Writing and Thinking “Outside of the Box:” A Class Action Lawsuit

April 6, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Boaz Dvir

A West Jefferson, Ohio, cardboard box has filed a class action lawsuit against tens of millions of Americans, citing defamation, libel, slander, reputational damage, separation anxiety, social phobia, externalist angst, agoraphobia, panic disorder, PTSD, ADHD, and FOMO.

Filed at a US District Court in Columbus, Ohio, the suit claims that the use, misuse, overuse, and bludgeoning-to-death uber-utilization of the phrase “think out of the box” has caused irreparable harm to Box 7821 and 9,240,524,378 other cardboard containers that have joined in this legal bout.

The 9,240,524,379 boxes seek an injunction against the use of this “shopworn shibboleth” by anyone, anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Yes, even in the hallowed institutions of capitalism.

“I cringed the first time I heard this counterproductive catchphrase,” said Box 7821, a multilayered corrugated fiberboard with a fetching fold at the edge of one of its side panels. “By the 100th time, I collapsed. By the 1000th, I was totally crushed. By now, I’ve had it up to my slots. Why do humans insist on recycling these flattening terms? Why can’t they think outside the box?”

The boxes’ suit has sent shockwaves through corporate boardrooms, political headquarters, marketing departments, entrepreneurial retreats, and think tanks.

“If this suit prevails, market leaders will have to conjure up new ways to instill out-of-the-box thinking among their employees,” a CNBC/MSNBC/NBCUniversal/Peacock analyst said. “In a twist of irony, they themselves will be forced to finally and truly think outside the box.”

Although most of the defendants have yet to think in or out of the box about the suit, some have stepped up to shoot it down.

“I have nothing against most boxes, as long as they keep their flaps shut,” said a Boise, Idaho, resident as she brought in Amazon packages after letting them sit on her front porch for just 12 days (down from the previous 12 weeks) as part of her relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols. “Some of my best deliveries arrive in boxes. I recycle. I never draw evil, ugly faces on them or anything.”

The reporter pointed at an evil, ugly face drawn on the side of an Amazon box perched on the Boise resident’s porch swing. At first, the Boise resident called this observation “fake news.” Then she blamed her “young, impressionable son.” But this middle-aged adult said he stopped drawing after catching his mom tossing his childhood art into a burning fireplace.

Finally, the Boise resident pointed her finger at her dog. But the Chihuahua claimed its innocence by barking incessantly and flashing its tiny teeth at the sketch, which some might say resembles Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s soul.

“Fine,” the Boise resident said, “you drew it out of me. I felt boxed in, OK?”

Her dissatisfaction was echoed by a Crystal River, Fla., homeowner wearing a “Prevent the 2024 Steal” T-shirt and shooting box panels with an assault rifle in her back yard.

“Boxes are a key part of the conspiracy to control the American people,” the Crystal River sharpshooter yelled during target-practice internals. “We should alter this line of verbal propaganda into ‘out with the boxes!’”

Yet other defendants called for understanding and compromise.

“We gotta stop saying the same thing over and over and expecting different responses,” said a San Francisco studio-apartment-renter from his van phone as he drove solo across the country. “We gotta start thinking out of the box.”

(The reporter did her best to capture this quote from the San Francisco studio-apartment-renter. But he was hard to hear because he insisted on wearing a mask despite driving alone in his loud diesel van.)

Accepting the San Francisco studio-apartment-renter’s olive branch, Box 7821 said, “I gotta welcome attempts at compromise. They show that outta-box thinking is possible.”

The reporter asked if it’s hypocritical for boxes to use this phrase. But Box 7821 said they’re reappropriating it.

“Just as Jewish comedians took back ‘Jewish,’” Box 7821 said, “and heterosexual white men now own ‘bro,’ we need to reclaim ‘think out of the box.’”

Box 7821’s attorneys asked the US District Court in Columbus to expedite the proceedings. They noted that the plaintiff lives a couple of miles from Amazon Fulfillment Center CMH4 and could find itself rolling down an assembly line at any moment.

The reporter advised Box 7821 to refuse deliveries to Crystal River and Boise.

Waging battle on several fronts, Box 7821 has filed a trademark, secured all related URLs, and hired a bevy of social media influencers to “de-cool-nize” the expression.

Another, unnamed box praised Box 7821’s courage.

“I’m awestruck,” the box said, “seeing a box not just thinking but also acting out of the box.”

Legal experts said this suit may inspire others to act. Fruits have scheduled a meeting later this season to marinate over pulverizing the overripe slogan “grab the low-hanging fruit.”

“We thought that in this era, y’all would cease with the grabbin’,” a Marshallville, Ga., peach told the reporter. “But even now as we speak, I can see that you’re fixin’ to grab me. This terminology also promotes a hierarchical structure that runs counter to our sweet disposition.”

(The reporter confirmed that the peach was indeed delicious.)

Flagpoles are also standing tall in their opposition to the “idiotic idiom” of “run it up the flagpole.”

“Only thing we want running up our pole is a US or a state flag,” said an American-and-New-Mexico-flags-hoisting flagpole in Albuquerque. “What you see is not us waving you in to spew your bad ideas and toxic feedback but waving you off.”

At the same time, pins have shelved a proposal to do something about “put a pin in it” and candles say they’re too busy to deal with “burning the candle at both ends.”

“I don’t have time for this meshugaas,” a Staten Island Shabbos candle said. “I’m burning the candle at both ends over here.”

Box 7821 encouraged the candles and pins to think differently.

“And until our trademark comes through,” Box 7821 said, “I’ll just leave it at that.”

___
Award-winning filmmaker Boaz Dvir’s films have been distributed by PBS, Hulu, Amazon Prime, The New York Times and other outlets. An assistant professor at Penn State, Dvir teaches journalism and directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, which trains educators to effectively teach difficult topics. Dvir’s critically acclaimed nonfiction book, Saving Israel (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), follows World War II aviators’ secret mission to prevent what they viewed as a second Holocaust.

