On Hamilton, Certain Blessings, and Finding the Time to Write

October 31, 2018 § 7 Comments

neo in backpackBy Lainy Carslaw

In the Broadway hit, Hamilton, Alexander is asked repeatedly: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

I realize this is meant to be a rhetorical question, but I’d like to offer an answer: because he had kids—and a job (a pretty time consuming one if I remember correctly). And yet, he made time for love letters, and essays, and newspaper articles. I imagine he spent precious moments by flickering candle light, dipping his quill into black ink as he desperately worked to get his thoughts calligraphied onto yellowing parchment. I imagine he struggled to concentrate while Phillip banged away at the piano or his wife tried to convince him to, “go upstate.” I imagine him writing with the same urgency that I do when I’m trying to finish a chapter before my baby wakes up from his afternoon nap.

Compared to Alexander Hamilton, it should feel like I have more than enough time to embrace my passion for writing. After all, I have a computer, and a lamp—and live in relatively peaceful times (for now at least). But I am a mom of three, and I, too, have a job, and although it may not be helping to re-build post-revolutionary America, it is the livelihood that helps keep the roof over our heads.

It is almost impossible for me to not feel overwhelmed by the amount of time I am not writing, the amount of time I am not devoting to my projects that sit on my computer like abandoned children, the amount of time I am not giving myself to finish what I started so, so, so long ago.

In order to not become hopeless or despondent, this is what I have had to tell myself:

Everything I do matters.


I have to tell myself that every second I spend away from my stories is a second doing something that will contribute to my writing in some meaningful way. That every experience I live through will either literally or figuratively end up on the page. Every book I read has the ability to inspire, or teach, or to change my thinking in some fundamental way. Every dollar I earn at work provides me with the funds I need to afford this computer, this paper, these workshops.

Even during the times I am doing something seemingly insignificant, like cleaning the kitchen or driving to hockey practice—these times still matter. These mindless chores are the moments I breathe, I let my mind and my imagination wander, I obsess over that one line or that one perfect metaphor.

By this logic, I must believe that mopping, dusting, reading to my baby, rocking my baby, going for a walk (with or without my baby)—they are all means to an end. They are all necessary.

One piece of writerly advice you will hear over and over is to set a schedule, to sit down to write at the same time every day. I am not saying this is bad advice. In fact, if you can make it work—it is very, very good advice. A disciplined, consistent approach to any task will only help you succeed, just ask any elite athlete or musician. But my life is not consistent or disciplined. It is scattered like the post-it notes, calendars, and to-do lists hanging all over my house and just when I think I have one day figured out, another completely different, but equally chaotic day, begins.

Sometimes I have to volunteer at the school, sometimes my baby doesn’t sleep and I have to sleep in, sometimes I write after work and sometimes instead of picking up a pen, I pick up the Margarita mix—or the Netflix remote. And because sticking to a regimented schedule is unrealistic to me, I know if I try to follow one, I am doing something dangerous with my fragile, perfectionist self—I am setting up for an inevitable failure. I am filling myself with shame, instead of hope, love—ideas.

About three months ago, when I was feeling particularly held back from my work like a desperate infant reaching for its mother, without knowing my situation, my sister-in-law sent me an Instagram by Glennon Doyle. Sometimes the universe (or your sister-in-law) send you just what you need at just the right moment. It was a post so profound that I not only teared up, I went and joined Instagram just so I could pass it on to my fellow writers.

Ms. Doyle was telling me that I couldn’t miss my boat. That my boat would stay docked for me until I was ready. And she reminded me that I am “blessed to be needed by ideas, and children, and animals.” And she is right. I know she is.

How important to be reminded of it.

I turn 40 in January. It has always been my goal to publish a book by 40. It’s hard not to feel antsy. I know I still have time, but sometimes I can’t help but feel my dreams have been traded in for everyday realities. And that everything is conspiring against me—the cat, the baby, the broken dishwasher—tax season—they are all involved in some elaborate scheme to keep me from sitting at my desk. Sometimes I can’t help but feel my ship is sailing away without its captain and I will be stuck on this shore forever. But this is just the over-sentimental me that gets criticized during workshop. And when she takes over, I need to revise. To breathe. To delete the melodrama and (again) remind myself that everything I do matters.

