October 6, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Eileen Vorbach Collins
I met them at a writer’s conference, my first ever. They have become my muses. The people I go to for inspiration, validation, celebration.
There were 12 of us in a memoir workshop led by Ann Hood. Each of our 25-page submissions were dispatched by group email weeks ahead of time, providing ample opportunity for intimidation. I read bios filled with MFAs, published books, impressive university teaching credentials and a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts. I looked for a reason not to go. There was the cost. Then I won an award for an essay that covered it and decided it was fate. I’d go, be humiliated, and finally give up this writing that’s taken too much of my time. My garden, choked by weeds, applauded this idea.
To trust another person—much less a group of 12 strangers—with your writing is practically a sacred act. Much of my writing is about my fifteen-year-old daughter’s suicide. It’s hard to write and harder to share. In a memoir workshop you can’t help but forge some relationships while strangers read and discuss the words you hemorrhaged and sweated, cried, laughed, and scrabbled onto a manuscript that somehow got you in.
I kept in touch with two women who’d stayed at the same hotel. Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask one if she’d like to share our work, one excerpt a week, for feedback.
At first, I thought of it as a temporary substitute for my local writing group, no longer able to meet due to the pandemic. When we started, we were cautious, not wanting to offend. There were a lot of “I like…” and “So powerful” comments. To make it easier, we started using LT! (love this) and SP (So powerful). We began to email outside our Sunday Google Doc, sharing writing we’d come across. Things we loved, some that we hated. We invited another woman we’d both gotten to know from the workshop and hotel. She joined us and quickly became an essential member of our little group, offering astute observations, gentle suggestions and years of experience in academia. We share submission opportunities. We champion one another’s successes on our tiny social media platforms. Every few weeks, we Zoom.
As our trust in one another grew, we came to incorporate IMHO (in my humble opinion) and “I’m channeling Ann here.” We all signed up for Dinty Moore’s webinar, The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay , For the next few weeks we referenced his “Invisible Magnetic River” metaphor. “Take me to the river.” “I’m not seeing the river.” “Should I toss this one in the river?”
Recently, I sent an essay that was very difficult to write. They picked at it. Looking back at the first draft, I count twenty comments. “I think this moves too fast.” “IMHO it’s more than one essay.” “Need to go deeper here.”
Oh, hell no, you sadistic bitches! I’m not going deeper. Just that much scraped my skin off. I can’t look at that any closer, it will affect my heart. My spleen. My liver.
I put that one on a back burner. Nevertheless, they persisted. I revised and re-sent. Still, they weren’t satisfied. The hell with them. What do they know? I left it to fester and roil for another couple of weeks. Then, I took ten giant steps backward and reread their comments. I made a few more revisions. IMHO, it turned into my best piece yet.
My muses agreed.
Before that memoir workshop, before I found my muses, my essays tended to have Hallmark endings. I wanted to fix things. But what I needed to write wasn’t fixable. I didn’t want to sound whiny. I didn’t want sympathy. But there were no happy endings to be tied up in a pretty bow. Because I learned to trust these women, my writing has improved and I am not so much afraid of putting it out into the world—even when it’s ugly.
Despite the isolation of the pandemic, and also because of it, there are many opportunities for writers to make connections. Find your tribe, even if it’s a tribe of one. Send out that smoke signal. Put that message in the bottle. Scroll through Tweets and posts until you find your kindred and reach out to them. Search for the support you need to write the things that need to be written. The stories that it hurts to tell. Be that support for other writers. Get by with a little help from your friends.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide.
September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments
Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.
Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).
Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now. Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?
Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.
Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.
Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.
Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.
More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.
September 10, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Amy Berkowitz
A few months ago, a friend told me they were watching a concert on YouTube Live when they were suddenly overwhelmed by grief. They were enjoying the music so much, and then they thought about how temporary the pleasure was: once quarantine was over, they wouldn’t be able to go to shows anymore, as most venues aren’t accessible to them.
