December 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
By Detra Damskov
I’ve kept journals since my 9th birthday when I was gifted my first blue sequined journal and matching pen. My academic writing assignments had always received high marks. I did quite well in my undergrad poetry class, though afterwards,I never wrote another poem. Mostly, I wrote in secret and only enough to keep the urge at bay. My secret depended upon my silence, even on paper.
After recently entering a graduate creative writing program, however, the professor in my first workshop asked us to spend 40 minutes writing without lifting our pen. She said we could write about anything we wanted, but if we needed a prompt, we could write about what we could not write about.
Write about what you can’t write about.
I couldn’t write about my abuse at the hands of a mother with sociopathy. Because of this, I hadn’t been able to write about anything. My story needed to breathe so I could do the same. So that night, I exhaled and began. What came from that 40 minutes of writing, would eventually evolve into my first piece of authentic writing.
I’ve been writing ever since, some of it expounding upon early traumatic experiences, but much of it completely unrelated, on topics ranging from Japanese Mamasans to Hoodoo priests. Still, my most meaningful writing to date is that first piece that allowed me to breathe, to begin the path to writing with veracious honesty.
But as is the case when the oppressed speak out, there are those who want to quiet them.
Until recently, I had only heard these writings of abuse referred to as “trauma writing.” Apparently, they’ve been given other “names” as well: misery lit, misery memoirs, and my least favorite, misery porn.
Sociologist Frank Furedi speaks about trauma writing as the “pornography of emotional hurt” in his article, insensitively titled, “An Emotional Striptease.” Furedi spent his childhood living in a refugee camp, working to help his family and feeling frustrated his parents were unable to help him with homework due to a language barrier. He considers this experience commensurate to that of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, suggesting because he does not dwell on his childhood experiences, neither should anyone else. Through his critique of misery porn, Furedi claims, the world morphs into a place of unfounded familial mistrust which bleeds into communal distrust serving to break down society as a whole.
If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.
While I do not pretend to understand the struggles Furedi experienced living through such a difficult time, and while I’m sure his time in a refugee camp had a profound effect on his life, I do not see how the events of his life, negate the experiences of mine.
Other critics of “misery lit” or “misery porn” invariably site, as evidence of its perversion, literary scandals regarding debunked accounts of childhood trauma. While there have been a few who have exploited the suffering of victims of abuse in an attempt to gain literary success, (hence further victimizing them) this does not negate the genre as a whole, nor the legitimate experiences of actual survivors of abuse.
Another common attack on trauma writers lies in accusations of the commercialization of voyeurism. Commentators argue that those who read trauma writing aren’t doing it out of appreciation for triumphs of the human spirit but are sadists who read misery lit from a place of depravity. Readers are seeking a cheap thrill and writers are merely capitalizing on this. Which leaves survivors with two options if they have the audacity to tell their story: either they are liars, or they are merely attempting to exploit their trauma for the sole purpose of financial gain.
As a so-called misery porn writer, I’m motivated neither by voyeurism nor capitalism. Writing about my childhood affords me the opportunity to give my experiences some semblance of order and meaning. My child-self and adult-self are able to merge into the unified human being I am meant to be, having been damaged but becoming whole in my refusal to carry the burden in isolation and shame. In writing my story, it becomes a part of who I am both publicly and privately, losing its potency and power to rip me apart from within. It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.
Well-crafted trauma writing has a long history through such literary greats as Eli Wiesel, Maya Angelou, and Joan Didion, to name a few. Writing, such as theirs, speaks a universal truth which helps survivors feel less alone and less freakish, while encouraging those fortunate enough to have grown up in loving environments to gain a much-needed empathy.
If this isn’t the purpose of high literature, I’m not sure what is.
Detra Damskov, a Canadian living in America, is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Omaha. She was also a finalist for a graduate fellowship in creative nonfiction. She spends much of her time searching for the perfect cardigan and has an irrational hatred for bananas.
December 7, 2018 § 8 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”
That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.
Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)
It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.
For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.
Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”
Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.
After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.
Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!
Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”
For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.
And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?
It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.
November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”
The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.
[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]
Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.
In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.
Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:
Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.
This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”
Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
November 6, 2018 § 15 Comments
CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic
It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.
My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.
We all know “show, don’t tell.” Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.
I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.
What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.
To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?
Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?
Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.
Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.
The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.
But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?
In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:
Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent. It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.
Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.
But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.
As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.
Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog, www.saneteachers.com, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections.
November 5, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Amanda Page
Four years ago, I was on the phone catching up with an old friend from graduate school. We were talking about how we weren’t as productive as we’d like, and I mentioned my aversion to finishing writing projects. I truly thought at the time that the missing piece was some combination of a lack of feedback and a lack of accountability. I wasn’t wrong, but when I asked him, “Are you in a writing group right now?” his answer surprised me.
“Hell no,” he said. “That’s not a real audience. Those are other writers trained to read work as writers. Every chance I get, I do an open mic. I read my work to the room. There might be writers in the audience, but there are other people, too.”
