April 2, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Grace Bauer
There was no way to lie that didn’t hurt. I’d already tossed and turned from left to right and back a dozen times, but the pain in my hips was not going to let me sleep. I tried my back, tried pillows under my knees, between my knees, my knees scrunched against my chest. Wasn’t happening. Being kept awake by pain was nothing out of the ordinary, but pretty much everything else in life was, so at 3:00 a.m. I succumbed to worry.
I got up to stretch and take another Advil, then fell into a slow steady pacing around the house—thinking about the virus they sometimes called novel and its possible effects—on me, my family and friends, my colleagues and students, my community and country, the world; about how I was going to finish up a semester teaching on-line when my tech skills are limited; about the economy—my 401K account taking a nose dive a few months before I’m about to retire. I continued pacing—getting in more steps, as my friends with Fitbits say. I paused now and then to stare out a window at the empty street, thankful for neighbors who had kept up the Christmas lights that cast a bit of shine into the darkness.
It was only a week ago that I said goodbye to what I knew from the start would be my last-ever class of creative writing students. Knowing this was, undoubtedly, part of why I’d grown especially fond of them, but it was also the students themselves—some were dealing with issues far beyond anything I had ever faced at their age, yet they were bright, funny, forthright in their responses to poetry, each other, and me. The more extroverted among them had announced themselves from day one; some of the quieter or more tentative had been opening up more each week. There was some of the compulsive phone checking that drives every teacher crazy these days, a few late assignments here and there, but mostly the class was lively and engaged. They had bonded in a way that does not always happen, formed the kind of community of writers we always hope for in a workshop, but don’t always get. They took to heart my advice to not just push the envelope in their poems, but turn the envelope into an origami swan. Or a dump truck. They were finding that balance between being too hard or too easy on themselves and each other in critiques.
On what had just been announced as our last day of class, they insisted we spend the hour focused on poems—and they stayed, despite the looming uncertainty, laser focused till it was time for class to end. Then they lingered in the hall almost teary-eyed, lamenting that we would not get to hang out face-to-face anymore. “I know it’s kind of weird,” one young woman said, “but I feel like I should say I love you to you guys.” This, I thought, is how I’m wrapping up 30-plus years of teaching.
Since I was in the process of cleaning out my office, I had already given the students many of my books, which I hoped would keep them reading long after the class ended, even if it had not ended on such a sudden note. Now, as I paced the dark house, I wished I had given them more. I worried about how the switch to on-line teaching would affect them, that one of them might catch this nasty bug. That I might catch it myself. Or that my ninety-year-old mother would. That all of us would. Or could. Worry is as contagious as a virus—one what if/could be leads to another and another, until your entire brain is infected with possible catastrophes you can’t stop from spreading further. Worry is often a matter of blowing things out of proportion, but in this case, it seemed all proportion had already been blown. I paced some more. Stepped out onto the back porch to stare up at a sky too overcast to allow the glint of stars. Shivered, and came back in.
Some of my students were from Lincoln. Others had headed home to Omaha or small towns out in the sandhills, or to South Dakota, Colorado, Chicago. We were on the verge of what would have been Spring Break, but now the break would be more like a rupture. One I will do my best to build a bridge over. I’m confident most of these students will do their best to walk across it. I will encourage and cajole—hound, if I have to—anyone who hesitates, being careful not to push them closer to an edge we’re all feeling pretty close to these days.
Some of us remember that infamous Dana Gioia article from back in the 90’s that asked Can Poetry Matter? While various poets and critics tore each other apart over the question and Gioia’s analysis of the poetic moment, I stuck with the answer I came up with before I even read past the title: of course, it can. I’m still sticking with that story. While much of higher education is focused on outcomes and assessments, and STEM is the acronym of the hour, creative writing programs flourish and students, even some of those STEM students, fill our classes because, as one techie told me, “Sometimes you just need a class where you get to use your words.”