The life I have away from my writing is what makes up the me that is able to write. And when I blow out the candles on my fortieth birthday cake, my computer will not disappear, my stories will not be deleted, my work will still be waiting for me, and so will my boat.

Lainy Carslaw is an essayist, fiction writer, and gymnastics coach who lives in the North Hills of Pittsburgh with her husband and three sons. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and a poetry degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work can be found in The Nasty Woman, Bad Hombre Anthology, several editions of The Madwomen in the Attic Anthology, Technique Magazine, Pink Pangea’s travel writing website, and her local newspaper, The Hampton News. Currently, she is working on a novel and a collection of essays about working in a Family Business.






Twitter for the Distractible and Retiring

October 30, 2018 § 13 Comments

black and white headshot of a white woman with shoulder-length light hair, a striped scarf and a black scoop-neck topBy Kirsten Voris

Disclaimer: This is not a Twitter primer. It’s a look at how one writer began to get over herself and hammered the first nail into her media platform.

I have two domain names and no website. A poorly curated LinkedIn. Otherwise, I have shunned social media. When I hear the word platform I close up like a Venus flytrap at mealtime. I hate the idea of spending time on it. My words, I decided, will sell themselves. Magically.

Then, in August, I attended a Memoir Proposal Workshop at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. I have no proposal-ready memoir, but I like to over-prepare. As it turns out, I needed to be on-hand to receive a message from the cosmos via Brevity’s Social Media Editor, Allison K Williams.

NEWSFLASH: I don’t need Instagram and Facebook and Twitter to have a platform. It’s more effective to do one well.

Only one!

My all-or-nothing thinking was still coming to grips when Allison described her Twitter tending.

Once a day, during the morning bathroom visit. Then, fini.

Limits! Here was an example of someone who could set them. Could I?

My butt-in-chair writing lifestyle is fragile. I rely on the Pomodoro technique. My writing partner. I need scaffolding. Accountability. Do I want to add platform grooming to the list of things I am compelled to do to sell the writing I have only just begun producing?

Or was it another task I’d abuse to avoid my date with @tomatotimer?

Seated among the motivated and the proposal-ready, I gave in to the ambient vibe. Writing memoir? Platforms are just part of the deal.

I chose Twitter.

Because: character limit. And I could manage it during my morning toilette.

But I needed more limits.

Limit One: There is a Time for Tweeting and a Time for Writing and it’s Not the Same Time.
Recently, I went on silent retreat. No phone no computer no talking. For three days, I did one thing at a time. When I came home and began unpacking, sorting, emailing, eating—simultaneously—it felt icky. Multi-tasking confuses me.

Limit Two: Hit Send and Let It Go.
As of this writing, I have tweeted 9 times. With each tweet, I fret: I’m unoriginal, un-writerly, dull. Oh, and self-absorbed. But tweeting is like writing an essay. At some point, I have to decide I’m done.

Limit Three: Keep it Writing Related
Twitter is a distraction minefield. My no-go list: Cats. Celebrities. Celebrity cats. Old boyfriends. People who suddenly stopped talking to me. Politics. I make an exception for Turkish politics written in Turkish by former neighbor @aykan_sever. Otherwise, Twitter is for my writing life, not @RealGrumpyCat.

Limit Four: No Late-Night Tweeting
The night I set up Twitter I could not sleep. I kept thinking about the profile I’d posted. In haste. Really? Why those seven words? It was well past midnight when I got up and dosed myself with homeopathic nerve tonic. Eventually, I slept. But I didn’t get on my phone. The phone amplifies ruminating. It’s a bright light. If I don’t sleep I can’t write.

Limit Five: Tweet to Give Love Not to Get It
Writers and editors have read my essays. Journals have published and rejected them. What have I done for these folks lately?

I’m part of a community. Tweeting, retweeting, liking and commenting on blog posts, essays and insights that inspire me is a way to support the community. Plus, I feel good when I do it. Plus it’s better than imagining everyone in Platform Land is ignoring me out of spite because my credits are 3 essays and an (unpublishable) 600-page manuscript.

Having established limits, I come to the heart of the problem. I still don’t want to draw attention to myself. Without a platform, I have heard, I’m as good as invisible.

Yes. I think. Right on.

However, few will see my work. And I claim to want that kind of attention.

I write because can’t think of a more gratifying way to spend my precious life energy. I dread writing and feel amazing when I’ve written. By joining Twitter I put myself on notice. I take my writing seriously. Twitter is part of my job, which is writing. This is my mantra.

