Make Space

October 3, 2017 § 11 Comments

A small red shrine in front of a wall covered in massage advertisementsI’m in Malaysia. As I write, it’s already tomorrow, which feels a little like magic–twelve hours ahead and not watching the hotel TV unless it’s accidentally (surprise CNN, tragedy leaving me  sad and shocked but unsurprised). Offline as much as possible, to make room for my brain to wander and wonder and my hands to scribble. It’s easier to do that on vacation–it’s like I have permission from the God of Accomplishment to relax away from home.

It’s harder to make room for thinking at home. To make room for anything, really. My friend the relationship advice guru says if you’re single but ready, start sleeping on one side of the bed. Clear some space on the bathroom counter and in the closet. Make a place for what you want in your life. That sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. It’s hard to get rid of stuff that’s “OK” and open up a big fat nothing, trusting you’ll find something new. But new people, new ideas, even new clothes in the closet need open space before they show up.

I think about what I make room for at home: books in an actual bookshelf instead of closet piles, because I respect books. Sharp knives and a cast-iron pan because I love good food (it hurt to toss those perfectly good knives that weren’t actually very good). Time in a busy schedule to vacuum and do laundry and bring an after-work juice to a man loosening his tie because I’m finally able to value and make room for a good relationship.

In Batu Ferenghi in Penang, Malayia, I make room for ridiculously cheap foot massages, about US$7.50 for thirty minutes of sheer bliss. Turn the phone off, make a few polite comments and discover I do not speak enough Malaysian to do more than nod and smile, then lie back and think. Make room for thinking in a room full of armchairs and ottomans and other people lying back to be reflexology-ed. Outside the front window, there’s a shrine. A little red slant-roofed temple, just tall enough for a statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, and shelf space for offerings. A bunch of bananas. A sweet drink. At the massage room, spiritual connection is here on purpose. For this goddess, they have made room. Prayers, genuflections on the way into and out of work, an opening for reverence, for appeal, for gratitude.

Back home, I finally moved my desk downstairs, put up a good light, put the books I read most in arm’s length. It was still hard to write. Making an Instagram-ready space wasn’t enough. I returned (as I always do) to appointments. To making writing a scheduled job. A four-hour shift with two writer buddies and a table at the coffee shop, because it’s easier to show up for someone else than to show up for myself. Technically, I would argue as a Buddhist, we are all gods. Practically, I can make it to the altar when it’s a date with another being.

Ritual gets things done. Going to the gym every day or every other day is easier than once a week. Writing every day–even for Instagram for five minutes–keeps me in the religion of making art, sharing the good news. Ritual is refuge when we are sad and shocked and unsurprised.

Maybe it’s a desk or a nice laptop or an appointment with a friend. Maybe it’s a conference or a retreat or a deadline. Whatever it is, do it–pray it–as often as you can. Make time, make space, clear out room for your own gods. Invite them in.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and writes travel micro-essays at Instagram.

Fear of Flying: Inside the Memoir-on-Submission Wind Tunnel

September 5, 2017 § 18 Comments

By Cameron Dezen Hammon

“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”

My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.

I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.

“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.

“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.

When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.

Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.

I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.

No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.

It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.

“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.

I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.

I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.

 

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Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.

Heart Restart

July 13, 2017 § 31 Comments

By Susanne Fletcher

On the cusp of 60 years old, I ran away to Baja California Sur, Mexico to let my heart bloom. I needed to escape–at least briefly–37 years of marriage, 35 years of office work, and 22 years of motherhood, to reclaim an old dream, so I signed on to a writing retreat, Writing Down the Baja. I intended to reframe my life in seven days. I hoped not to recognize myself when it was over.

I panicked on the plane. I restrained my arm with the opposite hand, jamming it into the armrest so I wouldn’t press the flight attendant call button. My head said relax. My heart threatened to bust out of my rib cage and plunge from the plane without a parachute. I wanted to yell “Turn the plane around and let me off. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’m not a writer!”

I arrived at Serendipity Bed and Breakfast on the fringe of Todos Santos as palm shadows stretched across the desert. Relieved, I sprawled on a warm plastic lounge chair facing the ocean and let my eyes absorb light and distance. My muscles lengthened and my sight lingered on the line dividing the Pacific Ocean and sky. Gradually the adrenalin surge of rushing through three airports and release from confinement in a spot as small as a honeycomb segment, and the sweat of self-doubt, settled.

The Pacific side of the Baja, a long hot finger of sand and cactus, felt cool and the wind off the ocean raised goosebumps. I saw a little white eruption against blue. I sat up, raised my hand over my eyes and stared. Again and again fountains burst out of the water. Whales.

Each morning, I chose a spot at the outdoor writing seminar table with intention, for inspiration and a view. While the teacher led us through morning writing exercises or we read aloud the previous day’s homework, the horizon pulled my attention to its edge, every gush in the water like a jolt on an electrocardiogram interrupting the gentle waves of my sister-writers’ discussions.

Afternoons I propped myself up on a lounge chair facing the breached blue and swaddled myself in a beach towel, knees up, blank page waiting, pen poised. Mostly I watched as a blooming cactus plant suckled hummingbirds as plentiful of marsh mosquitoes. I counted six, their long needles sipping nectar from funnel-shaped flowers and zinging to the next and next and next.

At the end of each day, I lounged under a palm tree, eyes to the horizon, book in hand, where I dozed and dreamt. An egret visited me once. Awakened by my book dropping in my lap, I looked up to see her a few strides away. White and slow, she picked up her chopstick legs, her toes opening and closing like a blown-out umbrella as she moved through the gravel with a soft tick, tick, tick. She stood forever and together we stared at the hummingbird cactus. Me, amazed. She? I don’t know, but I welcomed her stillness.

