July 27, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Daien Guo
“I’m sorry. I just didn’t fall in love.”
The email landed in my inbox with a dull thud. I stared at the words over and over, hoping their meaning would change with each reading.
What about that first tentative sloppy kiss on the stoop of my graduate student apartment in Morningside Heights? Five years ago, when I still had long hair and I thought you were some surfer dude from California because of your sea-shell necklace and laid-back vibe? Then I learned you had graduated from Harvard with a degree in sociology. That shouldn’t impress me but it did.
Or the first time we traveled to Europe together, wandering through the streets of Milan giddily licking our second shared gelato of the day?
The weddings we went to in Napa, watching the sunset over the vineyards while clinking glasses swirling with amber chardonnay. The late-night check-in calls and texts. That time you bought me a pair of cashmere-lined leather gloves from Bloomingdales.
I’ll never forget the first time I met your sister at the family Thanksgiving. She gazed at me with her kind brown eyes and whispered conspiratorially, “He is my best friend.” I looked at you from across the room and our eyes briefly met – a zing of understanding and chemistry shooting across the family parlor like a superpower in a Marvel film. A superpower that I thought would last forever.
I thought you would propose. I thought we would honeymoon in Lake Como. I thought our first-born child would have lovely warm brown eyes with flecks of grey, just like you and your sister.
Instead, you wrote to me in a freaking email, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t fall in love.”
I’m just kidding.
The email came from a literary agent, with whom I have no personal history.
I have always wondered when this phrase – I just didn’t fall in love – became a standard well-accepted way of politely rejecting querying writers? Why evoke such a crazy intense, intimate and emotional scenario when a more cool and objective one would suffice?
It might be kinder to just write dispassionately: “I don’t think your writing is good enough.”
Or: “This book idea is boring.”
I’m no stranger to rejection letters. I’ve received them and I used to dole them out myself. Almost 20 years ago, when I was in college, I was a summer intern in the editorial department of Simon and Schuster. My cubicle was just outside the office of Alice Mayhew, a petite woman with a spritely gait that reminded me of my grandmother. She cracked pithy jokes with the gravelly voice of a life-long cigarette smoker, though I have no idea whether she smoked or not. Michael Korda with his British accent and bespoke three-piece suits was on the other end of the hallway. I wondered if they got along. They didn’t, people whispered. To my young eyes, both of them resembled eccentric elder relative characters out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The hallway was lined with oversized posters of New York Times Book Review covers that spilled out of the available wall space in Alice’s office – she had a lot of books that made the cover.
My main responsibility was to read the slush pile and draft rejection letters. I used my literary gifts, meager as they were, to imitate the rejection letter in the style of each editor along that corridor. The editors in the middle of the hallway had direct impersonal styles – “Thanks for your manuscript. I enjoyed reading it but this is not right for our list at this time.”
Michael Korda’s were succinct and dry. “I’m sorry, but this is not my cup of tea.”
I forget how many rejection letters I wrote/imitated that summer. I don’t recall ever saying that I “didn’t fall in love,” but perhaps I used the word “love” in more insidious and thoughtless yet well-intentioned ways.
As an aspiring writer myself, I tried to respect the slush pile, reading through the first few chapters and identifying something positive that I could put in the letter. I would write one or two sentences of praise – “I loved this character” or “I love your lyrical descriptions” – before getting to the apologetic rejection.
Now I’ve gotten those letters myself and they are the worst. “I loved your voice… I loved the concept…” Love. Love. Love. My eyes scroll down the email and the longer the compliments flow, the faster my heart sinks.
It’s like a man who – during a clammy humid night – confesses ardently that he loves your earlobes and your toes and that mole on your left hip. All the insignificant body parts. But he just doesn’t love you.
How can you use love as a verb if it all sputters into nothingness?
Rejection will always hurt. It will always send writers into a whirlwind of doubt and despair. But I propose that we tamp down the emotion and take the “love” out of rejection.
There is only one scenario in which a literary agent should use the word “love” in an email to a writer. The template is below:
I just finished your book and I love it! Please let me know if you are available tomorrow to discuss representation.
Daien Guo is a writer based in Washington D.C. She has published her writing in Lunch Ticket, Show Us Your Wits, Furious Gravity: DC Women Writers, Little Patuxent Review, 3Elements Literary Review, and Columbia Journal of Asian Law.
July 26, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
I didn’t really understand dissociative identity disorder before I read Catherine Klatzker’s memoir, You Will Never Be Normal. I had read Sybil, in the early 1970s, about a young woman, Shirley Mason, who exhibited sixteen distinct personalities and had a condition then called multiple personality disorder. The book became bestseller, then a blockbuster film. Then Mason confessed, she’d invented most of it.
