September 15, 2021 § 1 Comment
Brevity’s 68th issue launches this morning, with brilliant new essays from Kimiko Hahn, Sven Birkerts, Ryan Van Meter, Richard Robbins, Suzanne Roberts, Kathleen Rooney, Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, Sarah Cedeño, Laurie Easter, Gary Fincke, Charles Jensen, Kathryn Nuernberger, Mary Ann O’Gorman, Katerina Ivanov Prado, and Alyssa Sorresso.
In our Craft Section, Abigail Thomas reminds us that vulnerability is a memoirist’s strength, Kim Pittaway examines what we can learn from visual artists about self-portraiture, Heather Durham discusses changes in how we portray animals, and Tarn Wilson details the power of noticing.
Plus stunning photography by Amy Selwyn.
Please take the time to read our brilliant September issue.
July 30, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Susan Barr-Toman
Four years ago, I attended an author event for Martha Cooley’s Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. At the time I was stuck. I was a novelist, who couldn’t make stuff up anymore. Years before I’d studied fiction in grad school and had workshopped with Cooley. Back then, I was adamant about being a fiction writer, who did not rely on autobiographical material to create, having no interest in writing about my life.
At the reading, Cooley spoke how she’d lost eight friends in a decade. Her elderly mother had been in ill health back in the States, while she was in Italy working on translations with her husband Antonio Romani and trying to make progress on a novel. But her loss would not be ignored, and she began journaling. Her novel languished in the corner as essays came forth demanding her attention.
I caught up with Cooley afterwards and told her I found myself in a similar situation – my novel writing having halted and only essays arriving. She told me to write what was coming for me now. The novel will wait, she assured me. “Write those essays!”
I remember the novelist Elizabeth McCracken coming to give a talk at Temple University in 2008. For the first time she had written a memoir. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is about her two pregnancies: the first stillborn and a year later a healthy child. She said she never thought she’d write nonfiction, but then she didn’t have anything to write about. Until she did.
I remember thinking, I hope I never have anything to write about.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. In 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 2015.
For each of us it seemed our grief demanded its due. If I ignored my loss and failed to listen in order to force myself to work on fiction, I would dig myself deep into a writer’s block. To get into the flow, I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing, of who I thought I was as a writer, and accept what needed to be put on the page. For the time being, my husband was my muse. Nonfiction was my medium.
I followed Cooley’s advice and stopped beating myself up about the novels. Of course, a part of me knew this is what had to happen, but I needed to hear it from someone else. A former professor’s permission helped me to accept my move to nonfiction. But even after that, I assumed I was meant to write a book length memoir about my life with my husband, about his illness and death. Still, those essays kept coming.
Finally, I realized that I had been putting my story down all along, and that it wouldn’t be a memoir, but a collection of essays. Flash essays to be precise. They operate as the perfect vehicle for my experience of grief. They come upon me unexpectedly and hit quick and deep with a lasting ache.
I recognized that my life and my experiences would shape what I created. Limiting my idea of who I was as a writer limited my writing. Once again, I learned the lesson that letting go of what I thought my life would be and who I thought I should be opened me to more creativity, more possibilities.
I printed out a stack of essays to consider for the collection and prepared to go on my first writer’s retreat. In the back of my mind, I wondered if making a collection would allow me to return to writing fiction.
As I packed for the retreat, I logged on to a Zoom author event at the Center for Fiction for Martha Cooley’s new novel Buy Me Love. I folded laundry and listened. Cooley admitted that she’d been working on the novel for over fifteen years. She hadn’t been working on it the whole time, she said; she’d taken time off to do translations with her husband and to write an essay collection – Guesswork.
I found myself smiling. Cooley was right. She’d written what was coming to her and had let the novel that languished in the corner wait. Perhaps she’d been working on it in the back of her mind all the while, but she had finished it. It could be done. Her novel had waited. Maybe mine will too. I’m open to the possibilities.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her flash essays have appeared most recently in Longleaf Review, JMWW and Zone 3. She teaches Mindful Writing workshops through the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Visit her at www.susanbarrtoman.com.
May 19, 2021 § 1 Comment
We’ve just launched an expanded Resources for Teaching Brevity section on our main website and each day this week we are featuring highlights on the Blog. You can visit the menu page to see all of our new teaching resources or start your tour at Strategies for Teaching Brevity Essays.
