world, sitting down to read a whole book often resulted in fidgeting, examining the same paragraph for what seemed like hours, then shutting the book and ultimately watching Brooklyn 99 on Hulu for the second time. My brain was already stuffed to the brim with quiz questions to make for Death of a Salesman, vaccine appointment dates, and whatever drama had been trending each day on Twitter. Consuming – and retaining – a new novel or memoir was liable to short-circuit my already fried nerves and cause a total system shutdown.

So I finished Brooklyn 99, and The Good Place, and most of Bones before selecting a hardcover memoir from my TBR pile, grabbing a bookmark from my desk drawer, and starting to read again. Just like that, it was like rekindling a relationship with an old friend. I felt the texture of the pages between my thumb and forefinger, inhaled the scent of the ink, and sighed. It felt like coming home.

Now, I wear my “Book Nerd” sweatshirt fairly often. I wear it when I run to the store, watch a movie, cook dinner, and, increasingly, when I read. I still get sucked into television rabbit holes (don’t even get me started on 90 Day Fiancé) and the books on my shelves continue to multiply, but I take comfort in the fact that we can take a break and still find our way back together, that they will always be there, pages fresh, spines ready to be cracked, quiet and waiting.
____

Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She continued her studies, earning her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been an assistant editor for Brevity, the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit, and is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature. Her work can be viewed in The Citron Review, Complete Sentence, and Porcupine Literary. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs and napping with her cats.

On Writing Retreats

October 12, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Adelle Purdham

The first time I organized a writer’s retreat I did it because, as a mother to three young kids, I wanted the time and space to write. A word to the wise: if you want time and space to write, don’t organize a writing retreat and facilitate it yourself.

Renting a space meant I had to do all the grunt work. I was preparing lunches and bringing in yoga instructors and providing feedback on writers’ work. With a clump of memoir writers, I was faced with participants in tears and traumas that risked repeating themselves, skipping from body to body like a virus to a host. How to manage it all, in my new-found role of hostess, chef, therapist, teacher, while still making space for my own emotions and work? In truth, I didn’t, I could not.

I resigned myself to giving the time and space to other women to write, and when I did that I encountered a truth greater than the value of that writing time I was giving up. Hosting the retreat was a time for me to teach, and to help other women find their story, their voice, and share it with the world. There are times to write and there are times to learn. Teaching is the highest form of learning. And it’s not that I necessarily learn directly from the writing of the writers I’m working with, though often I do, but I learn from their bravery; I learn from their curiosity and courage. I learn from their open hearts. And in return, I offer them mine.

Tips for organizing your own writer’s retreat:

  1. Know your why. I thought I was getting into organizing writing retreats because I love to write, but it turns out I also love to teach and facilitating The Write Retreat has been a perfect marriage of these skills. Empowering and supporting women writers is deeply gratifying work.
  2. Know your audience. I’ve heard of a doctor who runs writing retreats for other doctors. Find your niche by considering what specifically you have to offer. With an MFA in creative nonfiction writing, I attend to attract more memoir/ personal narrative writers to my retreats.
  3. Create a sustainable business model. Consider partnering with other writers and other businesses that can add value to the service you are providing. For example, working with a venue that can manage administrative tasks for you, such as registration, saves time and energy that can then be put back into the retreat, while inviting guest speakers brings in expertise to support the work you are doing.
  4. Put your heart into it. Your participants are counting on you to deliver quality programming. Are you able to meet as many of the group’s needs as possible? Consider setting up Zoom meetings beforehand to get to know participants and find out what those needs are. Send out a questionnaire afterwards and reassess how each session went and learn what you can do better for next time. Let your passion shine through.
  5. Create a safe space. As writers, we know how vulnerable it can feel to share our work, especially work that’s newly formed. Create parameters around how work is shared and how feedback is provided. Focus on what works in the piece and celebrate loudly.