Today, the psychiatric community believes an individual has just one personality, but trauma can shatter or fragment it. This condition is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder or DID.
“Up to seventy-five percent of people experience at least one depersonalization/derealization episode in their lives,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. That means most of us will experience this.
When it happened to Klatzker, she thought she was going insane. “I used to creep around in the gloom, the walls felt cold and I could barely see my way,” she writes. “All the years of darkness, of not knowing where my voices came from, the loss of bodily control—I shuddered when I recalled how much I’d wanted to just get rid of my intrusive Parts….” Voices screamed and “howled wordlessly” at her. Life became a “nightmare.” A therapist, Dr. Lew, would lead her on a journey back through various traumas in her life, looking for moments that chipped away at her psyche.
Klatzker grew up with a temperamental, domineering father who lorded over his wife and thirteen children. When she was small, he’d hold his hand over her mouth and roughly touch her privates. He’d drink too much, then bully and rage at the family. This confused her, as a child, because he could also be generous and thoughtful.
“If I spoke poorly of my father to friends, the response I got, spoken and unspoken, was that I wasn’t trying hard enough,” she writes. This shame and silence would add to her confusion, self-doubt, and shame.
At sixteen, Klatzker read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and found personal meaning in his writing: “I wanted to live my life deliberately, to learn what life had to teach and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
At seventeen, she escaped her chaotic home and moved in with a man, thirteen years older than her, who had been married twice and had children. By eighteen, Klatzker had a son with him. Two months later, the father of her child died of a heart attack.
Klatzker had just finished high school, and was now a mother and a widow with no job, no skills, no college education, no money, no future, and no one to save her. She couch-surfed, worked menial jobs, and did whatever she had to do to take care of herself and her son. In time, she would find a life partner, marry, have more children, go to college, and become a critical care nurse.
Even though she made it, the ghosts of the past would haunt her.
Until reading Klatzker’s book, I never thought I had experienced anything like DID. However, her book caused me to reflect back on a curious incident when I was eight years old. An older boy had sexually molested me. When my mother found out, she yelled and screamed at me and told me how ashamed she was of me and how she would get my father to spank me with his belt. I was far more terrified of her and my father’s belt than anything the neighbor boy had done. My mother remained angry for a very long time, which only added to my anxiety and shame.
I escaped by becoming a horse called Midnight.
For about three years, I was this beautiful black stallion. I would disappear for hours neighing and bucking up and down the sidewalks, galloping along the train tracks, then dropping by the town stable to visit the other horses. As Midnight, I was sleek, smart, and invincible—no longer a girl who had shamed her mother.
If my father spotted me prancing up and down the street, he’d chase me, flailing his arms, and yelling, “Stop this! Stop it now! People will think you’re crazy.”
Yet, maybe I was. I couldn’t stop. I was Midnight.
“I didn’t know it was shame I was feeling,” writes Klatzker in her memoir. “I was hiding from that feeling. I needed to hide. I couldn’t articulate the why of that because I hid it: that I was bad. I didn’t know where those feelings came from, and they scared me.”
I felt something like that, and it scared me too.
Klatzker’s memoir tells of a courageous woman who has lived through several traumas and, with the help of a therapist, takes control over the voices terrorizing her. It’s a great story of recovery told with hope and humor.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
July 23, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
In April, The New York Times announced that the paper’s “Op-Ed” opinion section, established in 1970, would be rebranded as “Guest Essays.” This seemingly small change, made with minimal fanfare, actually marks a momentous shift for the creative nonfiction essay. The essay has existed much on the fringes of literary writing and journalism since Michel de Montaigne penned his Essais in 1580. Famously, even he thought them a waste of time, warning readers, “I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”
While the essay as a form— a written attempt, an experiment, a method of discovery through the process of the writing, itself—is now centuries old, in the publishing world it has only officially existed since 1983, when it was placed under the umbrella term “creative nonfiction” for the purposes of National Endowment for the Arts fellowship category and university course programming. But far from the dry research papers most students associate them with, the essay is alive with the obsessions, anxieties, and jokes of the day.
When one teaches and studies the essay, as I have devoted my academic career to doing, one begins to see it everywhere. In addition to those essays that might appear in venerable literary publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or The Sun, increasingly the essay also pops up in our social media feeds, sometimes in the form of Twitter threads on depriving one’s daughter of beans, or rehoming the demonic Chihuahua from hell.
Social media in general has contributed to the ascension of nonfiction in popular culture—our insatiable appetite for true-to-life stories told by real people. However, as NYT editor Kathleen Kingsbury observes in her explanation of the new Guest Essay, “What is disappearing [online]…are spaces where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish.”
