Review of Lisa Ohlen Harris’s The Fifth Season

May 28, 2015 § 1 Comment

fifthby Debbie Hagan

“Gee, your mom is so nice,” I remember saying to one of my sisters-in-law on my wedding day. Her lips formed a sly grin and she said, “Well, she doesn’t want to be one of those mothers-in-law.

Her words evoked an image of a nosy, demanding, rebuking, hovering gadfly—not my husband’s mother. To think she cared how I felt and tried to preempt the classic mother-in-law-daughter-in-law squabbles touches me to this day. Even so, two headstrong, independent, and sensitive women are bound to occasionally step on each other’s toes.

Lisa Ohlen Harris’s memoir, The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving, arrived just after my mother-in-law had died following a yearlong battle with brain cancer. As her health deteriorated, my sisters-in-law and I discussed what we’d do if she needed long-term care. Would we take turns caring for her in her home? Or would take her to live with one of us?

Lisa Ohlen Harris tells the story of how she, her husband, and widowed mother-in-law, Jeanne, purchased a big house they all could share. From the start, Harris realizes that Jeanne set a poor example to her four young daughters, especially regarding health and nutrition. Jeanne’s a smoker, who lives off of Diet Cokes, junk food, and sugary snacks, which she gleefully shares with her granddaughters.

When Jeanne develops a relentless cough and shortness of breath, doctors diagnose her with emphysema. Thus begins a seven-year-long ordeal in which Harris cares for her dying mother-in-law who’s often needy and seems slightly unappreciative of Harris’s care. Her days fill with tasks such as bathing Jeanne, dressing her wounds, checking her oxygen, shuttling her to and from medical procedures. No time is left over for her daughters, let alone herself.

In the early phases of Jeanne’s illness, Harris helps her mother-in-law file an order that states that no extraordinary measures should be used to keep her alive—to prevent a life riddled with pain or sustained on machines. At first the order seems clear, but then “extraordinary” becomes more and more ambiguous. As Harris describes it, “Jeanne is shamed into doing what she doesn’t want to do in a myriad of small treatments that add up to lots of pain and frustration and helplessness. She is forced to endure pain in order to live in continuing pain. No one asks what Jeanne wants…. I can’t advocate for her—they’ll think I’m homicidal.”

When Harris shares her concerns with her husband, he responds, “A life-saving doctor can’t understand why someone would decide at the end of her life that she doesn’t need to experience any more pain, even in exchange for more time.”

As a result, Jeanne’s death is long and painful. Harris and her husband forgo an opportunity for her husband to accept a better teaching position, but dismiss it knowing Jeanne could not survive the move. It’s a huge family sacrifice, but one of many loving decisions Harris and her husband make in order to care for her. Harris dotes so much on Jeanne, the medical staff assumes she must be a daughter. “I’ve learned what her face looks like when she needs more oxygen; I see her nose is dripping and hand her a tissue before she feels it herself…,” writes Harris. She bathes her, rubs her skin with lotion, and keeps up her appetite by feeding her the foods she loves, but won’t feed her own family: “grits, bananas, pudding, Miracle Whip and bologna loaf on white bread, French dressing over cottage cheese, sausage gravy over biscuits….”

While reading, I had to pause time from time to time and consider, would I have done this? Could I have taken in my mother-in-law—as nice as she was—and cared for her in my home? It would have been hard—for me and for her. However, she died so quickly, we never had a chance to seriously consider that option. Even so, 65 million Americans care for sick and aging relatives in their homes.

During this ordeal, Harris worked hard and persisted as Jeanne’s advocate. She’s candid about her conflicted emotions; however, any reader can see the two women shared a deep bond and struggled to the very end to resolve life in dignity and peace.


Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, editor-in-chief of Art New England and a writing instructor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her essays have recently appeared in Brain, Child and the anthology Dime Story.

Paying Essay Market and Book Contest Too

May 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

Two, yes two, announcements in one blog post — a new paying market for essays, and a book contest. Two separate announcements! What will these amazing blog people think of next?


Qu: a literary magazine is now open for submissions! Payment upon publications: $100 per prose piece, $50 per poem. Qu is produced by the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte ( and publishes fiction, poetry, essays and script excerpts of outstanding quality. We will be accepting submissions through August 31st.

Stillhouse Press Nonfiction Book Contest

Prize: $1,000 + publication, 20 copies of book, and paid transport to a Fall for the Book event announcing publication.