This, for me, will be the last of such classes. It would have been memorable for that reason, even if things had gone on as normal—a word whose definition may have permanently changed. My students will be sending me new poems tomorrow. I’ll respond, trying to tell them what matters most in their words.
My mind was spinning, but my bones were tired. I got back into bed to see if body or brain would win this night’s battle for rest. There was still no way to lie that didn’t hurt.
Grace Bauer’s poems, essays and stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including recent issues of Ascent, Tin House, Rattle, and others. She has also published five books of poems—most recently MEAN/TIME and a 20th anniversary re-issue of The Women At The Well. She is currently the Aaron Douglas Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
April 1, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Kim MacQueen
I’m home because we’re all home. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window, because we’re all sitting on our couches, looking out our windows. We’re all watching our neighbors walk their dogs, or take out their trash, then go back inside and shut the door. It feels like we’ve been here forever.
But it was only two weeks ago that I was lugging two heavy bags 2,000 miles through five different airports to the writer’s conference, trying not to freak out. When I made my rushed and distracted travel arrangements, I’d bought two different flights at two different times from two different airlines. I sort of decided, in this annoying way I sometimes have, that both flights would connect at JFK. They did not.
There was nothing to do but admit my mistake and fork over another $300 for a new trip involving three trains and five airports, that would start 18 hours earlier than planned and end 7 hours later. My trip lasted 16 hours and felt like it had been planned by a monkey.
At first I wasn’t even going to tell my husband about the travel snafu. Then I gave in because I needed to let him know that, even as he planned to drop me off at the airport at 8 am, I wasn’t going to be able to send him a “Landed safely!” text until after midnight, as my trip to Texas was now set to last longer than a recent trip that took him from New York to South Korea. He just shook his head as I fled the bedroom with my head down so I wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. If I was my own personal assistant, I would totally fire me.
So I set off on this ridiculous trip. I brought a magazine and two audiobooks and six hours of editing work and one online mindfulness course I signed up for on a whim. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I jumped full-on into pretending this had been my idea the whole time. If you’d stopped me in any of the above-mentioned airports and asked me why I looked so tired, which luckily nobody did, I would have told you I’d actually wanted to fly this circuitous route from Vermont to New York to Chicago to San Antonio in the same day. I would have claimed I was excited to see whether I could get from JFK to Newark Airport (route: Airtrain to Long Island Railroad to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit) before passing out for lack of food.
And it kind of worked. After a couple of hours of pretending I was enjoying running through five different airports, I found I did kind of dig it. I started talking to myself in that way you do when you’re traveling alone. I watched a show on the plane where a young blonde woman who really needed a haircut, or a blowout, or something, talked about all the different wines you can pair with tater tots.
I should write something clever about this given the amount of time I’ve spent consuming tater tots and the money I’ve spent learning about wine, I told myself. You’re the one who needs a haircut, my self said back.
I did not pass out from lack of food. I had an egg salad sandwich in Newark that was more than serviceable after I pulled off the disgusting wilted lettuce, and a martini and sushi in Chicago that was perfectly fine if I ignored the glare of the awful Gate C lighting and the fact there were a few specks of somebody else’s food on my menu. The more I pretended to be interested in experiencing the people and food of five different airports, the more fun it was.
And I learned some things. I learned that most of the transit apps on my phone don’t work to actually get me anywhere. “Those apps are a pain in my you-know-what,” said a friendly Long Island Railroad guy, who then told me the train I’d been trying to get on for the last 20 minutes would take me not to Penn Station but to the site of the movie The Amityville Horror on the other end of Long Island.
I eventually got to Texas, where I did what I’m doing now in Vermont: sit on the couch and look out the window. Then my friend Anne got there from Massachusetts. She sat in the chair, because I had commandeered the couch. The next day we went to Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for the few sessions we were interested in that hadn’t been cancelled by COVID19. Most of the programming we’d traveled 2,000 miles for was moved online. So.