Quiz: Is It a Critique from The Great British Baking Show or a Response from a Literary Magazine?

April 1, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Lori Barrett

Can you guess which of the statements below are from judges sampling baked goods and which are from editors sampling my writing?

This piece is not for me, but I like the way you [write/bake].

I worry about this one. First off, it’s very thin.

This [pastry/story] sparked a discussion among our [judges/editors].

It’s a real mess, isn’t it?

There are some clever beats here, but I think this could use a stronger through line. 

Sometimes simplicity is a way forward. This is taking it a little bit too far.

Really loved this. It’s depressing in all the right ways.

Nice and boozy.

We do have a few ideas for edits.

It didn’t quite have that twist of the weird we’re looking for.

All the elements are there, but there’s nothing else.

We know that [baking/writing] is hard, and we support your work.

It’s sort of squidgy at the sides.

At the very least, we can let you know why we didn’t accept it, so that you can understand our tastes better.

This is just goo.

This is fun, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to take it.

It’s slightly overbaked.

Despite its strengths, it has not been selected.

It holds together well.

We appreciated the [taste/read], but we’re sorry to say we are unable to use this.

It’s… um … overdecorated.

Our having to decline this may be because we have work similar to the work you present here.

The top is very sloppy.

We did find much to admire in your work, but …

It’s a bit pudding-y to be honest.

Answers: Sorry! I baked a boozy cake to distract myself from the steady flow of rejections, and now I have no recollection of which is which.
____

Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse online, Paper Darts, and the Wall Street Journal. She has participated in Chicago’s live lit events That’s All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

How Humor and Essays Became Timeshare Partners in My Brain

March 7, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Nikki Campo

My first draft of an essay about losing my mom to cancer was a doozy. An overabundance of adverbs wasn’t even my biggest problem. I was going for “personal essay,” but landed squarely on “journal entry.” Complete with tear-stained pages and many corresponding descriptions of past tears, the copy was, by any standard, bad.

As writers, we know when our work sucks, but sometimes we don’t know why. Or, as someone only a couple years into my dedication to the craft, I don’t always know why. I love Ira Glass’s take which I would summarize as: we get into the work of writing because we have good taste, and it’s because of this good taste that our early work often disappoints us.

I probably should have scrapped that essay, or at least relegated it to the corners of my hard drive, but instead, I set it aside intending to come back to it. In the meantime, I needed a (figurative) smoke break.

So, I turned to humor writing. Why? Because my essay was full of grief—about losing my mom, about becoming a mother without her—the kind of sadness saturation that required a clean break. Humor has always been my pressure release valve. My taste has evolved somewhat over time, but big belly laughs still serve as a way out of darkness. As a kid, I loved Steve Martin movies and Saturday Night Live, when I could convince my parents to let me watch. In college, I discovered David Sedaris in an airport bookstore. I knew from his first words in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” that I would forever seek humorous prose-as-medicine.

Of course, the first time I tried writing humor I flopped. This was also true the second, third, and sixteenth time, with McSweeney’s rejection emails as my barometer. But then something clicked. Humor became a way to process not only weird, one-off observations, but oddly, grief. Editors started saying things like “we’d love to run this” instead of “thanks for the look, but we’ll pass.”

I’ve never written humor explicitly about tragedy, but I’ve come at it from the side. In one essay, I opened with this sentence: “Since I lost my mom after my second wedding, I don’t have anyone to tell me if my mustache is showing.” Do you want to laugh or cry? Not sure? Me neither! I’ve also written humor about things like eggplants, bikini waxes, and consumer explosives, none of which have anything to do with grief. They’re just a collection of things that were making me laugh and came together in such a way that editors agreed to publish them.

After a few humor pieces and a big ol’ metaphorical exhale, I felt ready to get back to that essay about losing my mom. With the help of trusted writer friends, I figured out how to break the big, lumbering beast of a story into multiple essays. Now, many slices of life from those days live on their own as personal essays in various publications, each contained to a period of time a reader can digest in one sitting. Several other wannabes live on in my drafts folder. Who knows how they’ll come out, if they ever do.

In a way, humor and essays are like timeshare partners in my brain. When one vacates, the other can enter the space, devoid of clutter and detritus from drafts recently departed. And occasionally, as was the case in that essay about my ‘stache, the timeshare partners vacation together.

But there is a downside to flip-flopping between genres the way I do, and it’s this: I forget how to write humor when I’m focused on essays and vice versa. Humor is an especially picky writerly muscle that doesn’t appreciate being ignored. I think that’s because part of the key to a solid humor story is finding that one, often silly observation that feels really unique (e.g. how often I buy an eggplant only to let it rot in the back of my fridge whilst I decide how best to use it) and finding a way to blow it into a whole piece.

That takes practice! For me, it takes finding a good class or reading more in the genre for a concentrated stretch of time. It takes noticing what I’m noticing about my life, and what I notice when I’m in a humor-writing stretch is often different from what I notice in an essay-writing one. For example, during months of essay immersion, I ask myself what I’m supposed to be learning when my kids have a meltdown, or when I do. But when I’m writing humor, those same meltdowns are simply fodder for a future piece called “FAQs about the dinner hour with three children.”

You could say while I’m leaning into one genre, the other gets a chance to breathe. Sometimes the refreshed genre is more willing to yield worthy words after a rest, and sometimes not. But that fits. After all, it’s as easy for me to cry about how I parented at the end of the day as it is for me to laugh. I suppose the same will be true about the words I put on the page.

___

Nikki Campo is a writer whose essays and short humor have been published in HobartThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency among other digital and print publications and anthologies. Her personal essay “Queen of Birthdays” won 1st prize in the 2019-2020 Charlotte Writers’ Club Nonfiction contest. Find more of her work at nikkicampo.com. Twitter @nikkicampo

I Love Zoom Writing Workshops

February 28, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino

I love Zoom writing workshops. I love the way some people name themselves on Zoom: Steve’s iPad, or Grandma Lois, or JCO, as if Joyce Carol Oates is slumming with the twenty of us on a Saturday afternoon.  I love the pronoun designations, eighty percent of them she/her, often the obvious ones; the rest silent, bestowing upon us the gift of guessing.