I tend to agree with her. The breadth of perspective that can be conveyed in a single social media post is limited. As we spend more and more time reading shorter and shorter paragraphs of text, our attention spans are shrinking along with the size of the posts we consume—a condition that’s been exacerbated by our increasingly-online pandemic lives. Not every issue can, or indeed should, be elucidated in even the longest thread of 240 characters or less.
The “Guest Essay” rebrand provides a subtle but important distinction. More than the simple expression of opinion, an essay is rhetorically savvy and, often, emotionally affecting. Now, as the issues of the day become increasingly complex and multifaceted, the essay can be an important way—perhaps the only way—to navigate nuanced, complicated, and seemingly contradictory perspectives. (Which is not to say all viewpoints are ethically equivalent.)
As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to view an issue not as a double sided coin—a two-dimensional “for” or “against”—but as a prism with multiple stakeholders and rationales. The essay allows the writer to engage with her subject on a deeper level, to get at the heart of an issue and take the reader on a journey that isn’t fueled by the immediate emotional reactions—such as outrage—that many shorter “takes” engender.
In addition to teaching the essay, I am also the managing editor here at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, where we exclusively publish short nonfiction essays of 750 words or fewer. The essays submitted to us touch on a range of experiences by writers from all walks of life—women writers, BIPOC writers, trans and queer writers, and disabled writers, to name a few groups. Far from Montaigne’s original assertion that the self is “vain” and “frivolous,” the essay has become the mode du jour of contemporary thought in a time when the personal is inevitably determined by the political.
Though essays are written for a myriad reasons and in many varied forms, the common purpose of the contemporary essay in the public sphere is to foster well-informed critical thought and radical empathy for perspectives not our own. To provide readers a window into the proposals, interpretations, and aspirations that shape our diverse world.
The birth of The New York Times “Guest Essay” places the nonfiction essay firmly into the spotlight of socio-political discourse just when we as a country need it most. In the ensuing decade, we will need to read essays by the trans folx whose rights are in danger of being legislated out of existence, by the undocumented immigrants and their children who have been detained in cages at the border, by the many communities who continue to be devastated by gun violence and police brutality, and far too many more to list here.
Because at its heart, the essay speaks to those quintessentially human parts of ourselves that colder, jargon-laden editorial and journalistic articles can’t quite replicate. Though the NYT’s track record is far from perfect, the emergence of the essay in the world’s most widely-read newspaper comes at a crucial time, offering potential for a new era of empathy and reflection in public discourse.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies and teaches creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity, and the co-editor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Find her online at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.
July 21, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Crystal Byers
It was a day like any other school day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.
“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said, handing students their work.
Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Student faces reveal disappointment, and I do my darnedest to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Just be aware of the number and try to reduce them,” I said. I looked my students in the eyes along the way.
“Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific.” I took a breath and allowed my words a chance to be heard. “I want you to listen carefully,” I said with another dramatic pause. “We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said?” I stopped in the middle of my classroom to verify I had their attention. “I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again.” I inhaled, then exhaled. “We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing for effect and smiling a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down as I continued passing out papers.
“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best.” I spoke of the next part of the assignment—revisions. How the word revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’
I kept walking, talking, and returning the graded assignment. “Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time,” I said. I spoke of showing versus telling, cutting superfluous details and exploding the particulars of one moment.”
Speaking of a single moment, just then my left foot stepped onto a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. My weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I made an unsuccessful attempt to catch myself and heard the soft thud of my right knee bumping the hard tile. I sat on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I felt thankful for wearing pants instead of a skirt that day and wondered how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.
My class very politely stifled their laughter, and I gathered my composure and arose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.
Another student made eye contact and said, “Are you okay?” His concern was real.
“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”
Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.
A day or two passed before I finally told my husband the story. As suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.
And I admit it. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, someone else will be happy to do that for us.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University and continues finetuning her memoir Help in the Time of Schizophrenia. Her essays appear at The Houston Flood Museum and The Porch Magazine. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.
July 20, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Kirsten Voris
Five rejections in two months. I should be congratulating myself. It’s simple math—submitting more = more rejection.
I still find the stream of “nos” dispiriting. And draining. I was at the bottom of the drain, and calling a summer submissions break, when I attended How to Publish Your Writing in Literary Journals. The editors of Radar Poetry, Rachel Moles and Dara Shrager, appeared as part of a free monthly Zoom series on writing and publishing, offered through Authors Publish Magazine. (Which, by the way, is a great resource for fee-free submission calls.)
I was looking for surefire acceptance tips. What I heard was more math. The “pandemic effect” meant submissions to Radar Poetry’s 2020 summer contest were up by 50 percent from 2019. Increase in competition = higher bar = more rejection. I felt a touch less dejected.
Then Rachel and Dara shared the news that there are different kinds of rejection. That rejection is nuanced. Sometimes, they said, rejection is an invitation to try again, with a different piece of writing.
