Everything’s Coming Up Photocopies: Medical Records for the Writing Process

September 23, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Alysia Sawchyn

I was nineteen, maybe twenty, the first time I requested my medical records. Back then, I was still on my parents’ insurance, and they were filing a claim, hoping to be reimbursed, at least in part, for the expensive drug rehab where they’d sent me. It was a facile experience; I barely lifted a finger. My role was a HIPAA formality—I (resentfully) waved at the familiar receptionist, doctors, and nurses and said, Yes, my parents can access my medical records. The staff presented my father with a thick manila envelope, and I practically skipped out the front door, still enjoying my freedoms. Nothing to it.

Seven-ish years later, I started writing a book about my mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses, which eventually became A Fish Growing Lungs.  My memory is not great (see rehab above), and some of the dates, appointments, facilities, and doctors muddled together, making drafting difficult. I wanted specifics, and my old medical records would be able to provide at least some particulars, untainted by time. I envisioned the recorded dates like scaffolding around which I could build a structure made of memory.

The list of doctors and institutions I drafted was daunting both because of its length and its incompleteness. I live by my checklists, and excerpts of this one read like a classified document:

  • (firstname?) Jones — psychiatrist, private practice? NoVA, 2004/2005-2006
  • Psych ward doctor — Psych ward (??), state run? NoVA, March 11? 2007
  • Doctor? NP? — Clinic, Greensboro, NC, March/April? 2007
  • (firstname) Sharif & Dr. Jarod Diaz — psychiatrists, Rolling Hills Treatment, Clearwater, May 1-30 2007?

Imagine calling a doctor’s office and saying something like, Hi, yes, I think I was a patient at your institution seven-ish years ago, could you please check if I was actually there and, if so, could you please send me copies of my medical records? The process was an odd mix of social engineering and verifying my own identity eight different ways on a phone line.

Only one acquisition was relatively straightforward: My longest-standing former psychiatrist (whose name I remember and who hadn’t moved offices or closed their practice) immediately said, Yes, and hardcopies were available for me to pick up the next day. I think he may have even waived the fee.

The rest of the items on my checklist were a mix of awkward; unattainable; or achieved only by sheer, dumb luck. One of my former therapists basically said, Ugh, do I have to; they’re somewhere in my storage unit, and at that time I still had not yet had enough therapy to say, Yes, Jennifer, please go get my goddamn medical records.

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Much harder than acquiring my medical records was reading them. Writing personal essay necessitates constructing a persona on the page, and while I am accustomed to trying to make sense of my past self, this added another layer of complexity. This was me trying to make sense of how others had made sense of me. Reading the documents felt like handling a nesting doll made out of so many jellyfish. My first few attempts ended with me shoving the stacks of paper under my bed and going outside to smoke. The solution I ultimately settled on (after having to reorder the documents a few times) was to camp out on my balcony with a pack of cigarettes and chain-smoke my way through the folders. It wasn’t graceful. To see oneself through the eyes of others is charming when you’ve just started dating; it’s markedly less so when you’re having a psychotic break in the ER.

Earlier drafts of Fish relied heavily on these doctors’ notes. I incorporated direct quotes into several different essays, and one was entirely devoted to the nuances of my diagnoses juxtaposed against sections of previous and current versions of the DSM. Over the course of about a year, different readers of that particular essay, creatively titled “Diagnosis,” flagged it as bulky and dragging, and each time I made appreciative mhmm sounds before hoping the next reader would say something different.

I tell people I am a slow writer because I need lots of time between drafts to be able to see what I’ve actually written, instead of what I’d wanted to write. A lot of scholarly work exists around illness narratives—the hows and whys of their construction; their benefits and potential pitfalls, both for the author and audience; how they can inadvertently reinforce medical institutions’ granting power of legitimacy—but I’m going to leave all that aside and say that, in the end, I cut “Diagnosis,” salvaging only a few darling phrases to sprinkle throughout the remaining essays.

When I was finally able to set my manuscript aside for half a year, I returned to it to find that I agreed with my earlier readers’ comments. What I found was not an essay that added to the collection, but a document I’d created in order to write all the other essays around it. “Diagnosis” was how I’d made sense of how others had made sense of me; the only way I knew how to unpack those pesky, slippery dolls was to write them out.

