April 24, 2018 § 20 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.
August 26, 2016 § 7 Comments
By Ryder Ziebarth
Just this past week, I took a busman’s holiday: four days at the Iota Conference of Short Prose in Campobello, New Brunswick, the former Roosevelt family compound on an island in Canada. The Inn is accessed by passport and a small bridge from the town of Lubec, Maine, the Easternmost point of the United States—a treat to myself, and a break after a receiving my MFA this June and starting right in on a memoir.
I am from New Jersey and it was quite a trek. Two planes from Newark (some lost luggage,) then a two-and-a-half-hour car ride north from Bangor, Maine. Once there, I entered a world so visually breathtaking (blueberry barrens, blue skies, coastal views) and stepped into a place and time so luxuriously unspoiled, my writer-self began scribbling long before my hands were off the steering wheel of my rented Jetta.
Penny Guisinger created Iota as her semester thesis project while a student at the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine in 2013. The conference, now in its fourth year, was fully attended with several repeat customers. Writers from states far afield including Maryland, Ohio, New York, Texas, Maine and Canada came for daily workshops led by guest writers Dinty W. Moore (Brevity founder and editor) and poet and memoirist Mark Doty. From Wednesday through Friday morning, we talked about all kinds of short forms–from micro-flash and flash, to short essays, memoir and prose poems. We read, swam, wrote, walked, napped, listened to song lyrics and music, discussed process and projects, and even celebrated a participant’s news of winning a Writer’s Digest prize. All this on a wraparound porch with views of a blueberry speckled lawn sweeping right into the Bay of Fundy.
We slept in cottages with our windows wide open to the sounds of loons, fox, and wind through tall pines. We ate, and then ate some more of the best homemade food we have ever eaten, including a lobster dinner with strawberry shortcake for dessert. We were also served heaping portions of readings from new and recent works from Mark and Dinty, Penny (from her book, Postcards from Here), plus author/feminist Arielle Greenberg. Just when we thought we were stuffed to the gills with food both for the stomach and soul, there was a late night feast of truly amazing readings from nearly all of the conference participants.
Did I get ANY writing accomplished? Absolutely, but even more than that I had fun. My goal in taking a four-day short prose workshop was to remind myself to stop digressing in the narrative of my work, to tighten up my sentences and therefore, the content of the memoir. But I came away with so much more than just the lecture notes and workshop exercises I had bargained for: Dinty’s “Invisible Magnetic River” and Mark Doty’s poetic and useful advice toward writing short, concise prose: “Give enough complexity to honor the subject, but be brief enough to honor the reader.” A quote that will grace my work space on an index card.
I also came away satiated with new writerly friendships, connections in a world that can be at once as lonely and solitary as it is intrusive. I relished the company of a lovely woman who kept me company on the long car ride to and from Bangor who was struggling on a memoir of her own, and the kind young writer who encouraged me to let go of my resistance to read my work in the evening group, and another who shared her story with me of her choice to write prose poetry rather than the essays she had churned out for years. Some had published one or two books, some had shiny new book deals, many were teachers, some had published in literary journals, some were still struggling to find their niche; but all of us had two things in common, a love of reading and writing. It was the perfect vacation, busman or not.
Ryder Ziebarth completed her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently working on her first memoir, Cedar Ridge Farm: The Life, The Death and the Restoration. Ryder is an Associate Editor for Tiferet Literary Journal and a literary advisor for the Nantucket Book Festival. Her daughter is the fifth generation to have lived on the family homestead in New Jersey with her mom, dad, and three West highland terriers.
October 22, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Brendan O’Meara
Thirty years ago, Metallica’s self-titled record Metallica, better known as ‘The Black Album,’ was released. It was Metallica’s fifth studio album and was a watershed moment for the band in terms of sound and, more important, brevity.
Metallica had made a name for itself with epic seven-, eight-, nine-minute-long songs, but it was ‘The Black Album’ where the four key players wanted to challenge themselves not by making increasingly epic songs with more intricate time signatures, but something more welterweight.
