Ten Things I Learned While Reading a Memoir I Will Not Review for Brevity

November 12, 2019 § 7 Comments

By Stacy E. Holden

1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.[1]

2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.[2]

3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.

4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.[4]

5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s[5] story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.

6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.[6]

7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke.[7] Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.

8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.[8]

9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).[9]

10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.[10]




Passengers don’t get on a plane just because it is going somewhere east that may be kinda nice. I need to remember to let my own readers know they are heading to Morocco to join me on a journey of midlife transition in the first few pages. I don’t want them to wonder what is the point of this work, as if lost in the labyrinth of the Old City’s winding streets. I am tracing Edith Wharton’s 1917 journey to discover who I am as a midlife woman now past bearing children or rocking boob-shirts in bars.(go back)

The surprises of writing and writing and writing til you get it! I could rag on academia, where I work, suggesting the distance I always felt and blaming “them,” but my writing has led me instead to see how my comfort living in working-class places of Morocco stems from my own insecurities and a desire to find community among workers somewhere, since I educated myself out of conversations with family and some friends in the USA.

(go back)

Show don’t tell…excavate that day in Moulay Idriss when everyone annoyed you, even when they just offered you cookies. What led you to be fragile and sensitive and judgmental that particular day?

(go back)

Expats…I need to rethink how I describe those rich expats in Marrakesh and other Moroccan places who set up homes in poor neighborhoods of the medina.

(go back)

Aomar, an anthropologist whose Moroccan identity is wrapped up in sub-Saharan African and Tamazight culture, not Arab. Mina, a professor of history in Rabat. And Sara…the educated daughter of Aicha, friend, illiterate, who appears regularly in the ms.

(go back)

Moroccan time…do not mention “Moroccan time.”

(go back)

I thought I would write a love letter to Morocco by returning there to find the recipe for past happiness, but it turns out I am composing a Dear John letter to this country. You cannot repeat today what worked for you yesterday. Sometimes it is time to move on.

(go back)

Do I sound like a judg-y white American when I talk about Morocco? Is there a sense of using the culture of the US as a marker for how stuff—bathrooms, government administration, luncheon interactions—should work in a perfect world? If so, rethink…

(go back)

Remember, some will still condemn a white woman writing on her travels in an African country. But look deeply at your work and the images in it. Be confident in your descriptions of your engagement with the people and places in a country long considered a second home. Let the work go, and be damned with the reviewers who will or will not write about my book.


Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.

The Seven Gifts: What Poetry Offers Prose Writers  

October 30, 2019 § 22 Comments

emily_portraits-9By Emily K. Michael

As a writing teacher, I spend more time defending poetry than prose. When I tell my students, “We’ll be doing poetry today,” I hear groans and sighs. And when I share that I write poetry, people say, ‘I always had trouble with poetry.” Or even, “I never really liked poetry.” Only the occasional bright-eyed student preempts the discussion by asking, “Are we writing any poetry this year?”

I’ve never heard people react to prose in the same way. While most students don’t rush to write essays, they also don’t reflexively jerk away from prose. I’d like to navigate this reticence, to lead essayists and memoirists to the unruly garden where poetry writers wander.

Why should you take this walk with me, the avid poet? Because you’ll hear the black-capped chickadees and chimney swifts, smell the lavender and sage, find the world blooming and decaying all at once. Poetry has many gifts for the prose writer.

Let’s consider poetry not as a genre but as a mode of attention.

  1. Poetry uses language on a budget.

An obvious difference in genres is that prose writers have more words to work with. With the exception of flash fiction, poetry gives the reader less information; the language must work harder to achieve its effect.

Metaphor is the most economical use of language because it blends two networks of ideas concisely. In “The Piano Speaks,” Sandra Beasley describes how the piano is transformed as Erik Satie plays. She writes:

      For an hour I was a maple tree,
and under the summer of his fingers
the notes seeded and winged away

“The summer of his fingers” is a linguistic reduction, getting thick and glossy with meaning as it simmers in the poem. When a metaphor is apt, concise, and subtle, it delivers a concentrated dose of meaning in a handful of memorable syllables.