The moral of this is not “Do whatever your readers tell you to do” (though I did have excellent readers). The moral is “It takes every word it takes.” Today, my medical records are in a plastic bin in my attic crawlspace labeled “BOOK 1,” alongside all the other articles and handouts and lists and notes I read and made for Fish—not dogma, but just another type of source material. I had to read and write every sentence to get to the end. All this digging and drafting happens not because everything I uncover should make its way into the final written product, but because the process is the bulk of the work, and thus, where the bulk of the joy resides.
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Alysia Sawchyn is a Features Editor at The Rumpus. Her essay collection about misdiagnosed mental illness, A Fish Growing Lungs, was published by Burrow Press in June 2020. You can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Disability as Nuance, Disability as Craft

September 16, 2020 § 1 Comment

In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.

Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!

You can read the full discussion here.

And access our special issue, “Experiences of Disability.”

A Review of D.J. Lee’s Remote: Finding Home in the Wilderness

September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments

By Debra Gwartney

I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?

It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.

D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.

Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek,  a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.

So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer  complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.”  It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.

The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.

Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.

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Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a  finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.

On Zooming In and Out

September 9, 2020 § 12 Comments

By Rae Pagliarulo

I think creating a strong piece of short nonfiction—be it a lyric essay, a collage, flash, micro, whatever—is like knowing exactly how to use the zoom lens on a camera. You can keep the lens fully retracted and create a picture that includes many elements, several focal points—or you can zoom in and train your eye on one person, one moment, a limited canvas that somehow tells a bigger story. You have to decide what belongs in the frame, and crop out what doesn’t. Easier said than done.

Lately, I’ve been writing (or trying to write) about my dad. Since he died 15 months ago, I’ve barely been able to pen a grocery list, let alone an essay. Now, after much grieving and healing (which is, for what it’s worth, nowhere near complete), I feel small, hopeful sparks of creativity returning. But when I start to tell a story about him, my zoom lens pulls back and suddenly I’m going on about explanations and history, about our family, his childhood, my childhood. I can’t stop. It all feels completely essential. I find myself believing that the picture I’ve chosen to illustrate won’t make any sense unless I include the entire background. Unsurprisingly, the feedback I get from my writing partners echoes this—“Too much explaining—what’s the real story here? Focus on the moment.”

In the next draft or piece, I take those notes to heart and push the zoom lens forward until all the extraneous background has been cropped out. All the tiny details of the moment come into extreme focus. I self-edit for sparseness, for the brevity that feels so elusive. I try to let single conversations do the work of pages and pages of explanation. Then, my writing partners pry into the carefully framed shot—“I want to know more about why he’s like this, why this moment matters. Give me a little background.”

It occurs to me that while the viewfinder of my camera seems to work just fine, the zoom lens is all screwed up. I can’t seem to find the middle ground, the place where the moment is the main focus, but there’s just enough setting that the moment makes sense. I know it can be done. I’ve read what feels like millions of flash essays that have done it so well. And long ago, before the grief and the healing, before the loss, I even wrote a couple of them myself.

Looking for inspiration for my messy essay drafts, I comb through my email history for messages between me and my dad. Links to lighting fixtures for the house we renovated together. Christmas lists fired off the day after Halloween. But more than any of that—photographs from his many shooting trips to area parks and historical sites. Restorations of old family snapshots that age almost ruined. Perfectly framed photos he spent hours capturing, and then hours more perfecting in Photoshop.

At the bottom of each email was his name and a quote I’d seen a million times—“f/8… and be there.” He had been ending emails that way for years, but I’d never given the quote a second thought. I dug around, and found countless mentions of it on photography websites and blogs. Coined by noted spot news photographer Arthur Fellig, it essentially means, forget about the fancy technique and theatrics. Just go to the most basic setting (f/8) and be present and ready for whatever comes. It’s the photographer’s “keep it simple, stupid.”