He listens to their reactions. He sees how they respond to his work. And he keeps going.
“I don’t really have anything ready to read on the stage,” I said.
“Ready?” he replied. “Ready? It doesn’t have to ready. You didn’t go to kindergarten and color in your finger turkey and worry if it was ready. You didn’t work for years on your finger turkey before you gave it to your parents. No! You made your finger turkey and that day you gave it to your mother and she put it on the fridge and you were proud of that finger turkey.”
“I was!” I said, joining the enthusiasm.
It took a few more years before I was ready to hand over a finger turkey, but eventually, I got on the stage. The first time, two years ago, was in front of a tiny audience.
I’m not sure why I was terrified.
I teach classes. I stand in front of students all day. But that’s with lesson material, not my creative work.
With my writing, though, I’d been hiding from an imaginary audience instead of standing up in front of a real one. I was afraid they would laugh, or criticize, of not accept my words.
What I learned is that real audiences are a lot kinder than the ones you imagine in your mind. They offer immediate feedback in their facial expressions. They understand the reason you’re standing in front of them, whether it’s to educate, entertain, or appeal. Sometimes, you’re just there to tell a story. And they are there to listen.
Here’s what I’m saying: start. Start telling your stories. Get them out there. Put your finger turkey on the fridge.
You can accumulate a lot of finger turkeys in two years.
Cover your fridge. It’s how you grow, and how you learn. It’s how you wake up one morning and realize you’re becoming an expert in something you love.
Afraid to start? What’s stopping you?
I bet it’s a story.
Amanda Page is an essayist, educator, and teller of true stories on stage. She lives with her two dogs in Columbus, Ohio. Learn more about her work at https://amanda-page.com and follow along with her adventures in nonfiction on Twitter @amandadashpage.
October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:
I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice.
Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:
People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.
You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care.
Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).
October 23, 2018 § 9 Comments
Writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent elimination.
I know I should write concisely. Plowing through bloated prose, I’ve certainly wished other authors had. I’ve silently struck needless words and cursed the writer for lacking the courtesy to clean up after him- or herself.
I also struggle to get my own word counts down. As with many things in life, it’s easier to spot a speck than pull out a plank.
At some point in our writing trajectories, a well-meaning person read our draft and said it needed “more details.” Yes, a well-chosen detail brings a scene alive and puts readers into the action. Unfortunately, many of us, perhaps too young to grasp what details were, simplified this advice to more words.
Later, we come across Strunk & White’s “Omit needless words” and Mark Twain’s “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” and we may try to unlearn wordiness.
This is difficult.
But why? Shouldn’t it be easier to write fewer words than more? Let’s take a look at some threats to succinctness and try to understand their source—and how to eliminate them.
First drafts are where we figure it out.
If I had a nickel for every time I wrote a sentence and immediately wrote another one containing the exact same idea, I’d have many nickels. Writing is not stenography—it’s not transferring neat, insightful, and lovely ideas from our brains to the page. Writing is the messy process of wrestling with those ideas, taming them into insights. For me, that’s trying out an idea in one sentence, then explaining it in the next. The idea forms as I write, so the second sentence feels like additional information. It’s not until I reread that I can see the redundancy. Sometimes I can strike the first sentence altogether. Sometimes it’s the second sentence that goes. And sometimes half the idea is in one and half in the other, so I combine and tighten.
Succinct writing takes time.
Blaine Pascal, John Locke, and Henry David Thoreau are all credited with versions of “I’m sorry this is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”
First drafts are where we work things out. That takes X length of time. First drafts plus re-reading and revising to eliminate redundancy takes X plus Y length of time.
We might not have that time; worse, we might not realize how much it matters. Smart readers, who don’t need to be told anything twice, can spot redundancy from a page away. They won’t tolerate much. As writers, we have to put our work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread and ruthlessly delete anything superfluous.
We don’t realize we’re being wordy.
We may write our first drafts conversationally. The advantage of this is accessibility and a natural tone. The disadvantage is that speech is seldom succinct. Word padding that may not inconvenience listeners still weighs down prose.
We think long sentences sound good.
But they usually don’t. Long sentences work only when the complexity of their ideas warrants them. Best case, an unnecessarily long sentence confuses and tires readers. Worst case, it conveys uncertainty or even ignorance; readers see right through the writer’s attempt to appear to know a lot.
It’s not easy being brief. But it’s important—for the clarity of your ideas and for the love of your reader.
So the next time you are ready to submit a piece of writing to a reader, an editor, or a friend, remember these words of Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Mathina Calliope is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post’s Magazine and Outlook sections, NPR’s Morning Edition, Prevention, the Manifest-Station, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Currently she is finishing a memoir, Deprivation Vacation, about hiking the Appalachian Trail at 43 as a way to step cold turkey out of her comfort zone. @mathinacalliope IG: mathinacalliope