I’d imagined rejection emails were boilerplate assigned at random each time the editor pressed their big, red “no” button. Some are short, some have two paragraphs. Some describe the sheer volume of spectacular essays cascading through the submissions window. Some wish me luck, elsewhere. All of them amount to the same thing. Or so I thought.
Not so. Rejection, it turns out, is tiered. The difference between a standard rejection and a tiered rejection is encouragement.
A tiered rejection may not refer to the name of your piece. But if the editors have read your work with interest, enjoyed your writing, and/or encouraged you to submit again, this is good news.
Google “tiered rejection” and you’ll find increasingly granular breakdowns. Here, I offer a simple, three-tiered cake:
Top-tier rejections come with suggestions for improvement, praise of particular elements, encouragement to resubmit.
The middle tier includes the invitation to resubmit, perhaps praise for your story, and regret that it’s not the right thing for right now.
Standard rejections are a brief statement of polite regret, scrubbed free of reassurance or praise. And, like the foundational, bottom tier of the wedding cake, most of us get a slice of this.
Rejection is part of writing for publication. Sadly, my usual reaction doesn’t reflect this understanding.
I internalize rejection as an erasure—of my person, my sensibility, my ability to string words together. I cop an ungracious attitude. Get resentful and act like a baby– in front of my cat. This has nothing to do with journals or editors and everything to do with the climate of my upbringing. Thankfully, amassing rejections has made it easier for me to see this pattern. Which means I can change it—at my leisure.
Here is where I admit that I haven’t actually read my rejections. I skim. Absorb the sting and try to forget. Which cuts me off quite neatly from actionable information. What would happen if I went through my Submittable queue? Dug out the most demoralizing rejections and read them? What, I wondered, is actually in there?
The contest rejection that felt so cold? “Judges change every year, we hope you’ll consider submitting again…”
The third rejection of a piece I love? “You’re a good writer and this is a difficult task…”
Armored in a new mindset, I began to see the difference between “Unfortunately this is not a fit” and “We read your submission with great interest.” I begin warming to my oft-declined pieces, because maybe they weren’t so terrible. Maybe it is the math.
Even better, I found myself interacting with my rejections. Responding, instead of reacting. And one potential response to a tiered rejection is to resubmit.
When you resubmit, choose a new piece; then help the editors remember how much they liked you. Duplicate the language of the tiered rejection, and reference the previously submitted work in your cover letter.
For example if the rejection said, “We read your work with interest and hope you’ll consider sending us another piece,” you could write “Last year you read Y with interest and said you hoped I’d consider sending another piece.”
Some standard rejections always invite resubmission. If you’re not sure where your rejection falls, head over to Rejection Wiki, where you can search for sample rejections by journal, to determine whether yours is standard or special.
Radar Poetry’s Dara and Rachel wanted us to know that the editor who sends a tiered rejection is overwhelmed with submissions. They have day jobs, their own writing projects, small children. Despite this, they took time that they didn’t necessarily have to send you a personal message of hope. Because they think you have promise.
The fact of tiered rejection blew open my all-or-nothing thinking. Knowing the nuances is compelling me to read my email. To give up on giving up. Rejection, like everything else, is complicated. In fact, it may actually be a little cheer for you and your beautiful writing.
Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.
July 19, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Margaret Moore
Someone once told me that I must be going about the writing process all wrong.
The remark came from an individual who was eager to see the release of my debut book—a memoir about growing up with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy, losing my father to cancer, and participating in academics, extreme sports, and extracurricular activities with my mother’s support and the inspiration of my father’s determination never to give up. Undoubtedly a flattering sentiment, this person wanted to see the book come out faster than my process permits.
He assumed, though, that I was dawdling, acting as my own worst enemy by procrastinating and delaying publication. While I admit I found the conjecture annoying, it honestly didn’t bother me—he was new to writing and had no experience with writing a book. We had never discussed my process. He couldn’t possibly know the steps that I take to produce my book.
His comments raise numerous questions, though: Are there correct and incorrect ways to journey through the writing process? Who and what defines an effective process?
I think about my experience thus far in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Semiannually, we gather for a nine-day residency and attend workshops, seminars, readings, and presentations. Our instructors guide us through writing exercises that enhance the depth, structure, and organization of our work. Some exercises involve prompts that provoke writers to delve deeply and create a thorough illustration of one aspect in their pieces. Others come as directions to write about a particular topic for a certain amount of time—two, three, even up to fifteen minutes—before moving to a new exercise or the next part of the prompt. Still others involve jotting down on index cards a few words to label the various scenes in our pieces and then moving the cards around on a table to explore potential arrangement.
It is notable that our instructors never sit us down and say, “These are the exercises that you absolutely must do if you want to succeed in your writing career.” They simply frame them as activities that writers can incorporate into their processes if they find them beneficial.