So we had nachos and margaritas by the river at a restaurant that had been there since 1946 that is — unthinkably, horribly — closed now. We had cocktails at the longest wooden bar in Texas, watched over by a bison head the size of a Volkswagen, and the egg-and-potato tacos we had for breakfast the next morning at Patti’s Taco House II helped me deal with my hangover. We sat under a tree with fragrant purple-pink flowers in the front yard of our Airbnb and ate grocery store pizza I’d thought would be good (it wasn’t). But Anne was nice about it.
At the time I thought, this trip is totally worthwhile, just for this. Maybe not the pizza, but all the good things around the pizza. A chance to connect with people I love and admire, some for the first time in person. Time with Anne to sit in the sun; time to hang out if just for a minute with all the people who served me at those airports and restaurants. I got to see them and talk with them and eat their food. I so hope they’re okay.
Now I’m back on the couch in Vermont. Enough time has passed that I now feel lucky I didn’t become infected or infect anyone else. A trip like the one I just took is unthinkable now. And good, because the way I set it up was super dumb. And not good at all, because without that trip I would have missed all that life-sustaining connection through writing and food and just knocking around Texas together, buying bad pizza and trying to figure out where to park the rental car. In the end, I still have my window and my couch. And I can talk to my friends online. I’m grateful for them.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
March 31, 2020 § 41 Comments
We woke up and everything had been different for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Maybe a call came—your friend is dying. Or, I think we should take a break. Or a text, WE WOULD LIKE TO INFORM YOU THAT PUBLIC MOVEMENT RESTRICTION HAS BEEN IMPOSED.
Maybe we woke to the memory of weeks ago, some faraway country tracking their citizens, an alarmist friend stockpiling taco mix, our partner still warm-eyed and cuddly. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the pandemic, the break-up, that moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.
How can we write? How can we read?
How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the midst of the unchangeable?
We search online—everyone else feels this way. The internet is a giant support group. We are still falling. We are all caged with the family we want to love, or alone in a room we used to love. We click angry-sad-angry-sad, wondering why gallows humor isn’t funny anymore. Fear comes in waves—numbers on a graph, an admired person now sick, now dead, the disgust and despair of watching our leaders flail.
We go through the motions. My students need an anchor. My child must be fed. If I meet this deadline I might get paid.
Neighbors whose politics disheartened us now make us rage. We try to forgive, to trust in karma, that something bigger than ourselves is in charge, that there is still a plan…isn’t there?
My best friend dies suddenly, a year ago today, the last day of AWP. The doctor tells me over the phone she is not comfortable, she is in pain. He takes my word that I have power of attorney, that she is a DNR, and I sing poorly through the phone held at her ear, hoping somewhere inside she hears me say goodbye. I fly across the country to clean out her house, reconcile with her estranged sister, hug distant friends in person for the first time. We gather around a garbage can, throw away a thousand photographs, making fun of old hairstyles and appreciating my friend’s artistic eye. We resurrect her hard drive and read her work; re-home her elderly cats. I take home her phone and try to crack it. I write about her. The bottom of the world has still dropped out, but words are a bucket in which I can carry water. Words are an axe with which I can chop wood. Each time I touch a page she edited, I touch my old world, the world in which she is also alive and reading my words. The words are a lifeline from a better past. The words are the seed of a pearl.
We guard our families, while others endanger us. Our ex-lover shows up to get the jacket we hoped he’d forgotten. We wash our hands a hundred times. After a few weeks, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. Our calendar clears, disappointment somehow better than hope. We sit down again. Five minutes, can you do five minutes? We tinker. We find the rhythm and lose it. We struggle to say something, anything, on the page. We are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We spend our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not just for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, one day there will be a world again, a world in which stories matter. Our words say, our stories matter still.
When my friend was alive, she told me a parable.
The novice asks the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet salvation, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. To weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told. To salve the need for human connection, more dangerous and more precious than we have ever known. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us that we exist independent of our grief and fear. Reminding us the world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
This is an update of a November 2016 post.
