Mirrors and Microprose: Lauren Gillette’s “Things I Did” Project

October 15, 2018 § 3 Comments

2018-10-12_0901By Nina Gaby

There’s an immediate familiarity to Lauren Gillette’s crisp and unsympathetic management of narrative despite the contrast to my own mixed-media micro-memoir exhibit one gallery over in the AVA Center for the Arts in Lebanon, NH. My work can be fussy – translucent porcelain sheets interleaved with text on rustic papers and old boxes of ephemera. Quite different from Gillette’s “Things I Did”–  a collection of 12×12 inch mirrors mounted edge to edge, each with a five-line account of a life etched onto the glass, each written by a stranger from Craigslist who answered her call. Dozens of these mirrors surround the viewer at eye level on three sides of the exhibit space. The fourth wall is all window, adding street energy to the mix.

The exhibit, curated by AVA’s Mila Pinigin, involves four mixed-media artists projecting narrative in unique ways, talking about story, examining the interplay between the written word and the visual structure containing that word or object standing in for that word.

What was familiar to me was the simplicity of the project. I had run across Gillette’s earlier work, “Wish/Regret” in 2012, by chance on an artwalk in Portsmouth, NH. Once again spare and focused, Gillette’s small square book, beautifully produced by Plainspoke Press, accompanied the exhibit. I purchased it to use as a provocative template for the therapy groups I run.

In “Wish/Regret,” the Maine artist paired two mugshots taken with her Hasselblad. In the first image the subject states a wish, the second, a regret. It is up to the viewer to fill in the rest, which becomes the blank slate for projection of the viewer’s own story in the same way that viewing her mirrors, and her other projects, invite one in.

Things I Did 6Gillette does not see herself as a writer, but echoes what so many writers say when they start a piece. “I start a project not knowing where it will go.” She states, “I put it out to the public and they never disappoint. They show me where to go. People–their poetic souls, their generosity. They always slay me. It’s amazing.”

On a brilliant October morning we dismantled our respective shows and went down the street for chai. I asked Gillette some questions:

Nina Gaby: Words are usually presented on the flat page, obviously you find shape in other materials. How did you make that jump?

Lauren Gillette: I’m a visual artist so the jump was taking the leap to ease more writing into the project, but to remind myself that if I go a little too far away from the visual I’ll need to make that leap sooner rather than later. I used to be a portrait painter and always thought there were stories but nobody knew them. Any way we can tell our stories is fine. I just hope to find that universal thread between people.

NG: It’s an intimate show. As the viewer gets close enough to read between the five lines of each story, they literally see themselves, in fragments, reading the story. What have people said to you about that experience?

LG: Good question. They start to make up their own list, they have their own thoughts. I don’t think much about what the viewer sees, once the exhibit is up, they see the pieces. I just hope some connection happens. In this world today any threads we can have between us helps. Our lack of connection is shows up even in children. Chronic illness, for instance, in pediatric cases earlier and earlier. Much of this can be attributed to how we distance ourselves.

NG: For those of us who work in microprose and flash, we would be interested in how you think about “less is more.” Does the visual replace the text?

Things I Did 2LG: Visual is presentation, how you look at it. In this case more writing than visual went through a process to get to the simple vehicle of the mirror. Sometimes I just want to be married to everything I make or write but it goes against my nature to say, well that’s a nice sentence, why don’t I save it? If it doesn’t push the concept forward it has to go.

NG: So you edit.

LG: Yes. A lot. It takes me a long time to figure out I really don’t like something. “Things I Did” started out as embroidery. Very laborious, not that that’s bad, but it looked horrible and it just wasn’t pushing the arc forward. I never edit what anyone else gives me for the projects, not even the spelling. They edit themselves. But my own stuff, the visual, the writing, I edit a lot to make it smaller. More universal. That thread I keep talking about.

NG: Are you aware of the impact? I heard the Outreach Coordinator at the arts center had groups of young disadvantaged women in and this really got them thinking about how they would describe their own lives, led to some good conversation about how they want to look at their lives.

LG: I try to take ego out of it. I try to see it from someone else’s point of view. Like– is it interesting to people? Helpful to people? I’m thrilled if someone says something nice, but as we’re all trying to do as artists is let people be a witness to themselves. People respond to what they recognize. So that’s not about me. No one wants to be impressed, they just want to be moved.
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To read more about Gillette’s work and how she came to this project, or to add your own five-line history, visit her blog at: thingsididproject.blogspot.com

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Nina Gaby is a visual artist, writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner. She has exhibited widely over the past four decades, is published in a number of anthologies and journals and has been a frequent contributor to the Brevity blog. To see Gaby’s work go to www.ninagaby.com.