They wanted to reach more people, and in order to do so, they needed to cut the fat.
What can we, as writers, learn from this pivot?
Lars Ulrich, the band’s de facto spokesperson and drummer, said on the first episode of The Metallica Podcast, “Is it easier to write a short song or a long song? I would say it’s easier to write a long song. The hardest thing to do is edit yourself.”
It’s incumbent upon the writer to pen the shortest possible work, no matter the length. The editing down comes with constant rigor and self-questioning, self-reflection: Do I need this? Do I really need this? Aw, dammit, no!
We can’t fall in love with a great sentence or paragraph or guitar solo or lyric if it’s not in service of the piece. The floors of great artists are littered with masterpieces.
And even if you love a great turn of phrase, or an overly verbose exhibition of your lyrical pyrotechnics, you might be getting in the way of the message. Where are my footnote writers out there? You know who you are.
James Hetfield, lead singer and lyricist said on Episode 2 of The Metallica Podcast, “Drawing the listener in by not overplaying. Their ears get bigger to hear what you’re doing and it draws them in. Through subtlety, you can make more dynamics … Simplify stuff. Don’t be so fancy.”
This takes an incredible amount of restraint because if you can shred, why wouldn’t you shred? It means checking the ego and asking yourself, again, how does this serve the song, the essay, the book? Are you trying to be too funny? Are you undercutting your narrative with a gag, too much telling, a flourish better left on the bench? Ulrich said much of their earlier music, certainly on the album that preceded ‘The Black Album,’ was “self indulgent.” To get past this, strip it down and ask more and more of the words left behind to carry the day.
By keeping things as lean as possible, there’s nowhere for the message or the story to hide. If we surrender to the story, anything unnecessary melts off the skeleton and, as Hetfield says, the ear gets bigger, drawing them in.
And this isn’t to say iron out every wrinkle, every ounce of weirdness that you bring to the page. Part of what makes a piece snap, crackle, and pop is the you-ness you bring to a subject. That can be a unique take, your language, and even your ability to appear in the piece as a guide.
Hetfield managed to cut open his veins more from ‘The Black Album,’ and what he found was a greater connection to the audience. Again, it wasn’t self-indulgent, but in relaying a delicately worded personal trauma, it let the audience feel seen.
Matt Wardlaw of Ultimate Classic Rock writes, “The situations were getting vaguer and connecting with broader audiences. ‘I’ started showing up in Metallica’s lyrics more and staying. Hetfield’s characters weren’t getting strapped to an electric chair or chopping their breakfast on a mirror anymore, but the anger, aggression and fear were stronger than ever in the whipping boys and scapegoats that reached millions.”
For the memoir or personal essay writer, it’s not enough to have had this weird/quirky/traumatic experience. It has to serve the reader in some way. This way the reader can overlay her own experience on yours. You dissolve away, you become a vessel for the reader’s experience. You, in effect, become invisible, but all present.
In physics, we talk about density. A cube of lead the size of dice is heavier than an equal mass of aluminum that’s several times “bigger.” That’s packing a punch in a small package, and that’s the great lesson in Metallica’s ‘Black Album,’ that it sacrificed zero power in going shorter, finding freedom in tighter confines.
Brendan O’Meara hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast and is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter @CNFPod. Better yet, sign up for his newsletter at brendanomeara.com.
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 23, 2020 § 36 Comments
I went and hugged my husband hard this morning. Long. We’ve been isolated, home, for 35 days.
He hugged back, hard.
“What was that about?” he asked.
I’m sixty-five. He’s sixty-nine.
“The world is acting like it’s going to lose us,” I said.
His smile was wry. As was mine.
“Well, they’re losing us anyway,” he said.
“That’s true,” I laughed.
“Just not en masse, like this.”
The warnings to people over sixty have been repetitive and stern, especially early on. Now we see this affects us all. We will lose the young, too. Just not as many.
We decided to stay home before they told us to. We went to Costco and stocked up on canned goods, but left toilet paper for others. We’ve had groceries delivered and tipped two, three times as much. We are so fortunate we CAN stay home.
Bob Dylan just released a new song. Seventeen minutes long. “Murder Most Foul” centers around the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. I was nine years old. The lyrics are chilling:
…Hush, little children, you’ll understand
The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll…
Exit song, I think, on the first listen. That’s our exit song. The baby boomers, born between 1944 and 1964. The final scene.
Am I being morbid? I can’t believe the timing, Bob.
Those over sixty are being marginalized, written off, along with those with pre-existing conditions.
Sixty-five, it feels surreal to be in this group. “Who, me?”
I am a writer. On fire. Ageism is real. It often goes over my head because I don’t think of myself as outdated, over-the-hill, irrelevant, invisible. But that is often the attitude of those younger.
Other writers, much younger writers, are often surprised to discover my age. A few years into creating a presence as a writer on social media, I attended a reading hosted by someone I initially met on Facebook. As someone who is photogenic and has a fairly youthful appearance, my age evidently wasn’t apparent online, because the hostess, upon meeting me, said, “Oh my god! I had no idea you were this old! I thought you were, like, my age!”
I had published a story that many of those attending had read and loved. Along with compliments, I repeatedly also heard, “Oh, wow! From your story, I just assumed you were a lot younger.” Clearly, my story was relatable to people of all ages. But when they met me, I didn’t fit their construct of a person capable of writing it. For the younger women who had loved my story, for the hostess eager to meet me, my actual physical presence seemingly broke some taboo, unspoken; my age defied the construct that says “Beyond a certain age, you must comport yourself differently; less visibly, less enthusiastically. Dampen your fire, recede into the background and stay out of what is deemed “youth culture,” culture occupied by youth, and constructed by youth. KEEP OUT.
If they had met me in person and I told the same story, they would have written it, me, off. I wonder what’s so terrifying about my aging face, this well-worn body?
Over sixty, they say. Most at risk.
“Wear masks for essential trips,” the governor of Colorado told the state recently. “Except those over sixty,” he added. “If you’re over sixty, don’t go out even with a mask. Stay home.”
In a movie from my youth, Wild in The Streets, everyone over thirty was rounded up and taken to camps. The youth were going to create a better world and anyone over thirty was in the way. That’s often how I’ve felt as an older, unestablished writer. My route to writing, a lifelong passion, was a circuitous one. I was a teen mom, then a solo working parent of two, and it took decades to get beyond poverty, the struggle to survive, and to find my way to writing.
On March 23, POTUS threatened to reopen the country, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” he said. He acknowledged a tradeoff: lives lost to save the economy.
No, I won’t die for capitalism, for Trump, for Wall Street.
I would for my girls, for my grandbabies.
But for consumerism? For the lie that there is not enough?
Not a chance.
Ageism is real. But since this pandemic? In addition to the snark on social media (some youth calling the virus a “boomer remover”) I have seen a sudden, and often tender, respect, concern, and care for elders. Who, me?
Healthy, active, passionately alive. And yes, over sixty.
Like my husband said, “You will lose us anyway.” We are in the third act. Age is a construct and so is time. But death is not.
Nothing like this has ever happened, kids. Not in my lifetime, and not in my grandparents because no pandemic has happened during a time of air travel and global reach. All of it working together to pull back the veil on us.
Satellite photographs of China show the view before the pandemic and after. Before shows horrendous pollution, brown and dirty, ominous. After shows clear skies and the topography untouched. Like a world without us.
If we didn’t know we are one before this, we will after. It’s time to, as the Beatles sang when I was fifteen,
Come together right now over me.
Kelly Thompson has been published in Guernica, VIDA Review, Yoga Journal, Entropy, Oh Comely, Proximity, The Temper, and other literary journals. She is a contributor for the Rumpus and editor and curator for Voices on Addiction. She lives in the sunlight of the spirit in Denver, Colorado. Find her on Instagram @kellyblog or Twitter @stareenite.
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
March 11, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
When I was a rookie pastor serving two rural New Jersey congregations, I felt guilty for not following the sermon preparation guidelines instilled in us at seminary.
- Monday: read scriptures, reflect, and pray
- Tuesday: read scripture commentaries, reflect, and pray
- Wednesday: gather sermon illustrations from books, movies, current events
- Thursday: write first draft
- Friday: finalize draft
- Sunday: preach
Parish life and pastoral obligations gobbled up my calendar. There were pre-marital counseling sessions and wedding rehearsals; hospital, hospice, and nursing home visits; committee meetings; funerals; small-group Bible studies; stewardship and long-range planning; volunteer recruitment; church dinners; creating Sunday’s worship service; administrative reports; special events related to the church seasons; and an ongoing, rigorous examination process leading up to my ordination as elder.
I composed sermon sound bites while walking the dog, driving to a clergy meeting, or taking a shower. I scribbled spontaneous insights on whatever was at hand: junk mail, my Day-Timer, recycled bulletins. My husband and I often left Saturday evening social events early, because “I have to preach tomorrow.” Nothing weighs on a pastor’s thoughts and shoulders more than Sunday’s sermon.
Over time, I fell into a habit of waking at 4:00 Sunday morning, sitting at the computer with a cup of coffee, and praying, “God, you know what the congregation needs to hear today. I need your help.” And something close to magic happened, only it wasn’t magic. I heard an opening sentence, spoken in my own voice. Once I typed that sentence, thoughts and words flowed. Prayer had created an opening through which God could be at work.
As questions arose, I’d pause to google a phrase, reach for a book on my shelf, or recall the lyrics of a song. It was all in service of the scripture set forth for that particular Sunday by the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary. By following the lectionary’s prescribed Old Testament, Psalms, and New Testament passages, a congregation hears nearly the entire Bible over a three-year cycle.
When it was time to leave home for the 9:30 service, I had a sermon manuscript in hand. Though I did, on occasion, leave it by accident in the printer tray. Since it was fresh, I was able to preach from memory.
One of my favorite theologians, John Polkinghorne, a former professor of theoretical mathematics at Cambridge and Anglican priest, writes, “Regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven’t seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos [my italics]….If you’re too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really ever happens. You just get rearrangements. If you’re too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It’s in these ambiguous areas where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is.”
Under the pressure of time, I was bringing ordered theological reflection, faith, and scripture to bear on the chaos of current world circumstances: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic/social/political injustices, and hatred directed at “the other.” Something new emerged: a call to action, renewed hope, or a way to forgiveness; rekindled love of neighbor, determination to do better, the possibility of starting over. Those Sunday sermons were, to me, proof of God’s presence in my life and in the life of the world.
Twentieth century scientists have vacated the notion of the universe as a clockwork machine. They now speak of the universe’s structured randomness, its intrinsic unpredictability. There is room not only for God, but for each of us as well, to participate in its ongoing creation. Your words, and mine, count.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a retired United Methodist elder, who lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three dogs. She works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term treatment center for alcohol and substance abuse.
August 29, 2019 § 27 Comments
One of my favorite Leonard Bernstein songs (lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green) is a cheerful, upbeat ditty about the wreckage of broken dreams in New York. In verse after verse, a bright young thing comes to the big city from the cornfields, experiences a measure of success, then works a drudge job while never creating again. The actress flipping flapjacks, the opera singer tossing trout at the fish market, the writer who hasn’t written a word. All their dreams in pieces at their feet.
But here’s the thing about pieces: you need them to build other things. I led a writing retreat this week for three memoirists, and we got talking one night about the ways we’ve been burned, by relationships, by family, by unscrupulous writing “coaches.” I mentioned a thing I say a lot, that I’ve written about in my newsletter, a phrase that gives me comfort every time: If you like where you are, you gotta be OK with what got you there. I said that if a fairy godmother came down and said I could go back in time and have a great high school experience instead of a horrifying one, I’d say no.
I’ve gotten too much good writing from bad things.
Before the retreat, we were all at a writing conference, the wonderful Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. During the conference, I was approached a couple of times by writers with a deep, dark confession. They’d been “Anna March victims.” March—not her real name, as we all eventually found out in this wonderful LA Times article detailing the scam—recruited writers to pay her large sums of money up front, then didn’t deliver the promised editing, coaching or, as she put it, “book midwifery.” The scam kept going because the victims were ashamed to say they’d been taken advantage of, or worried that March’s literary might (as it was perceived during her grifting period) would crush them.
I feel for these writers. It’s a shitty situation to be in, to discover that your instincts were wrong, or that you’d overridden some perfectly good instincts to hand a couple thousand dollars to a con artist. I feel for their wasted money, their wasted time, their wounds from asking themselves “How could I have been that dumb?” or “Was it me? Was I just not good enough?”
But you don’t have to get conned to feel wounded. Did you get your money’s worth at your last conference? Finish your book in that pricy writing workshop? See a payoff yet from all that time on social media?
The problem with this line of thinking is seeing writing as a race with a finish line, or a game with a prize, instead of a process. There is no “done.” There is no amount of money and time you can invest that guarantees a payoff. Many MFA grads never publish. Many great books get remaindered. Great writers, including my teachers and mentors, finish books, then putter around the garden and the internet wondering, will I ever write again? Great human beings get conned, dumped, wounded physically and spiritually.
It’s not you.
And it’s not a waste.
That horrible realization you’ve been scammed is one day going to be either material, or a thing you survived. A thing that proves you can survive. That bad relationship is teaching you what you don’t want in the next partner, or how you can be a better partner (marriage #2, right here!). The failed book is proof you wrote a whole book—and you can do it again. The debilitating illness is a chance to pace yourself, to value small moments more than showy accomplishments that later feel hollow. All these things suck, and you are legitimately entitled to be angry, sad, and/or defiant about them. Feelings are facts, too. But these catastrophes and misspent time and futile efforts are also the pieces you have to work with. The fragments you will take up, sand off the edges, and shape into your story and your life.
You may not yet be thriving, but survival alone is proof you’re on the way there. You may not yet be publishing, but you have a lot to write about, a story to share. The gift of memoir is telling our readers they aren’t alone. You’re not the only one who feels like this. Experiencing the tragedy of waste builds empathy and allows us to embody our readers’ experiences, often in a way they cannot themselves process or put into words.
That’s our job. To study our craft and learn to use the best words we can to share the things that happened, the things our readers are suffering alone. To have the courage to step out of the shadows and say, me, too.
Bernstein made a song out of broken dreams, a good song, a song that’s lasted.
What will you do with your pieces?
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She has one spot left to finish your book in Italy in October. Get references 🙂
December 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Lizzie Klaesges
“What was I doing!?” I shrieked, shielding my face with my hands. I was flipping through old photo albums with my mom and stumbled upon a particularly embarrassing photo of my preteen self.
In the photo, I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Genuine Girl, only I put masking tape over Girl and wrote Alien in black marker. Genuine Alien. I wore this to a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser at my middle school. I was also wearing butterfly face paint.
Of course, I knew what I was doing in the picture. I didn’t have to ask. It was the time in my life when I was obsessed with aliens. Not pictured were my little alien dolls, each with full life stories of my own invention. I was a strange child.
I thought of that picture while reading Chelsea Martin’s recent collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life. The collection contains the essential stories of her childhood into young adulthood, in which she describes her younger self as a delightful concoction of strangeness. In one essay, “The Meaning of Life,” Martin reveals how she too was preoccupied by aliens. She describes her attempts to summon aliens, believing they had special knowledge far beyond human understanding. She hoped they would reward her belief in their existence and share secrets with her, most importantly the meaning of life.
The strangeness of a child normally doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but Martin finds a way to present her childhood curiosities logically and with deadpan delivery. She is honest and self-deprecating while maintaining a certain aloofness to her humor that keeps readers unflinchingly by her side. Better still, she captures not only the absurdities of the young mind but also the discomfort. A large part of growing up is the discomfort of an evolving mind, a mind which eventually recognizes former childhood notions for what they are. In the essay, “A Year Without Spoons,” Martin describes choosing to give up spoons for seemingly no reason at all, even though a part of her realizes this is an unusual choice:
I stopped using spoons one day. I was becoming weird, I knew. And it didn’t seem like the good kind of weird, like the eccentric arty weird that could be appreciated by other people. It seemed like the bad, dark kind that could unravel a person if it got out of hand.
Many of Martin’s essays unfold to reveal more tender and complex undertones. The spoons, for example, become a coping mechanism for the lack of control Martin had over her life during a time when she switched schools a lot and had no real friends. Her choice of utensil became a way to practice control and restraint and, in a way, it felt like an achievement.
Some of the many topics of Martin’s “Lowbrow Life” include her sheltered small town, troubled relationship with her stepfather, living with mild Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, meeting her biological father for the first time, attending art school, and various romantic endeavors. Martin often manages to capture the essence of her quirky former selves in just a few words. As I breezed through the pages, I was often left thinking, how did she do that?
In the essay, “Ceramic Busts,” we observe teen-Martin’s attempts at flirting with a boy named Sandy at driving school:
“My favorite Beck song is ‘Thunder Peel,’” I said. ‘The one that’s like, Now I’m rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans.
I had practiced the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I’d hoped that it would make him smile.
“Oh,” Sandy said.
After finishing driving school and leaving that town behind, having had no meaningful interactions with Sandy, Martin goes on to create many artistic renderings of him, mostly ceramic busts. She eventually submits these for her application to art school and gets accepted.
In an essay titled, “Goth Ryan,” Martin attempts to communicate through facial expression:
Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and Like at all, and Anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and But in all seriousness, I really don’t care.
Martin’s subject matter becomes more serious towards the middle of the book as she describes meeting her father for the first time at age sixteen, which she says is “an age that is known for being awkward and unbearable and confusing.” It’s already clear to readers that Martin has a difficult relationship with her stepfather, Seth, and it’s apparent early on that Martin’s relationship with her father will also be flawed to say the least. Martin strikes the perfect balance between funny and fraught while talking about her father’s relentless disapproval of her. He criticized her for everything from how much sour cream she eats with dinner to her acne.
I tried to understand what the problem was. My dad wanted to change what I did and said, and also the ways in which I did and said them, implying that possibly everything about me was, if not outright wrong, somehow off, in need of correction.
As writers, we are naturally wondering about the potential repercussions that can come from writing about people we know, especially those related to us. This, Martin addresses in her final essay, “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” in which she expresses her decision to take a break from her relationship with her dad and eventually choosing to write about him:
“You’re going to thank me one day for giving you all this material for your writing,” [My dad] said when I stopped crying.
I avoided eye contact and silently promised to never write a damned thing about him.
I love the irony here, how Martin writes about never writing about her father. She concludes the essay, and thus her collection, with: “And though I’m comforted by the fact that this past self seemed to know that it was always her story to tell or not tell, I have to admit that what she didn’t yet know is I never keep promises to myself.” I can’t help but think that this was Martin’s pre-emptive response to our pressing question: it was always her story.
Although I love Martin’s detailing of her poorer, less cultured hometown and lifestyle, this collection gives us more than simply “Essays from a Lowbrow Life,” as the subtitle suggests. These essays are also about the common rites of passage that face most of today’s young people. This book is about leaving home and coming to terms with flawed relationships. It’s about being friendless and making weird fashion choices. It’s about learning to bullshit. It’s about becoming be self-reliant and making countless mistakes along the way.
Like looking at childhood photos, this book is as uncomfortable as it is humorous. It reads like a memory we might have been a part of in another life and reminds us of our shared humanity through even the most painful times of self-discovery.
Lizzie Klaesges is a Minneapolis-based writer and marketer with recent publications in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Allegory Ridge. She definitely does not still think about aliens.
September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )
By Emily Franklin
1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).
2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.
I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.
Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.
3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.
Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.
4) What am I searching for – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?
And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?
5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.
And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.
When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?
The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.
6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.
Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.