I attempted writing in a covered circular tower above my room–a Mexican garret–standing up this time. My pad of paper rested on a ledge. The wind ruffled the pages. I removed my glasses for short-sightedness to work in my favour–no more whale-gazing and daydreaming. What would I daydream about anyway? My heart reassured me I was where I wanted to be.

Head down, ink flowing onto the page, the lines filled as I pumped out prose like a gasoline nozzle–high octane, unleaded, intoxicating. Something darkened my peripheral vision. I looked up and, despite my blurred eyesight, recognized a hummingbird hovering at shoulder-height less than half a palm-frond away. I’d worn a coral-coloured t-shirt that day and undoubtedly she thought she’d found the biggest flower ever–the treasure of the Sierra Baja. Me immobilized and enchanted, she greedy and hungry, so close I heard her 80-wing-beats-per-second–or perhaps that was the rush of blood to my brain. I blinked. She buzzed away with a trrrtrrrt, a tiny defibrillator.

My heart shocked, I exhaled and wrote nothing familiar, something about jacaranda pods and penises and eyes the shade of scentless bougainvillea and Baja mutts the colour of sand. A different persona had appeared and I hardly recognized myself in my words. I was still me–wife, mother, office worker–but something else had emerged with a freshly started heart. A week at a writing retreat had pushed back the fear of claiming a new name for myself to add to the existing string–wife, mother, office worker, and writer.

 

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Susanne Fletcher writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Read more about her Baja retreat time and her work at her blog, Wuthering Bites.

 

Independence Day

July 4, 2017 § 7 Comments

Readers and writers. Experienced and first-timers. Poets dabbling in prose, novelists turning to nonfiction. Previously published or not. Old, young, in school, out of school, hated school and glad to be done, miss school and wish you were back, planning to go back to school. Native Americans and First Nations and Italians and Irish and Jews and Scandinavians and Afro-Caribbean and African-American and just call me Black and Slav and Hispanic and Nuyorican and White and Chinese and Sri Lankan and Indian and Thai and all the rest, every shape and size, writers with disabilities and disabled writers and Deaf and deaf and chronically ill and in the pink of health. Everyone with a story to tell. Everyone who wants to read a true story.

Welcome. We’re glad you’re here.

Thanks for being a part of Brevity, and have a safe and joyful Independence Day.

Let’s Be Bored!

June 22, 2017 § 21 Comments

The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.

I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”

As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.

On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:

Used payphones.

Bummed change for payphones.

Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.

Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.

Got lost.

Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.

Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.

Looked out the window.

Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.

Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.

Read ads and billboards and posters.

Figured out train and bus timetables.

Asked strangers for directions.

Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.

Whistled or waved for taxis.

In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.

I need to be bored.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.

 

Brevity Podcast #4: Brian Doyle

June 1, 2017 § 4 Comments

The Brevity Podcast returns with a special episode featuring our interview with Brian Doyle, originally recorded last year. We wrote on yesterday’s blog about Brian’s work in Brevity, and his legacy. Here he is in his own words.

 

Show Notes: Episode #4 People, Books and Places

 For many years, Brian edited Portland magazine at the University of Portland

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Allison K Williams is a writer and editor based in Dubai, and the host of the Brevity Podcast.

Brian Doyle’s Brevity

May 30, 2017 § 12 Comments

University of Portland - new faculty & staff photosWe were blessed to have Brian Doyle appear in the pages of Brevity seven times, stretching all the way back to issue four in 1999 and as recently as May 2015. His voice was like no other. His love of the world and everything in it seemingly boundless.

And God, was he funny. So blessedly funny.

Until the next sentence, when he made you cry.

We will miss him, greatly, and remember him, grandly. Thank goodness he left us his gorgeous, gracious words:

Mea Culpa I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they were.

Sachiel the Tailor What I am saying is that holes come and I make them go. I am in the business of closing holes. If all was well, if all things kept their composition, then I would have no work. But that is not the way of things.

Imagining Foxes We did not see a fox. I can assure you we did not see a fox. I could trot out my brother and sister today to testify that we did not see a fox.

A Child is Not Furniture But money is not the be all. If it was the be all then what is the point? The point is what you do without the money. The point is what you do with dash and brass. This is who you are. You are not what you can buy.

Ed You have but to meet Ed and you are Edified and Educated; the man is a force of nature, true to himself in every particular, forged by Russian Jewish parents, blessed by marriage to a Catholic girl from Idaho who once exploded a pie in a state baking contest, and graced finally by two children, male and female, who only grin when asked to explain their father, and it is this grin that seems to me a wonderfully summery thing, a flash of love in a world of pain, a warm pause in a cold year.

Pop Art They are cruel, and move in herds and gaggles and mobs, and woe unto the silent one, the one who looks funny, the one who speaks awkwardly, the fat one, for she will be shouldered aside, he will never get the ball, she will never be asked to jump rope, he will not be invited to the pool party, she will weep with confusion and rage, he will lash out with sharp small fists.

Her Numbers After a moment I realized that it was the number of the person who had inspected the new sandals my wife had worn that day, but for an arresting instant I thought I had found her secret number, her interior mathematical name, the parade of numerals that had worked its way to the surface of her skin after 30 years, and it sent me swimming into the sea of symbols that attempt to identify, quantify, specify her, to pin her down for a moment in her restless exuberant passage through time.

 

 

 

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