  1. Poetry reveals the emotional weight of objects.

In workshops, I ask writers to think of a room occupied by someone they love and list the objects the loved one leaves behind. These are the items the poet should bring onto the page for readers. This is poetry’s “objective correlative” – handling abstract feelings by picking up dirty coffee cups, worn pillows, chunky keychains, metallic evening bags. Tess Gallagher embraces the emotional weight of a personal artifact in “Black Silk,” where the speaker tries on her father’s old suit to understand his absence. Marie Howe uses the same technique in “The Copper Beech,” describing a beloved tree that shows her how to find resilience. In both cases, the object on the page is rich with significance and personality.

  1. Poetry invites you to break grammar rules.

In his song of praise, E.E. Cummings thanks God for the “leaping greenly spirits of trees.” If a prose writer attempts this unusual syntax, their beta readers are likely to sigh, and their editor will probably circle it. Of course prose writers can play with grammar rules, but poetry, with its reputation for being mysterious and complicated, welcomes the breaking of rules. We celebrate Dickinson’s dashes and capitals.

Breaking grammar rules helps us to understand what these rules actually accomplish. Our children’s books and nursery rhymes equip us to get the overall sense of “leaping greenly spirits of trees” while the unusual pattern emphasizes “greenly” rather than “leaping” or “spirits.”  Playing with syntax, punctuation, and other conventions can create novel and beautiful phrases.

  1. Poetry brings forward the native rhythms of language.

In a class on emotional dialogue, I gave students a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The student who volunteered to read the poem aloud asked if she could stand up and “walk the poem around the room.” As she walked and recited, her voice grew rich with the poem’s warm anger. She discovered, simply by moving with the poem, what “meter” really is: a poem’s pace and heartbeat. Are you ready to walk your prose?

  1. Poetry sharpens the language of character.

Because poems don’t have the space for repeated dialogue attribution, the poet must build character by paying greater attention to syntax, word choice, and punctuation. Consider Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” where the speaker comments on her own definition of poetry. The poem uses parentheses to differentiate between the speaker’s public, performance voice and the thoughts that drive it. Sylvia Plath uses a similar technique in “Mad Girl’s Love Song”; her parentheses invite us to question reality.

  1. Poetry is adventurous on the page.

Poetry collaborates with the white space of pages and screens. In addition to stanza breaks, writers can walk their lines across the white space. Caesuras create an elliptical effect just by adding more space between the words of a line. Visual poems are sprinkled over the writing surface – sometimes forming pictures, always inviting readers to wonder how language manages to make meaning.

In “Poems with Disabilities,” Jim Ferris builds security by keeping the lines at similar lengths, but as the poem moves toward a climax of anxiety, the lines get shorter. The white space crowds the poem, eating away at the lines and intensifying the poem’s ending.

  1. Poetry nurtures borrowers and beginners.

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100” calls back to Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” – a collection of the things poetry is and is not. Poetry tolerates blatant imitation and subtle borrowing. Poets take up a form like the sonnet or the villanelle and eagerly copy canonical works. Whether overt or covert, this borrowing fails to upset most poets. We recognize that we did not invent the language or the forms: we work in a long tradition.

So why should prose writers read and write poetry?

Poetry emphasizes concision and rich language. It tests the strength of syntax. It fits itself to the scraps of paper at the bottom of your bag, the crumpled receipts in your drawer. It bundles big feelings into few words.

Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, The South Carolina Review, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and AWP Writer’s Notebook. Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, and music. Find more of her work at her blog, On the Blink. Emily’s first book Neoteny: Poems is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.

The Indignity of Confession

October 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

By Sarah Boon

I have always struggled with finding balance in the personal essay, between telling too much and not telling enough, between exposing myself versus keeping myself under wraps. In 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker that the personal-essay boom was over. “There’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.” At Slate, Laura Bennett wrote disparagingly of “solo acts of sensational disclosure that bubble up and just as quickly vaporize.”

Some writers agreed. Over at LitHub, Lorraine Berry quoted Virginia Woolf’s grumpiness about the proliferation of personal essays:

Almost all essays begin with a capital I—‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’—and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion.