I think, too, of the writers who publicly describe their processes. Some have a certain word count that they like to hit each day. Others write best with pen and paper rather than with keyboards and screens.
There is no question that some writers use techniques that would never work for me. While my cognition is not impaired, I rely on a motorized wheelchair and a communication device. I don’t have the ability to handwrite (give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you the best chicken scratch you can find), and I also can’t use a traditional keyboard and mouse. My writing is done on my communication device, which functions as both a speech device and a Windows 10 tablet.
I operate the device with the joystick of my wheelchair and also with eye-tracking technology. A flick of a switch turns my joystick into a mouse, the cursor gliding in the direction that I move the joystick, and the buttons on the control panel—ordinarily power buttons for my headlights—acting as left-click and right-click buttons.
A small sensor protruding from the bottom of my tablet, the eye-tracking module is a system of lights and cameras that detects reflections of light in my pupils, monitoring my eye movements and translating them into mouse clicks. My device initiates clicks in the areas of the screen that my prolonged gaze rests. I alternate between my joystick and eye-tracking, and, while the physical act of typing still takes about three times as long as it takes my able-bodied peers, using both methods allows me to write most efficiently.
Manipulating physical tools such as index cards is out of the question for me. I instead use virtual sticky notes, bullet pointing moments to include in my memoir and moving them around to explore potential organization and structures. Once I settle on an order, I start writing.
I never know how much I’ll be able to develop in a writing session—it all depends on whether my hand and eyes are fatigued and whether my technology is functioning properly. The frequency that the device malfunctions largely fluctuates, ranging from every couple weeks to a few times a year. While waiting for the glitch to be fixed or for a loaner to arrive by mail, the amount that I can write is limited. Although I can access Microsoft Word and Google Docs from my phone, typing with my fingers takes abundant muscle coordination. I become fatigued after getting two or three lines on the page per writing session and end up having to wait to finish the bulk of my writing until my technological difficulties are resolved.
I don’t set out to hit a certain word count each day. That method would only lead to my own disappointment over my inability to get a profusion of words down. I instead look at the outline in my virtual sticky note and set a goal for what scene I want to have finished before the day’s end. I am flexible with this goal—it may take longer than anticipated to adequately write certain scenes, so I don’t mind if multiple days are needed. Crafting a thoroughly-depicted scene takes priority. The only rule I have for my process is to maintain flexibility—to keep an open mind and to continue to explore new approaches both for the craft and practice of writing and the technological side of composing.
Someone once assumed that I was approaching the writing process all wrong. Is this possible? Are there right and wrong ways to journey through the process? No. Every writer must tailor it to their own unique needs. As long as they are writing in a way that is best for them and are happy with their projects, they are spot-on.
Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.
July 16, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Linda Downing Miller
I’ve taught a weekly memoir and creative writing class for more than six years through the Center for Life and Learning, in Chicago. September to June, the CLL offers a variety of educational programs for adults 60 and older. Each meeting of memoir brings about a dozen participants together to read their writing aloud. Their life stories fill and enrich our sessions. Writers get to know one-another as they deepen their understanding of how writing engages an audience.
My job during class is to keep the process moving so everyone has time to be heard, to lead and guide follow-up comments that help writers learn and improve, and to offer a prompt at the end of each meeting that sparks their creativity for next time. Good prompts help writers unearth, explore, and find meaning in memories they may not have thought about for years.
I took on this role without thinking much about how I would come up with new prompts. The friend who taught the class before she connected me with the opportunity seemed to find ideas all around her. Fresh from a low-residency MFA program where I relished our in-depth writing discussions, I was eager to share the passion.
For my first class, I brought an old New Yorker piece by John McPhee called “Silk Parachute,” in which he remembers his mother and a toy she once bought for him. (As with all wonderful essays, it can’t be summarized.) Sharing the piece in class, I tried not to let my voice catch at the perfection of the ending. Then I offered this prompt to the writers in the room: write about a childhood toy, or an object or piece of clothing from your childhood, that has stayed in your mind. Writers returned the next week with their “homework.”
I quickly realized the constraints of our 90 minutes together meant teaching was more like coaching, a little bit here and a little bit there, around the main event of their work. But by sharing examples of published writing each week and creating prompts inspired by that writing, I could call attention to different features, styles, voices, and forms. It wasn’t long before Brevity became a regular resource for me.
Write about where you were and what you were doing when something “big” happened in the world. (Read “In Orbit,” by Brenda Miller.)
Write about something you did on a regular basis on one particular day. (Read “Solstice,” by Joanne Lozar Glenn.)
Write about a fight or a time when you said something you wished you hadn’t. (Read “Girl Fight,” by Joey Franklin.)