But I need more than a mantra. Twitter requires stickers. I paste them in my journal, a visual reminder of each fearsome task I complete.

I have a vast sticker stockpile. I love to sticker shop. And take coffee breaks and watch cat videos. During writing time. Even without social media, I am distractible. So why not tweet? And commit to tweeting well? In support of my job. Which is writing.

I gave myself a frog sticker for writing this blog post. I will earn a dragon for sending it out. I celebrate patient improvement. I can learn to shill. Who better to shill for me, than me?

Kirsten Voris tweets @bubbleate and gardens in Tucson, Arizona. You can find her #CNF @SuperstitionRev, @theknicknackery, @hippocampusmag and in two forthcoming anthologies. She is currently reworking the biography of a stage mentalist and planting her winter garden #amwriting #gardening.

Why I Started A Writing MFA After Retirement

October 29, 2018 § 21 Comments

5x7KathyBy Kathleen B. Jones

Awaken today in the lemon yellow-dove grey dawn. Blink several times. Close eyes again.  See sentences imprinted under my eyelids.

I get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, and sit down with my morning coffee. The sentences are gone.

I try cajoling them out of my brain again. Traces appear. I type these revenants onto the simulacrum of a page on my computer screen. Amazing how the body can remind the mind of what the mind forgot it already knew.

The memoirist Patricia Hampl once said she still gets shocked when she realizes she doesn’t write what she knows but writes in order to discover what she knows. This is how I think about my writing now: I write to discover what I know. And this is why, at the age of 69, I decided to go back to school for an M.F.A. in creative writing: I’m studying the craft to write in order to discover what I know.

I’m no novice writer. But, for most of my professional life, my writing conformed to the scholarly conventions of my academic field (political theory); I told what I knew. As a university professor, my job was to lead others into discovery. Now, I’m a student again. I have the opportunity to be led into discovery, along with a cohort of peers, by a core faculty of accomplished writers.

Figuring out how to shape a sentence so it sings, how to choose a metaphor so it means more than a clever coincidence between two things, how to invent the right diction for a narrator’s voice, how to create authentic dialogue and how to employ a panoply of related elements of style in aid of telling a story will consume the next year and a half of my life. You can learn a lot about those things through independent study or by attending short-term writing retreats. I’ve done both and they’ve helped. But I’ve wanted more.

I’ve wanted the discipline of an imposed structure, the support of a writing community, and the wisdom of expert teachers in a program with students of varied ages and diverse backgrounds and I’ve wanted all that on a more consistent basis than I’d find in a week or two-long retreat or could create for myself. So I thought, back to school, why not?

I used to ignore the pages and pages in Poets & Writers advertising M.F.A. programs. A year ago, I started paying attention. I eliminated all the residential programs with the exception of two in my area. One would have taken me four years to complete, so I crossed it off. The other required the GRE. I already had a Ph.D., I told the director. No exceptions to the rules allowed, she’d said. My list narrowed to a handful of low residency programs in different parts of the country and then narrowed to two, one on the east coast and the other on the west.

I dug into their web sites to learn about what they offered. I spoke to students and faculty at both schools. I read the faculty’s books. Because I wanted to concentrate on literary fiction—I’m writing an historical novel—I was especially interested in a program with strong fiction writers, but which also stressed cross-genre training. One granted a semester’s credit for previously published writing, which meant I could complete the M.F.A. in three semesters. My decision was made. The icing on the cake was learning, after I was admitted, about Brevity’s intention to affiliate with the program I’d chosen and that there was an opportunity to work with the magazine.

When I graduate from Fairfield University’s M.F.A. program in December 2019, I’ll be 70. Remember, 70 is the new 40, a friend of mine says. So, if anyone asks why I’m going back to school at this point in my life, I say it’s never too late to learn to write to discover what you know. You might be surprised by what you find, like I’m surprised every morning by those sentences under my eyelids.

Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. While completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University, she is currently working on an historical novel about the 15th C writer, Christine de Pizan, and serves as Brevity‘s Associate Editor.


A Review of Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s

October 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

512facvEFXL._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_By Peter Amos

Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s isn’t really about music, and I prefer it that way.

I moved to New York when I was twenty-two and recall two formative experiences.

