April 24, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Sarah Evans
The first type of writing conference regret typically hits shortly after the event begins.
You’ve just walked out of your first breakout session, one that you picked after poring over the descriptions and presenter bios to decide which one was right for you. In the hallway, you bump into attendees who went to a different session — one you’d considered but eventually rejected — and all of them are buzzing about how amazing their presenter was, how their notebooks are filled with words of inspiration, how the whole conference was worth it for just that one talk.
You sigh, because even though the session you picked was quite good, it never seems to live up to the mythic-level one you didn’t attend.
This happened to me last May at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers asked us to choose our first session months in advance of the event, and I wavered between my top two picks: “Structure for Long-Form Nonfiction” and “What Do I Write About?”
I picked the first, a session that offered a solid nuts and bolts lesson, specific tools and devices we could try with longer works. Among other things, the session leader analyzed the techniques Jeannette Walls used in the opening of her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” advocating that we start our story, like Walls, “close to the peak of action, right before a defining moment” — before leaving that scene and going somewhere else in the story for a while. The result: you make the reader want to ride along to find out how that opening scene will conclude.
“I already know this,” I thought at first — I had used this technique for years in my magazine writing. But as I continued jotting notes, a question nagged at me: Why wasn’t I also using this technique for my memoir-in-progress? I wrote in the margin of my notebook, “Open memoir with me meeting Mom at 7-11 after the funeral.” Minutes later, I walked out of the talk satisfied that I’d gleaned several potential ideas to play with when I got home.
Then I ran into the people who had gone to the other session. They talked about how inspiring it was, how the session leader had given them all these great nuggets of wisdom to remember and reflect upon, adages like, “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning.”
Regret rushed in. I appreciated the nuts and bolts, but also hungered for those motivating tidbits to remind me why I was a writer. I definitely encountered some later in the conference, but as I flew home afterward, part of me still wondered what else I might have missed.
Those precious post-conference days are when you may encounter another form of conference regret: wasting your inspiration. You come home with your brain and your notebook brimming with ideas and notes, and then … you do nothing with them. If you’re like me — a writer who also works a pays-the-bills job while raising a young family — it’s easy to return to that former life of not always writing, of pushing it aside until later when you’re less busy and less tired (which never happens). You have high hopes for what you’re going to do with your conference inspiration, and then you leave that notebook closed on your desk.
This time around, the new idea about how to open my memoir just wouldn’t leave me. I thought about it throughout the conference and on the plane ride home. It continued to taunt me as I attended office meetings and wiped runny noses. So within a week of returning to Oregon, I sat down and wrote. I only wrote about a page and a half, but I could tell it was the best I’d written in a while. When friends asked me about the conference, I told them how I’d written this new prologue for the book I hoped to finish someday, and how jazzed I was about the new direction. They smiled and nodded — most of them weren’t writers, so they didn’t understand the import of this development. Inside, I rejoiced that for once I hadn’t completely squandered the weekend.
I wish I could say that prologue turned into a regular routine where new chapters poured out of me every week. Instead, my kids and my regular life stepped back in and I’ve actually written very little of my memoir since then. But just getting that prologue onto the page was a game-changer. It led to me digging out old chapters to revisit with my writing group, thinking about the structure of my memoir often, and feeling reinvigorated about returning to the project.
Months later, I entered the prologue into the Oregon Writers Colony Writing Contest, and it won third prize for nonfiction first chapter. Take that, conference regret.
So the next time I come out of a session and hear the other attendees gushing about their presenter, I will smile, but I will not feel regret. I got what I needed out of the day, and that is what conferences are all about. And the next time I leave a conference, I’ll try harder to write something immediately after, even if it’s brief. It’s better than nothing, and it could signal a new beginning.
I didn’t even get to the third type of conference regret: when you meet that famous writer you admire and you blabber on or say something stupid. If you figure out how to defeat that one, let me know.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who is working (sometimes) on a memoir about her teenage years as a punk-rocker in small-town Texas. She is a graduate of the MFA in writing program at Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.
April 21, 2017 § 1 Comment
Redivider, the journal of new art and literature out of Emerson College, is accepting submissions for the 2017 Beacon Street Prize through the end of April. Redivider’s nonfiction editor, Paul Haney, recently interviewed this year’s nonfiction judge, Ned Stuckey-French, also known as “the most interesting man in the world, when it comes to discussing the essay.”