In typical dad fashion, he may have buried the lede, but he gave me exactly what I needed at precisely the right moment. I realize that, now that I’m writing with purpose and direction again, I’ve been futzing with the camera settings and contorting my body so I could find just the right angle. I’ve been screwing with the zoom, toggling from portrait to landscape, muting the flash or burning it too bright. No wonder I haven’t been able to create the picture I want. No wonder everything I do feels like too much, or too little.

So now, I’m returning to my drafts with that quote at the front of my mind. What does it look like to keep my internal camera on its most basic setting? How do I stop looking for the perfect shot, and simply be present for whatever moments await me? Will I ever figure out what truly belongs in the frame, and what I can afford to crop out? Like any good photographer—like my dad—I’m going to keep hitting the shutter and have faith that sooner or later, I’ll figure it out.
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Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

A Memoir Takes Its Place: A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan

September 8, 2020 § Leave a comment

We are posting one of our September Craft Essays a bit early to celebrate the recent release of Rebecca McClanahan’s new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays (Red Hen Press). In this craft contribution, Nancy Geyer talks with McClanahan, a frequent Brevity contributor over the years, about the crafting of her memoir, with a focus on conveying setting.

Here’s an excerpt,

Nancy Geyer: In one of your craft essays for Brevity“Forest in the Trees,” you mention recurring patterns or motifs as a way to unify a book. They can also reinforce the feel of a place, right? I’m thinking of your squirrels and park benches.

Rebecca McClanahan: Yes, recurring motifs seem a natural way to unify a book and to situate the reader in a place. And you’re right about animals and park benches! Squirrels do indeed scamper now and then through the book’s pages, but quite a few other creatures make appearances as well—pigeons and ducks, including the duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen statue, and the dogs in the park, and even the baby bird that the homeless man shows me nesting in the lining of his jacket.

And yes, the park bench was such an important part of my experience of New York—not only as my own physical (if temporary) stake on the landscape and a place from which to view the scene, but also as an opportunity for conversations with strangers, who were always eager to share their stories and their sometimes strange but always intriguing wisdom. In that way, a park bench is where the public and private meet, right? Which seems to echo the experience of living in New York. At least my own experience during the time we lived there.

Now, take a moment to pop over and read the full interview here.

Erasing Trump: A Pandemic Protest Essay

August 26, 2020 § 6 Comments

Shortly after the seriousness of our pandemic became known, essayist Justin Hocking gave himself a challenge: perform 100 erasures on Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal in 100 Days. Hocking is about 90 or so days into his project, and has released an initial chapbook in PDF and printed zine form: WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP.

As our stay-at-home protocols continue, Hocking is considering extending the “100 day” time challenge, because, as he says, “I’d like to keep executing the erasures right up until the November election.” We caught up with him to ask about erasure prose, politics, and pandemic projects.

Dinty W Moore: I’m intrigued by your Trump erasures for a number of reasons, but one of them is how your work stretches the creative nonfiction genre. Erasure poetry has become common enough, thanks to writers such as Matthea Harvey and Mary Ruefle, but that form most often creates a new poem out of someone else’s words. I’ve seen prose erasure too, but in many cases it results in a sort of poetry as well. What strikes me about your Trump project, however, is that you’re still creating a work of nonfiction: you are using Trump’s words (or maybe the words of his ghost writer) to create an alternate biography of Trump, but still, I think, with the goal of reporting truth. Does it feel that way to you?

Justin Hocking: I think what keeps me engaged with the project – and what keeps me coming back daily to a source text that I find distasteful on so many levels – is the element of the unexpected. Every morning I flip through my copy of Art of the Deal, I really have zero idea what will happen. Sometimes what emerges has a kind of cadence and rhythm that feels like poetry to me, and these tend to be my personal favorites. The Dada-ist absurdity and ridiculous quality of the work keeps me entertained, too. What I could have never expected, though – and what I think you’re getting at – is the way a text published in 1987 can yield a kind of reportage that responds directly to actual events unfolding in 2020.