  • Barreling over the Manhattan Bridge on a D-train – squished in a seat facing the rear, knees tucked against a man in a trench coat – reading Amiri Baraka’s “Coltrane at Birdland” (… to hear a man destroy it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn).
  • Sitting in a folding chair with pinballs whistling and tilting in my ears me while Ben Monder, guitar in hand, cracked open Pandora’s box with a mallet from behind a wide semi-circle of cables and stomp boxes.

I learned in rapid succession that words are musical and that music can defy categorization. Faloon knows this too. My music history teacher passed along the often-quoted quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. She meant that writing about music can’t capture its essence. My high school art teacher used to say that you can’t paint the sun – “It’s just too hot!” He meant that we’re reduced to painting its impact: shadows, blood orange, and fuchsia as it dips behind clouds.

Faloon understands that music is far too hot for painting. He writes about the experience of watching it rather than the music itself. A series of quirky essays represent his introduction to free jazz by way of a Monday night music series at Quinn’s – a local bar in Beacon, New York. He knows he can’t describe the music he’s hearing but doesn’t discover quite how to write about it until later. He assembles descriptions of the town of Beacon, the walk from the car to Quinn’s, the scenes around him, the musicians, the music itself. Injected throughout are brief digressions: events from his life, memories, musings, associations. As he returns to Quinn’s, the memories grow more fluid, the associations more free, until he hits his stride.

He describes, midway through his year of music, a performance by Peter Evans and Sam Pluta:

“Witnessing Evans shove so many ideas through his mouthpiece is like watching traffic funnel into the Holland Tunnel. But those cars crawl, mark their journeys a few feet at a time. Evans has six – or eight or twelve – lanes of ideas barreling ahead, accelerators stomped to floorboards, yet somehow converging.”

This becomes Faloon’s defining conception of the music. The digressions become shorter (a single sentence or word), the references yet more obscure. He stitches together a hodgepodge of impressions, metaphors, juxtapositions, punk bands, movies, comics from radical zines. Faloon articulates the confusion of sitting in a room and experiencing something outlandish. He doesn’t stare into its burning eye, but paints around it, pirouettes and arabesques between the rebar and colonnades.

When music defies comprehension, I’m often surprised by how my brain files it. Ben Monder: drunk hipsters playing pinball. Mary Halvorsen: accidentally missing my first shift at a new job. Ari Hoenig: a friend trying to order a glass of milk at Smalls. Julian Lage: this many people in this space cannot be legal. Ambrose Akinmusire: snow.

Whether the first sip of coffee as Charlie Parker crackles from the speaker or the drive to New York to see heroes play in anonymous Brooklyn basements, music is a thing we do. Musicians have trouble admitting this. See live music and support local art because artists deserve it, music is powerful, you like music and might like this music too. I’ve never been convinced of any of that (though artists do deserve it). We should see live music and support local art because it’s a remarkable experience. Peek inside the mind of another, witness something truly wild or avant garde, watch cheeks bellow and air flow and feel the force of the action immediately. Faloon captures that value.

I leave each chapter with no concept of what the music sounded like, but a clear picture of what it meant to one listener. His attention flits from the ambience, to the loud party in the back, the cymbal hanging dangerously from the drum set, the sax player’s face, the pretentious conversation beside him, self-consciousness, euphoria, his to-do list for work. A sunset is no less sublime for being something other than the sun itself; the swirl and tumble of refracted light, more beautiful than a great, white hot ball. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Faloon is graceful and there’s nothing at all wrong with dancing.

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it. His work is listed on his site: The Imagined Thing.


On Reading Deeper and Writing Better

October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:

I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice. 

Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:

People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.

You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care. 

Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

My Apology to Facebook for Cheating with Twitter

October 24, 2018 § 9 Comments

authorDear Facebook,

I’m sorry I cheated with Twitter. I know you think all the years we spent together don’t mean anything to me. All the likes and loves and angry and funny emojis, all the exploding congratulations and mazel tovs—don’t think I didn’t notice how hard you worked to make a Jew like me feel comfortable on your site. And who can forget all the times we reduced meaningful issues to profile frames together? Not me, Facebook, not me. You let me go on and on, no matter how boring or tired or offensive I became. You never cut me off. Never showed me how many characters I had left or that I had used too many, so no, you wouldn’t post my tweet. How could I give all that up? For what?