Stuckey-French touches on Montaigne, Bacon, Adorno, the lyric essay, Eula Biss, the 1980s essay renaissance, and his time spent living “a kind of double life as a janitor and undercover trade union organizer.”
Here’s an excerpt from the interview, but the smart thing to do would be to follow the link to read the whole thing:
Reading essays is kind of like going out to dinner in Manhattan or some other big city. There’s always a great family restaurant that introduces you to new décor and food and presentation and wine and service. In judging this contest I’m hoping for an unexpected dining experience.
I also like to think that my tastes are broad, democratic, and always expanding (though I’ve never been a big fan of anchovies). I like essays that use humor and research. I like essays that make me say, “Wow, I’ve felt that or sensed that, but never heard it put into words.” I like essays that are brave and engaged, essays that tackle big issues though they may go after those issues via a small, quiet, and personal opening. I like essays that are formally inventive but that don’t indulge in form for form’s sake, but use form instead to reveal something about a subject in such a way that when you’ve finished reading the essay, you think, “Of course, that’s the way to say that.” I like essays that are skeptical and unafraid of the contradictions of life. I like essays that recognize that history is sly and we don’t have the universe all figured out even as they try to figure things out. I like essays that describe the beauty of our world – be that beauty wild, natural and inhuman, or urban, constructed, and social.
April 19, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Emily Heiden
Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is a book about abandonment. Through Radtke’s beautiful and bruising images, we consider the ways we leave places and people, and the ways they leave us. We feel these departures deeply because of Radtke’s painstaking drawings, which allow us to experience the story for ourselves with an immediacy that narrative alone often struggles to achieve.
As someone who had no inherent interest in abandoned landscapes, I was surprised to find myself so drawn in by Radtke’s renderings of them on the page. When the book begins, she and her college boyfriend, Andrew, go on a trip to the defunct town of Gary, Indiana, to explore, and we discover with them its disrepair. I was especially struck by a depiction of an abandoned movie theater. There was something savage about it, something wild. How could society allow such decay to exist? In my too-suburban mind, cities are tidy. What doesn’t work out is bulldozed to the ground and resurrected as high-rise condos. These black and white images, therefore, provide one of the first encounters I’d ever had with a full-on departure—the decision of a community to simply pack up and go.
As the narration moves on, we also experience abandonment through Radtke’s relationships. The death of her Uncle Danno is her first true loss, and one she explores powerfully through words and visual images. Months after Danno dies of complications due to heart surgery, Radtke discovers a cassette tape of an interview she conducted with him when she was in elementary school. She heads to the garage, climbs into a truck, and presses play. Her uncle’s voice begins blaring from the player, his words stabbing at the reader and Radtke’s heart when he joyfully proclaims: “I mean…look at me—I beat heart disease!”
Many of Radtke’s images and stories express the desire for and illusion of permanence. The interview with her uncle preserved a piece of him; his voice is still present on the tape; she can access it whenever she presses play. But this experience makes her and the reader feel her uncle’s absence even more poignantly, knowing that’s he’s gone. When Danno proclaims his triumph over the disease we know eventually killed him, we confront the fleeting nature of life.
The book’s most engaging moments deal with her only concerted attempt to commit to a person or place: her relationship with Andrew and their house in Chicago. Together they undertake what she calls “a first pass at adulthood”—getting a kitten; paying utility bills—in essence, playing house. This partnership is an important sojourn in the trajectory of her life, but not the destination. Radtke becomes restless and leaves the country. Andrew clings to their love, eventually proposing to her in Europe. The proposal is the stuff of fairytale; the ring is beautiful; the backdrop an idyllic European town along a river. Radtke accepts, and immediately finds herself staring at the ring warily. After the engagement, she tells us “Every city we visited…began to feel like the stock backdrop for some stagnant future, our imaginary kids stomping up the stairs next to photos of us twenty years younger, holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
Radtke’s account of her relationship with and engagement to Andrew ring especially true for me: my own college relationship culminated in a move to Iowa with a boyfriend I too tried to play house with. When he proposed, I cried, nodded yes, let him put the ring on my finger, then walked in a daze to the bathroom, where I stared at the stone, feeling the same mounting pressure Radtke felt. I too pictured our future children, and myself as a soccer mom. I knew the engagement would keep me stuck in one place, when I wanted to experience all of them. Like Radtke, I knew I had to move on.