Write about yourself at 18. Begin “in scene”—in a place where you spent time with others. (Read “Ten Years Ago,” by Sarah Beth Childers.)
Write about a dance, date, or relationship from your past that you have not thought about in a long time. If you’d like, speculate about that person’s view of you then. (Read “Invisible Partners,” by Ira Sukrungruang.)
Ah, romances of the past! And the opportunity the author demonstrates to enter the imaginary in literary nonfiction. I remember this prompt bringing particular energy to the room.
No surprise, each Brevity example I share also models concision. To make time for everyone’s stories, memoir class members aim to limit the length of their pieces to about 500 words, a parameter established by the previous teacher. (Beth Finke has since written a guidebook about her process.) I allow some length leeway and try to rein it in when inspired writers approach Brevity’s 750-word cap.
Last fall, participants wrote personal ghost stories, with Maggie Smith’s “Ghost Story” for inspiration. (Have you ever encountered a ghost? Felt like a ghost? Been “ghosted” by someone?) Class members conveyed the trepidation of staying in an allegedly haunted room, the strange sense of a lost loved-one’s presence, the remembered mystery of a ghostly object sliding across the Arizona sky, and more.
Haunted by memories of your own? Put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Employ whatever tools you use to capture words. As I tell the writers in my classes, let yourself write as much as you want on your first draft. Then see what you have, and revise from there.
Seeking more writing prompts, for yourself, for students, for others? Pick a Brevity piece at random and see where it leads you. I’ve found a wealth of inspiration in the Brevity archives, and I’m thankful for the new material that arrives with each issue. The connections and creative energy built in a memoir class can keep writers—and their coach—coming back, year after year.
Linda Downing Miller has led creative writing classes in Chicago at the Center for Life and Learning, the Newberry Library, The Clare, and elsewhere. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and other publications, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Water~Stone Review, The Florida Review, and the Chicago Tribune. She received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.
July 15, 2021 § 16 Comments
By Brian Watson
I lost track of the revision count. There had been many since the first draft of my memoir. The more I worked, the more details flew into my mind. I caught my breath in May, thinking that all was good. The word count? 103,946.
Judas Priest, that’s a lot.
Part of me was proud. One hundred thousand words was a mythical goal. I have things to say — important things, of course — and the words just tumbled out of me.
A friend read a small part of it. She was encouraging, as I had hoped she would be, but her hammer fell.
“Do you really need all of this description?”
My ego fell into a thousand pieces. A crash, a calamity.
And I paused. I stepped away from the impulse to be defensive. My friend was a writer. She knows what she’s talking about. And I can listen to sage advice, gently given. Before my ego had a chance to reassemble, I looked again at the pages. I could see what she meant. She was right.
The memoir began as an exorcism. My old traumas and their many ghosts were siphoned out of me, onto the screen. The words poured out in an urgent rush. A Columbia River of ideas, with no Grand Coulee to dam any of them up.
Words are very important to a trauma survivor like me. I must describe everything. I must be precisely clear. You must know exactly how I felt.
But your reader is never your therapist. Nor your parent. My words, the descriptions, they were getting in the way. I loved my outpourings but yes, they walled the reader away from the crux of it all. My words were supposed to embrace the reader. The reader would then, in turn, embrace them, but with my ego still shattered, helpless, I saw something different. My words kept the reader away. The descriptions made everything opaque.
A concern lingered: What if, after I make more revisions, cut the extra words out, my voice as an author is damaged? I refused my entry into that rabbit hole of despair, took a deep breath, and began.
The first thing to go were summary descriptions. I laughed at first. I was certain. I already excised them all. Surely there were none left.
But I went looking, and I found them.
In a chapter that described my discovery, at age seventeen, of the glory holes in the men’s restroom at the local Sears, a paragraph began like this.
I returned to that restroom time and again for quick anonymous sexual releases. One time, however, a man had asked me to…
That first sentence had to go. Get the reader into the action. Faster. And that triple dose of adjectives there at the end of it? Cut it all.
During one of my suddenly frequent visits, a stall neighbor whispered, follow me.
The clouds parted. This is the way. Summary descriptions now popped off the page at me. I was merciless, slashing them all.
And then I saw my writing tics. Phrasing that is natural to my speaking voice. Over and over, I saw them in sentences. …to a point… …as a result…
Time to wield the editorial machete. Chop, chop, chop.
What else caught my eye? Redundant descriptions. The reader already knows I’m in Japan. I did not need to remind them in forty separate paragraphs of where I was.
Another thing I saw was my need to take the reader by the hand. To carefully, specifically, walk them, step by step, inch by inch, from moment to moment, scene to scene.