 

Explaining Pain: How I Wrote “A Murder of Crows”

October 12, 2018 § 5 Comments

elvis

Elvis

by Jan Priddy

To understand how I wrote “A Murder of Crows,” my essay in Brevity‘s September 2018 issue, you must first understand why.

My husband and I feel a connection to crows, more as family than foreigners. About twenty-five years ago my husband came home from work with a baby crow in a paper sack. He had found “Elvis” beside his squashed brother on the shoulder of highway 101. Elvis was not yet fledged—that is, he had quills but not quite feathers and could not fly. His beak and legs were partly pink. His eyes were still blue. We rescued him but deliberately made no effort to tame him. Elvis lived in an enclosed garden for a few weeks. Local crows arrived to speak to him through the window. When he could fly, we let him go. Friends who rehabilitated birds in another state assured us that he would likely fare well as a juvenile, even re-released outside his original range. That proved true. For years we saw Elvis hanging with the local murder.

Since then I have read a good deal about ravens and crows. We talk to the crows during our beach walks, often engaging in lengthy exchanges of clicks and caws. When a raven pair moved into our community, we celebrated.

The story of the murder came from our eldest son who had attended and then worked as a  counselor in a local children’s camp. One of his last summers, perhaps even the last, he came home from the first week with a terrible story.

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So why use the form of a fable to recount this true event? I have taught fables as a narrative form. I once began my school year with “Blue Donkey Fable” by Suniti Namjoshi. Fables teach lessons. The boy who cried wolf. Fox’s sour grapes. Animals are often used as characters because they come prepackaged with known personalities and powers in the same way King might be a character or Farmer or Cook. Fables are told in past tense and third person. They are short. They are “once upon a time” and never intended to be believed as literally true. The author is not an actor in the story.

Since I always write the assignments I give my students, I have several conventional fables with crow characters. A crow plays with an abandoned garden glove. A young crow refuses to take practical advice from her elders. Each of my crow fables ends with a stated moral.

One wrinkle I add to my students’ assignment is to require revision to a different verb tense and using a different point of view. I tell students this is a “sneaky writer’s trick,” which it is. Choosing another perspective, even in nonfiction, may reveal deeper understanding and detail, though here my purpose is to help students develop control of rhetoric.

My fable about the summer camp murder violates the rules of a fable because it is a story about violation. The fabulist voice distances that pain while direct address and present tense intrude on the narrative. I ask questions. I include scientific facts. It is not a general tale set anywhere, but a specific event set somewhere. It is not a conventional fable with a stated moral. It is not a koan meant to twirl around forever. But even my fable is intended to warn while pushing the creative nonfiction envelope.

I do not believe in being sentimental about animals, but this brutal reaction to an ordinary annoyance still shocks me. The story of hubris outlives the event.

*

The life expectancy of an American crow is only seven or eight years. Elvis is long gone by now, but for some time my husband would spot “our crow,” the only local bird with white on his flight feathers, perched overhead on a cable line. The bird and my husband would call to one another. Gary would announce when he came home for lunch, “I saw Elvis!”
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Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Pushcart nomination, MFA, and publication in journals such as CALYXThe HumanistLiminal StoriesNorth American Review, and nonfiction anthologies on running and race. She is currently struggling with a utopian science fiction story in which nearly everyone dies. She loves birds.

A Review of Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life

October 8, 2018 § 1 Comment

41PkHEBUsnL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_by Randon Billings Noble

Jenny Boully’s collection of essays on the writing life, Betwixt-and-Between, is indeed betwixt-and-between. It’s certainly a collection of essays, but it’s also something of a craft book, and it’s also wonderfully something … else.

It’s the same way I have felt – as a woman but really more of a person, a person but really more of a writer, a writer but really someone for whom living and language are so intertwined it can often be hard to tell the two apart. It appears to be much the same way for Boully.

“Betwixt” is an archaic term for between, so from the very beginning the book’s title signals a kind of fluidity. The first essay, “the future imagined, the past imagined,” uses verb tenses to explore the shifting nature of time and desire: “we write in the past imagined when we write about old love affairs, because nothing is as unreal, as dreamy as love. And nothing is as confusing, as cryptic, as encoded as what occurs, as what is said, when we leave a love affair and suddenly have to live outside of that dream, the dream where something could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, would have occurred.