Both Radtke and I indicted ourselves for leaving those loves. She makes statements throughout the book like “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests,” and laments her lack of “…ability to claim something with ferocity.” This capacity to grab hold of a love, a land, a home, is something she praises in others and questions in herself, asking: “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?”
She sees the end in the beginning, her brain always fast-forwarding to ruin, abandonment, and decay. Radtke concludes the book by envisioning the prophesied flooding of New York City, telling us “we forget that everything will become no longer ours”–a pronouncement that asks us to question the stability of our everyday surroundings. The book, finally, is Radtke’s desire to hold on to what she cannot bring herself to believe will remain.
Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.
April 18, 2017 § 21 Comments
By Sheila Siegel
According to all the books on writing that I have read, I am not a writer. I am a psychologist, an anti-slavery activist, and a reader, but I am not a writer. Yet, I have written a book.
I approached writing as I do everything, with focus and determination, but, when I am writing, get stuck, and feel I have nothing to say, I don’t sit down at my computer and stare at a blank screen as other writers exhort. I get up and read, paint, or take the dogs for a walk.
I don’t blog even though it sounds like a good idea. I don’t journal although I have bought several with all good intentions. I had a five-year one where each day was given three lines. After six months, I had made one entry. I gave it to a friend who wanted to write.
I have taken memoir writing courses. I am in writing groups and workshop my pieces diligently. Sometimes this is not all that helpful. During one critique a fellow student suggested I show less and tell more. Had she not been listening? I have read as much as I could stomach of Bird by Bird, and devoured books on memoir writing by Mary Karr, Stephen King, Abigail Thomas, and Ann Patchett. I no longer use adverbs in dialogue and have learned to incorporate “carnal details” to make my scenes come alive. I have improved my craft. I am a better storyteller than when I started, but I am not a writer. I don’t do writerly things. I don’t force myself to keep going on. I rarely feel blocked because I just stop trying until I am ready to sit down at the computer again.
I don’t write essays, or letters to the editor or look for ways to make money through writing. For me, I need a book under my belt to give me credibility so that I can do what I really want which is to give talks on the problem of global slavery, a field I have been working in for the last 4 years.
Although my friends and family badgered me to write, I resisted.
I told them, “I am too much of an extrovert. The idea of sitting alone day after day holds no appeal.”
I have written articles and a dissertation that have been published. It was enough, until I got sick.
While working in Haiti, doing trainings on trauma informed care, I contracted ciguatera, food poisoning that attacks the nervous system. Chronic fatigue is one of the side effects and once I had recovered enough I began to write. I had energy for nothing else.
As I wrote, I tried to become better. I sought out writing classes where there was a strong critical component and was frustrated and impatient with ones where everyone liked everything. I wrote and rewrote daily. But, when I wasn’t writing I didn’t really miss it until I got a new idea.
This realization that I am not a writer has just struck me. In my current class our teacher often asks us, “What are you reading?”
Some people claim not to be reading anything because they are so busy writing. Because I am retired, I have lots of time to read. In a week, I will have read at least 2 books and listened to a third. I read memoirs by the dozen to see what it takes to write a good one. I think there are more people in my classes like me. Some admit that they need a class to get them writing. So, are they not really writers?
Writing is hard work. Sometimes it is fun and sometimes disheartening. When I started Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov I thought to myself why am I even trying? I could never possibly come close to writing so poetically. My words compared to his are pedestrian and banal. I soon got over that because the writing was so lyrical that I got bored and had trouble finishing the book.
On the other hand, it is nice to tell people that you are writing something. Of course, you always skip over the not writing part, the creating the book proposal, building a platform, finding an agent most of the ones available being in their 20’s and not interested in a book about retiring.
So (after spending the last 18 months creating my oeuvre) it has become clear to me, that really, I am not a writer. Still, once I get recharged enough, I will sit down and try again. Right now, I think I will go for a walk.
Sheila Siegel is a clinical psychologist. When not traveling the world as a volunteer for Free the Slaves, she is working at a drop-in center for homeless youth located near her home in Venice, California where she lives with her husband and their two dogs. The rest of the time she spends looking for an agent for her memoir, The Badass Grandma’s Guide to Tackling Retirement and Global Slavery. She uses her down time to write.