We are requesting complete mss. of narrative non-fiction, either a collection of linked essays or memoir, between 60,000-90,000 words. Mss. should include a query letter and a synopsis with an overview of the work. For complete guidelines please visit:

Finalists will be guest judged by W. Ralph Eubanks. Reading Fee: $25/submission

Review of Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

May 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso

By Micah McCrary

I tried to keep my first diary during junior high, a diary which I began under lock and key and ended with a trip to the garbage can. I tried again in college, and then again while studying abroad, and to this day—aided by garbage cans and bonfires—there’s no existing firsthand account of my quotidian experience.

As a reader, though, my relationship with the diary has been something else. When a friend asked what I wanted for Christmas this past year, I told her I’d been meaning for a while to read Virginia Woolf’s diary. I love Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary. I adore Reborn: Journals and Notebooks by Susan Sontag. And I hope to one day teach Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl to my own students. While I’m afraid to produce diaries, consuming them is another thing altogether.

My experience with diaries is far different from that of Sarah Manguso, who maintained an 800,000 word diary over twenty-five years—pages upon pages filled with small details of her life. In it she writes about family and friends, about lovers and loss, all the while maintaining the posture necessary for a writer who keeps a diary over such a long time.

We do not get to see this diary. What we get to see is Manguso’s examination of the diary, in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, a book-length essay in which she tells us why and how she began keeping her diary, how her diary grew over time, and how, for Manguso, it became an artifact. Ongoingness inspects Manguso’s diary, looking for its tangible worth, then deftly shows us both the diary’s light and heavy moments—without giving us a single word from the document itself.

“I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget,” Manguso writes, a hefty aspiration for a diarist. “Good luck with that, whispered the dead” she immediately follows, and we see instantly that Manguso’s reflection is more than just that: it’s clarity regarding the mores of a genre.

Manguso is a veteran writer of nonfiction, and I’ve loved her habitual blend of narrative and introspection, both in her essays and in her books The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir and The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. Ongoingness breaks this habit—rather than weave a story for the reader while adhering to the introspection traditional for the essay genre, Manguso instead executes Ongoingness as an essay on her diary. As if prompted to view her voluminous and unpublished work, she’s taken the text before her and, rather than reflect episodically, she reflects on the process and progress of thinking through her life. This itself should request our attention toward the diary as a serious subgenre of nonfiction.

I’ve long cheered for the diary as a subgeneric example of compelling autobiographical writing, but looking at Ongoingness helps me understand that diaries are not only worth looking at for insight into writers’ minds and lives, but for models of penetrative autobiography. Diaries have been dismissed for a long while—have been called unserious or, at worst, a “woman’s genre,” making it historically easier to dismiss than men’s autobiography—but what we don’t seem to stop and consider, whether the diary is kept by a woman or a man, is the diary’s strength at communicating uncalibrated thought. The diary asks us to be unrehearsed in our writing, asks that we not, say, write multiple drafts, and in doing so presents itself as a subgenre tied more strongly to honesty than perhaps anything else under the nonfiction umbrella.

Although I stopped writing my own diaries because I couldn’t bear them as a reader, Manguso is much braver, carrying her diary on a six-hour plane ride as her only reading material. I admire her courage as a reader, and her willingness and ability to look back at what she calls “an indivisible behemoth of English prose” and “language as pure experience.” I admire her ability to confront and conflate memory and time, and I do so because—and this is pretending I were able to keep one—were I to take my own diary on a long plane ride as my only book, I’d find myself constantly looking away. Other passengers may think I’m adoring the clouds below, but I’d really just be avoiding my uncalibrated self.

Micah McCrary is a contributor to Bookslut. His essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, MAKE, The Nervous Breakdown,Circumference, and Identity Theory, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.

A Thank You to the Generous Kickstarter Donors

May 26, 2015 § 3 Comments

You Are This Awesome and Amazing

You Are This Awesome and Amazing

Our Kickstarter campaign to underwrite our recent Gender Issue and our upcoming issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization (May 2016) was a breathtaking success and we can still barely believe the outpouring of support, both the amount of the donations and the kind words that accompanied them.

We have now posted our Thank You Page listing those who kicked in to make all of this happen. We thank again all of the past Brevity authors who contributed signed books, or agreed to do essay critiques, or who helped in countless other ways.

Thank you, gentle readers and amazing authors.

* The mugs, bumperstickers, and postcards will ship in mid-June. The signed books (except those not yet in the bookstores) will ship later this week. If you signed up for a critique, you should have been contacted by e-mail already. A select few of you have a pretty spectacular brunch coming next year, with a bottomless mimosa fountain. If you signed up for a reward, answered the Kickstarter request to give us your address, and worry that your reward has not arrived, contact us at with “KICKSTARTER QUERY” in the subject line.

Can Young People Write Memoir?