I love the beginning of these workshops, the participant credentialing. We hear from a novice, a nail technician contemplating a novel about a nail technician who solves crimes based on her knowledge of hands; the seasoned writer mentioning every journal that’s published her creative nonfiction about Overactive Bladder; the elderly white man describing in detail his 750-page manuscript about an Indigenous community on a South Dakota reservation he’s never bothered to visit, written in the voices of tribal people.  

I love the chat box. I love deciphering the frequent “great idea” or “yes!” comments where the antecedents are mysterious. I love the two people who ask the same question in the chat that someone just asked aloud, how usually they are anal types worried about following instructions. I love feeling slightly superior because I don’t worry much about the instructions. I love it intensely when someone I know in the workshop sends me a direct chat message with a swear word in it.

I love the people who have to be told “You’re on mute,” as if we haven’t all been doing Zoom for three years. And oh, how I love their opposites, the people who forget to put themselves on mute when their cell phones ring, so you get to hear them yelling at someone.

I love seeing people’s cats walk in front of their screens. I especially love it when the cats’ tails brush against their owners’ faces, forming temporary moustaches. I love the man, at least I think it was a man although he didn’t tell us the pronouns to use, who aimed his camera at the top half of a portable whirring fan and left it there for the entire workshop. I deeply love the woman with makeup like Bette Davis’s in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane whose camera showed only her left eye and nostril in extreme closeup until the break, when she forgot to go on mute and yelled at her cleaning lady to reposition it.

Of course, I love to hear the white man read. He doesn’t read whatever we were supposed to write for twenty minutes based on the prompt. Instead, he reads from his manuscript about the tribe in South Dakota. He provides several minutes of prologue and an introduction to the personnel, followed by ten minutes of stilted, Tonto-like dialogue. I very much love the moment when the workshop instructor politely tries to wrestle control of the reading session, and fails. When others finally read, the white man turns back to his laptop, presumably composing page 751 of his manuscript. He forgets to put himself on mute. We hear him typing hard with his index fingers and exclaiming “mmm-HMMM!” when he writes something he likes. Gosh, I love that.

Unlike him, I love the prompts, the way they juice me up. The number of things I write that begin life as workshop prompts surprises me, even if they bloom into something different along the way. I almost never read my words aloud during the workshop. I love to hear people read who are insecure, tremulous, and often wonderful writers. They’re people who might not come to a workshop if it weren’t on Zoom, not knowing if it’s worth their time and money to travel, because they live in Tulsa or Bangor or East Jepeepee, the name my father called any place impossibly far away.

I’m from a tiny, snowbound town, so maybe I wouldn’t be there, either, if the workshop weren’t on Zoom. On Zoom I’m meeting Twinkle the moustache-tailed cat, hearing about the white man’s Native protagonist, staring into Baby Jane’s violently periwinkle-lidded left eye. It’s better than no workshop at all, and sometimes it’s better than workshops I’ve attended in person. This essay, in fact, is the offspring of a Zoom workshop prompt. I really love that.
___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Lumiere Review, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is presently working on a collection of short prose and is lightening her mood with the occasional humor piece.

Writing is Detestable, and You’ll Never Make Any Money At It 

February 14, 2022 § 22 Comments

—excerpted from Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, by Alexis Paige

Every so often I forget that the life I want is already mine. When I was eight, my younger brother and I left the Sonoran Desert in winter for mysterious reasons and Eastern climes, wearing only faded tees and worn corduroy, for it was still the ’70s somewhere in 1983. Our destination was Ye-Olde New England, which would become the damp, wooly kingdom of my late childhood and adolescence. My parents had divorced, and Mom traded Arizona for a job promotion in Texas. Meanwhile, Dad, the seventh of twelve children from an Irish-Catholic family in Massachusetts, moved back East for work and the outsized support that Catholic broods tend to have the numbers for.

Our new school in New Hampshire did not have crispy rattlesnake skins or tumbleweeds on the grounds, nor, would it seem, a surly pony called Chompers, whom the Phoenix school had kept around for class pictures. While the old school favored a Western film set, the new one—a low-slung slab of concrete burrowed into a stand of eastern white pines—looked like a Soviet bunker. The school was a designated fallout shelter, in fact, indicated by the shrill black-and-yellow radiation trefoil placard that was bolted to the front door. At least we’d be safe, I reasoned, when nuclear war came to town.

I did poorly socially and academically at first, but climbed the class  ranks in reading with ease. This didn’t improve my social capital, but it did buy me almost unlimited library privileges, which I used to get out of class or recess. It also didn’t help matters socially that I was small for my age and younger than my peers. Nor that my brother and I had the same Supercuts’ bowl haircut; that we were the kids of a single father, which was unusual then; or, that the children of this frozen land spoke a strange, sarcastic dialect  of American English, characterized by many missing r’s and insults against one’s mother.

By spring, I came to regard my third-grade teacher as either an idiot or an arch-nemesis, or both. I began to openly challenge her in class, to pass notes with a girl who had loopy handwriting, and to talk too much out of turn. Obviously, these stratagems didn’t win me friends or influence the teacher that I had done my math homework, but I see them now as the rational coping behaviors of a voluble child with undiagnosed ADHD.

 “Vociferous,” I remember the teacher saying about me one day that winter, to my beloved librarian,  in front of the whole class.

“What is the meaning of ‘Zoscissorous’?” I asked Dad later when he got home from work.

 As if in our own little parody of Abbott and Costello, he said, “Sisyphus? With an ‘S’? It’s an old myth. Look it up in the Funk & Wagnalls.”

I went into the den and found the encyclopedias, which Dad had bought volume-by-volume at our local grocery. “Sy-phyll-iss,” I sounded out proudly, pointing at the entry for “Sisyphus: Greek Myth.” I grew quiet then and read, somberly, to myself:

Sisyphus: Useless man-child, smote by Zeus, forced to perform repetitive tasks in Hades.