April 17, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Scott Russell Morris
A “spark bird,” I learned from B.J. Hollars’ Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds, is the bird that gets one interested in birding. Presumably, it takes you beyond casual observation and into impassioned enthusiasm. In Hollars’ case, his spark bird leads him into an exploration of extinct birds, which leads him to investigating the lives of bird experts, living and dead, many of whom have made significant contributions to environmental causes, which of course, he discusses in relation to the fact that most extinct birds are so because of us humans. While I have never experienced a spark bird, and while I’ll admit that even after reading Flock Together, I’m only slightly more interested in the birds themselves, I can say that I’ve experienced a spark squirrel. I was nineteen, I had recently moved from California to Maryland to be a Mormon missionary, and I was walking through a suburban neighborhood when I noticed a squirrel leaping in the trees above. While it certainly wasn’t the first squirrel I’d even seen, there was something about the grace of that moment that caught my eye and my imagination. I can—somewhat sheepishly—admit that the quiet, gray moment with a gray squirrel leaping against a gray sky felt something like a religious experience, a world of wonder opening up before me. I became obsessed with squirrels. Just watching them frolic brought me pleasure, learning about their habits became endlessly fascinating. Like many other enthusiasts, I dedicated a great deal of time thinking about them. I started collecting squirrel t-shirts. They became the focus of my MFA thesis. When my girlfriend and I broke up, she listed squirrels (among other things) in her list of concerns, and when that girlfriend and I got married there was a squirrel-themed scavenger hunt at our reception. I eventually found myself in England, hiking for hours a day, finally seeing a single endangered red squirrel after two months of extensive looking.
Hollars accounts a similar progression (though of course the details are slightly different.) He sees a bird, the then researches birds. His research, which is both the narrative and the substance of Flock Together, takes him into quite a few museums, where he finds various relics of extinct birds, especially following the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, also called the Lord God Bird, which went extinct early in the last century and then was (probably) mistakenly claimed to still be alive at the later end of the century, raising the hopes and dreams of many ornithologists. He befriends prominent experts. He travels into the wild to count birds and to look for the remnants of a famous birding hermit’s cabin. I felt especially akin with him when he recounts dragging his family away from a vacation to seek out birding lore.
For a long time I thought I might be just a little crazy to have fallen for something so common in such a simple moment, but knowing that the birding community has a name for such an event, even for the creature itself, is relieving. Flock Together spends a good amount of time—in fact, more than in directly talking about the birds—talking about those who are infatuated with birds. Besides getting to know Hollars, we also get meet Steve Betchkal, a modern bird expert, and Francis Zirrer and Bill Schorger, unlikely friends corresponding in the 1940s, as well as a smattering of museum curators who share Hollars’ fascination with the birds that were once alive but aren’t now. As the subtitle of the book suggests, the birds themselves aren’t really the subject matter: it is the love affair that felt more interesting to me, with whom or what was secondary. And for each of the love-stricken characters, including Hollars himself, I was much more taken in by their dedication, enthusiasm, and sometimes even irrationality than I was by the birds themselves.
For those of us who are writers, which is to say, professional enthusiasts, intense fascination is nothing new. While not every spark needs to become a lifelong obsession like it is in Flock Together, it can be enough to start an essayist going on a project. As Alexander Smith said, “A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with” (emphasis mine.) What’s more, there is enjoyment in that watching. Hollars tells us this while watching some crows,
“The crows brought me no joy, but my noticing did.
And what I noticed was all I’d missed noticing.”
There are all sorts of common things in this world that can catch our “ear and eye,” which lead us from that first sighting to things subtler and more infinite. Though the sparks may be different for each writer—spark animals, spark books, spark injustices, spark happenstances—the progression tends to be the same: from common to common to common until we find the less common, the rare, the practically unattainable, the endangered and then the extinct, finding out about everything we can because we’ve found that we now care immensely about some smaller corner of the world we didn’t even know about last year, and we need to name its parts because “when we don’t know the names of things, we don’t have a problem forgetting they exist” (Hollars quoting Betchkel). Then, we must share those names with our readers because we realize soon enough, as I did when looking for squirrels in England, as Hollars does as he contemplates the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that the things we love are fleeting, if not already gone.
Scott Russell Morris is an English PhD candidate at Texas Tech University, where he also teaching creative writing and literature. He has an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, Proximity, and elsewhere.