Berry added,

Woolf urged writers to stop writing crappy book and theatre reviews and put something real on the page…Tolentino is telling writers to stop writing personal essays where the “I” on the page has an experience that cannot be related to the greater structures in which we’re operating…We need to treat the personal essay with more dignity than we have done. There are infinite glimpses of human truth to be had in personal writing, but it really is okay not to publish every single thing you write.

This line resonated with me, as I find that too many authors think it’s important to publish everything they write, and in the process they end up publishing overly confessional essays.

Other writers were firmly opposed to Tolentino’s essay. Susan Shapiro fought Tolentino’s statement that it’s mostly women writing these essays, asking “Is it uncouth for a woman to admit to wild adventures without proper repentance while making good money?” Here on the Brevity blog, Zoë Bossiere wrote that “to compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.”

I agree with Bossiere that the issue isn’t the personal essay itself, but how it is defined. As Emily Fox Gordon points out in The American Scholar, there is a difference between essays that confess and those that confide. “What’s always most important about a confession is its content; what’s often most important about a confidence is the relationship it creates or furthers.” This is exactly how I think that personal essays can be divided, and it’s the latter that makes the most impression on readers.

The personal essays that Tolentino was calling “dead” were those that confess.

Recently, Tolentino published Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, her first book of—you guessed it—personal essays. But these nine chapters are heavily researched, transcending the confessional to discuss how women exist in today’s web-obsessed world. The personal is used to draw the reader in. In “The I in Internet,” Tolentino describes her use of the web when it first started, then pivots her viewpoint to engage with several books outlining how we use the web today, and are increasingly merging our professional and personal lives online. She makes the personal political by focusing on how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions, maximizes our sense of opposition, cheapens our understanding of solidarity, and destroys our sense of scale.

Through the essay, we not only discover one writer’s personal history with the web, but a detailed discussion of the internet’s role in present day society and of social-media addiction. Tolentino herself is not immune to the siren call of social media, writing, “Still, on occasion, I’ll shut down my social media blockers, and I’ll sit there like a rat pressing a lever…masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.” While deeply personal, the essay connects with readers by expanding our knowledge of the negative aspects of social media in the context of the author’s personal experience. Her addiction is an example, not the whole point.

Tolentino’s research extends to her own history. In “Reality TV Me,” about being on a reality show in high school, she goes back and interviews the director of the show and the other cast members. By interrogating their experience and combining it with her own memory of the events—and her current perspective on them—she pulls together an engaging essay on how her reality TV experience “simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else” and was a precursor to her life on the internet, where personal and professional blur into a single online presence.

Ultimately, Tolentino proves that the personal essay—the confiding rather than the confessional—is not dead. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sarah Menkedick and others produce work that brings the reader in with personal details, then opens up to broader topics and ideas. These are writers who definitely treat the personal essay with dignity, and I hope to count myself among their ranks.

Long live the personal essay!


Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.

Shame, Shame, Shame: On Brené Brown, Diamond Formation, and the Writing Life

October 21, 2019 § 27 Comments

livingstonblueBy Sonja Livingston

I’ve recently fallen into a YouTube rabbit hole.

This is partly because I cancelled Netflix and am hard up for video content, but also because I have a book just out and no one tells you how tender that space is. The last three videos I watched were: Alain de Botton’s “On Love,” Patty Griffin and Robert Plant singing “Ohio,” and an extended clip of bestselling author and inspirational speaker, Brené Brown. I admire Brené Brown and trust her. She has the kind of haircut I’m always after and a Texas accent which she uses to say hot and wise things.

You either walk inside your story and own it, Brené says. Or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brown is famous for her talks on vulnerability and shame.

In fact, she’s a shame researcher, which makes her one of my people. Shame is my first language. I grew up on its fumes. If shame were a small island nation, I’d be given a cardboard crown and made its chronically self-conscious queen. Shame arises in two basic forms, according to Brown: 1.) You’re not good enough, and 2.) Who do you think you are?

Growing up poor and female in America means proficiency in both. But, no matter our gender or social class, most of us suffer some degree of shame. Long before YouTube or Brené Brown, Carl Jung was clear about its toll, calling shame a soul-eating emotion.

Shame distances us from our own skin, and clearly, limits our growth as a culture and as human beings. But while it’s toxic in our actual lives, shame can be a guidepost in our writing lives.