Tips when deciding if a writing retreat is right for you:

  1. What do you hope to get out of it?  Are you seeking comradery and community or solace and space? Do you want intensive feedback, one-on-one time, or time to play on the page? Each writing retreat is going to offer a balance of these things—a coming together and time apart. Feedback and inspiration. Find the retreat that offers the balance that’s right for you.
  2. Does it add value? Is there a guest author you want to meet or a writer you really want to workshop with? Is the location ideal? Is the timing right given the stage of your project, or during the period when you want to get a new project going? Is it the chance to relax and inspiration that you need? The retreat needs to bring value to you and your work.
  3. Does it feel right? Often, we know in our gut if something is right for us or not. Read the fine print. Does the idea of sharing a room with a stranger put you off? Are your food requirements able to be met? Is the retreat space accessible for your mobility needs? Are you attracted to everything on offer? If not, wait for the next one.
  4. Are your friends interested? While attending a retreat on our own is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and make connections with other writers, there’s a level of comfort that comes with bringing a friend along. Also, reading past participants’ testimonials can be a great indicator of what you may be in for.
  5. When in doubt, reach out. My expectation is that if a business wants my patronage, they should be willing to answer any questions I may have. If you’re at all unsure, reach out with any questions and an organized facilitator will be happy to answer them.

After facilitating my latest retreat, feelings of wellbeing and gratitude washed over me. I spent the weekend as one of fifteen women sharing stories, with catered food and a team of other professionals to share the load of running the weekend. I’ve learned a few things about how to run a retreat as the years have gone by and I continue to learn. I drove home alone along the open stretch of road, rows of pines waving at me as I passed by, and I knew I had experienced something with these writers so seldom granted to women, and especially mothers: freedom.

___
Adelle Purdham is a writer, speaker and parent disability advocate. She holds an honours degree in French literature and is a certified teacher. She earned a graduate certificate from Humber College’s Creative Writing by Correspondence program where she wrote her memoir Here We Are, Happy. Her essay, “The Giving Tree” will appear in the anthology, Good Mom on Paper (Book*hug Press, spring 2022). Adelle’s work has also appeared in The Toronto StarThe MightyBroadview Magazine, and she’s a regular contributor to 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine. Adelle is the founder of The Write Retreat, facilitating wellness, workshops, time and space for women writers to create. She is currently completing her MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College and writing her next book, I Don’t Do Disability and Other Lies I’ve Told Myself, an ensemble of first-person essays through memoir. Visit her online adellepurdham.ca

Revision and the Multi-Faceted Self

October 11, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Amy Beth Sisson

My sister recently sent me a photograph of a piece of paper that had hung on my parents’ bulletin board for decades. It was a poem I had written at age nine, and my current, much older self could not resist revising the words of my child self. Common advice to writers is to let a manuscript sit in between writing and revision, but my example is extreme—most don’t contemplate a fifty-year timespan. This experience made me question the relationship between writing, revision, and the self. 

Maybe the passage of time works to allow us to revise because of the nature of the self. Maybe the gap in time between writing and revision works because the passage of time allows for new facets of the self to come into focus; facets who can stand in more strongly for the reader rather than for the creator. 

Many writers, such as Anne Lamott, talk about this from the perspective of the creation of work. The idea that the revising self is different from the writing self is useful when sitting down to write a first draft. They recommend finding a way to turn off your inner critic. Various techniques are useful for getting into the creative and generative mindset such as free-writing, walking, and meditation. But how do you go about turning the critic back on when revising?

The word critic can mean a lot of different things. I don’t think it’s ever useful to summon the stereotypical teacher with a red pen. I prefer to think of my inner critic as a stand-in for my ideal imagined reader, the person I am trying to connect with. When revising, how can you shift your mind from the wildly creative to the place where you have empathy for the reader’s needs. What do the readers need to know, what might resonate with their experience, what will raise useful ideas and questions for them? When revising, I am striving to access deep empathy for the person interacting with my words.

So, if you can, put the manuscript in a virtual drawer for a time. Think about what the optimal length would be for you. Too long and the revising self might be too far from the material. Stephen King recommends taking a six-week break between drafting and revising. If you take this tack, be accepting of the vicissitudes of life that can interfere with connecting to the revision. Are any of us the same self as we were before the upheavals of 2020? And, of course, if you have a deadline all bets are off. 