The amount of high-quality arts programming that’s been made available online during COVID is dizzying: on any given night, I can check out a poetry reading, an artist talk, a concert, and a comedy show. But while this glut of diverse entertainment is exciting, it’s also bittersweet. For one thing, well, it’s the result of a devastating global pandemic. And on top of that, it’s only being provided now that everybody can’t go to live events. For sick and disabled people, it’s been painful to watch accommodations that have been denied to us—or even framed as impossible—for decades immediately manifest as soon as able-bodied people need them too. All of a sudden, remote work and virtual learning are the norm, and you can go to a reading without getting out of bed.
As a chronically ill writer who wrote a book about chronic illness (Tender Points, rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019), much of my experience navigating accessibility has been around literary events. Right before shelter in place started, I did two readings back to back in New York and DC that have made a lingering impact on how I think about accessibility.
I generally make an effort to read in accessible spaces, and I was particularly committed to finding one for the New York event because I was appearing in conversation with a filmmaker whose work also centers chronic illness. I emailed my disability community friends, my art friends, my publisher—do you know an accessible, large-ish space that we could use for free?
I got a lot of almost-but-not-quites: it’s accessible, but the bathroom isn’t; or it’s accessible but it’s small, so the audience will have to stand. And then my publisher put us in touch with Mara Mills, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies, and all of a sudden our event was being hosted by the NYU Center for Disability Studies.
The reading at NYU was the most thoughtfully accessible event I’d ever been part of. It’s not that I hadn’t been around accessible events before; in 2016, I co-organized Sick Fest, a free Oakland event that featured readings and performances by sick and disabled artists and writers. We did our best to make Sick Fest accessible, but we were winging it: we had no budget and none of us had ever organized a large event before, accessible or not, so we had to educate ourselves about what accommodations to provide and then somehow figure out how to provide them for free. While we did manage to find a wheelchair accessible space and arrange for ASL interpretation and other accommodations, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out until the last minute.
But at the Center for Disability Studies, as you’d imagine, accessibility was built in. There was plenty of space for audience members in wheelchairs; a CART captioner typed our words as we spoke and they appeared on a big screen. I’d never seen CART captioning before, and I was a bit distracted by it, in part by the narcissistic pleasure of seeing my speech appear in big green letters and in part by the joy of seeing this accommodation provided for the first time. And it hadn’t even been something I had to ask for or fight for or scrounge up funds for. The Center for Disability Studies provided it because that’s how their events are. For them, it was routine; for me, it was utopian. What if all events were CART captioned? What if accessibility was a thing you didn’t have to wrangle? What if it was always built in, assumed, part of any space?
Three days later, in DC, I appeared in conversation with a memoirist whose publisher had arranged for our reading to be held at an independent bookstore. It was a great venue, except for one thing: the event space was down two flights of stairs. I have a couple of friends in the DC area, a fiction writer and a poet. The fiction writer came to the reading; the poet, who gets around on crutches, did not. As I walked down those stairs to the event, I thought about how they were keeping my friend out and I wondered who else they were keeping out. But once the reading started, the venue’s inaccessibility fell from my thoughts, replaced by nerves and excitement about the memoirist’s book. For the two or so hours we talked and answered questions from the audience, the fact that we were in an inaccessible space didn’t cross my mind.
Remembering my reading at the bookstore helps me understand how easy it is for most people not to think about accessibility. If you’re able bodied and go to events in lots of inaccessible spaces, you might think there’s no need to have your event in an accessible space because you don’t know any wheelchair users who like poetry or film or memoirs.
And thinking about my reading at the Center for Disability Studies helps me envision exactly how beautiful access is, how it brings people together, makes everyone welcome, includes everyone in the conversation. How access is an act of love, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes.
I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about these gains in accessibility lasting any longer than able-bodied people need them, but maybe the future will prove me wrong. I don’t think we’ll have live streams of every reading and show, but I could see some arts organizations rethinking their online offerings. I do think this is a great time for everyone—including and especially (currently) able-bodied people—to be thinking and talking more about disability and access.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015 and rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019. Other writing has appeared in publications including Bitch, McSweeney’s, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing a novel.
Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020
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.
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.
August 17, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Nancy Nguyen
Recently, I attended a knockout virtual reading highlighting writers with disabilities. Not only was I introduced to work that would otherwise be disregarded under “normal” circumstances (“normal” meaning auditoriums with steep ascending seats or the upstairs of a seedy bar that doesn’t have an elevator), but I found myself paying more attention than usual. Seamlessly, the facilitator handed off hosting privileges to each reader, and the highlighted reader shared their screen while they read aloud. In any other virtual reading circumstance, I would’ve opened my spiral notebook and sketched flowers as I listened, but this reading took accessibility a step further by sharing their manuscripts on the screen to accommodate the hearing impaired. As I read and listened, I was astonished by how easy it was for me to follow along.
Growing up, I was a quirky kid, whimsical with a limitless imagination. I would later learn that these descriptions were euphemisms for my chronic inability to focus. I was a habitual procrastinator, often guilty of overlooking small details, and I would automatically zone out upon hearing the monotonous drone of the priest’s homily during mass. It was only in graduate school, at the age of 28, that I went to see a therapist for the first time. After our second session, she graciously referred me to an ADHD specialist, who said I am textbook inattentive: limited attention span, good at cramming, painfully late diagnosis.
After shelter-in-place, I was lucky to find a job teaching writing to kids online. For the first time in my teaching career, I have been able to create my own work schedule and found a rewards system that works the best for me. For instance, I set up a timer for grading, bracketing fifteen-minute internet-browsing breaks between papers. When I have to buckle down and grade several papers or write up performance evaluations, I put on pants and sit out on my porch, which activates the Pavlovian part of my brain. I have also found more time to read, about half my reading made up of audiobooks I listen to on my walks. And of course, I’ve been spending my free evenings at virtual events.
Attending a virtual reading usually only requires an RSVP and a Zoom account. As the days in quarantine melt together like Jolly Ranchers in the cupholder of a hot car, I have been taking advantage of Zoom’s option to turn off my laptop’s video camera. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how many days I’ve gone without showering, and I no longer worry about appearing like a well-behaved attendee. When I went to obligatory readings in graduate school, I practiced good attendee manners (left my phone in my backpack, refrained from doodling in the margins of my notes, kept foot-tapping to a minimum), but I usually came away having not retained much information. In the unchecked safety of my own home, however, I’ve been trying out ways to focus my attention. I’ve been sketching objects around my room and folding origami. Lately, I’ve been playing the online board game Ticket to Ride on my phone, which has been the best method thus far.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic has encouraged me to realize the value of my unique perspective, how much it lends to my sense of humor, my ability to problem solve, and of course, my writing. During lockdown, I’ve discovered virtual readings, writing groups, and discussions. I’ve found organizations that uplift marginalized voices, like Radix Media (which organized the reading highlighting writers with disabilities and aims to spotlight marginalized groups in their monthly virtual readings) and Kweli Journal’s International Literary Festivals (a virtual ten-week long event dedicated to BIPOC writers that will recur annually).
No one really knows how long this pandemic will last. We can only glean the infection numbers and the ways our leadership has failed us in order to make conjectures and prepare. My single hope is that we observe all the ways shelter-in-place has improved our lives, that we remember these improvements when things become “normal,” though maybe we should realize by now that “normal” is a mirage. I hope working from home becomes more widely accepted, that we commute less and find more sustainable ways of living. That virtual readings, workshops, and events strive to become even more accessible and recur even after shelter-in-place is officially lifted. That we realize how many people would be excluded without them.
Nancy Nguyen is originally from Orange County, and she now resides in Baltimore. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she has received support and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Kweli Journal. A selection of her work can be found in NANO Fiction, Pidgeonholes, and Jellyfish Review. She writes about women, environmentalism, and the ways in which capitalism stands at odds with family bond and loyalty.
June 9, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
I am a writer. Combining words to forge meaning makes me feel whole, alive, as if I matter.
