December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments
During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.
One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.
But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.
After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”
A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.
Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
At ten, I absorbed her lesson.
It took several decades to unlearn it.
Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.
A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
More COVID cases.
And yet, even now, I have desires.
I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.
I want to send it to agents.
I want to believe this story will help someone.
When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.
While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.
Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.
In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.
During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.
It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.
As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.
I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.
My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.
Here are the details for this week’s challenge:
- Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
- Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
- Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.
The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn.
This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class.
You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.
To participate in this challenge, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.
If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison.
June 5, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Lisa Ellison
I met Reema Zaman at the 2018 Hippocamp Conference when she presented “The Art of Radical Vulnerability: Using Writing to Turn Wounds into Wisdom.” Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow as she revealed the insights she’d gained while writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Reema’s message was received with the powerful silence deserving of profound truths. Follow-up questions focused on one theme: writing about trauma.
Six years ago, I worked as a trauma therapist, helping clients understand and revise the stories they tell about painful experiences. Now, I teach classes in memoir. Trauma is a frequent guest at our workshop tables. Sometimes it’s an uncontained beast that threatens to derail projects. As an instructor, I constantly seek tools students can use to safely house their suffering and mold chaotic experiences into something ordered. A favorite is the Soham meditation—a Sanskrit mantra that roughly translates as I am that. It serves as both repository for errant thoughts and reminder that our essential nature is powerful and good.
Like this meditation, I Am Yours creates a haven for trauma narratives—one that simultaneously records and reauthors the writer’s deepest challenges. Structured as a love letter to her highest self, Reema’s memoir encapsulates her experiences with misogyny, sexual assaults and rape, intimate partner violence, and the racially-charged subjugation she faced as a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States.
Letters like Reema’s serve as apt vessels for traumatic experiences. Her greeting, “Dear Love,” invokes the ultimate loving witness for her vulnerable stories. In her letter’s body, she processes her story, and through the closing, we are invited to let go of past harms and embrace radical self-love.
Reema’s letter has a meditative quality she sustains through a variation on Soham. Each episode begins with “I am” and her age. “I am 3. I am 5. I am 11.” This “I Am” invites the reader into her painful experiences—ones she renders with stark clarity and poetic finesse. On being raped, she writes: “He grabs me. I steel my body against his…. The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.” When her abusive husband insisted she downplay her looks and intellect, she writes “I blot my cheeks, lips, eyelids, dimming myself.”
Her memoir opens with her early life. As the oldest daughter to parents of an arranged marriage, she tries to fulfill the preset roles of a toxic patriarchy. To cope with the challenges of living in a world that silences women, she develops anorexia—an illness that shrinks both body and spirit—and pursues beauty as she strives to become a voice for the voiceless. This leads to careers in modeling and acting. But external changes don’t result in internal metamorphosis. Eventually, she realizes, “being raised by a bully, I married a bully, and through my choices, I become my biggest bully.” Each page contains similar epiphanies that frequently read like prayers.
Her memoir fulfills the satisfying arc we expect: the heroine loses her innocence, struggles, and ultimately prevails. But her unique approach makes I Am Yours distinctive. Many memoirs weave traumatic episodes into gripping tales that ascend to a triumphant crescendo, placing readers fully in the story’s present moment, desperate for resolution. In the midst of Zaman’s darkest episodes, she invokes the witness, “my love,” and reminds readers that an actualized writer (not the wounded character) controls her story. She tells her younger self, “she is kind, loved, and has value in this world,” creating an in vivo reauthoring of traumatic experiences as she recounts them. A miscarriage is “my body knowing how to take care of itself.” Of her gritty and painful marriage to a man who says she’s a wife for “greensies not for keepsies,” she writes “I entered my first marriage a girl. I leave a woman.” On her rape, she writes, “this is but one chapter and only I author my life.”
Self-soothing and reparenting the inner child are therapy terms frequently met with balled fists and pursed lips. How does one practice what one never had? Whether Zaman learned these skills or intuited them, she models self-soothing for us and reveals a new way to write memoir—one that speaks back to trauma in her revolutionary style. Time will tell whether other writers will emulate her in vivo reauthoring in their books. Regardless, I Am Yours has proved an essential guidebook for authors who wish to harness their internal witnesses and speak compassionately to themselves throughout the writing process.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. She teaches classes in memoir and creative nonfiction at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
March 21, 2019 § 14 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.