Here are some things that have worked for me to get out of my head and into the reader’s. Most of these can be useful regardless of the genre.

  1. Move to another room. (I’d say go to a coffee shop if it were not for the Delta variant.) Have you ever gone into a room to do something only to find that you don’t know why you are there? Use this phenomenon to get in touch with your revising self.
  2. Try rewriting from a different point of view. When you drafted you consciously or unconsciously selected a point of view to tell the tale. Thinking about the story from another point of view can break you out of assumptions and bring you closer to the reader’s experience. Even if you don’t keep the revision’s point of view, it can inform the work.
  3. Try rewriting in a different tense. Changing tenses is a way to achieve a similar effect. If you switch from the present tense to the past tense you may give the reader more scope to understand the context of the events. If you switch from the past to the present tense you may give the reader more of a sense of immediacy. Again, you don’t have to keep this change, but it can be a useful exercise to help you have a new vision.
  4. Color code the piece in some way that helps you to see the structure of the work. Play with it.  Some people will highlight specific parts of speech. In longer works some people highlight themes or characters. This can give you a sense of the balance.
  5. Work on another genre. One of my critique partners, a short story writer, recently started revising a draft of a children’s book. She found that she was energized when she went back to revising her short story. Working on something for a very different audience helped her break out of her assumptions about her readers.

The next strategies I use help because they allow you to hear as well as see your words. I’m listing them in the order of my preference.

  1. Read it out loud. This is very helpful but sometimes I read what I think is on the page rather than what is really on the page and don’t even realize it. 
  2. Have the computer read it to you. This is slightly better for me because the computer will never fill in missing words, but the electric voice can be hard for me to focus on.
  3. Read it to someone. Having an actual person as my audience forces me to attend in a way that I don’t do when I’m alone.
  4. Have someone read it to you. This, for me, is the most effective strategy. I follow along on the page while my generous friend reads my words. I hear where they trip up. I hear where they feel awkward voicing something I wrote. If I can’t find a willing reader, Sometimes I will read something into a recording device on my phone and play back the recording.

Experiment with the ideas above to see what works for you to shift your perspective.

____

Amy Beth Sisson is struggling to emerge, toad-like, from the mud in a small town outside of Philly. Her poetry has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and The Night Heron Barks. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021Enchanted Conversation and Sweet Tree Review. This fall, she left her day job in software development and started an MFA in Poetry at Rutgers Camden. You can follow her work at amybethsisson.com

Review of Abby Hagler’s There Was Nothing Left But Gold

October 8, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Hannah White

I was a quiet girl. I grew up in an all-girl home. In the spaces between my mother’s failed boyfriends and marriages, it was just my mother, my sister, and me, together in a home too large for just us. My mother loved silence, especially in the morning, when our voices carried easily through the emptiness of the house. Excitement was greeted with hushes, with demands to walk lightly. I made myself like a little ghost and she loved me for it.

But I must admit: I love quiet too. In it I find space, room for thinking, for reading and writing, room for loving myself like I always wanted someone else to.

Similarly, Abby Hagler finds space of her own as she revisits the rolling Nebraska grasslands of her home in There Was Nothing Left But Gold. After severing communication with her mother, Hagler heads toward her childhood home and stops in the prairie lands that inspired Willa Cather’s fiction. Weaving together personal and travel narrative, literary criticism, and ghost theory, in her lyric essays Hagler demonstrates an awareness of self, of how identity is inherited—or willed by parents onto their children—and of how memory is strongly tied to place.

Hagler identifies with Cather, who she says, “sought to escape the myth her mother had created for her.” Hagler herself a rebellious child who resisted the life her mother strained to raise her into—one of marriage, of being settled in one place—asks the question, “What becomes of the woman who lives the story her mother tells?”

Entering the prairie that is the setting of O Pioneers!, after being away from the grasses of her homeland for years, Hagler is left speechless. The life of the prairie moves around her, grass constantly growing and dying and growing again. She writes, “Grass resists assimilation. It grows against language because we cannot own it.” Hagler deftly puts into words what it feels like to simultaneously belong to a place—whether a landscape or a mother—without being owned by it.

Coming back to the prairie of her childhood, now an adult, Hagler feels she is now haunting the landscape that raised her. She revisits once familiar places—gas stations and fields—attesting to them that she still exists. But she asks herself, “Can I be nostalgic for a home where I no longer belong?” Though pulled to the memories of her childhood home, Hagler is struck by the continuity of the once familiar places around her despite her absence. Hagler provokes her readers with questions of the importance of place, identity, and inheritance.

Hagler’s mother sends her a lock of her baby hair, telling her she is in charge of her own relics. Because she lacks a house, family members resist giving Hagler family heirlooms, instead sending photocopies of pictures and documents of family history, “writing and being educated do not count as stability. One must display a physical immovability in order to keep time.” But Hagler makes readers question: Can one over truly leave home behind?

Though pulled to the lands of her home, where seeds in the prairie grass wedge themselves between fibers of clothing, holding on even through the wash, where blades of grass sprout out, each blade origin unknown and maybe even far from where it springs, Hagler imagines a willing revisiting of home, a sort of reverence for the past that does not compromise the personal choice of tomorrow.

Quiet is my mother, but it is me too.
___

Hannah White is a writer and graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She copyedits for the Journal of International Women’s Studies and writes for Literarytraveler.com. In her free time, she enjoys baking and walking through the woods of her hometown’s state park with her two Boston terriers.

Fiction? No. Memoir!

October 7, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Brian Watson

In 1994, I was in love for the first time. I glowed with an ecstatic radiance, visible from space. Newfound amorous happiness flipped a writing switch in me. Every night I sat down at my Macintosh Plus, with the massive forty-five-megabyte hard drive atop my desk, and I wrote. Disparate memories of my youth flowed together in a story that inexorably concluded in that ne plus ultra of human endeavors: true love!

But it wasn’t a memoir.

I was certain of one thing: it was right and fair to cast it all as fiction. I believed that my family and friends would prefer a veneer of invention separating them from my realities.

I secretly printed the book at my office in Tōkyō, and mailed it to a college friend in New York. She sent back corrections and marginalia, and I revised. I sent it on to my high-school English teacher and received a kind-yet-disappointing reply: An author’s first work is never their best work. Write something else.

Dreams of bestsellers waned. I packed away the printed manuscript, and as my love and I moved from Tōkyō to Kirkland, from Kirkland to Bellevue, from Bellevue to New Westminster, from New Westminster to Burnaby, and Burnaby to Kent, I lost the manuscript.

Misplacing the manuscript was not intentional. Important boxes were always opened after each move, but we’d amassed a small set of boxes with nondescript labels like textbooks and Brian’s things, and we ignored them. I wondered sometimes where the manuscript went, but never enough to mount a search.

In September of 2020 I began writing again. This time it was unabashed. A true memoir. Nothing changed. Nothing veneered.

As the first draft neared completion in December, I converted the upstairs rumpus room to a studio of sorts. To frame prints, to store books, to work on macro photography techniques. (Yes, too many hobbies!) My husband and I opened piles of boxes there, passing on any KonMari routine. We shelved everything we found. It sparked joy anyway.

In the very last box, at the very bottom, I saw the blue binder and squealed. My manuscript’s title page greeted me as it arose from its nest: In So Many Words.

I brought it down to my office and decided I wasn’t looking at it until the memoir was complete. The fiction was a virus. I didn’t want it to infect my true memoir.

Months passed. I reworked, revised, and restructured the memoir. A friend read the first half. His notes and suggestions came as I planned a brief vacation to Oregon. On an impulse, I packed both his notes and the old manuscript.

Afternoons in Portland were spent in an Adirondack chair, my iPad beside me, the notes and the old manuscript in my lap.

I started to read In So Many Words.

And recoiled.

My writing is terrible. And who are these people? I had no notes indicating which friends were assigned which fictional names. Wait! Did that really happen?

Between the melodrama and the navel-gazing, there were sparks, twinkling out at me. I remembered that I’d included an occupation: average housewife, on conference name tags in Japan, no doubt inspired by my own camp and chyrons from The Phil Donohue Show.

I stopped after the fifth chapter, unable to discern whether events themselves were fact or fiction. Did I really answer a personal ad in Jock magazine in 1988? I shook my head in disbelief. Jock? So off-brand.

And my writing made me cringe:

He and his family lived in an apartment house right on the river, and despite the fact that the location proved great for catching eels and crabs during summer vacation, and the added bonus that the apartment house had a pool, there was, between the apartment and Our Lade of Perpetual Sorrows Parish School, an immense hill which Matthew had to climb every morning in order to get to school.

As copy-editor extraordinaire Benjamin Dreyer might say, how very twee!

But with each cringe came a reinforcement.

I have grown as a writer since 1994.

I write better, with more confidence and clarity.

And that 1994 writer, fictionalized as Matthew, is one of the people I’m writing for.

My memoir calls my protagonist home to the me I now am. Where all of those boys — the confused boy, the angry boy, the lonely boy, and the desperate boy — I once was can find safety and acceptance.

And every time I feel the unneeded despair, at each doubting of my skill and talent, my reinforcements now await me:

You are not who you were.

You have grown, as you will continue to do.

You left a fictional life back in 1994 and the memoir is better for it. What a wise choice!

Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Their cantankerous old cat, Butters, has crossed the rainbow bridge. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com; follow him on Twitter @BMemoirist.

Florilegia: Gathering from Your Literary Garden

October 5, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Signe Myers Hovem

As a writer I face the challenge of how to stay above cliché and contriteness; how to remain relevant and original. How to be authentic. And time after time, I find the unexplored parts of myself stimulated by the works of others, my feelings of unoriginality dispelled when I pick up a book, or look at art, or listen to music.

The role of the reader need not be limited to just consumer or reviewer. Reading is an opportunity to let the content lead you in your own creativity. When I finish a particularly stimulating book, I feel like I’ve been invited to a grand garden party with every memorable character or author I’ve read. “Who would I like to introduce to each other, or to another discipline, or to my own experience?” plays out in my writing as permission to mix, integrate and create new expressions from something that preexisted.

From a young age, my creative life sampled liberally from the books I took refuge in. I and my siblings were latchkey kids with a lot of unsupervised time that quickly devolved into its own land-locked Lord of the Flies. But everything I read formed a bridge out of my perceived trapped existence towards something expansive and extraordinary. The words, images, and music of others supported my own self-awareness and acceptance, starting my journey toward the writer’s task of conveying emotion with vivid immediacy.

As a ninth-grader grappling with the aftermath of my parent’s divorce, I grabbed the Theatre Arts class exam as my mouthpiece. Our final presentation was to interpret any subject of our choice. Perhaps I foresaw the multimedia presentations of the future, but in 1979, not wanting to utter more than a few sentences myself, I created a slide show, mashing up WWII battlefield and Holocaust photos to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” I was in a lonely and painful place, and coupling an atrocity from history with an eerily succinct contemporary rock ballad helped me circulate the feelings that were stagnating and keeping me stuck.

This therapeutic outlet of sampling published bits to find my own voice continued into my journaling. I settled upon a hybrid form of being both reader and writer, blending inspiration and aspiration like an elixir that offered healing and served as an opportunity to express what felt forbidden. One entry came from borrowing two lines from The Kite Runner: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1976. I remember the precise moment, crouching down . . .” I, too, was twelve in 1976, and had a precise moment of crouching down behind a chair. After copying those sentences, I continued to describe my own precise moment in my journal, navigating into a slipstream behind Khaled Hosseini’s words, like popping the clutch in a moving car to start the engine. And once I could register the movement of my own voice coming forth, the prompt receded and what was ultimately expressed became fully my story to tell.

My process of gathering and combining passages is not unique or original, but it did manifest organically in my young mind as a way to connect and expand to something greater both inside and outside of myself. Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org refers to this fusion as networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity. Popova traces this method as far back as the 14th century when it was known as florilegia, from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.”

…florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture.

On my blog, Passages, I feature inspiring lines from books, connected with my own awareness, sensibilities, and curiosity. I’ve coupled Susan Tweit’s recent memoir of grief and loss, Bless the Birds, with interdisciplinary artist Melissa McGill’s project on collecting bird calls. Tweit’s connection to her dying husband, whose first symptoms of brain cancer appeared with a vision of thousands of birds, resembled to me the call and response of birds.

I’ve entertained poet Simon Armitage and the homeless experience of Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path in order to talk about the mystery of happenstance and how we can unknowingly be the benefactors of the prior interactions of strangers. 

Other authors are also creatively primed by other works. Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers functions as a remix of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”and Ted Hughes’ “Crow.” Reading Porter’s book during the pandemic helped me examine the role of collective grief.

Explore something new in your own morning pages or journaling; play with florilegia, or erasure, or using a random sentence from a book you’re reading to prime your own expression. For me, it’s captivating and energizing to gather deep thoughts and beautiful prose, tying them together lightly with my own ponderings and experiences. Bold and fresh, like a garden bouquet.

The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide is now available.

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Signe Myers Hovem has created homes on five continents over twenty years, raised four uniquely sensitive children, pursued a special education lawsuit appealed to the US Supreme Court, volunteered in a hospice in Texas and an orphanage in Azerbaijan. Signe works as a spiritual counselor, and teaches workshops and trainings in the art of being an empath and the power of language in many countries around the world. Subscribe to Signe’s monthly newsletter at www.smhovem.com, or find her on Instagram @smhovem

The Joy of Detail in Nonfiction

October 4, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Sonya Huber

“Detail” is a word I say so often that I maybe don’t even hear it anymore. But the benefits and the joy of chasing detail in the real world and putting it on the page never get old. Maybe it’s the way that, once you summon those details—not the eyeglasses in the dish, but the pink/mauve frames with your old prescription in the cobalt glass butter dish you found at a yard sale in Georgia—you’re summoned back to yourself. I am summoned back to myself and summoned back to the world where I live. I wonder sometimes if this trick, too, is the core of teaching writing, that once you teach someone the magic trick of making the world shine, making the everyday talk back, the person might never forget that feeling.

In this act—stop time and linger not on forward motion but on color, shape, shadow, substance, material, weight, origin, impression—there is the secret to living forever, temporarily, the secret to time travel. And, too, there is the subtle compassion for one’s self that I find so difficult to call on at the edge of the present moment. In looking to the past, handling these objects, choosing them, wondering what I stored in the butter dish that left a mysterious rust stains etched in the glass, I remember a self with a different kind of broken heart. The details bring my past and present selves together, and the doubling adds dimension, then makes the present richer for its shadow.

I’ve wanted to write an account of a day, morning to night, for years, spurred on first by the beautiful stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway. When Ander Monson began his lovely project, “What Happened,” he offered everyone a day, pre-chosen. Writers who signed on had to make an essay, or an entry, about that very day and whatever it brought us. It was amazing, a nonfiction kind of Christmas: we were living an essay together in real time! (You can read collections of these on the “Essay Daily” website.) After I participated in that, I wanted to see if maybe I could do a bigger one. And then eventually that want came to fruition in my new book, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day.

It’s about getting arrested at a climate protest in 2019, and the day itself is the day I go to court for that. So I kind of cheat because there’s dramatic action, but the substance of it is in my boring thoughts ordering tacos in Grand Central Station, in my awkwardness and the crap that’s in the bottom of my shoulder bag. In sifting through the mundane material.

I read somewhere, or heard, that faith is an underlying confidence that there’s an order to things. Not that the order is good, or that it’s protective, but simply that there’s a pattern that might mean something unseen. I think I like chasing the details in nonfiction because I glimpse, just out of the corner of my eye, mutely and partially, a wink of light in pursuing those details in order to intuit the pattern of myself and the mark I make in the large cobalt butter dish of the world.
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Sonya Huber is the author of the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance MemoirHer work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University.

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