Origin: Greek, rhymes with Alexis.

“Ah!” I said with a sigh of recognition, “the story of my life.”

***

My students never believe me when I tell such stories, or any stories for that matter, and why should they? Dubious ground, myth. I teach aspiring nurses, dairy farmers, veterinary technicians, pilots, and engineers at a small technical college in Vermont, where the cows in fact do outnumber the people. The college doesn’t have a liberal arts division, no majors in any of the stuff the Greeks might have recognized. I’ve made peace with this, and with my role in it: my students simply aren’t the artsy-intellectual types (or the rich kids) who end up at the ivied institutions my snarky college roommate memorably, and collectively, called Camp Trust Fund. I don’t delude myself that what passes for education in contemporary America isn’t a blunt instrument of late-stage capitalism, nor do I delude myself that things were any better under Socrates. My students leave with a solid grounding in the practical aspects of their vocation, with some theoretical background, and with low student debt. Most of them also leave with starting salaries higher than my own at mid-career. They don’t believe this either, but it’s true. Most of my stories are true in their own way.

But I don’t do any of this for the money. As a small-pond professor, I have rare autonomy, I still enjoy the classroom, and in an academic market glutted with applicants among dwindling opportunities, I am fortunate to have made it to the Xanadu of   the Tenure Track. I teach foundational writing classes—composition, technical writing, rhetoric—because they’re what our students need most, but my department is small enough that I also get to teach creative writing, literature, and a humanities course about mass  incarceration and the rampant injustice of the American penal system. You do the work that’s on hand to the best of your ability. This is what I tell myself anyway when overcome by my own frailties, my own futility, or by the vast and unsolvable human condition.

On the first day of class, the stories begin. “Does anyone know what in media res means?” I might ask at the cold open of a basic college freshman English class. [Crickets. Dramatic pause.] “Does no one learn Latin anymore?” I’ll cry. If in rare form I might leave the classroom for a beat in mock exasperation, or else I’ll threaten to throw myself out the window (but only on the first floor). The students don’t know yet that I’m just riffing, for theater or pedagogy or to feel alive myself. They don’t know that I’m trying to suspend them in the filmiest, flimsiest bubble for as long as I can, before it’s margins and citing sources and the  exact number of words that constitute a paragraph. (The answer: false.)

I usually start with how much I hate writing. “Everything is hard, but writing most of all,” I’ll say. It’s too early for open challenges, but some of the students will begin to stir, to bristle. Sure, they can buy the idea that writing is hard, that it is hard for them, but not for me. After all, I’m the professor. Aren’t I supposed to be the expert? I’ll raise the stakes then and suggest that writing is even harder for me than it is for them—for teaching is nothing if not a preposterous game of one-upmanship where the house always wins, initially. “All you have to write is one measly term paper; meanwhile, I’m writing a book that is literally [wink, wink, wink] trying to kill me.”

“Writing is a detestable activity,” I’ll continue. “You’ll never make any money at it, for one.” [Pause.] “Thirdly, you’ll never be published, and with all due respect to Herman Melville, do you wish to toil in futility and obscurity, only to die a pauper? Dorothy Parker was right when she said, ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’” [I’ll write this on the board.] “And do you see the comma splice here?” I never go in any discernable order on these tears; I always begin in medias res. If my act is going as planned, the students are now wondering one of many things:

  • What’s a comma splice?
  • What the fuck is wrong with my teacher?
  • Who is Dorothy Parker, and can I switch into her class?

But I have them. For this moment, I have them. They’re taking notes (or cell phone pics)  from the board, where I have written

WHAT ALL WRITERS NEED:

            Intuition

            Gumption

            A Penchant for Masochism

            Caffeine

            A Flying Pinball Machine

            A Tangent that Will Burn Up in Reentry

            Other Suffering Writers

            A Sense of Humor

            One Good Pen

            One Bad Idea

The classroom hour is up now, and it’s time to bring the balloon back down to earth. I’ll sigh wistfully and say something like this: “Writing is hard, that’s true, but it’s not all bad.” [Pause.] “Often, it’s excruciating.” [And rarely, marvelous.]   

Smiles crack wide, and if the opening salvo has gone better than I’d hoped, one bold hand shoots skyward, and with an earnestness so precious it makes you believe once again in the innocence of youth, a small voice says,

“What does Masochism mean?”

Or “Do you recommend a particular pen?”

Or “I think I have the wrong room. Is this Freshman English?”
___

Alexis Paige is the author of two books: Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, a craft memoir and ode to Adult ADHD; and Not a Place on Any Map, a memoir in vignettes about the geography of trauma and addiction—both published by Vine Leaves Press. Paige’s work also appears in many journals and anthologies, including LongformHippocampusFourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she was an Assistant Editor from 2013-2019. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige has also received “Notable” mentions in Best American Essays and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Assistant Professor of English at Vermont Technical College, she holds an MA in poetry and an MFA in nonfiction. Paige lives in Vermont with her husband and a rotating cast of rescue animals. You can find her online @alexispaigeauthor.com

Writing Memoir Goes Like This

February 2, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Cassandra Hamilton

You decide to write about a topic; let’s call it orange. You embrace writing about orange. Near the end of the first draft, you realize you’re writing about rainbow.

Excited about this rainbow discovery, you begin anew, throwing yourself into the passion of writing about rainbow, the thrill of researching rainbow, of waking invigorated by rainbow dreams. You’re tickled noting rainbow synchronicities (“Oh wow! A car drove by with a rainbow sticker just as you said, ‘Fluffy crossed over the rainbow bridge!’”). Soon you’re making non sequitur rainbow references and irritating loved ones by spying rainbows where there are none (Grandma was especially cruel barking, “Enough, Dumbass! It’s impossible to see a rainbow in a drought!”).

Feeling misunderstood, you hole up in your home and fall into your writing. Between stints, you doodle rainbows on checks, bills, and grocery lists like NASA shooting recordings into outer space seeking alien connection. You long for a rainbow connection; are depressed that none materialize.