The global pandemic and quarantine measures to slow its spread changed the way we live, on a granular level, perhaps irrevocably. For me, as I imagine for many others, time seemed suspended. Connections to the world beyond the walls of my home and the tree-lined streets of my suburban neighborhood, were severed. Untethered from accustomed routines and obligations, I floated in a bubble. One day became another, then another, indistinguishable, unhinged from any broader context, meaning or purpose.
As the monotone days mounted, it became increasingly implausible to presume that anything I might write, or not write, do or not do, mattered. I wandered without a compass to orient myself, on the page, or in life. Suspended in time, I whined and worried over the loss of my creative spark. I took naps and consumed massive quantities of processed carbohydrates, all because the words wouldn’t come.
The brutal murder of George Floyd ended my quarantine limbo, jolted me back to reality, to the state of this nation.
I am a writer. I have long pictured nirvana as a secluded mountaintop cabin, a writing desk with an expansive forested view, my mind unfettered, free as an eagle to swoop and soar. Months of quarantine have convinced me seclusion isn’t the key ingredient, and that, though I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I am also connected, part of a community, a country, and the wider world. Absent those connections, relevance, significance and context are thwarted, minimized by self-absorption.
What happened to one black man in Minneapolis, and so many other black men and women, matters. This is our nation, our society. One where hatred and divisiveness, disparities between rich and poor, homed and homeless, black and white, have mushroomed in plain sight. One where truth is fast losing any meaning or importance, facts are considered opinions, and civility, decency and respect are belittled. One where privilege is so ingrained in white America, it’s hard to see, easy not to try, easier to enjoy and benefit from the rights and privileges that under the law should be afforded all Americans.
This latest unprovoked killing of a black man can’t be undone.
I miss President Obama. I miss believing we are on a path to a better, more equitable life for all Americans. I miss believing that what is good and right and fair will prevail in the end. I miss believing that there is an American dream, a dream any man, woman or child, anywhere in the world, can aspire to. I miss believing there is justice and liberty for all.
America, as one nation, undivided, never was. We are north and south, east and west. An agglomeration of territories wrested from the indigenous Native Americans. Stamped with the identities of conquering European nations. England. France. Spain. Enriched by waves of immigrants from every continent. A mix of languages, religions, ethnicities and cultures. We are the melting pot, the tossed salad, the seething cauldron. We are brutal crimes against humanity and moments of light, of wisdom and grace. We are welcoming arms and border walls, inclusion and bigotry, brave laws and surging white supremacy.
I am an American. Which means what? That I was born here, first generation on my Philippine-born father’s side, more deeply-rooted on my mother’s. My DNA may be mixed, but based on physical appearance, I am white, and on that basis alone, I enjoy the benefits of passing and blending, of not having to consider race, skin color, ethnicity or religion when I go about my business. No policeman, authority figure, gatekeeper or garden-variety bigot, is going to see me as distinct from the background. Just another white woman.
I am a writer. I work at combining words in ways that show me something I hadn’t realized before, that amuse, teach, reveal, deepen, touch and heal. I am responsible for the wrongs I lament, the optimistic, brightening world-view I miss so much. My words must do better, be better. I must do better, be better, at stepping outside my protective cone of white privilege and working, speaking, acting, writing towards solutions, towards equity and the elusive American dream.
Our words and actions matter. Both can hurt or heal, build bridges or widen the gap.
Black lives matter.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60 from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. She now works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit, and co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, a literary performance series. For more information visit dorothyriceauthor.com.
June 8, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
“What are you working on?” This is probably the question I am most often asked, after forced to reveal (at a cocktail party, to a random seat-mate on the train) that I am a writer.
I always experience a bit of impostor syndrome, even after these many decades of writing and publishing. After all, I know that when I answer the next question: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” a pleasantly vacant facade will settle onto the face of the questioner, when I answer, “Mostly, I’ve published essays. Hundreds of them.”
A look of dismay – or is it panic – then settles onto the face of my seat-mate. Their only likely life experience with “the essay” might not have been since school days, when they were asked to write any number of three to five-paragraph essays in order to satisfy English curriculum requirements. “The essay” does not have a great reputation.