I didn’t mean to stray, but I guess no one ever does. It started small, just a few retweets while I waited for a barista to make my coffee. I have a book coming out, and I thought, what’s the harm in doing more than one social media channel? I thought I’d spread the love. I thought you’d never find out. And Twitter was funny! I’m not saying you’re not funny, Facebook, of course you are. It’s just your sense of humor is a little like my Aunt Roslyn’s. Videos of talking dogs? They’re funny, Facebook, just not that funny. You’re like my hometown, filled with people I’ve always known. I’m comfortable around you. But Twitter was like the big city, teeming with strangers whose tweets I might never see again. Twitter was exciting. Twitter was edgy. And the chance to go viral on Twitter? Do you know what that could mean for a writer? The woman who wrote the cat story got a million dollar advance for a book of short stories not so different from mine. How could I resist?

And then there was that whole Cambridge Analytica privacy situation, Facebook, and the election. I started to wonder if I really knew you. I know. It’s no excuse. You were always there for me. You cared about my memories. You kept my posts around for days. With Twitter, it’s wham bam thank you ma’am. Before you know it, you’re old news.

You’re nice, Facebook. Really nice. But what woman can resist a bad boy? The thing is, you don’t have to worry anymore. I got burned by Twitter too often. Tweets liked by only one follower, the same one who always liked my tweets, the one with only 17 followers. Tweets no one liked—no one!—that I deleted, hoping they’d be forgotten. The times I retweeted my own tweet in desperation, telling myself there’d been some mistake, that people had just missed it somehow. I’m not proud of myself. But I’ve gotten help. I installed one of those Twitter blocking apps on my laptop. It’s true, I can still see Twitter on my phone. But I hardly ever check. Maybe once when I wake up. And occasionally during lunch. You’ll hardly even know I’m on there. Really.

Facebook, I miss those sappy videos you put together to remind me I’m friends with people I already know I’m friends with. You think Twitter would ever make me something like that? Please take me back. Don’t make me return to Twitter. I can’t keep up with the feed.

Yours Forever If You’ll Have Me,



R.L Maizes‘ short story collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, is forthcoming in July from Celadon Books/Macmillan. Her stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in the literary magazines Electric Literature, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Slice, and Blackbird, among others. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lilith, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Queens, New York, and now lives in Boulder, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.

Why We’re Not Writing Succinctly—and What to Do About It

October 23, 2018 § 9 Comments

By Mathina Calliope

Writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent elimination.
-Louise Brooks

I know I should write concisely. Plowing through bloated prose, I’ve certainly wished other authors had. I’ve silently struck needless words and cursed the writer for lacking the courtesy to clean up after him- or herself.

I also struggle to get my own word counts down. As with many things in life, it’s easier to spot a speck than pull out a plank.

At some point in our writing trajectories, a well-meaning person read our draft and said it needed “more details.” Yes, a well-chosen detail brings a scene alive and puts readers into the action. Unfortunately, many of us, perhaps too young to grasp what details were, simplified this advice to more words.

Later, we come across Strunk & White’s “Omit needless words” and Mark Twain’s “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” and we may try to unlearn wordiness.

This is difficult.

But why? Shouldn’t it be easier to write fewer words than more? Let’s take a look at some threats to succinctness and try to understand their source—and how to eliminate them.

First drafts are where we figure it out.
If I had a nickel for every time I wrote a sentence and immediately wrote another one containing the exact same idea, I’d have many nickels. Writing is not stenography—it’s not transferring neat, insightful, and lovely ideas from our brains to the page. Writing is the messy process of wrestling with those ideas, taming them into insights. For me, that’s trying out an idea in one sentence, then explaining it in the next. The idea forms as I write, so the second sentence feels like additional information. It’s not until I reread that I can see the redundancy. Sometimes I can strike the first sentence altogether. Sometimes it’s the second sentence that goes. And sometimes half the idea is in one and half in the other, so I combine and tighten.

Succinct writing takes time.
Blaine Pascal, John Locke, and Henry David Thoreau are all credited with versions of “I’m sorry this is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

First drafts are where we work things out. That takes X length of time. First drafts plus re-reading and revising to eliminate redundancy takes X plus Y length of time.

We might not have that time; worse, we might not realize how much it matters. Smart readers, who don’t need to be told anything twice, can spot redundancy from a page away. They won’t tolerate much. As writers, we have to put our work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread and ruthlessly delete anything superfluous.