Our Strategies section offers teachers an array of pedagogical resources, including:
– Advice on using Brevity to teach Diversity including issues of Race, Racism, and Anti-Racism, Experiences of Gender, and Experience of Disability.
– Discussion of how flash essays can best be used in a range of writing courses (from Amy Monticello, Frances Backhouse, and Kelly Kathleen Ferguson).
– Brevity founder Dinty W. Moore on the rise of flash nonfiction as a genre, what make the flash genre unique, and how it manages to convey so much truth—when done well—in so few words.
– Lia Purpura’s classic examination of all things small and artful, “On Miniatures.”
–Author Jill Talbot sharing the multiple revisions that led to the final form of her Brevity essay “Stranded.”
– and a host of other useful resources for writing, teaching, and publishing flash.
We will be rolling out new features in the weeks and months to come, so be sure to check in regularly as your plan your upcoming semesters.
And if you use Best of Brevity in your teaching and have a resource to add, please let us know.
April 26, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Naomi J. Williams
The year I grew tired of braided essays was also the year when my hair grew long enough to braid.
I was reading all the braided essays because I often review applications and entries for various writerly goodies, each of which required writing samples, and many of the samples were essays, and many of the essays—many—were of the braided variety.
My hair had grown long enough to braid because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic I had a short, stylish bob. A year later, I had become a Japanese monster lady, face drawn and pale and framed by witchy white hair.
Sometimes I try to braid it. Some people are adept at braiding their own hair. Not me. I have not practiced, on my own head or anyone else’s, in decades. And my fingers are no longer nimble. I may be developing arthritis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I am.
This is where I might throw in a bunch of facts I learn from Googling arthritis.
But I already spend far too much time looking up old-lady ailments, each more undignified than the last, many of them vaguely comic when they’re happening to someone else and altogether demoralizing when they’re happening to you.
I’ll share instead some etymological findings, as one does.
The word braid comes from Middle English breyden, a verb meaning “to move suddenly, snatch, plait,” which comes from Old English bregdan, which is related to Old High German brettan, which meant “to draw (a sword).”
All of this comes from Merriam-Webster.com, of course, boon companion to braided essayists everywhere.
I could meditate on what it means to move suddenly, as opposed to slowly, or even regularly. But reflecting on regular movements could lead to regularity then right back to undignified physical ailment territory.
I could become interested in how linguists determine kinship between an Old English word that means “plait” with an Old High German word for “draw (a sword).”
Or I could randomly share that when my sons were little, they had two genres of pretend play: “Swords & Magic” and “Blasters & Spaceships.” The plots were remarkably similar, but required different props for the inevitable fight sequences. (Swords) were drawn in the former and (blasters) for the latter.
Perhaps, in a pinch, Old High Germans used short swords to part their hair into sections for braiding.
Perhaps badass Middle Ages Germanic women braided short daggers into their hair to discourage bad men.
This beleaguered middle-aged Asian woman wishes she had enough hair to braid a weapon into it. How cool would that be?
But I’ve never had enough hair for that. And certainly not now. Because my hair, my witchy white hair, is also my witchy white thinning hair.
Wherein I decline to elaborate.
Here’s the thing about braiding hair: Sure, you can braid something that’s not hair into your braid. A ribbon, say. Maybe some flowers. But mostly you’re working with hair, and it’s hair growing from the same head, so it has some coherence, it’s literally about the one scalp, and then you pin the braid or braids in place or secure their ends with ponytail elastic or hairspray or—dang, someone online actually staples their braids. Okay!
Here’s the thing about braided essays: So many of them attempt to weave together strands that are brittle, or that appropriate someone else’s locks, or just don’t stay in place, or simply aren’t weavable—like wow, you just tried to braid (a sword) into your essay and lopped off your own head.
More and more I find myself craving the sustained narrative that stays with something—a moment, an event, a relationship, a place, a time period, an idea—and really excavates, down past one’s readily-accessed memories and even-more-readily accessed factoids from Wikipedia and approaches the hot, dangerous, beating-heart center of the thing.
Speaking of readily-accessed memories, those studies that establish the cognitive decline associated with menopause? Simultaneously validating and terrifying.
Speaking of hot and dangerous, the studies that say women who are thin, Asian, and don’t smoke have fewer hot flashes than other women? Well, all I can say is that they didn’t talk to me!
I don’t think age confers wisdom. There. I said it.
