July 22, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Vivian Wagner
At Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio last month, I played a soon-to-be-released collaborative role-playing game called “Turning Point.” Unlike RPGs that focus on dungeons and elves, this one focused on a woman in a contemporary setting trying to decide whether to undergo a new treatment for her chronic fatigue syndrome.
It was a remarkable and moving experience, one that illustrated for me the ways that role-playing games exist in a permeable and fluid space between fiction and nonfiction, game and story. Over the course of playing the game, which was led by Senda Linaugh, who co-designed the game with Phil Vecchione, we worked together to construct and act out scenes from our main character’s life. I found myself telling stories that were, at least in part, based on my own experiences, and it was fascinating to see how we wove a collaborative character out of the particulars of our lives.
In the beginning, the game had several scenarios from which to choose. The one we went with was called “I Want a New Drug.” The basic premise of this scenario was that our main character would have an illness and be in the midst of deciding whether to start a new treatment for that illness. Together, we had to determine the specifics of the character, the illness, and the treatment.
Our character, we decided, would be named Violet. She was 49 and lived in Columbus, and she’d recently been divorced. In order to better live with her chronic fatigue syndrome, she was considering an experimental treatment that used soundwaves that would be delivered via an implant in her skull. We recorded the specifics about Violet’s life on a character sheet, including the fact that she had a cat and liked to knit and crochet, and then we had to improvise and act out several scenes from her life. Ultimately, our goal was to understand key components of her personality and experiences that would lead her to decide to go with the treatment or not.
One of the first scenes we did had to be with someone in her life who’d been ill. I jumped in and said I’d play a young Violet speaking with her bed-bound mother. All of a sudden I found myself constructing a scene that echoed elements of my relationship with my own mother, who had been ill with emphysema and bed bound for most of the latter part of her life. Through tears, I acted out a scene with Linaugh, who played the mother. As we improvised, others threw plastic heart tokens to the center of the table—one of the ways we measured the effectiveness and importance of various scenes.
I was surprised how without thinking I was drawing on real experiences to construct a narrative in a presumably fictional game. There were layers of meaning and experience in this game, I realized, that transcended any traditional notion of play. As we progressed through other emotional scenes, I realized that others were drawing on similarly personal elements of their own lives to construct this story.
Playing an interactive, collaborative, improvisational game is not exactly the same thing as writing either creative nonfiction or fiction, to be sure, but it seems to me that it could be considered a kind of emerging subgenre of both—one that will likely appeal to new generations of creators who’ve been raised on video games and have come to expect some degree of interactivity in their art.
At the end of the game, we tallied up various votes and tokens, ultimately discovering that Violet decided to do the treatment. She was ready to experiment, to try a different path. And I think we, as storytellers, might be, as well.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. Her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Muse/A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gone Lawn, The Atlantic, Narratively, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Bending Genres, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington); a full-length poetry collection, Raising (Clare Songbirds Publishing House); and three poetry chapbooks: The Village (Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books), Making (Origami Poems Project), and Curiosities (Unsolicited Press). Visit her website at http://www.vivianwagner.net.
June 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Jenny Apostol
An editor friend and I were recently chatting about a short essay I’d sent her for feedback. She thought it wasn’t finished yet, pointed out places the story could go further. “It’s meant to be flash,” I replied, explaining that I’d submitted it to a couple of journals that publish short-form nonfiction up to 1,000 words in length. Yes, of course she understood, but wondered if readers really understand what is meant by the term “flash” in prose writing.
Perhaps not; but readers may come to a shorter piece of writing for all sorts or reasons, not least of which we peruse so much on our phones. The essay in question may need to expand beyond its current 923 word-count, but the conversation helped me to realize, this writer/editor aside, that most of my friends have very little idea of what the term creative nonfiction means, and the flash form, even less so. I am two years into a three-year low-residency MFA program; creative nonfiction is the genre I work in, but I don’t share or talk about my writing very often.