I’m thinking particularly of pieces like the one created days after the murder of George Floyd, when Trump hid from protesters in the presidential bunker: “I’m/in the/basement/of distressed property.” In another more recent piece, the speaker describes using “very large security people” to keep the streets “free of rights,” and states “I/require/t/ear gas.” This one hit home here in Portland, where we’re concerned about the long-term effects to human health and the environment from relentless CS gas attacks on peaceful protesters. So yes, I haven’t previously considered WHITE OUT in the specific context of creative nonfiction, but the process and results do often have a kind of essayistic quality.

DWM: I notice you allow yourself small drawings – the White House for instance, on the bunker page – as well as erasures. Was that planned all along, or did the idea of drawings present itself by surprise?

JH: I launched the project just using Wite-Out, without ornamentation or color. Then I spotted the opportunity to create a visually striking image of Trump in his bunker by drawing the White House above an all-black box encasing the line “basement/of distressed property.” Drawing the White House felt risky, because my representational art skills are so basic. And I currently only have one copy of Art of the Deal, so there’s not much room for error. But the positive response on social media emboldened me to continue adding visual elements. And to add more color with paint pens: metallic gold, silver, pink, red and orange. The more recent pieces have a kind of abstract minimalist quality that I’m really enjoying. It’s a bit of a silly project, on the face of it, but the daily process feels like a satisfying culmination of my desire to keep busting down boundaries between poetry, prose, visual art, activism, and DIY publishing.

DWM: You are not just busting down boundaries, you are accomplishing something – a quantifiable page count, an identifiable project with a start date and an end date – during a time that many writers find themselves stuck, without words, so distracted by pandemic worries and political turmoil to find any focus. Was that your intent all along, or a lucky accident?

JH: I appreciate the encouragement, Dinty, especially from a writer whose work and aesthetics I admire so deeply. To be perfectly honest, I currently have close to zero bandwidth for my “regular” fiction and creative nonfiction (including another book-length memoir project), for various reasons. Feeling exhausted by our new Covid reality is one reason, certainly. Wanting to make more space to celebrate and amplify the voices of writers of color is another. The Trump erasure project does feel like a lucky gift in this particularly charged political moment, in that it allows me to truncate an authoritarian white supremacist’s bluster on a daily basis, rather than attempting to recount my own relatively privileged life experiences over the course of two or three hundred pages. Though it would be disingenuous to claim the project exists entirely beyond the scope of my own ego or my privileged position in the literary world, of course.

On a more personal note, I want to commiserate with anyone out there experiencing a creative drought during these times. I’ve survived a couple periods of pretty severe illness in my life, when erasures were the only form of “writing” I could manage. I highly recommend the erasure process as a form of creative medicine and/or political activism for anyone who craves it. I also hope to witness more folks making erasures on The Art of the Deal or other similar texts – beyond my own work, I’d love to see this continuing to transform into a minor movement. A cheap paperback copy, a pencil and some Liquid Paper are all it takes to begin.

DWM: What else can you share about your odd and fascinating project?

JH: Just a quick shout out to a few writers and works that inspired the WHITE OUT project: The Place of Scraps by Canadian First Nations writer Jordan Abel; Expecting Something Else by A.M. O’Malley; comedian Sarah Cooper’s Trump lip synchs; and all the students who’ve made their own Art of the Deal erasures in our writing courses at Evergreen State College and Portland State University. Also keep your eyes peeled for Erase The Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry, edited by Isobel O’Hare, that drops in August 2020 from University of Hell Press.

Learn more about Hocking’s WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP and purchase a PDF at his website: http://www.justinhocking.net/  The PDF e-zines are pay-what-you-will, with all proceeds benefiting Portland’s Black Resilience Fund.

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Justin Hocking is the former Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center. He is the author of the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, and a chapbook of hybrid poetry/prose entitled PS: The Wolves. He teaches creative nonfiction and publishing at Portland State University.

Read More Bad Writing

July 21, 2020 § 9 Comments

At a renaissance festival, a large male audience volunteer stands on a woman lying on a bed of nails. Another performer stabilizes the standing man.Back when I was a stunt performer, my regular auto mechanic came to a show. After, he said, “I just don’t know how you can figure out which volunteer to bring on stage! How do you know they aren’t going to hurt you or act like a jerk and ruin the show?”

I said, “Bob, how do you know my catalytic converter is the problem without even jacking up my car to look underneath?”

Bob had a lifetime’s wealth of automotive knowledge that let him listen to the car and my description of the problem and figure out what was wrong. I was able to scan a crowd and determine who was actively engaged in the show (leaning forward, laughing, arms uncrossed), who wasn’t going to be a jerk (dad-age or older, here with family and not a gang of male friends), and who was going to play along nicely (already following instructions like ‘everyone say hello!’).

I learned these ways to look at people by picking bad people. I picked drunks who wouldn’t follow directions, smart-asses who tried to steal the show, someone from a religion that did not allow them to shake my hand. Public embarrassment, low tips, and getting dropped on a bed of nails were the immediate, specific feedback I needed to learn to pick audience members who would participate joyfully and let me make them a hero who deserved a round of applause.

As writers, we rarely get that kind of specific and immediate feedback. Form rejections don’t tell us anything beyond “this piece wasn’t right for this journal at this time.” How are we supposed to learn what’s not working in our writing, and make it better, fast?

By reading bad writing.

Overwrought memoirs. Jargon-filled science fiction. Purple-eyed, flowing-haired, has-all-the-powers fantasy. And by reading beginning writing. Early efforts from writers still a little less-skilled than we are. Novels self-published on Amazon by authors whose craft is catching up to their ambition.

Spotting problems in less-sophisticated writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like walking up to a broken car and immediately seeing a flat tire, instead of having to pop the hood and run diagnostics. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our own work and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

To make reading bad writing a truly useful experience, approach it like an assignment. Read a chapter (or an essay, or a story) and first identify what the author is trying to do.

This chapter introduces the family members and shows each person’s job, their place in the family hierarchy, and how they relate to the narrator.

Pick out anything that is actually working, just as you would if you were sharing a workshop with this author.

I can clearly see the mom and dad’s physical appearance. The sister is likeable and I’d want to spend more time with her. The brother is shown as a bad guy from his interaction with the narrator.

Identify what’s not working. But unlike the reading-for-fun stage where you’d simply say “Ugh!” and chuck the book aside, get specific about why it’s not working.

Huh, if I skim ahead, this all seems like backstory to about page 50. Maybe the hiking trip should be at the beginning? Before that they’re all just hanging out. If we need to know who they are, the two sentences on page 5 are enough about the sister, the incident with the puppy shows us the parents, and maybe just the brother shoving the narrator?

Or

These sentences feel really long and clunky. Oh, look, they all have three or more prepositional phrases…

I’m counting, and there are 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

When you know what specifically is wrong, try rewriting a paragraph or two as if you were this author’s editor. (Do not under any circumstances communicate to the writer that you’re doing this. That’s not a favor unless it’s been requested, and unasked-for critique is insulting.) See if you can carry out their original intent, but in better words.

Finally, return to your own writing. Pick one of the problems you saw in the writing you critiqued, and look for that problem in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Is there a word or sentence pattern that sticks out?

Yes, we can absolutely learn good writing from reading good writing. But that often takes a teacher or group to identify the subtleties of craft together. If you’re working alone, reading bad writing helps you learn to spot problems and fix them. As your eye for craft develops, you’ll get better at seeing issues and knowing how to fix them when you read better writing. You’ll notice the one bad sentence in an award-winning book, or a famous author’s overused paragraph structure. You’ll understand how a very popular book’s powerful story is pulling readers through a saggy, under-plotted middle. And you’ll be able to apply these fixes to your own work as your writing improves.

Best of all, while you’re practicing, you don’t have to change a flat tire. Or get dropped on a bed of nails.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is forthcoming from Woodhall Press in March 2021. Join her mailing list for occasional writing tips, adventures and inspiration: sign up here!

Sweating the Small Stuff: Writing Details that Count

July 14, 2020 § 9 Comments

Author photo of a white woman with shoulder length black and grey hair, sitting with a laptop. Behind her is water and blue sky.By Jennifer Silva Redmond

Let’s talk about description. Readers need to know what places and settings look like, but if an author goes on too long describing them down to the smallest nail head in the wall, our attention tends to wander, because we care about people, not things—and we like conflict between people most of all.