Wherein we learn that the magic potential of the braided essay inheres in juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas or threads and voila! the unexpected truths emerge, like liver spots.
In medical lingo liver spots are called solar lentigines, which is plural for solar lentigo, which is much nicer than liver spot so can we please just start saying that instead?
Here’s the thing about any successfully braided thing: It’s an object of beauty. The heft of a braid in the hand. That taut, satiny smoothness. The visual pleasure of the weave. The sensuous strength of the strands holding each other in place.
This is true of braided hair. And braided fabric trim. And rugs. And baskets. And challah. And essays.
Naomi J. Williams is the author of the novel Landfalls. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Electric Literature, LitHub, One Story, and A Public Space. She lives in Sacramento, California, and teaches at the low-res MFA program at Ashland University. Learn more at naomijwilliams.com or follow her on Twitter at @NaomiWilliams.
February 2, 2021 § 11 Comments
My first freelance essays were accepted when I turned seventeen—fittingly, for the magazine of that name. The first, about my sister’s suicide attempt and my own self-blame for not having seen it coming, was contracted but didn’t run. I learned what a “kill fee” meant, and that knowledge, plus a check, was reward enough, especially since I’d written that essay for one reason only: to get the secret off my chest.
And maybe it was better that piece got killed. I’d given no thought to hiding a national publication from my mother and sisters, who weren’t aware that I was scribbling about family skeletons and sending those unsolicited pieces over the transom, learning the rules of the game from a library copy of Writer’s Market.
Seventeen did run my second essay. I still remember the agonizing wait for the issue (readership: three million) to appear. “Tear sheets” were mailed to me, but I wanted to see the real thing at my local Jewel Foods. I can still feel the tickle of sweat as I flipped past Cover Girl and Anais Anais ads searching for my name. Not bad for a kid who’d received D’s and F’s from my high school teachers.
There was only one problem with my debut article. I hadn’t written most of it.
My essay was about my experience as a punk guitarist treated dismissively by a stage manager in a small Wisconsin town. My bandmates and I were in the green room, about to go on. The manager asked me to leave, assuming I was a groupie. I bristled and strutted onstage anyway. That was my embarrassingly small story. Summed up in one sentence: Yes, girls do play guitar.
The core anecdote had made the cut, but everything else on those slick pages was false. My memory is hazy about the editing process that had occurred months earlier. Maybe I saw pre-pub drafts, but the final published piece still confused me.
In this new essay, my garage band, lamentably called Scamshatter, now had an even worse name: “Steve and the Seymours.” Stranger yet was an invented argument with a boyfriend, Gary, and his subsequent trip to the 7-11 for a frozen burrito, during which I picked up his Fender bass the first time. By the time Gary got back, he was disturbed to find I was already playing better than he could.
None of it was even vaguely inspired by my original submission. Not the 7-11, not the burrito, not the bass, not the boyfriend, not the envy, and certainly not my inexplicable, spontaneous talent.
I’m not expecting you to care about the specifics (Steve and the Seymours?); only to inhabit a young writer’s confusion that our experiences, even those we struggle to shape and make permanent with our own inexpert hands, can be so easily erased.
I still cashed the check—a year’s babysitting wages. I still held onto that issue as a prized possession. I even named my next dog after the editor. And for more than a decade, long after I quit the guitar, I kept writing and publishing essays. In 2002, I turned to writing novels. And here I am, nearing fifty, coming full circle in three peculiar ways:
I just bought a cheap guitar, intent on trying again. Can I now admit I never knew more than three chords? (I just did.)
My new novel, Annie and The Wolves, launches today. In it, a narrator’s inability to deal squarely with her sister’s suicide as well as the reason behind it—trauma, created by rape—plays a central role. (There’s that first killed essay.)
And I’m venturing back into creative nonfiction, writing essays that expose family secrets. Even though I’ve now written a novel fixated with memory and complicity, I still think there’s a place to drop fiction’s veil, if only for a thousand words, to say, “This is based on something real. This happened to my family.”
I want to invite readers to recognize their own stories in mine. But I’m also making up for that teenager’s experiences, wanting to prove it’s possible to write about suicide and incest (and guitars) without anyone killing those essays or rendering them absurdly unrecognizable.
My first publications launched me as a freelance writer. But they also taught me some lessons I’m still trying to shake off. I discovered that editors often shun disturbing, unresolved stories. My suicide essay had some logic gaps, because I was shying away from facts even darker (incest) than what was already on the page. A mature editor could have helped.