March 27, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
In October 2019, I became one of the readers for Brevity’s special “Experiences of Disability” issue. I was excited to be a part of the team, and it drove me to write an essay about living with a chronic illness for my MFA thesis. It has been a privilege to read the assigned essays, and I am continuously in awe at the resilience and creativity fellow writers can find in the depths of pain. It somehow seems wholly apt and an act of masochism to be reading submissions now, when a form of collective pain has enveloped the world due to COVID-19. I’ve experienced two conflicting feelings while reading submissions the last few weeks. First, I’m proud to be a reader because I know how difficult it is for people to share their lived experiences with disabilities and illnesses, especially when my diagnosis didn’t arrive until I was nearly thirty. Second, at times there has been an unfettered desire to throw my laptop across the room because my pain, coupled with others’ pain, has become unbearable.
Since COVID-19 took over, its resulting grief hasn’t allowed me to concentrate or analyze submissions for the special issue. I have opened up Submittable, arrived at an essay, read the first paragraph, and then closed the tab. Waves of guilt have overcome me because writers are sharing the hardest moments of their lives and I can’t even will myself to read them. Snap out of it, I’ve told myself. I hadn’t realized that lack of concentration and ineptitude were some of the symptoms of a pandemic until I went on social media and saw writers who I admire confess they’ve felt the same way. A few days ago, I teetered on the idea of sending an email to the special issue’s managing editor explaining I wasn’t in the right mindset to continue reading.
Before I could send that email, I had a conversation with my brother, who at 24 was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery this past January. He has been too chipper since then, and his anxiety seems nonexistent while my mental health has been imploding.
“Why are you being so positive throughout this whole thing?” I asked him.
“Well, I lost my job in December, I had surgery in January, they confirmed it was a malignant tumor in February, and now a worldwide pandemic in March. My reasoning is it can only get better from here,” he said. I shouldn’t have cackled when he said this, but I did.
As the days have passed since our conversation, the only reason I have been able to go back to reading essay submissions about disability and illness is because of him. If he can envision a future, why can’t I? If he can make Instagram challenges during the pandemic, why can’t I? If he can read the book Room to Dream by David Lynch, sitting in the front yard while the sun sparkles on his jet-black hair and I stare at him from the window—thankful that it’s only stage one cancer—why can’t I read too? If he can write a script while being forced to stay put because even venturing to the pharmacy is strictly prohibited for him, why can’t I sit down and read for Brevity?
So, on a gloomy March day, I once again started to write and read essays about pain, because I figure we don’t just overcome viruses, and cancer, and grief, and unemployment, we fight through them.
No one knows how the world will look or feel like in September 2020, the tentative month the Experiences of Disability issue will go live. COVID-19 has already altered our lives and converted our shelter-in-place realities into the Twilight Zone, but I am certain Brevity will be there for us, just like it has been for more than twenty years. What I do recommend, especially if you are overwhelmed with grief or uncertainty when this issue goes live, is to treat every essay like a daily snack. This is the reading tactic I’ve now been implementing for the March submissions. Some weeks I’ve been assigned twenty essays or more, and I limit the intake each day or else my mental health wanes. Some days I’ve stopped reading altogether, until I feel ready to dive back in.
The essays in this upcoming issue will be imperative, more so in the midst of an era when the world has partly been brought to a halt due to a virus. I hope to send my brother the link to the issue, and thank him for allowing some of his courage to rub off on me when I felt like giving up.
The issue will be there for you to read when you’re ready, whenever that may be.
Victoria Buitron is a dual citizen of Ecuador and the United States. She is a translator and writer based in Connecticut and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.
March 6, 2020 § 18 Comments
By Cindy Sams
A long teaching day nears its end when a buzz from the phone in my pocket grabs my attention. A covert glance at the screen reveals a text message from my MFA writing mentor at Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA.
She announces, simply, “Congratulations!!!”
What did I do?
Attached to the text is a link that made my 60-year-old-self rear up and pay attention– an announcement from The New Southern Fugitives, an online literary zine in Atlanta which recently published one of my essays. There’s a nifty picture there of a man pushing a cart … a man … pushing a cart … OHMYGOD … The Pushcart Prize.