For many in my community, an essay recently published in Brevity was their first taste of anything personal I’ve written. Feedback poured in. “Muscular” “spare” “succinct” “poignant” “elegant” “beautiful” “authentic” “spacious” and “poetic” were the words my friends and family used to describe their reactions to the essay. One friend from college texted “that took me to some unexpected places, and yet captures how thoughts connect and jump around.” A filmmaker I’ve known for thirty years emailed: “Writers have to write whole novels to achieve what you achieved in a page.” Never underestimate the positive context that publication brings! But if I were to Venn diagram these responses, all of the accolades would flow from the word “spare.”
My readers were responding to the containment of narrative that feels complete in under 750 words. They focused on language that is “muscular” and “poetic” because each word reflects the weight of every other and can leap a great distance in emotion and time. They were honing in not just on the story and its characters, what and who the essay is about, but on how it is written; they had found the form. In some ways, this was the most gratifying feedback of all.
A few British friends referred to my “article,” which I associate with journalism that explores a specific subject. My essay is memoir, a series of moments and events experienced by members of my family, some of which I had only heard about. When these three episodes came together into three paragraphs, they created an alternative narrative that touches on aging and memory and the ways we experience grief. A kind of reportage, in fact. I knew the theme of suicide to be inherently shocking. But it wasn’t shock I was after; it is to feel our proximity to one another as living and dying beings who breath the same air, whether we’re related to one another or not.
Peggy Shumaker says “the elasticity and the complexity of the brief form intrigue me,” where “history, research, metaphor, immersion, imagination, sensuality, spontaneity, reflection, voice, expansion and compression of time all play a role.” This paradox intrigues me, too. Writing is an intuitive process, and for me works best when technique bubbles up with deliberation, yet from somewhere unconscious.
The comments were encouraging, precisely because they reinforce the virtues of distillation, its essential clarity, as well as its spaciousness, and the generative, even collaborative power of “concise literary nonfiction.” My friends finally understand what I’ve been up to, what I strive to create in my writing every day. Best of all, the brevity of my essay has left them hungry to read more. Now I just have to apply all those qualities to the other hundred plus pages of prose that make up the draft of my thesis. And all those articles I need to write.
Jenny Apostol is a writer, translator, and Emmy award-winning nonfiction television producer. Her work has appeared in Brevity, and in River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things.” Jenny is pursuing an MFA at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.
June 3, 2019 § 26 Comments
By Linda C. Wisniewski
When my memoir was published, I didn’t expect everyone in my family to like it. I had written about growing up with unhappy parents, in a depressed industrial town, in a punitive church school, and as part of a Polish working-class community looked down upon by many of our neighbors. That was a lot for me to push back against as I struggled to find my best life, and I knew some people might not share my perspective. I steeled myself for criticism.
But my cousin Angela’s letter came as a complete surprise.
“Where did you get this information about my mother? And what does this have to with your childhood?” she wrote.
I didn’t know I had exposed a family secret until I read those words. Angela’s Aunt Lucille was my mother, a woman who believed the Church’s promise that suffering would lead to everlasting life. I learned to suffer from her, and my memoir is about my lifelong struggle to create my own happiness. To show her self-centered pain, I used a story she told me when I was small:
“My mother said that soon after they returned [from their honeymoon], Dad walked in the door with a strange look on his face. ‘My sister tried to kill herself,’ he blurted. ‘They don’t know if she’ll make it.’ She had planned to run away with her married lover, but the man backed out at the last minute. In despair, Dad’s sister took an overdose of pills. For weeks, her hold on life was tenuous. When she finally pulled through, the whole extended family was still reeling. It didn’t seem right to be going off to Hawaii.” (excerpt from Off Kilter, Pearlsong Press)
I didn’t use the name of my dad’s sister, who was Angela’s mother. But to my surprise and horror, her letter seemed to say she never knew her mother had been unfaithful to her dad. She was now in her seventies and I in my sixties. We weren’t close but I still felt terrible.
The letter was otherwise kind and supportive. “I wish I had known what you were going through as a child,” she wrote. “I would have helped you cope.”
I felt bad for hurting her, but I also remembered Angela criticizing her own daughter-in-law for a suicide attempt. I hoped she’d now be more supportive, knowing what she knew.
I wrote back, apologizing for hurting her. I explained my purpose in including the story in my memoir was to illustrate my mother’s bitterness. I wrote her twice but never got a response. At the next family gathering, she didn’t come near me, and didn’t make eye contact. It could have been worse. To my great relief, her husband gave me a big hug.