The second unfortunate “lesson” was that my unvarnished truth wasn’t compelling enough. Bad enough I received that impression in 1989. Worse still, I recently took a popular week-long memoir workshop with essentially the same message—a rejection of truth in favor of simple chronology and a more commercial story arc. That sort of simplified thinking, uncommon yet still worrisome, gives memoir a bad name.
I’m preaching to the choir here, but I think I need to. I need to talk to my people first, and hear them talk—even sing—back to me, so that I can regain membership in a world in which the truth is complicated, where Steve and the Seymours and inventive editors don’t need to save us.
I want to try again, outside the bounds of fiction, to tell my stories authentically. I want to let readers know what really happened.
I’m starting now.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of five novels published in eleven languages, including her most recent work, Annie and the Wolves (Soho Press, Feb 2021), a novel about a modern historian obsessed with Annie Oakley and a desire to change the past.
January 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
Our new issue launches this morning, with wishes for a safer, healthier world and brilliant essays from Jesse Lee Kercheval, Elena Passarello, Hiram Perez, Michael McAllister, Dorian Fox, Tyler Orion, Noah Davis, Ira Sukrungruang, Sonja Livingston, Anne Panning, Kate Hopper, Lizz Huerta, Melissa Stephenson, Francis Walsh, and Laurie Klein. Also, an array of wonderful photos from Kim Adrian.
In our Craft section, Nancy Reddy explores the “community we” and David Perez uses his acting background to show how reading our work aloud can make the written word come alive.
And we have a request as well: Brevity comes to you with no subscription fees, but we do have expenses. We have no institutional funding, and our volunteer staff is unpaid, but we pay for our website, domain name, backup software, website security software, and various other operating expenses. And we are very proud to say that we pay our authors.
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October 19, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Trish Cantillon
‘Writing the Personal Essay’ was the first formal writing class I’d taken since college. It was also the first nonfiction writing I’d done outside my diary. At the end of the first session, in an effort to provide inspiration for future essays, the instructor gave us ten minutes to write about anything we wanted. No prompt, just a free-write to see what developed.
Without much thought, I jotted down broad strokes of a personal story. It wasn’t anything that had been burning inside me to tell, it just appeared, and I let it out. When the timer went off, he asked who wanted to share. Many hands shot up, including mine. I had shared my fiction writing in workshops over the years and I liked reading my work aloud. I was excited to introduce myself in this way to my fellow writers. The instructor signaled for me to begin. “I was twelve when I had electrodes strapped to my arm to administer shock as part of the Schick weight loss program my parents signed me up for.”
I could see the words I was reading on the paper I’d torn from my notebook. I could hear myself reading them. But all I could feel was the swell of heat moving up my body and the shaking that had taken hold of my hands. This wasn’t some dark, closely held secret I’d finally set free. This story was just another part of a long, complicated diet resume that stretched from childhood to young adulthood. It bore no more significance to me than The Beverly Hills Diet or The Scarsdale Diet, so my physical reaction to recounting it puzzled me.
When I finished reading, a flutter of “Whoa’s” and “Oh my God’s” rose from the class. These reactions surprised me. I thought I was telling a story about what it was like to be a fat twelve-year-old in ten minutes or less, completely comfortable with my identity in that story as the one with the problem. What I revealed was a pitiful episode foisted upon a young girl by her well-meaning parents and her willingness to accept it as a normal response to her being overweight. I had been eager to share what I’d written; to share what I felt were my talents as a writer but wound up exposing the pain beneath a seemingly benign personal anecdote.
A mixture of pride and embarrassment flushed my cheeks. My fellow writers didn’t know how that moment felt for me; a strange mix of pride and sadness. I was glad that I had impressed them and my instructor with my work, but I felt a bitter sting with their sincere pity. I smiled as we shuffled out of the classroom, quickly averting their eyes so as not to invite conversation. I didn’t know what I should say.
For my entire life, including and up until that point, I carried the mantle of the fat girl. It was the part of my personal story I most identified with. It was my problem that I struggled with. That, at times, I triumphed over and, at others, was beaten down by, but all the while it was the thing that defined me. It was who I was even as I grew into a young adult and finally did find freedom from its grip. But in ten minutes that had all been upended. I experienced my story through others’ eyes and instead of it being shameful or sorrowful, I saw that I was no longer the villain. My compulsive overeating, my ill-fitting clothes, the rolls on my stomach were no longer the bad guys. But if that was really true then who was I? Who could I be?
