April 23, 2018 § 14 Comments
By Kirsten Fogg
It started with a lump in my throat. Actually, it started before that.
When I embarked on a project gathering stories of belonging, I tried to be witty and philosophical by quoting author Ben Okri. “Listening,” Okri had said in an interview, “is quite close to suffering.” Maybe I didn’t take Okri seriously or maybe I thought I was immune. Either way I’m embarrassed to say that I became a casualty of my own research.
In order to interview people I wouldn’t normally meet, I’d applied to become a writer in residence but no one would have me. After I recovered from the rejections, I decided to continue my research independently and called myself the Writer Out Of Residence. I was thrilled to be part of a festival and had stints with a state library, a hospital, and a hip cafe. In six months, I collected 130 interviews. I just didn’t think it would drive me to therapy.
The thing is when I asked about belonging, people told me about rape and racism – He dragged me from the car by my hair – anorexia and mental illness, attempted suicide, prison and homelessness – I cut off his hand and shoved it in his mouth.
The more I listened, the bigger that lump in my throat became but I kept ignoring it. I’m doing important work, I told myself. It’s research for my book. It wasn’t until I had trouble swallowing and speaking became painful that I remembered a friend’s father who had died of throat cancer.
My GP sent me to the ear nose and throat doctor who squirted bitter anesthetic up my right nostril and stuffed a tube in it to peer into my throat as I gagged. Two GPs, one barium swallow and a cortisol inhalant later, I was lying on a carpeted floor staring at the ceiling and repeating zz sounds.
“Your throat is unremarkable,” the speech pathologist said, reading the ENT report. The pathologist used to sing opera and he looks like he used to sing opera. “It’s called globus pharyngeus. It’s an involuntary clenching of the vocal chords. Can be caused by stress. I see it all the time. Feels like a lump in your throat.”
Ben Okri may not have been referring to vicarious trauma when he equated listening with suffering but the link was there. When I was collecting stories, people opened up to me. They talked to me as if I was a therapist rather than a writer and I had no idea how to handle it. This type of secondary trauma is associated with war correspondents, social workers, or medical and rescue personnel, not creative nonfiction writers like me. But the more we as writers delve into the lives of others, the more susceptible we become to taking on their trauma, simply by listening.
I kept going. At one all-day festival, I interviewed 19 people without stopping and then raced home to look after my children. Everywhere I went I carried those stories with me. I was beaten up about nine times by gangs. The details rolled around my head and the weight of other people’s rage and terror pulled on my limbs. I tried to kill myself. Nightmares and heart palpitations jerked me awake at 3 a.m. and during the day I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide. I ignored the restlessness that pumped through my body like a never-ending sugar high. I kept collecting stories. How could I not listen?
Even writing this, my chest is tightening, my throat clenching. I pause, exhale, and look out the library window at the muddy Brisbane River. After months with an art therapist and the speech pathologist I know more about vicarious trauma and how anxiety affects me.
In my attempt to understand other people’s search for belonging I neglected myself: I didn’t debrief after interviews, I didn’t cut down on my workload, I didn’t find a way to let the trauma out, and I didn’t ask for help. How could I whine about what I was feeling when I was only listening?
At the same time, I felt so responsible for preserving people’s stories and honoring my commitments that I stopped doing activities that would have helped me: I was too busy to run or rock climb and my flute stayed in its case.
I know I’m not the only writer who is suffering and feeling guilty about secondary trauma: Oxford University now offers workshops to students and academics researching difficult subjects and more writers are asking about how to handle this in conferences and on social media.
There is no easy answer. People talk about self-care, going for walks, or hanging out with friends, but those suggestions were too vague. I was in a position of high anxiety and I wasn’t going to stop interviewing people so I needed a long-term solution.
At a writer’s conference in Australia I bumped into Leah Kaminsky, a General Practicioner and award-winning author. If anyone could help, it had to be her: she’s written about death and The Holocaust and seems balanced and happy. Later, when we talked on the phone and I asked about vicarious trauma, her suggestion surprised me. It was, in fact, the one thing I’d been avoiding because I thought it would upset me. She insisted that reading a broad range of well-written books on traumatic subjects was key.