Much of Boully’s writing occupies this liminal space between reality and dream, is and could, did and could have. “Forecast Essay” takes on the predictive, musing on preservation and destruction and how we can keep what we have – or had. “On the Voyager Golden Records” speculates how far into space that “snapshot of the world” will travel, and how far Boully’s own writing will reach in her lifetime. And “Between Cassiopeia and Perseus” mourns the end of a love affair at the end of summer, when both the heat and the clouds conspire against seeing both the Perseid meteor shower as well as one’s new place in the world.

Some of the essays that have more straightforward titles and headings, like “How to Write on Grand Themes,” still surprise the reader with their unexpected leaps into imagery and metaphor.  Expected writerly advice like the section “Pay attention to detail” also urges, “Don’t close, do close your eyes. You will wish, it will never happen again. The aforesaid moment already acting as artifact – the teacup so lonely, so empty.”

But Boully doesn’t always take the unexpected route. She can also be brilliantly direct, as she is in “The Page as Artifact” when she claims, “If you’re spending too much time on the page and not enough time outside the page, then you’ll need to find more time to find poetry.” And in “On the EEO Genre Sheet” Boully pointedly states, “The term ‘other’ … immediately connotes an agenda: If you don’t fit into one of our predetermined categories, well, you aren’t playing the game correctly.”

But who wants to play this particular game – and correctly?  From the beginning, in her preface, Boully tells us that she has become attached to “hesitations, refusals, yearnings, oscillating and uncertain desires.” She describes her writing life as “a place where writing that isn’t quite this or that exists, writing that strives or serves to make manifest the inner workings of a life that isn’t quite about writing nor quite about living.” Like Peter Pan, both Boully and her work draw us to a threshold where we are “not wholly living in make-believe nor wholly living in the consequential world.”

Shifting and resisting, Boully has given us a collection of essays that also functions as a craft book in motion – not a set of directives but evidence of a writing life lived. It is everything we could want, but not as we expect. As Boully says herself of her own work, “I may look like an essay, but I don’t act like one. I may look like prose, but I don’t speak like it. Or, conversely, I may move like a poem, but I don’t look like one.”

And how glad we are for that.
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Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017, and her full-length collection Be with Me Always is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press on March 1, 2019. Other work has appeared in The New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere.

On the Graphic Memoir: Picturing the Hybrid Form

September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

1 title block for brevityWhile she was writing her last memoir, Rebecca Fish Ewan discovered that sketching helped her characterize scenes she was drafting in richly worded detail. Surprisingly, the sketches made their way into the narrative itself. In this craft essay, she explains how drawing can inform the writing process and bring more nuance and texture into the narrative and maybe even become part of the finished work.

An excerpt from Ewan’s illustrated essay:

When you make marks on a blank page, you create meaning, either through words or pictures. By hybridizing these two mechanisms for creating meaning, you can explore alternative ways to communicate thoughts and stories.

Read the full essay in Brevity’s new issue.

On the Writing Craft: When Watercolors Become Words

September 21, 2018 § 1 Comment

KephartArtIn her craft essay in Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Beth Kephart considers the ways that another artist’s work—her husband’s painting and photographs, to be specific—helped her see more clearly and further into her own writing. She explains the ways another’s art can inform how the writer sees what her words are trying to describe and then can better describe.

Here is an excerpt from the essay:

You don’t have to live with an artist to experience the shattering of another artist’s vision. You only have to want the dialogue. You have to want to take the work of others as seriously as you take your own, value others as you value yourself, give time to extensions and tangents. You have to allow for different possibilities. You have to look for and then absorb that song, that canvas, that garden as if it were the thing you made, or the thing you might have made, or the thing that might teach you about what you are making. Five minutes. Five sentences. Find your true story in a perfect stranger’s art.

Read the entire essay in our new issue.

Schizophrenia, Dandelions, and the Non-Linear Essay

September 19, 2018 § 1 Comment

RobinsonPhotoIn the Craft Essay section of Brevity‘s September 2018 issue Elizabeth Robinson considers an array of non-linear patterns for writing an essay, because unfamiliar patterns “realign our attentions, create greater plasticity in our art-making, and drench us in unknowing.”  Here’s an excerpt:

We read narrative obedient to the “upside-down checkmark” (tension, climax and resolution). The truth of it is so transparent that we need not evaluate, much less notice, it.

Despite that transparency, some of us are incapable of linearity. For us, linearity is a sin against the erotic chaos, the proliferating patterns of the world. Patterns. Pattern thinkers. Even to suggest it is to lapse into sentence fragments for us who see constellations instead of lines.

You can explore Robinson’s sampler of non-linear patterns here in Brevity Craft.

 

The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True

September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments

Loree Burns 4 copyBy Loree Griffin Burns

I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.

But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.

Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.

Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”

I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.

When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”

And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.

I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.

That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?

When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.

I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
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Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.

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