Another cousin was pretty harsh when I told her what happened. “It wasn’t your secret to tell,” she wrote in an email.
I didn’t know it was a secret, and never suspected it could still hurt anyone. It happened in the 1930s and all the people had passed on long ago. Angela is in her eighties now, and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see her again. We were never close. My mother told me she was a spoiled child. But I wonder now if that’s true, along with the other stories she told me.
If I had it to do over, I’d leave that story out. Though I didn’t use my aunt’s name, the family who read my book knew who it was. My dad had only one sister. My hope is that they’ll think twice about judging others after reading it.
No matter how careful we are to avoid hurting people with our writing, sometimes we make mistakes. Just like we do when we interact with people off the page. When we do, we can ask forgiveness. And we can also forgive ourselves. For writers, just like everyone else, are human. And that has to be okay.
Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Bucks County, PA, where she teaches memoir writing and volunteers as a docent at the historic home of author Pearl S. Buck. Her memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage has been published by Pearlsong Press.
May 28, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Phyllis Brotherton
My adult son and I, at this chapter in our lives, have a “texting only” relationship. A few months ago, I completed the Afterword to my book using a series of our recent texts, both quoted and cryptic, with plenty of white space and ellipses. The underlying message of the Afterword: Things are not good between us.
The book manuscript finally concluded (once again), after years of writing, revising, restructuring, essays in/essays out, I celebrated; the Afterword somehow a “window out” for the reader and possibly for me. Along with celebrating the book’s completion, I also internally grieved, from the state of the estranged relationship with my son, a deeply intense saga encircling the globe, decades in the making, and far too complex to easily summarize. Hence, my book, Creating Artifacts, but also hence the rub. While abundant with actual requisite tension, I also had strived to write, as NPR once put it: a memoir that won’t make you want to slit your wrists. The Afterword, while definitely not a happy ending, helped accomplish this, I thought.
My despondency over that text exchange reverted my brain to analog, leading me to a favorite quiet tea house, with ten sharpened pencils and a lined, blank notebook in hand. Here in one sitting, I wrote a twenty page serial poem to my son, as raw and real as a hurt mother can be, full of self-acknowledgement for my failings, as well as a few of his. Did this poem belong in the book? I counted the sections, I counted my lyric essays. Maybe I’d insert these poetry sections between the essays as interludes – a sort of breather for the reader. Yes. No. Yes. No.
On another day, the editor of a respected literary press suggested lengthening the book. In roughly the same timeframe, a writer’s morning Facebook post stared up at me from my iPhone, a quote from Annie Dillard, “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book: give it, give it all, give it now.” I followed these two pieces of advice and added essays I’d originally thought would be good for a follow-up book, lengthening my manuscript. Was it now too long? Did the essays really fit? Should I take this advice? Yes. No. Yes. No.
Though I continued to question myself, I knew I needed to move forward with a query letter and submissions. My book had been rejected a few times, but I had also made it into the final rounds of a few contests. Warm rejections fueled my fire to step up the pace and redouble my efforts to gain acceptance from a publisher.
Just before my son’s birthday on May 1, while I assemble a list of open reading periods and submission deadlines for my book, he texts me after a long silence. He apologizes for the previous texts. We dialogue. We exchange emoji hearts – well, I did. He’s not an emoji heart sort of guy.
Textual healing. It’s not seeing him or hugging him. But, I’ll take it.
My next thought: The Afterword! It’s not the ending. Is there such a thing as an After-Afterword?
Phyllis Brotherton received her MFA in Creating Writing from Fresno State University. Her work appears in Under the Gum Tree, Shark Reef, Entropy, Brevity Blog and elsewhere. She is currently marketing her book, Creating Artifacts, for publication. She can be contacted through Facebook, Instagram or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 27, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Mark Budman
As a writer, I should like all the twenty six letters of the English alphabet and all fourteen punctuation marks equally. But I confess: I love the question mark and hate the exclamation point. The question mark to me is a symbol of thoughtful independence: you are not afraid to challenge, to disagree, to doubt authority. The exclamation point is brute strength, the belief in self-righteousness, the naked power of assertiveness and dominance.