You resort to eating boxes of cereal in mixing bowls. Keep on courting this rainbow obsession until one day, without warning, you find checking your dog’s poop for worms far more interesting than rainbows. Worse, you note you’re slightly allergic to thinking of rainbows.

Daily, you smear Calamine lotion over angry hives multiplying on your chest as you struggle to press on, rough it out, cough up even the bleakest jumbled words on rainbows. You pull your hair. Stop showering. Fantasize about burning every damn page you wrote on rainbows.

You develop an ulcer. One night, popping twice the antacids your doctor recommended, you realize your piece isn’t about rainbow; it’s about crystal. No! It’s far more complex. It’s a crystal representing a quantum equation. Your mind fills with exclamation marks. You whoop, pop a cork, slug fizzy drinks—until the exhaustion from birthing this work hits you like a prize fighter’s left hook.

You fall into bed. Sleep for twenty-six hours.

While you dream, a black bear ambles onto your property, scarfs your bursting blueberry bushes. You like bears. In theory. As symbols of wild power in pictures on your phone. But this bear, belly bursting, enters your dream. Crawls into your bed. Spoons your spent limbs. Whispers in your ear, “Utter ‘rainbow’ or ‘crystal’ again and I’ll come back to eat you.”

You bolt awake! Stumble distressed into the morning, out into your yard, straight to the bushes. Seeing the branches stripped of fruit, you get goosebumps. Right then, you divorce your obsessions.

But now what else is there to write?

At your desk, you yank out fresh paper. You decide to write of the familiar: how Great Grandma smoked cigars on the porch of the log home she’d built by herself; how on the weekend when Mom got a kitten from Allen Ginsberg, Great Grandma made bear stew (the most savory meal Mom ever tasted); and how years after Mom died, you found her gnarled elbow of driftwood, nabbed the day she left Italy and said goodbye to the man she’d dated, a real, bonafide prince.

Oh! Writing’s grand! Bliss.

Well. Until…

One day while brushing your teeth and staring at the bags under your eyes, it dawns on you: you’re writing about love.

You think of a man you loved who’s phoning again after years of silence. He may/may not have the capacity to fully love you. You spit in the sink. Time for a new draft!

You write on loving this man. Conjure memories of late nights reading side-by-side in bed, comforted by the fur on his toes, his feet rocking back-and-forth like a metronome. Your heart feels soft and mushy and you nearly pick up the phone to call him, you’re so enamored of those furry symbols of home—until you remember the old scathing arguments, books snapped shut in disgust, the bookcase empty when he packed and left.

You rip into tiny pieces the last thing you wrote. Take a walk to cool off. Watch dragon shaped clouds.

Here, you feel the wind that’s carried your fire. Feel so clearly what set you ablaze through orange, rainbows, crystal, the quantum equation and, yes, even the man.

At a fresh page, you step into cracks within. Open inner doors to the universe. Write in dragon trails so hot, so true, reader’s palms will sweat holding your words.

Yes, this is where you surrender to your story. You accept the story is boss. The story decides how it wishes to be written.
___

Cassandra Hamilton is a disabled artist/writer with traumatic brain injury and central vision loss in one eye who creates from dreams, shamanic journeys, and life. Her writing has appeared in international literary magazine Beyond Words, Brevity Blog101 Words, The Door Opener Magazine, Rivereast News Bulletin, The Glastonbury Citizen and three Writing It Real anthologies edited by Sheila BenderWhile working on a memoir, she teaches Active Dreaming (a synthesis of dreamwork and shamanism), including workshops on Dreaming and Writing.

An Interview with Social Media Star Zane L. Walker

December 31, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Phyllis Brotherton

It’s been quite a challenge, but I was finally able to land an interview with Zane L. Walker, best known for his social media presence as the recalcitrant feline gazing into the windows of author Nicole Walker’s house (who happens to be his owner/mom), begging or rather demanding to be allowed back in. We met on a sunny Friday morning in Flagstaff, Arizona, under the striped umbrellas of the Cedar House Coffee Shop. I waited for some time before he sauntered in, all gray and white smugness, jumped up on the nearest chair, and turned his steely eyes toward me, as if to say, let’s get this agonizing interaction over with ASAP. Worried he could just as quickly sashay away in a hot minute, I rushed to shuffle my notes into some kind of order and began.

Phyllis: Zane, thank you so much for coming today to discuss Nicole Walker’s latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster,. But first, my curiosity is killing me. What’s the “L” stand for in your name and how did you manage to get away from home today to meet with me?

Zane: It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. Nicole dogs me everywhere I try to go, outside the backyard, that is. When you see my face staring in the house windows, which I swear she posts almost every damn day, you might be led to believe I always actually want inside, when all I really want is to leap over the fence to freedom. But that’s a whole other story and I don’t have much time, so let’s get on with it.

Phyllis: And, your middle name?

Zane: I was hoping to ignore that question. Did anyone ever ask T.S. Eliot what the “S” stood for? Loverman, OK? Loverman. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Phyllis: Oh, that’s fine. I certainly respect the fact there are some subjects you’d rather not discuss, so let’s dive right into the “meat” of this interview.

Zane: (groans, rolls his eyes) Yes, by all means, let’s.

Phyllis: It occurred to me that you might have a unique perspective on Nicole Walker’s book, Processed Meats, given your closeness to the subjects addressed, both in actual physical proximity, as well as in your personal relationship with the author herself.

Zane: I am naturally an expert on just about anything, actually. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a bit commenting on Nicole’s book, but well, I sort of have to, you know, given all the reasons you’ve already mentioned. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be brutally honest about what I think. Why would I feed you a bunch of bologna?  

Phyllis: Great. I appreciate honesty. So, actually, what do you think?

Zane: Meh. If you’re looking for some high drama or a page-turner, this is not your cup of joe, nor my bowl of water, if you will.  

Phyllis: Why’s that?