The reader might be interested, once, in mapping out the exact route I took to commute to work, for example, but once was enough. The reader might care, once, how I navigated my apartment, how the rooms were connected, which doors I closed as I crossed into the kitchen and sat at the table. But the reader will likely be happier just to know that I sat down.
I also began to think about adverbs. I love them. But they don’t bring that much to the party if all they do is confirm action for the reader. If instead, I save them for moments when my protagonist surprises the reader, when actions surprise — he was stubbornly elated — adverbs are more powerful. Chop, chop, chop.
At the end of June, the threshing, as I came to call these new revisions, the machete-way-clearing, was done. Chaff removed. Wheat remained. Thoughts made accessible. Word count? 77,518.
Did I mourn the absent words? Maybe, for the briefest of moments. But the revisions empowered me. I know that I can tell my story in stronger ways. In ways that will connect me more profoundly to readers. I took my thresher and my machete and opened the memoir up, and it felt good. And my concerns over voice were unfounded. If anything, my voice rings louder, truer.
Let go of ego. (It’s not as hard as you think.)
You’ve got this!
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 now lives in the Seattle after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro, and a cantankerous old cat, Butters. His website is http://iambrianwatson.com/
July 14, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Anne Liu Kellor
- Did I emphasize enough how much I felt like a failure leaving China, leaving jobs, leaving my boyfriend, leaving my studies of Chinese, not accomplishing anything tangible, except to realize how weak I was? No. But on some level, that became the point of my book: not a triumph in accomplishment, but a triumph in being able to realize my own essence and needs.
- Heart Radical was always a memoir, but for years I thought it had to be more informative, investigative, researched, male, “smart.” It wasn’t enough just to write about my own heart’s travails. I needed to look outward, educate the world about modern China, be an ‘expert’ on something else besides my inner world.
- I used to fantasize about getting a video camera and trekking off alone into the Tibetan countryside. Filming and documenting some remote place. That would be brave! That would be admirable and interesting to others! Instead, over time, I just grew more focused on myself and my life with my boyfriend. I saw this as failure back then. But now I understand why I needed to go in that direction. That doesn’t mean I still don’t criticize myself for being too self-absorbed. I still ask myself all the time how I can widen my circles of inclusion and action; how I can witness both myself and others, ever more.
- I never learned how to say “spiritual path” in Chinese. And I still struggle to explain what I mean by that in English. Figuring this out too, was a part of the point of the book.
- I didn’t include how I used to say things to my boyfriend like, Shangdi hui bangzhu ni: God will help you. I was more comfortable using the word God then than I am now (even though I still am okay with the word, in the right contexts). That is one benefit of growing up without religion—I’m not overly allergic or attached to one version of a concept. Because, yes, God is a concept. Just as it’s an experience, an unspeakable knowing, a truth beyond words.
- China is about the least spiritual place I know, I wrote once, something I implied but never directly stated in my book.
- I also used to use the word karma a lot more, as in, I wonder what karma we still have to play out together. It’s not that I don’t believe in karma or fate anymore; I just am more okay with my ambivalence with not naming things as such. Not getting caught up with grand questions of “my life’s destiny.” Just letting the moment, heart-song, unfold. Just letting Intuition, call it God, call it Buddha-nature, guide me forward to the next right choice. Just trying to stay aligned with that same essential desire I had then as I have now: to give with my life, to be more generous and compassionate, even when—or especially when—that means forgiving my own limitations.
- I chose to leave my parents out as much as possible, in part because my mom once point-blank told me not to write about her. But… how do you write a coming-of-age memoir about returning to your mother’s birthplace without writing, at least a little, about your parents? So I did, a little. I tried to be honest and empathetic, yet brief. I’m still scared they will latch on to the few “negative” things I say, and not see how much I am simply trying to understand how I seek what I seek, in part because of how I was raised. How we all are wounded, in our own particular ways, however mild or extreme the wound may appear. And how we pass that down to future generations if we never speak of or address the wounding. I didn’t know I was writing to address core wounds when I first set out; I was too young to see it that way. But of course, the deeper I went into my edits over the years, the more obvious it became that I could not leave out my parents, as much as I tried. For everything is connected.
- Traveling alone in another country where you arrive knowing no one puts you at the mercy of others’ kindness. As such, I saw chance encounters back then as fate. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have met X. But if this is so, isn’t it also true that fate is always happening? We just tend to notice it less when we are living our sedentary lives. We think nothing is happening or nothing is going our way, when in fact, everything is happening; gifts or messengers are always appearing, if we are paying attention.
- So you want to be a writer still, I wrote in 2002 near the end of my three years in China. Believe, sister, BELIEVE. Even if it takes you twenty years to publish your book, I might have added too, and laughed at what would have sounded then like hyperbole.