The question mark learns while the exclamation point is a know-all. The question mark is adaptive while the exclamation point is a ramrod, unyielding. At the aesthetics’ front, the question mark may not have the military posture of the exclamation point, but its sinuous curves should appeal to anyone who values flexibility, and the possibility of compromise over a front attack. The exclamation point is a zero-sum game, but with the question mark, everyone wins.
The question mark: are we on the same page? The exclamation point: no way! The question mark: are you sure? The exclamation point: I’m always sure!
It’s hard to believe they both are lowly punctuation marks, cousins to period, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, quotation marks, and ellipsis. But to each its own. Down with the exclamation point! Or long live the question mark? What is your answer? Insist on what you want! Or maybe question the wisdom of unbridled freedoms?
Should I expand my thoughts on this point as a reader and a human being? And should I be less emotional than hating or loving something immaterial, let alone tiny? Today our society is polarized on most if not all fronts. Ideological? Check. Spiritual? Check. Family? Check. Friendship? Check. Love? Check. Hatred? Triple check. Religion? Don’t even ask!
But even in the world at large exclamation point is a sign of conformity. You agree with the prevailing thoughts 100%! Anything less than one hundred is a suspect! In agreement with an opinion less than one hundred percent? You are not ideologically pure! Fight! Resist! But maybe someone can and should conduct, too? Everyone who studied physics knows that there is no electric circuitry without both resistor and conductor. Like a country or society or even family, it would stop without one or the other. Why insist on purity if it’s descriptive and proscriptive? Why promote the orthodoxy if it’s physically impossible? And don’t forget, it’s divisive, too!
Good grammar needs all the punctuation marks. They all carry their weight. A truly pluralistic society needs all opinions, however ugly. Who is there to decide which opinion has a right to exist and which doesn’t? I can’t! Can you? As long as even a violent opinion is resolutely separated from the violent action, it should not be crossed out. And that’s the whole point of freedom and democracy, expressed in the grammatically correct fashion.
Mark Budman is a first generation immigrant. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, Five Points, Guernica/PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim.
May 15, 2019 § 3 Comments
In her insightful craft essay, “Genre as a Vessel for Presence,” in our May 2019 issue of Brevity, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction:
Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.
That’s just a bit of Joy Castro’s wisdom and analysis. Read the full craft essay here.
May 8, 2019 § 18 Comments
By Joanne Lozar Glenn
The older I get, the longer I write, the more secrets I seem to carry.
Some of these secrets are mine. But the deeper I dig into the stories I want to tell, the more I realize that many of these dark places are hopelessly intertwingled with those of others.
Recently, for example, I asked a friend to give me feedback on a brief memoir piece I’d drafted. In it, I formatted certain sentences and paragraphs in grey ink—my code for text that might or might not be included. It’s how I keep the writing open, allow possibility. My friend read one of these greyed-out sections, said this is the heart, that it has to be included, that it is what makes the rest of it real.
Yes, that passage was full of drama. Night. Police. Search parties. That passage was also surely the most searingly painful event of a certain relative’s life.
I took it out. The piece is still unfinished.
And that is how my writing is going these days. It’s a road full of hazards, full of flashing yellow reflectors warning of danger ahead.
Whose reality do I accept: the writer who said all of us end up selling our families down the river anyway or the one who said “sometimes real love is refraining from telling some truths”? Trying to stand tall in the midst of so much tension—the need to write what I lived and felt, the fear of usurping others’ experience as my own, the battle between speaking truth in the service of the story and laying further hurt at the feet of those I love—is crushing.
Sometimes it seems the only option is to mute my pen.
Still, I build scenes. Erase them. Rise from the desk and walk to the kitchen. Return to all the secrets waiting for me in the dark, looking for even the smallest glimmer of light.
Joanne Lozar Glenn is an independent writer, editor, and educator who develops education- and business-related content and leads destination writing retreats. Her book Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story Through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels, and More (co-authored with five other writers) was published by Skyhorse Press in September 2016, and her work has appeared in the Northern Virginia Review, Peregrine, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, and other print and online journals.