Zane: First off, you’d think the book would be mostly about, what, processed meat?? Like the different varieties, the history, how to make it, include lots of recipes, you know? And, in her research, you’d have thought if she actually tested some recipes, she would provide samples to those closest to her, like, for instance, Moi? Heck, no. To this day, she’s never offered me one tiny bite, nor have I witnessed any actual making of processed meats. Then again, as you and the social media universe well know, I’m outside a lot and not even close to her delicious food, or privy to the deep inner workings of her household or her mind, for that matter.

Phyllis: Kirkus Reviews calls Processed Meats, “An effective illumination of the profound difference between right thought and right action.”

Zane: (heavy sigh) Whatever that means.    

Phyllis: Kirkus continues: “When Walker settles in, she produces observations as beautifully written as they are thoughtful. One of her specialties is pithy remarks, and some of her more intriguing phrasing causes us to view certain topics from unique angles.” Kirkus provides a great example:

Fried chicken is a testament to the beauty of the disarticulated chicken. Every piece its own integrity. The coating wraps a thigh like snow, a breast like a scarf, a leg like a stocking to protect it from the cruel world of hot oil. 

What is your reaction to that?

Zane:  All I can say is, please God, give me one of those stockinged legs. OK, OK, I’ll admit, it’s damned good writing.

Phyllis: Indeed, it is. As you well know, Processed Meats is also about motherhood. One of my favorite essays in the collection is “Move Out,” in which Walker deftly interweaves the apparent disparate subjects of the smog and other pollutants of Salt Lake City, her daughter’s hospitalization for a serious respiratory condition, breastfeeding, a decision to relocate, and making sour cream. Yes, sour cream.

It’s easy to make sour cream, just like it’s easy to stay put. Open up some windows and let the lactic acid in. But here, you’ve got to do something harder. You’ve got to take that sour cream, turn it back to milk, ride the car east, the other direction from the one your ancestors trekked, the way against open spaces and wild animals. You’ve got to turn against your own nature, your own desire to stay, your own love of what you know. You’ve got to turn that dam to stream, virus to new host, and get out before you get stuck.

Are you crying, Zane?

Zane:  No, I’ve got something in my eye, that’s all.

Phyllis: You mentioned earlier that Processed Meats is not, for the most part, actually about processed meats. In fact, Jenn Gibbs, in her review of the book for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, aptly states, “[Nicole Walker’s] latest collection of creative nonfiction is all about the tension between our appetites and ideals, our need for change and our habits as individuals and as a collective […], revealing how a self can be a microcosm of a society that can’t seem to bring the body in line with the logic for a heathier planet.”

Zane: Excuse me a moment, while I upchuck a hairball.

Phyllis: (Zane returns) Personally, I can totally relate to Gibbs’ comment. I feel guilt and angst for my sometimes lackadaisical or expedient attitudes toward all manner of things, including less than diligent recycling, idling my car in the Starbuck’s line, ordering gourmet birdseed on Amazon or driving to three grocery stores in a desperate search for Reddi Whip Sweet Foam, my new secret craving; one of the many reasons I love Walker’s book. She explores our human failings and her own, in such an honest, funny and self-effacing way. Wouldn’t you agree?

Zane: I suppose. But that essay, “On Anger,” where she imagines a mountain lion creeping by outside the window? That gave me such a case of the heebie-jeebie’s, I almost never wanted to go outside again. Of course, she made me; picked me up and plopped me on the patio, like a tasty morsel of cougar food and not the beloved family pet I supposedly am. Which is why I’m always staring her down to please let me back in the house. Now you know the real truth about it.

Phyllis:  But that important essay is about wildlife’s shrinking habitat and nature’s losing battle with ever-consuming, ever-plodding forward, ever-destructive human beings. Doesn’t that strike a chord in you to try to do something about it? 

Zane:  Not really. What can I do? I’m just a cat. And, I’ve got bigger fish to fry and mice to find. All I can say is, buy the book. It’s kinda good.

Look, gotta split. How about a double cappuccino, extra dry, to go? I need to get back to my catbird seat outside her window for my next Facebook photo op. I’m working on building my platform.

Phyllis: Already? Well, OK. Thanks so much for your time.

Zane:  No sweat. It’s been real.        

___

Zane L. Walker, autodidact and all-around feline-about-town, having gained a wealth of knowledge and experience over time, prides himself on knowing pretty much everything about everything. As part of expanding his horizons, he is available for speaking engagements for a healthy fee. He currently resides in Flagstaff, Arizona, and can be reached at…oh, just Google him.    

Phyllis Brotherton holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Anomaly, Essay Daily, After the Art, Brevity Blog and elsewhere; receiving two Best of the Net nominations. Her collaborative essay, “Water,” recently won 3rd place in Streetlight Magazine’s Essay/Memoir Contest, with co-author, Armen D. Bacon. Find her on Facebook, Twitter @phyllisbwrites, and Instagram, phyllis_brotherton.

SOAP (Subjective, Objective, Assessment, Plan) Note for Patient 117342 BAKER, Sarah

December 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Sarah Baker

Chief Complaint: Writer’s Block 

Subjective: (PMHx: Past Medical History): Childhood hx severe persistent asthma requiring repeated hospital admissions, gradual resolution over adolescence, adult history of mild intermittent asthma. Also, “bunions,” early onset severe bilateral functional hallux valgus, where her hallux (big toes) nestle snugly into their neighbors. Pt denies pain, or impairment of ambulation. Reports rare anxiety-well managed. Pt’s two front teeth are fake, and she’s allergic to cats. Otherwise, Pt is a healthy, 54-year-old female.

HPI (History of present illness): Pt reports 2-day onset persistent inability to perform creative duties related to writing. Denies premonition or precursor. First onset of these symptoms for her, last Monday. Pt reports normal ADLs including: she drank her latte, scanned the headlines, meditated, did a free-write. When Pt sat down to write a Hermit Crab essay, she went blank. Totally blank. She describes a “fortified box-like structure in her brain.” It was “empty,” Pt says, “the sides were made of impenetrable steel.” “No ideas were getting in or coming out.” Pt further describes onset of increased heart rate, shallow and audible breathing, impending sense of doom. Pt denies frank wheezes, chest pain, dizziness, loss of consciousness. 