We don’t realize we’re being wordy.
We may write our first drafts conversationally. The advantage of this is accessibility and a natural tone. The disadvantage is that speech is seldom succinct. Word padding that may not inconvenience listeners still weighs down prose.

We think long sentences sound good.
But they usually don’t. Long sentences work only when the complexity of their ideas warrants them. Best case, an unnecessarily long sentence confuses and tires readers. Worst case, it conveys uncertainty or even ignorance; readers see right through the writer’s attempt to appear to know a lot.
It’s not easy being brief. But it’s important—for the clarity of your ideas and for the love of your reader.

So the next time you are ready to submit a piece of writing to a reader, an editor, or a friend, remember these words of Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”


Mathina Calliope is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post’s Magazine and Outlook sections, NPR’s Morning Edition, Prevention, the Manifest-Station, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Currently she is finishing a memoir, Deprivation Vacation, about hiking the Appalachian Trail at 43 as a way to step cold turkey out of her comfort zone. @mathinacalliope IG: mathinacalliope

A Review of Sandra Gail Lambert’s A Certain Loneliness

October 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

9781496207197By Debbie Hagan

At three years old, Sandra Gail Lambert lay in a windowless room, in a plaster cast that covered her from chest to knees, healing from polio surgeries. Her mother would see her only one hour a day. The rest of the time, Lambert did nothing but listen to ambient noises and try to identify their varying sources. This left Lambert claustrophobic and determined never to be trapped again and to make the most of her abilities.

From cast to braces to crutches to manual wheelchair to power wheelchair, Lambert moves on becoming a nature lover, kayaker, photographer, and adventurer plunging headlong into rapids. In these beautiful, linked essays titled A Certain Loneliness (part of the University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives Series, edited by Tobias Wolff), Lambert portrays her life as one that rails against limitations and pushes steadily toward confidence and freedom.

She finds joy in a tight group of women friends, so enmeshed, “We can open the door to each other’s houses and yell a hello,” she writes. “Or we rush over in the middle of the night to be there, make coffee, or cry after bad news…. Sometimes we sneak in a dozen cupcakes, chocolate filled with cream cheese frosting, and leave them on the counter just because.” These are pure friendships without “qualifiers.”

The challenge comes when a new friend enters their circle. Sometimes the friend builds a ramp to her house; sometimes, she doesn’t. If the latter happens, Lambert knows “it’s going to go bad.” Without a bridge, she will never be able to leave surprise cupcakes and ultimately, “I will have to break up with her in my heart.”

The power wheelchair offers Lambert mobility, and yet it creates its own barriers. For instance, she’s about a head lower than everyone else. So, friends must remember to look down; otherwise, she will be left out of the conversations, handshakes, and the hugs she craves. Lambert creates some math to calculate potential opportunities for physical touch. For instance, if she’s going to a friend’s house, she can count on a hello hug. That’s worth about five seconds of contact. Three more hugs, pushes it up to twenty seconds. However, if she swings her body out of her wheelchair and onto the couch, she’ll rub shoulders and thighs on both sides with friends for two hours. That’s 7,200 seconds of touching.

It’s in the streams and woods Lambert finds real freedom. Getting in and out of the wheelchair and into her kayak, launching it, and then reversing the process requires complex maneuvers and calculated risks.

Alone in the Okefenokee Swamp, she sees snakes hanging from the low-hanging branches and the nose, eyes, and rugged back of an alligator. None of this scares her. Fear only comes when she can’t remember if she brought the hook she needs to get to the platform to get to her wheelchair that will take her back to her van. If she doesn’t have that, she’ll be stuck and doesn’t know what she will do. Fortunately, she brought the hook, and as the moon rises, she watches as “the sunlight sheens across the grasses and turns each patch of water into a pink pool.” The songbirds stop, and she hears the hoots of the first night owl. This fills her soul with hope, magic, and self-accomplishment.

As I read this, I reflect upon my eighty-eight-year-old father, who I’d recently took to a nature museum. Since he couldn’t stand for long, I placed him in a wheelchair. As I pushed it around, I saw the world quite differently. I noticed the museum’s railings were mounted at Dad’s eye level, the exhibits placed higher, which caused him to throw his head back and stretch to see them. Visitors darted in front of him, some standing in his line of sight as if he didn’t exist or was too old to matter. We skipped exhibits that were either impenetrable or where visitors were unwilling to let a wheelchair pass.