The biggest problem with description is we usually get too much, too soon. This is true for all exposition (yes, description is expository, since it’s “intended to explain or describe”). In Chapter One, you’d be just fine describing people and places that are going to pertain to Chapter Two or Three. What you don’t need to describe at length are places and people we won’t encounter again in the book; you also needn’t go into detail about a place we don’t visit again until much later. If your grandfather only appears in Chapter One, then some very simple description is fine for him. He’s tall and thin with a wispy gray beard, perhaps, and that is enough. A workplace might be described simply as “a field of uniform white cubicles” if we are not setting a major scene there.

You probably already know to pick specific details rather than generalities. For example, we often label places “run-down,” but what does that mean visually? What is the clue that—in looking at a house or a gas station—would lead you to call it run-down? Pick that specific thing and show us, instead of using the same tired description. When you go back to that location, show us another dirty, worn image: the screen door hanging from one rusty hinge, the peeling, weathered porch-boards, and the bare, weedy lawn to help us to construct a mental image of the place.

And don’t describe your main character from head to toe in the early pages in that adjective-loaded bad-romance-novel way (“her auburn hair tumbled down over the neckline of her green silk shantung sheath, revealing her creamy ivory décolletage”). Instead show a characteristic—a way of dressing, walking, or talking that reveals something key. After all, we do this every day. We see a person ahead of us on the sidewalk, and start assembling pieces of their look, actions, and behavior that let us know whether they’re going to ask for money, pitch us a religion, say hi, or just ignore us. If they act too eager to connect with us, we may take out our phone or refuse to look them in the eye.

When I did the content edit on the manuscript of Fourteen: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing, and Survival (She Writes Press, Oct 2015) by Leslie Johansen Nack, Chapter One began with her family living on a rundown ranch when Leslie was much younger than the title age. There was great writing there—a lot of good description of the setting of the property and of Leslie and her sisters and her parents. The writing was excellent, but it threw off the structure by focusing on the family’s early life, which is not what the book is about.

I encouraged her to begin much later—in 1973, when she was a preteen—moving quickly to some of the early, troubled sailing scenes with her family on the sailboat they eventually take to the South Seas. The opening pages would then show how her father bonded with her over sailing on day one (his unhealthy attention to his daughter, which eventually drove a wedge between him and her mother, is hinted at) and also let the reader know what sort of book it is (see subtitle). I assured her that she could show some of the early scenes in “flashbacks” later on.

Fourteen includes a dysfunctional, abusive family dynamic that was established early in her life, but the book needed to begin with a truer sense of what the majority of the story entailed: sailing and her strained relationship with her father. Showing the whole family interacting on the boat let the author describe them in visual, active ways that revealed their characters, not just their characteristics. For example, the first sailing scene shows the mom and sister getting seasick and Leslie feeling fine, which results in her father’s approval of her, specifically.

Leslie jumped right back in and went to work on the opening chapters and some other trouble spots—for example, we decided that the book should end when the voyage ended. (The effort she went through in cutting those early chapters and restructuring the manuscript was worth it: Fourteen is the recipient of 5 independent book awards, and the book gets 4.5 stars with 700 ratings on Goodreads.)

We have all heard we must “kill our darlings,” but with description and exposition, it’s hard for authors to know which ones to kill and which to simply move later or sprinkle throughout the book. The best advice I can give is to consider your genre, and refer to the book’s one-paragraph pitch or “log line” and see if every chapter—especially the early ones—support or advance your story line.

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Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel, and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.

Becoming the Subject: On Getting Beyond Persona into the Personal

July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments

lisa levyBy Lisa Levy

For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot.  When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.

My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.

Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.

For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.

Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.

In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
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Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.

Choose Your Own Adventure

July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments

A cover of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, the Cave of TimeOne of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.

That’s the end of the story.

The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.

Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.

Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.

Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?

If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.

Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.

Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.

We get to choose that, too.

Looking for your ending?

Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:

  • Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
  • Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
  • Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.

Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.

  • Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
  • Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
    Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
  • List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
  • Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.

Yes, this is a lot like therapy.

But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?

You really do get to choose.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!

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