The woman who had sat next to me in class followed me out, she was dressed in a stylish pant suit and high heels. “You’re so brave to tell that story. Ugh. Why are parents so stupid sometimes?” she said as she shook her head and passed me on her way to the elevator. I smiled back and shrugged, resisting the urge to elaborate and tell her that my parents were just trying to help. That I was desperate and so were they. That they meant well. All of that was true, of course, but I knew that it wasn’t the point anymore.
I had never thought of myself as brave or my writing as brave. For most of my life writing was just a thing I knew I liked to do. Aside from assignments in school, it was something I kept to myself; secrets stowed away in my diaries, short stories written in the late nights of summer vacation, or an occasional workshop. Until ‘Writing the Personal Essay’ I had never really considered how my writing made other people feel; or how their feelings could influence mine.
As I walked back to my car, I realized that I wasn’t just telling a story about myself. I had invited people in, and in they came with their thoughts and opinions about me and diets and parenting. It was uncomfortable and awkward to have unwittingly exposed myself that way. I didn’t like thinking about my classmates pitying me. But then my feelings of vulnerability gave way to excitement. I felt surprisingly empowered. There’s a new me that I suddenly discovered because someone else saw it. And it was time to tell her story.
Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Manifest Station, The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review. She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults.
October 5, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Natalie Johansen
I know I am not alone in noticing recent trends toward divisiveness as we move further from the ideals of civil discourse. It’s disheartening how often conversations with my family and friends, no matter how innocently begun, end in tension. When I picked up Patrick Madden’s recent essay collection, Disparates, however, I found an immense reprieve from rigidity. Madden’s essays offer relief—they offer laughter, provoke pondering, and delight in playfulness. In his collection, Madden posits questions and complications but doesn’t feel obligated to provide all the answers. He holds with Montaigne’s philosophy: “I do not understand; I pause; I examine.” These essays tend toward reflection and sly away from polarization, which is, in part, what makes the collection so refreshing.
Madden’s collection begins with a preface that offers two dictionary entries for “disparate.” In one sense, “disparate” refers to things that are incongruous or miscellaneous—pieces that don’t neatly fit together. Madden applies this definition to essay collections generally, writing that collections are usually disparate pieces held together by theme or style; by titling his own word Disparates, however, Madden tells the reader not to expect a common thread running throughout his collection: “…what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” Even though I read the collection in order (it’s the predictable rule follower in me), I imagine that the essays within could be read in any order without losing anything essential. In that sense, it’s kind of like a musical album; of course, I imagine artists spend time agonizing over the sequence of songs on a record, but how often does the reader obey that order? The title of Madden’s table of contents (correction: one of his tables of contents) supports this idea: “CONTENTS (MAY HAVE SHIFTED).”
The range of ideas explored in this collection support that sense of disparity. Madden cartwheels from meditating on inertia to mixing proverbs to creating a period-accurate Montaigne costume (the last one might be useful for students who ever wonder what professors do in their free time). As is true of his first two essay collections, readers are as likely to encounter quotations from classical essayists as they are to encounter lyrics from classic rock.
Despite the fact that his love of the classical essay is ever apparent, several works in the collection borrow forms that would be foreign to Madden’s literary forebearers. The first essay in the collection, “Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” is an eBay listing for a partially consumed Dasani water bottle from a Michael Martone reading. Madden describes Martone’s habit of finishing leftover water from the readings that he hosts, so the lucky buyer would have the opportunity to imbibe the literary backwash from a herd of talented authors. Elsewhere in the collection, he creates an essay by feeding his first two collections into computer software that generates a predictive keyboard based on his previous work. One of my favorite form essays in the collection is “Repast,” a word search essay that doubles as a touching tribute to his mother. These form essays create playful tone that runs throughout the collection.
On that note, I return to the definitions of “disparate” Madden offers to preface his collection. For the second sense of the word, he draws on the Spanish language: “1. noun Absurdity, inanity, frivolity; nonsense, claptrap, rubbish; balderdash, malarkey, drivel.” What follows this definition is a meditation on the idea of disparate as folly; he points out that although this sense of the word is often derogative, his purpose is to reclaim the beauty of nonsense and frivolity as Madden “reassert[s] the value of the disparate, which controverts reason, which shakes our certainties, which lightens our burdens, which alleviates our sorrows and brings us to laughter…”
In this collection, some essays take on the task of frivolity in obvious ways, while others carry more emotional weight; all are allergic to conflict and polarity. Disparates delights in the world and celebrates the essay. It was a joy to read.