Because I did not begin to write seriously until I was nearly thirty, I had a storehouse of shameful memories to tap into: Our electricity being cut off for nonpayment; the stack of unopened bills on our kitchen table; the sound of a social worker interviewing my mother about the loss of her factory job and our missing fathers while I listened from the bedroom, noticing how young my mother suddenly sounded, how small. I carried all of this with me. The bad clothes, the bill collectors, the food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. When I began to write, it leapt right onto the page.

Whew, I said when I finished my first book, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Think again, I learned. There’s always more.

Next I wrote about the female body, especially fertility and infertility and what those things can mean. Again, I thought I was finished with shame. I mean, I’d gone and put my ovaries on the page, so certainly I was done. But when it comes to shame and vulnerability, the supply line is unending.

Now it’s religion. Which is the trickiest topic of all, because unlike the scarce resources or lackluster ovaries I was born with, returning to my old Catholic church is something that, as an educated progressive woman, I actually chose. Which is why my Catholic essays caused me more grief than any other subject. Embracing Catholicism, especially in this present cultural moment, makes no obvious sense. My shame flared. What would people think? Why risk misunderstanding? Especially when I wasn’t even sure why I’d gone back to Mass?

It’s as tempting in writing as in life to avoid what makes us feel exposed.

But whatever you believe makes you wrong in the eyes of the world is what makes you right on the page. Shame is an arrow pointing toward the ripest fruit. Fruit. Unlike embarrassment, which may also provide good stories but is situational and fleeting, shame is seeing ourselves as unworthy in some essential way. Its doggedness is precisely what makes it so rich.

This makes me think of how diamonds are made. They begin as bits of carbon-based grit deep within the Earth. Caught there for ages, they stew under a hundred miles of rock and rubble. Eventually, the combination of intense pressure and heat from the Earth’s core spurs crystal formation and turns them ever-so-slowly into gems.

Shame can work similarly for writers. Grit makes its way inside you. Your mother calls you clumsy or your father shushes you in public one too many times. Your pants are too plaid or some kid in kindergarten points out your cowlick, laughing over the way your hair sprays like a geyser from the rear quadrant of your head. You push down those perceived deficiencies and guard them so tenaciously, they harden over the years and become the core of who you are. Until, one day, you suffer some sort of beautiful rupture (such as taking up writing) and it rises to the surface. This is not always comfortable, but, if we allow it into the work, can be a source of unexpected treasure.

Shame derives its power from being unspeakable, Brené Brown says.

Writing derives its power by noticing the unspeakable and going there.

I don’t suggest mining your most troubling secrets or tapping into crippling sources of shame. Instead, notice what you hope no one sees, the little things you hide from even your best friend. Maybe it’s the line of candy corn you did after the faculty meeting, how you haven’t spoken to your mother in a proper decade, or how you still worry about cutlery—which fork and when? Maybe it’s the dimpled skin of your upper arms or the fact that even your midlife crisis is massively uncool—that instead of submitting to a red rose vining along your collarbone or developing a decent yoga habit, you’ve returned to a fading Catholic church. All the stuff you’re convinced makes you goofy and wrong and weird. Write this.

Sonja Livingston is the author of four books of literary nonfiction, including the most recent, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotionand the award-winning memoir, GhostbreadRecent essays appear in LitHub, Kenyon Review, and Salon. Sonja teaches creative nonfiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University where she serves as the Faculty Editor for Blackbird.

Find her here on social media: Twitter@sonjalivingston / instagram: sonjalivvy / FB: sonjalivingston