April 14, 2017 § 1 Comment
Brevity is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! As part of our celebration, we’d like to showcase the various ways the journal is used in classrooms and other workshop settings. Do you teach from Brevity? Send us a brief (but not necessarily Brevity brief) piece about how you use Brevity: a lesson plan, thoughts on a Brevity essay you most like to teach, reminiscences of student reactions to the work. We’ll be collecting these and publishing a selection on the Brevity blog in conjunction with our special anniversary issue, slated for early September.
Send your contributions by August 31, 2017, to email@example.com
April 13, 2017 § 1 Comment
By Debbie Hagan
In the fall of 2005, my thirteen-year-old son tried to hang himself by using a leather belt that held up the pants of his Easter suit. By some miracle, the belt ripped in two, throwing my son to the floor, leaving him breathless but alive.
Since then, I’ve come to see death and life separated by a thin, quivering line. One minute you’re standing at the stove, cooking spaghetti for your family, picturing them laughing and talking around mouthfuls of Italian bread. The next, you’re racing to the emergency room, angry with yourself for minimizing your son’s depression.
I’ve learned as well that mother-son relationships are complicated. What’s more, wherever there’s love, there’s bound to be some pain too.
In part, this is what Phillip Lopate addresses in his slim new book A Mother’s Tale. He possesses a deep love and respect for his mother, Fran Lopate. But she’s a hard woman to love—jealous, narcissistic, and needy.
In 1984, Lopate conducted a series of taped interviews with her, which became sort of a stage for his mother on which she tells her life story of being orphaned at age eleven, raised by sisters who didn’t want her, trapped in a loveless marriage, and then bound to a life of domestic drudgery. All this prevented her from pursuing what she perceived as her true calling: the theater. (At age fifty, though, she launched a somewhat successful acting and singing career, and might be remembered from the iconic Alka Selzter commercial, “Mama Mia, That’s a Spicy Meatball!”)
After the interviews, Lopate put the tapes away and didn’t play them for thirty years.
On the tape, Fran Lopate tells us, “I had a modicum of talent. I wanted to do something more with my life…. It seems that when I was younger, every time I tried something I was ridiculed. I was put down. Nothing I did was ever good enough.”
After hearing this, Lopate says, “…she had been frustrated at every turn: thwarted, thwarted, thwarted. Well, she certainly was thwarted, so why do I feel like mocking this assertion? I guess because it doesn’t take into account that it was she who dropped out of high school, she who chose to obey her sister, she who opted to marry my father, and not pursue her dream, etc., etc.”
A master of voice, Lopate plays two key parts in this book. He’s the in-the-moment, younger interviewer, who’s debating with his mother, challenging her “truth.” Interceding is the older Lopate, who’s less judgmental and more reflective.
The climax occurs when the younger Lopate and his mother argue about his suicide attempt. “Any time a mother sees a son in a state like that, unless she’s crazy, is going to feel guilty,” says the mother. “And I felt guilty. There’s nothing I could do to help you.”
In the next breath, however, she scolds him for not calling sooner, not letting her know until the next day that he was in the hospital.
“Well, I was in a coma—“
Lopate doesn’t reveal much more about this. Instead we hear the mother blame him for being distant—not reaching out, not calling regularly, not sharing his problems.
“I don’t understand how I could have come to you with my problems when you always had seemed so troubled to me,” replies Lopate on the tape. “Even when I was young, you had come to me with your problems….”
In fact, the mother confided in him, as if he were one of her girlfriends, about her various affairs, abortions, and immense disdain of his father.
Obviously Fran Lopate was not the perfect mother, but then again, who is? Children often come (especially during her time) when they’re young, naïve, and selfishly craving freedom and adventure.
“Listening to these tapes impressed upon me how often even an intelligent person can fail to observe the truth about herself,” says Lopate, who after three decades returns to the tapes less reactionary, softer, and more forgiving. This combination of voices and perspectives provides a more resonant truth about family dynamics and more importantly the tenuous and curiously malleable nature of love.
Debbie Hagan is the mother of two practically grown sons who recall being forced into wearing tortuous bow ties and suits for every holiday. In addition to writing and editing book reviews for Brevity, she writes for Hyperallergic and her essays have been published in Pleiades, Superstition Review, Don’t Take Pictures, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, Dime Story, and elsewhere. She is also a visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.