At this point, even if they are moderately impressed by and slightly curious about my credentials, they are also not eager to take a selfie. (Here I am with a famous essay writer I met on the train!)
I try to steer the conversation back to them, but they always want you to answer that first question (what are you working on?) I mumble something vague about writing a memoir about my family, about being a sister – and here there is an even longer pause, followed by genuine puzzlement. “Wow,” they usually say. “That takes guts. I mean, writing about family.”
Yes, it does take guts. Actually, what I would like to say is that one has to have any number of questionable personality traits to write anything longer than a few pages about one’s family, and expect it to hold together in a way that other people (not your family) might want to read. Especially when you are writing memoir. Writing your truth – which memoir requires – requires bravery. It demands audacity. It calls for some skill. And, indeed, it requires guts.
Sometimes I feel like the word “bravery” is too strong a word to describe the act of writing memoir. After all, isn’t memoir just remembering how things happened, and then writing those things, and your interpretation of them, down on paper or on your laptop? It’s not like you’re going to get a writing medal for your bravery, or a commendation for courage. It’s not like you ran the rapids or scaled the sheer face of a cliff.
Nevertheless, it is pretty brave and audacious to reveal your truth, and trust that that truth will resonate with others. Many would-be writers are stopped before they even start by voices in their upbringings that whisper (or maybe even scream) that it’s not polite to talk about yourself, or tell family secrets, or assume anyone has the slightest interest in anything YOU might have to say. (You get the idea.)
Audacity isn’t something often discussed in polite company. But if you don’t have a certain amount of audacity as a writer, you might as well keep writing those first bland twenty pages over and over again until the end of days (which doesn’t sound so far away right now…)
Audacity itself might be described in many different ways. Audacity might range from such spirited traits as “impudence” or “pluck,” to what I seek in my writing: boldness, backbone, chutzpah, daring.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Or, for our purposes, the guts. Because the two are linked. The heart and the guts.
The guts are the more energetic and visceral of the two. Okay, so the heart does its pumping thing, and obviously we would die if the heart stopped doing its job. And the heart gets all the lovey-dovey Valentine bling. But the guts … The guts imply your innards. Literally, intestinal fortitude. And what does that imply? Yes – the aforementioned pluck, along with confidence, mettle, tenacity. Nothing sugar-coated or wrapped up in a pink heart-shaped box.
You know the difference, even if you can’t explain it. It’s the need to express something in your heart, yes – but maybe it’s also the need to write something you feel in your gut. Or maybe you need to express that thing that bypassed your heart completely and started in your gut. You took that gut-thing, wrestled it into a heart-thing, then added the narrative to give shape to it. And, presto – you have a piece of writing. A real, organic, living-on-paper story made of heart and gristle and sweat and guts.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review, and – of course – the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01
June 6, 2020 § 3 Comments
Now is not the time for silence, so Brevity’s website has been modified to acknowledge the importance of this moment in our history, and the crucial struggle now underway:
We at Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog stand in solidarity with the protesters and with the Black Lives Matter movement. We deplore the ongoing police violence toward people of color. We unequivocally stand with those who seek justice and reform through protests across our country and the world.
Learn more to become a better ally.
“If now isn’t a good time for the truth, I don’t see when we’ll get to it.”
~ Nikki Giovanni
June 1, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Holly Hagman
One of my earliest memories of spending time with my mother was of us at the beach. Between sandcastles and shell-collecting, my mother would pick up her newest James Patterson novel and suddenly be unreachable for vast chunks of time. She would read all the time while I was growing up; picture books with rhyming words for me, mystery novels and realistic fiction for her. Christmas one year, instead of the traditional booklight, my father bought her a miner’s headlamp to wear in bed at night while she was reading. When she pulled it out of the stocking, we all laughed hysterically, but she wore that thing every night that Dad had work the next day and she needed just one more chapter.