11 Reasons Why Doing Stand-up Comedy Has Made Me A Better Writer

September 27, 2019 § 2 Comments

carmella comedy clubBy Carmella de los Angeles Guiol

  1. It gets me writing. Ever since I started doing stand-up, I find that I’m constantly jotting down ideas in my notebook—way more than before! Perhaps I feel less pressure when it comes to stand-up and therefore, I’m more energized and motivated when it comes to creating material.
  2. Stand-up comedy is just another avenue for self-expression. I have many thoughts and ideas that I don’t want to write an entire essay about, but I’d still like to express them. Comedy gives me the chance to explore themes that I wouldn’t necessary explore on the page.
  3. Truth makes the best comedy, and the audience will sniff out any hint of inauthenticity—a good lesson to learn both on and off the page, no matter what kind of writing you do. Good stand-up is based on personal experience; as a memoir writer, stand-up comedy has allowed me to hone my voice and find out what matters most to me.
  4. Having to speak my words aloud is good practice for the page. In comedy, like with prose, syntax matters. The way you structure your punchline can be the difference between a room full of laughs or dead silence. Writing for comedy has made me pay closer attention to syntax in a way that translates positively to my longform writing.
  5. In comedy, there’s a clear goal: make people laugh. I’ve begun to think about what goal I have for my prose writing. This can help me streamline what projects I work on and how I go about them. It’s another reminder to infuse any writing I do with intention, from drafting a joke to working on the 10th draft of a mammoth essay.
  6. Trim the fat. In comedy, it’s all about getting to the essence of your joke with the least number of words. As a long-winded writer, this is a great lesson for me.
  7. Kill your darlings. The crowd will give you instant feedback—either your joke is funny, or it’s not. If it’s not working, it’s important to ask—why not? Is this helping me pursue my goal of making people laugh or is it getting in the way of what I’m trying to say? As writers, we fall in love with the sentences we spend hours working on, but sometime we just have to learn to let them go.
  8. It’s all part of the process. Like with each essay or story draft, each set is a chance to tweak, learn and improve. During a set, I may add something new, take away something, or do something totally spontaneous. I always record my performance so that I can review it later, the same way athletes do. I study my performance to see how it lands with the crowd. While we don’t usually get instant feedback when writing, it’s important to have beta readers who can share the way a piece landed on them emotionally.
  9. Take the long view. No set is going to make or break your career, same as no rejection is going to be the end of you as a writer.
  10. Get out from behind the computer and get out into the world! My writing mentor Heather Sellers always said that being in the chair is just as important as being out of it—it’s what you do when you’re not in the chair that makes all the difference. Stand-up comedy is a hobby that brings me joy while also sharpening my craft as a writer.
  11. Comedians just wanna have fun. Even though it’s a lot of work writing jokes, attending open mic nights and waiting late into the night for my turn on the mic, the essential truth is that I love making people laugh. That’s why I do go through the trouble to do stand-up. Although it would be fantastic to get famous and have an hour-long Netflix special, that’s not the goal. The goal is to make people laugh. Same with writing. Writing, revision, editing, and submitting is a lot of work, and it would be fantastic to be rewarded with a spot on The New York Times bestseller’s list, but I write because I love to write. I love to work with words, share ideas, and express myself on the page. Whether I make it big or not—on stage or on bookshelves—I’ll still be happy because I’ve spent my life doing something I love.__

Carmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Pushcart-nominated writer, educator, and polyglot. She is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship in Colombia as well as Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. Her haiku about starfruits can be found at a Miami bus stop and stamped on a sidewalk. Check out her newsletter, Dispatches from a Digital Life.

Just The Facts

September 26, 2019 § 8 Comments

By Sandra Hagar Eliason

“Just the facts Ma’am” was the theme of my writing for 30 years. Not as a detective, like Sgt. Joe Friday; I spent my time looking for medical clues. If I acted as a reporter, it was not the human-interest type, but the anchor speaking into the camera without strong emotion or personal comment.

My 30 years as a doctor were spent reporting “facts”—honing the skill of writing notes on medical charts, using a method called S.O.A.P. charting.

Subjective: what the patient tells you.

Objective: your “objective” findings.

Assessment: your diagnostic conclusion.

Plan: what you’re going to do about it.

My writing was analytical; I did not allow emotion to cloud my judgement. When I started practice, the notes had more information. I hoped to capture the whole person on paper. With insurance changes came pressure to see more patients, and my notes grew briefer. As the “physician-patient” relationship evolved into a liaison with the computer in the 2000s, the format (with more typing and tabs and new windows to open, all to be completed in non-increasing time slots) necessitated getting directly to the point, no embellishment. The human being I had just seen got lost in rapid finger movements noting recalled “facts.”