Natalie Johansen teaches writing at Southern Utah University. Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Eunoia Review, Segullah, and more.
April 21, 2020 § 20 Comments
I started with a name given to me by poet Marilyn Kallet. Jean Hirsch was a nine-year-old resistance courier during the Second World War, a time that interested me. The boy lived in Auvillar, France, a village where I’d been awarded a writing residency. My maiden name is Hirsch, and with those matching names, I felt an instantaneous connection to this child’s history. During my residency, I would research and write essays about him and his family. As I dug deeper, I began to uncover Auvillar’s secret history of both resistance and collaboration.
The web of the boy’s story spread to Paris, Toulouse, Montauban, and Beaulieu sur Dordogne. For six years, I returned to France every fall. I followed leads. I interviewed a ninety-two-year-old woman who had been a caretaker in a secret house that protected Jewish refugee children. I read widely. I wrote about myself, a woman in my seventies, traveling solo, searching, and researching. I wove my story into these French stories, and I published my essays in ASCENT, Ploughshares, Solstice, Fourth Genre, and others.
Why not gather them into a collection?
But how? I signed up for a seminar, “Finding Your Book.” The instructor was a literary agent. What could be better? She suggested I begin each essay or chapter with an italicized paragraph that would stitch the collection together. “Of course, you’ll need to transform some of these essays,” she said.
A good student, I followed her advice. If my collection had been a dress, it would have been sewn by a five-year-old, large stitches, small stitches, sleeves long and short, hem uneven. But in the process, I had unspooled more of my own story—narrative glue.
Virginia Woolf wrote about rods. She described those rods as an underlying pattern. I thought of a shadow story under each of my French stories. Where was Woolf’s text, A Room of One’s Own, A Writer’s Diary? I lifted each down from my book shelf and scanned for markings. Now, Moments of Being. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf writes: “… one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool.”
Woolf’s “cotton wool” is daily life, the living we don’t remember, taking out the trash, cooking dinner, washing clothes. A pattern is drawn under that cotton wool. I felt that pattern in my manuscript and in myself. I was a persona, writing from a certain time and place. I was also a person who had been shaped by memory and thought, salient images and knowledge. All of my writing, each word in that manuscript, had formed in relation to an invisible pattern. A trip to an open market brought back images of my childhood, when I shopped with Mama, my grandmother, an immigrant from a place she called Russ-Poland. We all lived together, my mother, my father and me, in Mama’s and Papa’s yellow stucco house in Morristown, New Jersey. Mama and I would pull my red wagon up Early Street and into town where we’d shop at the vegetable store, the chicken store, and the bakery. Every step, every breath in France became research. At home in Maine, I wrote and I rewrote. I pulled my own story from background to foreground. I filled in gaps. I tore the manuscript apart and rearranged chapters and scenes. I followed my intuition: This feels right. Not this, at least, not here.
I dove deeper. I turned to Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story. I wrote a quote on a sticky note and attached it to the edge of my desk: “It’s the depth of inquiry that guides the personal narrative from essay into memoir.” I thought of Adrienne Rich, and I reread “Diving into the Wreck.” A different subject but a similar emotional truth. I was going down, “Rung after rung and still/ the oxygen immerses me/ the blue light/ the clear atoms/ of human air.” Like the protagonist in the poem, I was searching for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.”
At my computer, I remembered an evening in Paris. I had made my way to a tiny bistro in the Marais. Inside, wooden tables sat on trestles, reminding me of my grandmother’s old treadle Singer sewing machine. As I struggled to find space for my knees under the table, an image rose, my grandmother’s black lace up shoe, her foot pressing down on the treadle. Again, the past swam under the clear surface of the present. My grandmother spoke with a Yiddish accent. My father taught me to be ashamed of that accent. He denied my Eastern-European roots. “We’re German-Jewish,” he said.
Remembering that evening I swam deeper into questions and doubts about my own story of growing up Jewish in America and deeper into the stories of Jews in Vichy France who believed they were French, only to find themselves herded into boxcars heading east to the camps. Often, I’d chosen to hide my Jewish identity and pass. Yet, had I been a toddler living in Paris during Nazi Occupation, most likely, I would not have survived.