Despite being surrounded by reading for my entire childhood, I didn’t pick it up myself until freshman year of high school. A late bloomer, my love for independent reading didn’t kick in until The Perks of Being a Wallflower was assigned for a friend’s summer reading project. I didn’t like my own summer reading book whose title I cannot even recall. Whether it was the epistolary structure or the relatable teen angst, I’m not sure. Regardless, that book drew me into the magic of literature. Since then I’ve found solace in the texture of a paperback in my hands, the sound of rain against the window, the comforting scent of fresh pages.
Maybe it’s because I started later than your typical “reader,” but I’ve noticed it takes me longer to read something than it does my peers in literary circles. When discussing common reading material with my fellow MFA candidates, they are often chapters ahead of me even though we received the books at the same time. A friend from college runs a “Bookstagram” account that reveals a new novel on average every two to three days. My mother, who still reads at bedtime every night, goes through approximately a book per week. As my personal to-be-read list grows – both figuratively as friends suggest titles to me and literally as I pick them up at Barnes and Noble and stack them in a haphazard pile on my TV stand – I feel more and more defeated.
So, if you’re a slow reader living in literary circles, feeling slightly inferior, what can you do to boost your own morale and avoid feelings of inadequacy?
Count minutes, not pages.
When sitting down to read something, decide on a time frame. Whether that time frame is twenty minutes of a lunch break or an hour of free time, measure the time you spend reading rather than setting a page goal. You will feel much better saying, “I spent forty-five minutes reading on my porch” than saying, “I only got through ten pages yesterday.” Frame it in a positive manner, because the truth is, reading is reading despite how many pages were turned.
Make sure you have the right book.
As a writer, I know that not all magazines are a good fit for the types of essays I write. I submitted the same piece to seven different magazines before it found a home, and that’s a small number when considering the vast, nebulous world of Submittable. The same is true for choosing a book. If you’re reading something, and you find yourself reading the same sentence again and again, maybe that’s not the book for you. Put it down for a while and try something else until you find a match that works. It’s important to know that not all books grab readers the same way; if they did, getting a manuscript published would be a lot easier.
Build a good reading environment.
Are you picturing an empty field of grass with a plaid picnic blanket and a light breeze? Maybe you’re imagining an aisle seat on an uncrowded flight, or a corner spot on the couch by the window. The best reading environments are different for different people. I personally need a place that is quiet, well-lit, and mostly free of distractions. Others may be able to read while a roommate watches Love is Blind or their husband snores in bed next to them. You know yourself best, so in order to read well, place yourself in an environment that suits your reading ability.
Try an audiobook.
As a lover of all things paperback, this one was hard for me to get behind. Then, a friend told me he was able to “read” all of Stephen King’s It in one month all because he played it every day during his commute to and from work. If you’re looking for a way to maximize your time and still engage with literature you love, an audiobook might be a worthy option. Amazon provides Prime members with an Audible free trial, and the subscription is $14.95/month afterwards. If finances are a consideration, many popular books are available for free on YouTube.
This part is probably the hardest thing to do, but if you are a slow reader, own it. Admit that often times when you sit down to read and get through less pages than you would like, it bothers you. Then take that self-consciousness and throw it right out the window. Know that it’s okay if you were only able to read fifteen pages yesterday, that it’s taking you longer to comment on a workshop member’s submission, that even though your friends are raving about it, you just can’t get into that new YA novel. Whatever happens, don’t lose your love of reading. Don’t forget the feeling of accomplishment that spills out of you when you close a book, spin it in your hands, and breathe deeply, releasing a well-deserved sigh. Hold onto the love of literature deep within your gut. Keep turning pages, no matter how long it takes.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Teaching. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brevity blog, The Nightingale, and The Citron Review.
May 29, 2020 § 38 Comments
By Barry Casey
About 15 years ago, after a divorce, mid-way through a teaching career and suddenly alone with my books, I looked at them and thought, “Alright, time to earn your keep.” All these books, many of which I had not read yet, were calling me, so I began keeping a common book, a journal for writing down quotes and ideas from the books I was reading. History, politics, theology, ethics, philosophy, social issues—I was reading up and writing down what I learned, what intrigued me.