May 20, 2015 § 11 Comments

Leslie Jamison offers up her usual incisive brilliance in a NY Times book review discussion titled “Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?” Here’s a bit, followed by the link:

I probably shouldn’t venture any further into my defense of young memoir before acknowledging that I’m a young writer who has written about my life. I’ve got skin in the game. And my skin flinches, in particular, at the second part of Yardley’s argument: the notion that even those who have had experiences worth narrating will be “too young to know what to make of them,” which feels like a willfully reductive evasion of a more complicated truth.

I do see where the critique comes from. In its sophisticated form, it’s a call for drafting and revision, for the ways we can productively re-examine our own stories and dig underneath our familiar narratives of self to find the more surprising layers beneath. The work of this excavation can often happen more easily with distance. But it seems futile to project categorical algorithms onto when this excavation can happen — how long it will take, how many birthdays it requires.

Of course someone will look back at his first broken heart with a different perspective at the age of 40, or 60, or 80. But that doesn’t mean that these perspectives are better, or that our self-­understanding travels toward some telos of perfect consummation with every passing year…

Benjamin Moser’s take, following Jamison’s, is well worth reading too:

In a World…

May 18, 2015 § 23 Comments

Movie-Trailer-posterWhile editing another author’s work this morning, I found myself wrestling with how to say, “You have 170,000 words, but you don’t have a story.” They are well-written words, they are good words, they are interesting words…but as Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” Nothing is at stake. No-one is risking their health or happiness in service of a greater goal.

As writers, we’re often told “raise the stakes.” How can we tell if the stakes are high enough in our own work, even before asking for the opinions of our fellow authors or our teachers?

The “In a World” test.

Think about the cheesy movie-trailer cliché. There’s a shot of alien-created devastation. Or a sunrise over a battlefield. Or a sunrise over a castle. A deep voice intones, “In a world…”

That’s the stasis, the situation as it is now, the situation that cannot be sustained. Overturning this situation is a high-risk, high-stakes problem.

“One man must…”

That’s the protagonist’s quest/goal/objective. What they want. The rest of the movie will be about the protagonist overturning the unacceptable “world” and trying to get what they “must” have.

In fiction, the “in a world” moment is almost always in the first chapter, often in the first paragraph. The moment is usually pretty easy to figure out:

In a world…where a kid is alone and on the run…One kid must locate a priceless painting before he and his friend are killed by gangsters. (The Goldfinch)

In a world…where Kathy has no choice but to care for the dying…One girl must find out if she has free will. (Never Let Me Go)

In a world…where poverty can kill you and a girl is a washed-up old maid at twenty…One girl must marry a rich husband without violating her own scruples. (Pride and Prejudice)

I’d argue that it should be there at the beginning in nonfiction, too. At the very least the premise should be clear within the first chapter. What’s the untenable existing situation? What’s at stake for the protagonist? What’s the positive effect on their health and happiness if they overturn the situation, and how will they be harmed if they don’t?

In a world…where I’ve screwed up my relationships, taken too many drugs, and slept with too many people…I must walk 2600 miles to find myself. (Wild)

In a world…where my mom is rooting through a dumpster…I must become at peace with the rotten past that made me who I am. (The Glass Castle)

Chances are, if it’s hard to find your “In a world…one person must…” moment, your stakes aren’t high enough. The starting place isn’t untenable enough. Your narrator (possibly you) doesn’t have enough at stake to make the story compelling.

So try it. Stand up, deepen your voice, and state the premise of your memoir. Does it sound cheesy and overdramatic when you say it like that? If it does, you’re probably starting from the right place.


Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also freelances as The Unkind Editor.

Just Keep Knocking

May 14, 2015 § 16 Comments

Just keep going, buddy.

Just keep going, buddy.

Once or twice a year, I take a month and send out a submission to a journal, literary website, or a radio show every day. Thirty or thirty-one submissions (choosing February seems like cheating), formatted and cover-lettered and sent, click, click, click. I’m all about the scattershot approach — rejections drift in slowly over the next six months or so, and by the time my next submission blitz rolls around, I don’t even remember what got turned down where (God bless spreadsheets!).

But what about the persistent, single-minded submission process? At The Missouri Review, Michael Nye writes about seeing stories come in from the same authors, over and over, and hearing an intern ask,

How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?

Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. To emphasis this point, she noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.

It’s a fascinating article, with some great behind-the-scenes information about the submissions process. But it doesn’t end with, “And this is the time we finally published them!”

Which makes me think, it takes more than ordinary persistence to keep sending out work in the face of form rejections and silence. It’s hard for a writer to know if they’re just missing the mark, or not playing in the same league.

How can you tell? How do you figure out where to submit your work more than once?

Check out Michael Nye’s article at The Missouri Review.


Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.


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