While Lambert’s memoir shows us one woman’s strength and courage in her battle to defeat fear, loneliness, and physical challenge, I’d like think this book offers more. It should make each of us question: do we build ramps for those differently able or do we simply ignore the problem and look away?

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Writing for the Worm Bucket

October 19, 2018 § 12 Comments

linkedin profile picBy Adrielle Stapleton

Peace finds me sometimes, in spite of my best efforts and the conspiracies of my brain. I look up from my task, and peace is there. Today it finds me as I am sitting alone in my little enclosed back patio. The high brick walls trap sunshine that bakes my small container garden. I have cherry tomatoes in blue 5-gallon buckets, an enormous eggplant in flower, Thai Basil, fennel, parsley.

I am cutting up my old manuscripts into slender strips of paper to feed into the vermicompost, feeding my words to the worms. Worms are easy pets, but they need a balanced diet of kitchen scraps and carbon bedding, damp paper or cardboard. After a few rounds of reading drafts in workshops, I have many hard copies of marked-up essays and stories. I want them to become something.

I have left the worms without food for months. I was tired of checking them and finding no progress, so I ignored them. Now they have eaten everything and they are restless. When I feed them, they stay down below, working quietly and slowly, digesting, reproducing. I can leave them alone for weeks and they will not die. But today they are crawling out.

I swish the paper strips through lukewarm water to speed up the decomposition process. Along with words, my worms like food that is already rotting. Coffee filters full of grounds, banana peels, mushy foods. Slowly they turn waste into something that will feed us. Their castings enrich my potted garden.

I don’t mind that my creations end up in the worm bucket. This is how things go. An ancient poet wrote a poem about how his poems would end the day as a wrapper for fish. But this displacement from view can be generative. At Oxyrhyncus the diggers find lost Sappho poems in a trash heap. I begin writing about a prosaic moment and through multiple drafts, letting go and revisiting with fresh eyes, an internal subconscious digesting, I mysteriously discover my secrets and how to tell them.

My husband is not so sure about my worms. He does not like to know they are in our house, with their rotting food. He especially does not like it when they begin to crawl out of their container. Who can blame him. He did not ask for a wife who is composting rotting scraps and turning it into material, and then turning that material into rotting scraps.

But I am losing my grasp of edges in a world that is constantly shifting, and want to overlay the clean cartography of metaphors and symbolism onto the slippery forms that I do not understand. I need to map my drafts onto the compost and my finished pieces onto the dusky red cherry tomatoes. I need my garden, and my ugly worm bucket, and my ugly drafts, and the way that they all reassure me that the becoming and unbecoming are a process, steady and imperceptible, organic and life-giving, and when I trust the process, sometimes peaceful.

Adrielle Stapleton received her MA in Classics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She writes and composts in Lexington, Kentucky. You can find her on Twitter at @adri_staple

On Polyester Maternity Dresses Posing as Essay Collections

October 18, 2018 § 4 Comments

dewittIt is easy to hate Amazon, but they do sell a lot of books for us, don’t they?

Well maybe not. DeWitt Henry,  founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, waited expectantly for his latest book to show up on the popular, monopolistic bookseller’s pages only to surf through two nights ago to encounter a rather peculiar surprise. He writes about it here:

For weeks I’ve been anticipating my launch on Amazon for SWEET MARJORAM: NOTES AND ESSAYS.  The release date was 10-15, and I kept checking obsessively, but only found my earlier title, SWEET DREAMS.  The night of 10-16, I typed in the product search, and there it was at last!

I called my wife away from CNN: “Hey, look at this!”

But when we clicked for the order page what came up was a large pic of the cover alongside ordering information for “Keaac Womens Chiffon Print Sleeveless Irregular Hem A Line Top Dress,” a maternity dress from China, available in “Small=China X-Large: Length:25.59″ (65cm), Bust:42.52″ (108cm); Medium=China 2X-Large: Length:25.98″ (66cm), Bust:44.09″ (112cm);” and other sizes that seemed nothing like the essay collection I have worked on for years.

Meanwhile the “real” book is available from www.MadHat-Press.com and I hope happy readers will spread the word and even leave reviews on Amazon.

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