So I began blogging.
In the evenings, after I’d finished grading my communications and philosophy courses, I’d jot down interesting sentences I’d come across. Then on Friday nights I’d choose one as an epigram and look for two or three quotes from authors in wildly disparate fields—the farther apart the better. Eric Hoffer and William Blake, Thoreau and John Stuart Mill, Emerson and Albert Camus, Thomas Merton and Nietzsche. The pleasure was in pulling together ideas from opposite ends of the spectrum and creating an essay that made sense and sparkled.
I’d start about nine p.m., write for four hours, post it, and go to bed. I rarely rewrote. The ideas were pouring out of me. It was exhilarating. I called the blog “Wretched Success” because I liked the way it sounded.
Three years later came another fracture. The president of our small college took a position at another university and a new president was imposed on us. He alienated almost everybody. Within three months he had slashed several departments and, without cause, fired two of my colleagues in our department. I resigned in protest.
Without a job, but with a wonderful woman as my fiancée, it felt like a leap and a liberation. In the next couple of years we married and I took an interim position directing a faculty development program at a local university.
When that was up, I began adjunct teaching. That meant hours of commuting and teaching five or six classes per semester at three universities. At the end of every week I was exhausted. I stopped writing. Whatever fountain of creativity I’d enjoyed had dried up.
But I knew I still had much to explore, so eventually I began again, in a herky-jerky fashion, a paragraph here and there between classes. This time around I found that the words did not flow; the ideas came laboriously. It was difficult.
Instead of splashing together ideas for the sheer joy of it, I was struggling. It felt like hearing voices through a wall, but not clearly enough to make out the words. I needed some structure, some idea of form. Perhaps what I lacked in spontaneity I could gain back by adapting within my limitations.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” Joan Didion once wrote. That became my touchstone and the subtitle to my new blog, Danteswoods.com—“Writing to see what I think.”
I began reading essays voraciously, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, Samuel Johnson’s essays from The Spectator and The Rambler, and favorites from Didion, A. C. Grayling, George Orwell, and Emerson. I began to see patterns, new approaches, ways to begin and to conclude. It was exhilarating all over again.
I discovered that what I needed to start writing was a phrase, a fragment, that could serve as an evocative title. Or, more often, an epigram would set me on a trail to answer a question. I took Didion’s line seriously, asking myself what I honestly thought, felt, understood, about what I was reading, what I was experiencing. At the same time, I fostered a kind of innocence, an openness to going where my curiosity led me, to follow the path the narrative was carving through the underbrush.
Sometimes, I got stuck. I couldn’t find a finger-hold on this sheer cliff of an empty page. In those times, my fallback was Annie Dillard’s first sentence in her 1989 book, The Writing Life: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” That was often enough to give me the jump-start that I needed. And I knew that the first few paragraphs were not the beginning of the essay—they were the warm-up act for the real one.
Almost three years ago, I was offered a weekly column, writing for an international publication on spirituality and faith. Every week I would explore something I had been wrestling with in my own experience. Often, I would imagine my way into one of the Gospel stories, trying to feel the intensity of a first-century encounter with an itinerant healer named Jesus. My essays took on a lyrical aspect as I immersed myself in Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays, and those of his mentor, Jean Grenier. From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Mark Oakley’s The Splash of Words, I learned the value of a singular thought amplified and collaged with other fragments into a whole. I took my time, choosing my words, cutting and rearranging paragraphs, spending time on the details.
Just over a year ago I retired from teaching after 37 years. In November 2019, my first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf & Stock. I am finishing up a second collection and working on a book about Albert Camus with a friend in England.
I am grateful for the mentorship of a myriad of writers to whom I am unknown. And I’ve learned to adapt to my process of writing and claim it as my own. My limitations become advantages when I work with them, not against them.
Barry Casey is retired after 37 years of teaching philosophy and communications. He writes a bi-weekly column for Spectrum Magazine and is a contributing writer for Mountain News in Colorado. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery was published in 2019 by Wipf and Stock.