Pt self-assessment and self-care: Pt takes a deep breath and types “Hermit Crab essay” in her browser. She finds an article that mentions the book Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Pt calls local bookstore to see if they have a copy. No copies. She calls another local bookstore. No copies. Pt tries local library. No copies. Pt describes googling “Hermit Crab essay” again, and finding an article by Miller. Pt reads it, but her inability to perform creative duties related to writing persists. Pt then searches Brevity’s website, and finds an article about Dr. Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Creative Nonfiction class (where students write hermit crab essays) at South Dakota State University. Virginia Tufte’s book Artful Sentences is mentioned in the article. Pt owns this book. By page 16, Pt reports underlining sentences: Tennessee Williams’s “The Nothingness Continued;” Norman Mailer’s “Harmony settled over the kitchen;” Valerie Boyd’s “John Hurston, however, ached with ambition.”  

Pt describes further reading and underlining: Lawrence Durrell’s “They peel the morning like fruit;” Wyndham Lewis’s “Two stripes ornamented the sleeve.” Pt recalls thinking about metaphors, and vows to work on them, the way she works on her net game in tennis.  

Pt continues to struggle with Writer’s Block, and wonders if exercise might help. Or maybe psychedelics? She’s been thinking of a Michael Pollen-type journey and ponders if now is the time? 

A notification flashes across Pt’s computer screen: iCloud Storage full. She recalls running down the stairs to get her credit card. She remembers turning on the electric kettle, and running to the basement to put in laundry. Pt inputs her credit card, and fixes her iCloud storage. 

Pt begins to feel an easing of her symptoms. She’s just returned from four days away: Visiting her father, who has Alzheimer’s; dinner with her estranged half-brother; and a weekend of glamping on Governor’s Island for a friend’s birthday. Though Pt loves her view of the Statue of Liberty, she hasn’t planned for the all-night party boats that circle New York harbor. Pt concludes she is exhausted physically and emotionally. Pt reports needing someone to take care of her, and to give her permission for the way she is feeling. Pt recalls feeling relief to be home, and she hadn’t had a steady home growing up, and Pt is so grateful to have one now. Pt starts to cry. And all Pt wants is what she calls “a Doctor’s Note,” one that says it is okay that she has Writer’s Block. That it is understandable given her weekend, her life story, and all the baggage she carries around with her because she lost her mother when she was eight, her father had abandoned her, and she describes herself as a Leave No Trace girl. Pt recounts often performing, and trying to always be a good listener, and trying to make everyone else feel great. And Pt says she just needs “a Doctor’s Note” because she’s putting so much pressure on herself after deciding to leave her last job. And she’s been waiting to hear about a dream job, and has had five long, and what she thinks are successful, interviews, but the director isn’t getting back to her, or returning her emails. And her friends are wondering if this is a bad sign. And Pt describes sadness because she is a new empty nester and her youngest is living in Germany, and she is worried about his safety because that’s what mothers do. And that he is skipping a soccer practice to go to Fridays for Future meetings because he is prioritizing his climate change activism over his soccer, and that he is taking a 23-hour bus to Glasgow for Cop23, and Pt frets over when she will see him next because he doesn’t want to fly anymore, and a boat ride from Germany takes forever, and he doesn’t get that much time off from soccer. And Pt misses him.

Objective: What’s objective about reacting to life, grieving, regaining one’s footing, seeing the world for what it is? Maybe nothing’s objective…

Assessment: Life attack

Plan: Regarding the above note, it seems Pt’s symptoms eased after some distractions, and went away once she lightened up. In the future, when these symptoms appear, I recommend Pt relax, chill out. She’ll be fine. No medication required. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.  

Dr. Smith

____

Sarah Baker is a freelance writer, and has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, CommonHealth on WBUR, and other places. She has been a magazine editor, radio producer, and book editor. Thanks to Phebe Kiryk, MSN-CNP for help with medical terminology. You can follow her work at SarahBakerStories.com.

One Writer’s Covid Holidaze

December 6, 2021 § 5 Comments

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By Jessica Gigot

Most people close to me know I have always been a fan of the holidays. The “don’t play holiday music before Thanksgiving” was made for me. I inherited a love of all things Christmas from my Catholic, mid-western Nana and as my parents, sister and I moved around the country (eventually settling outside of Seattle) I brought her seasonal verve with me.

Fast forward to December 2020. I am home with my husband and two daughters, both under five. We are not traveling to see any extended family in-person because of the pandemic and we’ve pretty much been isolated since March. My second poetry book came out in November 2020 and I’m trying to finish a memoir, but my creative time has taken a backseat to online-Kindergarten and tracking the daily Covid cases in our county. After a stressful election and way too much news-watching, I hit a breaking point.

“I am going to holiday so hard this year.”

After I randomly blurted this out to my husband, I remember being confused. What does that even mean? True, we had established some new traditions with our own children over the previous few years, ones that helped me rekindle my sense of excitement for the season with them, but this felt different.

Then, somewhere deep within my body, I unleashed my inner holiday behemoth. It started, at first rather innocently, with a few quarts of eggnog for coffee. Then a Hallmark holiday movie or two after the kids went to bed. After Thanksgiving, though, I really let loose. Reindeer antlers and red nose for the minivan, house lights!, a Christmas tree (before December), wreathmaking, matching family holiday pajamas, cookie decorating, gingerbread house plans, more holiday movies, drives around town to look at lights!, and a detailed Christmas menu weeks in advance which included a homemade yule log. I even took a few Zoom piano lessons (something I hadn’t done since childhood), so I could tickle the ivory with my own jazzy rendition of “Winter Wonderland.”