Anne Liu Kellor is a mixed-race Chinese American writer, editor, and teacher based in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, Fourth Genre, Witness, New England Review, The Normal School, Literary Mama, and many more. Anne earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and is the recipient of fellowships from Hedgebrook, Seventh Wave, Jack Straw Writers Program, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. She teaches writing workshops across the Pacific Northwest and loves to support women writers in finding their voice and community. Praised by Cheryl Strayed as “insightful, riveting, and beautifully written,” Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Longing is her first book. To pre-order or learn more, please visit: anneliukellor.com
July 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
I recently completed a months-long writing course in which participants were required to design a hat to wear during the final gathering. The hat was to be decorated artfully to reflect one’s favorite lessons and mantras about writing. I’m not good at visual arts, and my first reaction was to dismiss the hat: How in hell is this related to writing? Nevertheless, I remained silent about my misgivings, and soon received in the mail from the instructor a half-circle of cardboard with folding and tabbing instructions to form a small cone, like a child’s birthday hat.
The template for this hat exactly matched one presented to me in first grade — my third first grade, to be precise. I began at a parochial school in Indiana attended by various cousins, who showed up at my house on the first day to walk me there. After two months, my parents moved us temporarily to a treeless townhouse complex in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The townhouses, arranged in semicircles, were so identical that after I exited the school bus, I had to count the semicircles and then the houses within it in order determine where I lived, or risk appearing at a stranger’s door (third horseshoe on the right, fifth house from the road).
A few months passed, and my parents bought a house in northwest D.C, enrolling me in the local public school in early April. I was a sensitive kid, overwhelmed by yet another school change. My first day began during Mrs. Mackie’s art class, but I’d missed the hat-making instructions. I sat at a desk with the template, scissors, construction paper, and no idea what to do. I tried to copy everyone else, too shy to ask, but my little green headpiece was a failure. The evil Mrs. Mackie berated me in front of my new classmates.
After this hat episode, I developed a paralyzing anxiety. It didn’t help that schools in the nation’s capital conducted nuclear attack drills every month, using the school basement as a fallout shelter. My anxiety diminished somewhat in second grade, when an older teacher with horrid breath advised my parents that I worried too much and they should ease up at home regarding whatever pressures I was under. She was a hugger, kind and encouraging, and gradually I lightened up — though I suffered a small relapse during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But while my generalized anxiety slowly evaporated, I retained a specific dread of crafts, especially group crafts requiring a uniform look to the finished product. That anxiety extended to assembling textbook covers, which involved a surprising number of tab A-slot B instructions. When a teacher handed out virgin book cover sheets at the beginning of the school year, I would ask to go the toilet, cowering there until someone searched for me, then take the book covers home for my dad to affix to my textbooks.
Now I confronted another hat, a dunce’s cap for feelings and mantras. The shapes were to be uniform, but unlike the first-grade hat, the decorating was to be unique. Still, the same panic gripped me. I texted others in the writing group: “What are you doing about the hat?”
“I’m having a blast decorating!” someone said.
“I have too many ideas,” another said.
No one shared their ideas, and unlike in grade school, I couldn’t hide in the bathroom or look around to copy. Copying wasn’t the idea, anyway. Without any artful decorating tendencies, much less assembly skills, how could I represent my creativity?
I’d just bought a print to hang in my office, artwork by a painter who also writes; in other words, someone extremely not me. The picture features a grove of deciduous trees with bold trunks, and in the center of the grove, a deep green fir tree. Gray shadows of other trees back the grove, except for a vivid patch of blue sky behind the fir. The trees float, suspended on the page; their roots extend to the bottom of the picture like gnarled fingers. Black birds dart among the roots, burying seeds– just as crows do in nature– that with time and luck, can become a forest.
I didn’t know the artist’s intention, but her work spoke to me as a metaphor for writing. The birds’ insistent, instinctive, unintentional seeding mimics my work on the page, some of which, given time and luck, develops into the sturdy trunks of good writing; some of which does not; and a piece of which might someday be that glorious fir.
It occurred to me as I studied my new print that my hat, like my writing, didn’t need to be transcendently visionary and original. Because I created it, it would be distinctively mine. I could borrow this artist’s pictorial vision and imbue it with my own words and meaning, in the way we writers steal other writers’ structures, metaphors, and sometimes even plots to plant them in a new context. (Which writer among you has not borrowed from another author?)
I printed a color copy of my new art. I used my hat template to cut the print into a cover for the cardboard hat form, thinking that this was, at long last, like making a book cover. Near the bird part of the picture, I wrote in fine pencil, “Plant stories like birds plant seeds.” But I glued the art to the hat, and rejected sticking tab A into slot B in favor of stapling it into a cone shape. Mrs. Mackie isn’t around anymore.
Mary Hannah Terzino resides in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and won first prize in Fiction Factory’s 2021 flash fiction competition.