My book of essays became a double journey: an exploration of my Jewish identity and an historical and imaginative rendering of the stories of my travels and research. I needed an ending. I found it in the middle of my manuscript, a transformative moment. I moved it to the end. Voilá, a finished memoir. Nearly nine years will have passed from first essay to publication.
Transformation takes time.
Sandell Morse’s nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays series and published in ASCENT, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Solstice, among others. Her memoir, The Spiral Shell, A French Village Reveals it Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II is now out from Schaffner Press. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @sandellmorse.
March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Maybe you’ve been able to get some writing done this past week, even focus. If so, I applaud you. I certainly haven’t. The situation, as we all know, changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute. What seemed unthinkable yesterday is the new normal; what seemed unthinkable last week—well, last week was a different era entirely.
I teach at Bowdoin College, which was and is on spring break, and which, when classes do resume next week, will switch to online-only for the remainder of the school year. With only a few necessary exceptions for those who don’t have anywhere else to go or have visa issues, students will not be returning to campus. I feel for them, especially the seniors whose college lives have evaporated with no chance at in-person goodbyes, and those whose home lives are unwelcoming or abusive. And I feel for them even more as they, and all of us, are subsumed into this whirl of uncertainty.
As an epidemiologist friend of mine put it, if the situation feels unprecedented in our lifetimes, it’s because it’s unprecedented in our lifetimes.
There is, in other words, plenty for us to think about. And so I will admit: I haven’t been thinking about writing.
When I emailed my students to check in, asking how they were and what I could do, I assumed they hadn’t been, either. But the responses came back: they’d like a writing prompt, please. A prompt like the kind I usually start each class with, a place for us to practice the making of art together, practice putting whatever is in our hearts and our minds and our memories to the page. And right now, a place for us to put all this uncertainty.
So for them, and for me, and all of us right now who could use a short assignment, a brief encouragement to acknowledge and feel this moment and turn it into art, here’s a writing exercise we can do together.
You’ve seen the handwashing diagrams, the ones intended to give us something—anything—else to sing beyond yet another rendition of Happy Birthday, many of them made through Wash Your Lyrics, a website created by 17-year-old William Gibson, using a poster from Britain’s National Health Service. Here’s one for Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” which I fully remember dancing to when I was my students’ age and 9/11 was still two years away, and we hadn’t yet had our worlds as disrupted as these kids just have:
Good, right? Makes you smile, keeps time while you keep safe. Gives you, in other words, a short assignment to keep your anxiety at bay.
Now try this:
I wish I knew whom to credit for turning Lucile Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” into a handwashing diagram—it was making the rounds on Twitter—but when I saw it, something unlocked. It made me wonder: what if we treated the handwashing diagram as inspiration for a hermit crab essay?
In Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant, they define a hermit crab essay as one in which the essayist borrows the form—the hard, hermit crab shell—from elsewhere in the world, and treats it as the container to shelter some deeply personal thing to be explored. “It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace,” they write. “[M]aterial that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.”
Soft, exposed, and tender—sound like anyone you know right now?
So for a prompt, try writing into the handwashing diagram, seeing what text you can pair with each step. (The Wash Your Lyrics website has a place for you to enter your own text.) What memories come up for you, as you write? What do the instructions suggest to your subconscious? And how can their orderly progression of steps shelter the disorderly progression of your thoughts in this time?
And—important, too—is there anywhere you want your essay to become less orderly? For the words to overspill the diagram? If that starts to happen, let it. Write into that uncertainty, and explore. What tension have you uncovered? What is at stake in your refusal, now, to be contained by the form? (For inspiration, here, try checking out Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing,” in which the narrator’s life and anxieties gradually overspill the hermit crab form of a syllabus.)
Then take it further, beyond handwashing. Are there other found or hermit crab forms you can see in the world around you, in its response to the virus? Other forms you might use as inspiration for an essay? Perhaps one of those ubiquitous sales emails from a company talking about its virus response; or a text chain as you try to convince your loved ones to stay inside; or even instructions for a Zoom cocktail hour?
Have fun with it. Explore. A different form—a different short assignment—for each day.
I hope it becomes something that shelters you, as art must for all of us.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College and the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir. Their most recent piece was “Body Language” in the December 2019 Harper’s.
Author Photo by Greta Rybus