In my mind it was all “for the kids,” but now I am not sure. While these experience did offer joy, I am also concerned I might have been quite delusional. Am I ok? Are we all ok? What the hell happened this past year? Why am I in this tent of a nightgown covered in gnomes carrying present to other gnomes holding candy canes?

Bessel A. van der Kolk writes in his groundbreaking book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, “Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality.” I think the most common phrase of 2020 (besides “You’re muted”) was “Is this really happening?” and it’s a question that has unfortunately spilled over into 2021 with the dramatic resurgence of Covid cases.

Divisions over truth, fact, and what is actual reality continue, manifesting in real-time, public debate over vaccinations and masks and we will not fully understand the emotional impacts of these divisions, within communities and families and football teams, for a while.

While I don’t really believe my deep dive into all things holiday was that horrible, I do realize that I was in fact reacting to a long and hard year—widespread societal and personal trauma. I diverted all of my remaining creative energy into the “festivities” instead of sitting down to write and maybe that is okay. Maybe I really needed a break from my own reality?

I eventually finished the memoir and am slowly adding poems to a new poetry manuscript. While I might tone it down this holiday season, I do think that my 2020 holidaze was healing in a strange way and I entered 2021 ready to recommit to my writing process. Like many author-mothers, I am still just trying to do the best that I can. Keeping sane and keeping my family healthy feels like its own full-time job.

Although the holidays might feel slightly more normal this year, perhaps we all need to go easy on ourselves. To weep and grieve the many that have died. To celebrate the brave frontline workers that have saved so many lives. What we discover might not be easy, but instead of running for more tinsel try to sit with that unease a bit. That is what I am trying to do.

Let it snow. Let this year lead us into the next and let the lessons of staying home, of sacrificing, of so many canceled plans, seep in. We are all still surviving one day at a time.
_____

Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and wellness coach. She lives on a small, sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour (Wandering Aengus Press, 2020) won a Nautilus Award and was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Jessica’s writing and reviews appear in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, and Poetry Northwest and she is currently a poetry editor for The Hopper. Her memoir, A Little Bit of Land, will be published by Oregon State University Press in 2022. Find her on Twitter at @shepherdessjess

Two Humorists Walk Into a Blog

October 19, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Two humor writers walk into a bar.

The first one says, “Ouch!”

The second one says, “No, go with ‘Yikes!’ because hard sounds like K are funnier.”

Julie Vick and Sarah Garfinkel are a lot funnier than that. For the launch of Julie’s new book, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood, Julie and Sarah (assistant editor for The Rumpus’ Funny Women column) talked about blending genres, building an online writing community, and teaching humor writing.

SARAH: In your book, you seamlessly weave personal anecdotes about parenting with satire. There is also extremely practical advice, such as this recommendation on getting through a baby shower: “Divide up the guests based on who likes playing games versus who doesn’t like to. Then let the extroverts play games while the introverts talk quietly or just sit in the corners eating cute tiny finger foods.” How did you find this balance between satire and nonfiction?

Julie Vick

JULIE: The hybrid format came about over time. I debated whether the book should be straight satire or have some actual advice and landed on something in between, partially because I had read other parenting humor books that did something similar and partially because I thought some actual advice might be helpful for the audience. On the advice of my editor, I also worked in more personal anecdotes in spots, and I think that also gives it another interesting dimension.

Something I love about your humor is how you pick up on subtle things people do and say. In your book, you write that introverts are good listeners. How do you think introversion has influenced your humor writing and ability to notice the humor in everyday life?

I think being more of a listener/observer does help me notice small details that can be useful for humor writing. In the first humor writing class I took, the instructor told us to notice when we were noticing something. So now I’ve trained myself to make a mental note (or an actual note in my smartphone’s note app that only sometimes makes sense to me later) when something seems like a good detail or potential premise for a piece.

Sarah Garfinkel

I also really like observational humor, where you point out the humor in everyday life (one example is one of my favorite headlines from The Onion). So, I gravitate toward writing those pieces which thus makes me look out for details more.

You are also skilled at community building and supporting other writers. How have you built your online writing community?

I think the short answer is I just try to be nice and a good literary citizen. I share others’ writing and interact with other writers’ social media posts (even if it just involves a gif reply which should take two seconds to send but sometimes takes me closer to 20 minutes because I need to search for the exact right one). Over time, I’ve made a lot of writer friends on Twitter and in Facebook writing groups.

I’ve also forged friendships at in-person writing conferences (sometimes meeting people in person that I first met online). Even though conferences are draining for me as an introvert, I always get a ton out of going to them and really miss being able to attend in real life.

As a writing instructor at the University of Colorado Denver, you’ve taught humor writing (among other subjects). How has teaching humor writing influenced your own writing?

One thing I’ve realized is that some people think you are either born funny or not, but the truth is most babies are not great at telling jokes. There are actually several techniques you can learn to use when writing humor—things like the “rule of three” and using hard sounds (concepts that are outlined in this New York Times piece). So people need more of a growth mindset about their ability to write funny!

As with other writing, just studying humor can help too—reading more of it and then choosing some pieces to deconstruct the structure of or highlight where the jokes are and see how they are working. I had some success with humor writing before studying it more formally but learning more about it has only helped me improve. I can now see a lot of underlying craft in things that may seem really simple on the surface.

Online parenting forums inspire several memorable jokes in the book. What is your advice for satire writers who are seeking inspiration?

One of my biggest forms of humor inspiration is frustration. If I’m feeling irritated about something—whether it’s about parenting or my inability to pick out a good melon—then that is often the kernel of an idea for a humor piece. I could write a journal entry or vent to a friend about these things, but turning them into satirical pieces is often a way to process the frustrations other than just ranting (although sometimes the first draft is more of a rant). There is definitely something therapeutic about turning your frustrations into humor.

__________________________________

Julie Vick is a writer whose work has appeared in New Yorker Daily Shouts, Real Simple, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She is the author of Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood (Countryman Press, 2021).

Sarah Garfinkel is a humor writer and educator. Her writing appears in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Electric Literature. Sarah is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column at The Rumpus. You can find more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

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