“Congratulations 2020 Pushcart Prize Nominees!” Six names follow the announcement, including that of my mentor, Anjali Enjeti. At the bottom of the list, in small print, sits my name. Mine. The name of a first semester creative writing grad student who was thrilled just to be published so quickly. The name of a former newspaper reporter turned high school theater teacher who returned to writing after her fella died and her chicklet flew the nest.
The name of a woman who entered her sixth decade in late 2019 with a bang. I’ve waited my whole life to write creatively. Delayed through marriage and childbirth and work and divorce and illness and surgery and death. And now, at the cusp of retirement, opportunity beckons. Time seems to have shoved itself into a corner to give me space in which to write. Poems. Short stories. Memoir. This ol’ gal is on fire with it all. Even more so since news of the Pushcart nomination came along, a turn I never expected to happen, much less this soon.
In truth, I applied to Reinhardt’s MFA program for the Fall 2019 term with no real expectation that I’d be accepted. Not because of age, but from fear that lack of recent writing would hold me back. I cobbled together a collection of stories I’d written for The Macon Telegraph during my career there, accompanied by a new essay I wrote for my submission packet. That piece, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” stems from the gift of a wooden cutting board carved in the shape of the Lonestar State. I’ve never used the board, but The New Southern Fugitives paid me $100 to publish the essay – then they nominated it for a Pushcart prize.
I’m mighty impressed with myself, but just how big a deal is that nomination? Depends upon whom you ask.
As any good reporter would do, I turned to the wisdom of the Interweb to find out. Some literary pundits contend that the Pushcart ain’t no big thing. Thousands upon thousands of writers are nominated, so stop listing it on your CV. In an “Open Letter to Pushcart Nominated Folks,” author John Matthew Fox stakes this claim: “But to people who know what a Pushcart Nomination means, it looks desperate. Especially when you don’t list what journal gave you the nomination. Because we know it’s not Tin House, it’s more like Podunk journal run by an MFA fail from his parent’s basement in Arkansas.”
Others take an enlightened view that’s more to my liking.
“A Pushcart nomination is a solid credential so you’ve got bragging rights,” said Gray Stewart, a Georgia novelist and one of my RU professors.
Let’s be frank. Accolades matter. Even at my age. Especially at my age. I don’t have six decades ahead of me to develop my skills. Never mind that never will I now be heralded as an up-and-coming young writer. There’s enough attention paid to talented young people and so little given to those of us who taste success at a later point.
Funny that all of this occurred around the same time a piece by Lorrie Moore popped up on the assignment list for one of my MFA classes. Moore’s essay, “How to Become A Writer” blew up my brain with its parallels to my own life. The questions Moore raises in her work are those I ask myself frequently now.
She’s crafted this piece in the guise of a Self-Help Writing Guru, I suppose, yet there are such deep truths here. Some of them describe me quite accurately. So much so that I wonder if Moore’s posing under a pseudonym and is really my long-dead Great Aunt Inez, who advised me to become a bank teller or telephone operator as a life-long career. That I could not then and cannot now count back change has no bearing on the matter.
Did Moore eavesdrop on my life?
“Somehow, you end up writing again,” she posits. “Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.”
I don’t know what it takes for anyone else to become a writer. Perhaps, as Moore suggests, there is no one-size-fits-all method, and each writer must find his or her own way. Whatever it takes, I’m going to cross that bridge and learn to take myself and my efforts seriously. Stop equivocating about my work. Recognize its value regardless of its reception.
After all, I am Pushcart nominee. More than that, I’m a writer now.
Cindy Sams is a teacher and writer in Macon, GA, a hub of soul food and soul music in the New Deep South. A graduate of Wesleyan College, she holds an MA in Theater from Regent University, and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. When not teaching and writing, she directs high school plays and musicals and breaks into random show tunes in shopping mall parking lots. Her work has appeared in The Chaffey Review, Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, and The New Southern Fugitives, which nominated her for a 2020 Pushcart Prize in Creative Nonfiction.