S: Mr. Jones is a 62yo man who appears older than his stated age. Patient states he has been drinking over a pint of vodka daily since his wife died six months ago. He was found on the floor by a niece, who went to his house when she couldn’t reach him by phone, and brought to the Emergency Department.

O: Past Medical History is positive only for hypertension. Family history noncontributory. Blood pressure elevated, pulse thready.

Heart: Regular rate and rhythm, S1, S2, no murmur.

Abdomen: Distended, with spider veins and a fluid wave. Liver two finger breadths below the right costal margin.

Ankles edematous.

A: Alcoholic liver disease

P: Admit

When I began to write creative nonfiction, readers said I sounded cold and clinical. I had mastered writing without feeling, observing from a distance, to describe what I saw. Where was I in the story, a reader asked? I realized I was the remote watcher. I had to learn a new skill: to show up in my writing. Not as the clinical observer, reporting another’s pain, but as someone who felt it. The medical barrier between myself and the other had to come down; I had to turn the “patient” back into a person.

Mr. Jones was unmoored when his wife died suddenly six months ago. He had relied on her to fulfill his daily needs—cooking, cleaning, laundry—while he built his business empire. It was she who arranged outings with friends, bought theater tickets and kept track of his work socializing. She filled the house with conversation and music. He had planned to retire next year, and use the wealth he had spent his life accumulating to show her the world.

Now she was gone, and he didn’t know how to do anything. He pretended to cook for a while, then gave up. He stopped doing laundry when his white shirts streaked blue, instead wearing the same clothes for days at a time. Not sure how to arrange time with friends, he didn’t. He missed her laugh, her smell, her warmth in bed at night. One day he stopped going to work, just didn’t show up; his manager knew how to do it anyway, he rationalized.

A glass of wine with his improvised dinner turned to two, then three, then the bottle. When that no longer satisfied his need for oblivion, he turned to vodka, more each day. He had lain in bed drinking for the past week, and this morning couldn’t make it as far as the bathroom. When he collapsed, he wasn’t sure he would bother to get up again. If his niece hadn’t found him, he might have chosen to stay on the floor.

To write about a whole person, I needed to be vulnerable—to understand how I felt about a heart, an abdomen, the life of a person on the floor. Without feeling, I was describing events, not capturing life. Life has meaning; cold facts do not. Without meaning, the story is empty.

Breaking out of the old skill set takes practice. I needed to recognize that “objectivity” and emotion-free analysis are myths the medical profession tells itself. They provide a mask of clinical words to hide behind, keeping the real story untold.

It should be obvious that it takes emotion to write emotion. But I had to acknowledge my own feelings before I could write with empathy—about myself or anyone else. Adding that missing piece can transform a narrow skill into art. Which is, of course, the goal of all good writing. It’s like going from sketching to painting with oil. Writing as a doctor, I sketched the bare outline of the patient. As a creative nonfiction writer, I have to fill in the details, the nuances of a person, add the brush strokes that paint a complete story of a person and a life.


Sandra Hager Eliason is a recently retired Family Practice physician, now writing full time. She has published creative nonfiction in Minnesota Physician, Student Health Spectrum, and was the winner of Minnesota Medicine magazine’s 2016 writing contest for her essay “The Vacation.” She lives with her husband in New Brighton, Minnesota, where she writes about the interactions of patients with the medical system, and is working on a memoir about her years in medicine. Find her on Twitter at @SandraHEliason1.

Untangling Environmental Stories

September 20, 2019 § 1 Comment

Ana Maria Spagna Craft PhotoIn the craft essay from our new issue, Ana Maria Spagna explains how the complicated threads of environmental stories can be untangled by embracing contradictions. She acknowledges that tackling these vital stories is a challenge and hopes her contradictory lessons will compel more creative writers to explore this theme.

Here’s an excerpt:

So often what draws me to environmental stories is the sheer energy of people fighting on the fringes, exploring solutions, working with shovels and saws, with computers and maps, with megaphones and musical instruments. Super heroes proliferate on the big screen, in the realm of so-called make-believe. They also surround us every day: sheep shearers, oyster farmers, citizen scientists, teachers, students, writers. Always writers.

Read the rest in our latest issue.


Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Craft category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: