Of Writing, Biscuits, and Gratitude

May 25, 2017 § 20 Comments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Lynn G. Carlson

The resident dog at my vet’s office is named Beulah and she is clearly senile. Her black-lab muzzle is grizzled and her eyes are opaque gray.

She stands in the center of the waiting area on unsteady legs and makes eye contact with me, then moves her eyes to a blue ceramic jar on the counter marked Biscuits. Then she looks back at me.

When I look over at the jar, and back at Beulah, it sets her tail to wagging so hard she almost falls over.

Beulah looks at the jar, then at me. Over and over. Nothing breaks the trajectory of her gaze, not even when a german shepherd happens by on his way to the examining room and jams his nose into Beulah’s butt. A tabby-cat yowl coming from a crate not five inches away from her doesn’t even seem to register.

“Can I give Beulah a biscuit?” I ask the gal at the counter. “She looks hungry.”

“Nah. She’s already had four this morning. Thing is, as soon as she eats the biscuit, she begs for another. She does that all day long.” The woman leans over the counter and smiles down at the ancient dog. “Beulah never remembers that she just ate a biscuit, and I guess she never gets full.”

Something about this chills me. Something bothers me about that idea of being in a constant state of yearning.

Maybe because I recognize it in my own life. Maybe because I see a little of myself in Beulah’s fixation on more biscuit.

Like, for instance, the way I crave the feeling you get when you send out a “My writing got accepted!” email to friends and family.

How I yearn for the next infusion from the Muse. Words, gimme, gimme more words.

How easily I forget a good writing session and pine for another.

Yeah, Beulah, I feel your pain.

I can’t help this dog with her cravings and forgetting, although I do go over and give her a good head scratch.

But—and this is the thing—unlike Beulah, I can turn from my cravings. I can stop and say thanks to the Muse for guiding me in my garden-at-night poem, for helping me find the tendril of thought that strains towards what the poem is really trying to portray.

I can remember that I had a solid journaling session this morning, complete with the arrival of a memory about my college days in Gunnison, Colorado, when I had no car and walked everywhere. And because I was on foot and not in a car I noticed how the lines of snow on the mountains inched upward in May.

I can observe, and even admire, the way snippets and memories coalesce into a personal essay that explores why I am so obsessed with my elderly mother’s eating habits.

I can even appreciate a wobbly dog who pushes me to acknowledge the nourishment that writing gives to my life and helps me, for a moment at least, to feel full.
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Lynn G. Carlson is a writer who lives on the prairie outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming with a retired firefighter, a span-triever and plenty of gophers. She has published poetry and nonfiction in various literary magazines and has an essay in NPR’s This I Believe archives. In 2016 she served as editor for Watch My Rising, an anthology of stories and poems about recovery from addiction. Lynn blogs at www.writingwyoming.com.

In Their Shoes

May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments

No seriously, get in or we’ll be late for the next scene. (Photo: Nick Brocklebank/PhotoAcacia Ltd)

In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”

That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.

Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.

I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”

That was my dad talking.

That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.

Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.

That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.

There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?

Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

Our Nights Before Christmas

December 21, 2016 § 5 Comments

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William and Emily

Essayist William Bradley updates an earlier holiday blog post, with more lasagna, continuing challenges, and enduring prayer, hope, and love:

Two years ago, in a short essay published here on the Brevity blog, I acknowledged that I wasn’t always a perfect husband but promised “my New Year’s resolution is to make you smile at least once a day.” I wonder sometimes if I was successful? Now more than ever, I worry that you married an utterly selfish man. That my love for you isn’t quite enough to make me the husband you deserve. And you do deserve an amazing and thoughtful husband, because you are so amazing and thoughtful yourself.

I will make us a lasagna again this year, though not on Christmas Eve, the way I usually do. My first chemotherapy treatment to attack the cancer that has caused all of the recent drama is on December 22, and I’m told I won’t have much of an appetite in the days that follow. So we’ll do Christmas on the 20th instead. I won’t be able to drink wine, the way I usually do, but I won’t judge you if you decide to have some. I’ll even help put you to bed, if you get a little drunk. Because you deserve a relaxing evening just as you deserve a husband who is better than I sometimes am.

A month and a half ago, as we sat on the front porch and discussed our days at work, I had a seizure that I don’t really remember, but that terrified you as I began speaking gibberish and started referring to myself in the third person. You called the ambulance and followed me to the local hospital, then followed me to the bigger hospital in the city 45 minutes away when they realized my problems were more serious than they could treat here in town. You spent the night before my brain surgery in the hospital room so that I could see you before they wheeled me to the operating room the next morning.

In the days that followed, you corrected my vocabulary, reminded me of my friends’ names, and washed my hair for me. And in the weeks since, you have reminded me of what doctors have told me, insisted that I needed to be optimistic even at times that I have somehow convinced myself—erroneously—that I will die soon. You know so much more than me about what has happened and is happening, which empowers you to soothe my damaged, frantic mind when it gets out of control.

All this during the last weeks of the literature classes you teach, as you covered the last act of King Lear, even. “Pray you, undo my confusion,” I might as well be asking of you. I’m not the intellectual and thoughtful man you married. Not right now. But even though that must be frustrating—how could it not be frustrating?—you never criticize me or express exasperation. You just take my hand, or rub my arm and say, “Remember, Dr. Alkalili said the plan is to have all of the growths in complete remission within 18 weeks.” Never uttering to yourself, “Break, heart; I prithee, break,” though you have every right to do so.

My brain slowly heals. If things go according to plan—the way I pray every night, after you go to sleep, that they will—the tiny glowing growths in my chest will be destroyed soon as well. I very much want this to happen, not just because I fear death—sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, to be honest—but because I want to spend more years with you. I want to recommit myself to my promise to make you smile at least once a day. I want to make you as happy as you make me. I want you to know how wonderful it is, how lucky one can feel, with a spouse as unbelievably amazing as you.

As David Bowie sang 39 years ago this Christmas, I pray my wish will come true.

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William Bradley is the author of the essay collection Fractals, published earlier this year by Lavender Ink. He became aware of his health problems at the beginning of November, but honestly believes he has a lot to be thankful for nevertheless.

 

Great (Audio) Moments in Storytelling

December 8, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dive in, then get to the background

Dive in, then get to the background

Hark! The Brevity Podcast sings once again on Monday, with Rick Moody and Athena Dixon gracing our airwaves. To tide you over, here are some of our favorite podcasts–some with amazing storytelling, others with sharp tips on story structure. Download a few for your car time or your dinner prep, and we look forward to sharing our own Episode 3!

 

Story Structure: The ‘e’

Transom has long been an excellent source for both radio-makers and storytellers in other mediums. Their podcast How Sound talks about positioning the narrator, asking good questions–even how to approach difficult interview subjects. This episode addresses a story structure often used in magazine articles and personal essays. It looks like a lowercase ‘e’ and solves the problem of how to get the reader involved right away when you still need backstory. The How Sound team breaks down a specific radio story, stopping and starting to point out the structural elements. Only about 20 minutes long, and a must-listen for anyone struggling with where or when to start an essay.

The Mystery Show: Belt Buckle

Starlee Kine hosts this charming, low-key show in which each episode, she solves a mystery that can’t be figured out on the internet. This is the best of last season’s six episodes, and it is beautiful and heartbreaking and pure delight. Listen when you need some feel-good catharsis that’s still plenty meaningful, and notice how she wraps a whole story around a single, quirky object.

Love & Radio: Jack & Ellen

The sound quality is a little weird at the beginning, but stick it out. This is one of the craziest, most twisted, fascinating and bizarre true stories I’ve ever heard. Anything specific I can tell you would wreck it, but know that it’s about turning the tables on some not-very-nice people. Structurally, this story starts us thinking one thing, turns it into something else, and the takeaway is a different subtext entirely. A good one for when you’re struggling with a deep, layered story. Not safe for work or kids.

Reply All: Perfect Crime

What do you do when you love doing something everyone else hates? Actor Catherine Russell is the one-woman motivation behind the worst-reviewed still-running play in New York. She already knows the audience will walk out puzzled, annoyed, even hostile. So why keep doing it? For when you aren’t really sure if the world is ready for your work (it is).

Podquiz

This has zero to do with storytelling. But if you like quizzes and trivia, and you really, really need to get your brain into a neutral, reasonably positive place, this short weekly quiz is a great way to get the neurons firing. Skip the music played between the main quiz and the answers, it’s always terrible. Or revel in the hideousness. Your call. Then go write something, using the weirdest answer as a prompt.

Happy listening–and take a moment to subscribe to the Brevity Podcast, won’t you? If you’re already a happy listener, please leave us a review!

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Allison Williams hosts the Brevity Podcast.

Sloooooow Motion

November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments

This Florida-based tortoise has spent a decade on his surrealist memoir-in-essays

This Florida-based tortoise has spent a decade on his surrealist memoir-in-essays

The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.

An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:

I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉

She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.

I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,

…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.

It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.

It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.

That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.

I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.

See you at the finish line.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.

Chop Wood, Carry Water

November 10, 2016 § 78 Comments

14324288_10155236661220558_5376449924283212640_oWe woke up and everything was different. Maybe we woke in the middle of the night, tried not to check our phone, checked our phone anyway, and spent the hours before dawn in a bleak haze, waiting for the moment it was late enough to decently call someone. Maybe a call came—your mother has died. Or, it’s time to let the cat go. Or, our country has elected a demagogue.

Maybe we woke to the memory of yesterday, the doctor saying, Let’s discuss your options, our lover telling us they’ve found someone else—found her, in fact, months ago. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the disaster, the break-up, the crash, to the moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.

How can we write? How can we read?

How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the wake of the unchangeable?

We search online—who else feels this way? Is there a support group? Someone else we know this happened to? We click angry-sad-angry-sad-angry-sad. Grief comes in waves—an old photograph, the smell of a cast-off sweater, a yard sign we looked at on the way to work and thought, That’s all you know, superiority mingling with disgust.

We go through the motions. There is a place I am due every day at 9AM. My child must be fed. I’ve already paid for that class.

We watch faces—who else has lost their mother? Who is on the ex-lover’s side and who is still on ours?

My ex-husband’s mother dies suddenly. He flies across the country and gets her dog. In the piles of knickknacks and clothes, boxes of paperwork, lists of phone calls and appraisals, there is one constant, an animal that must be fed and walked and loved whether his capacity to love is intact or not. He drives a truck back, full of furniture and a fawn-colored pitbull mix, a dog that has grown up in Vegas and never seen grass. He posts on social media as the dog. The dog sees snow for the first time. The dog discovers kittens. The bottom of his world has still dropped out, but the dog is a bucket in which he can carry water. The dog is an axe with which he can chop wood. He carries her up and down the stairs until she learns, and each time he touches her he touches his old world, the world in which his mother is also alive and carrying the dog. The dog is a lifeline from a better past. The dog is the seed of a pearl.

We grieve, and we see others triumph. Our lover shows up to get his Playstation looking happy and well-fed. After a few days, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. We sit down again. We tinker. We find the rhythm, we find that yes, it matters to say something, anything, on the page. That we are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We have spent—or are spending—our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, me too.

I call my equally devastated friend, who has also lost her mother or her cat or her country, and she tells me a parable.

The novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.

The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water.”

We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet revolution, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. Stories are not frivolous. They weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told, the need for human connection that exists independent of our own grief. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us we matter. The world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Loons, Fox, Wind, and Pines: Life at IOTA

August 26, 2016 § 7 Comments

iota doty (1)

Our writing desks at IOTA

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.

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Prince Cottage, site of the IOTA Conference

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.
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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.

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