“It helped me focus on the craft of how to actually be the translator of pain and of trauma, rather than being the vessel for it,” Kaminsky said. “I was the translator that was carrying the language of the voiceless to the reader.”
Now I’m surrounded by memoirs and essays on topics ranging from disability to genocide. And it’s working. I’ve got a way to go before that lump disappears from my throat, but concentrating on how other writers have transformed trauma into type is helping me manage the suffering embedded in truly listening.
Kirsten Fogg is a writer and journalist who has lived in France, the U.K. and Australia. Her personals essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction (U.S.), The Malahat Review (Canada) and produced by ABC Radio National (Australia). Her essay “NanaTechnology” was the 2015 winner of the CNFC/carte-blanche contest. Her articles have appeared in international newspapers including The Chicago Tribune. She recently moved her family to Toronto, Canada and can be found — covered in dust and muddling her way through renovating an old house — at www.writeroutofresidence.com.
April 4, 2018 § 8 Comments
In lieu of a Thank You note, I should be sending you a royalty check for all the times I have printed your essay The Things I’ve Lost published in Brevity 22. Perhaps writers should team up with musicians to claim monetary compensation for their intellectual property.
Brevity will also want a piece of the take, as will state and federal entities. I don’t know about you but, I am not feeling very generous toward the government these days. As I watch your imaginary check dwindle in size, it occurs to me that cutting a check is as antiquated as placing a stamp on a letter. I feel, however, that I should publicly give credit where credit is due and since I cannot find you elsewhere this is as good a place as any to connect with you.
I work as a nurse who works with patients receiving chemotherapy, and, thanks to a generous donation, I have access to a healthy supply of notebooks and journals. Some are jeweled and bedazzled, while others have faux leather covers. I delight in selecting just the right one for my patients. I imagine I am kin to Ollivander who selects the perfect wand for fledgling wizards.
There is time to talk in the space between lab work, pre-hydration fluids, and administering the poison that may be their salvation. Shelly was interested in alternative medicine options and I discussed a body of research demonstrating improved health outcomes for people who write about their illness. Shelly said she wanted to journal during her first cancer treatment, but the chemotherapy made it difficult to clear her mind enough to write a coherent sentence. Now, on her second time around, I suggested she make a list of the things she lost. Start with: I lost my hair. I lost my fear of hospitals, I lost my virginity…. Shelly and I talked about how writing helps take you out of the moment and allows the writer to look at the totality of their experiences. It is not illness that defines us but all the other things that make up the lost and found of a life.
Illness is the door most apparent when I write with my patients, but the illness is not who they are. It is a place to start. Shelly embraced the idea and held tight to the journal I gave her — a striped journal, reminiscent of Fruit Stripe chewing gum.
As I talked with Shelly, her mother-in-law sat quietly on the sofa. She later came out to the nurse’s station and asked if we could talk. The HIPPA alarm was raging in my head since there was nothing I could discuss with her about Shelly’s care. My brain said “No” but my lips said, “Of course.” As we stepped into an empty hallway she explained that she had been listening to the conversation. She is a high school teacher and she wondered if I had heard about the shooting at her school. She said she hated going back to the school until today. She said, “For the first time, I can see a path forward. I can write with my students about what we have lost. I can help them through their grief” She thanked me and gave a sincere and tender hug.
Both the hug and thanks are yours to claim and do not belong to me.
I cannot begin to send you a royalty check to cover this exchange. Please know you are rich in good karma credits even if your 401(k) is feeling rather depleted.
With your permission, I will continue to use your essay for inspiration because even teenage boys show enthusiasm for a writing project that begins, “I lost a lot of blood.”
Your appreciative fan,
Joey Elizabeth is a mom, MFA student, and registered nurse who tries to insert biblio-therapy between rounds of chemo-therapy because healing is not the same as curing. A fellow nurse calls her an anecdotal artist. Her work can be found on the back of envelopes, via Blackboard posts, and in notebooks in the bottom desk drawer. You can find her in the kitchen making dinner or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 22, 2018 § 19 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
A rhyming title for an essay, you must wonder. Full disclaimer: I am a poet at heart; the crossover to writing and publishing a novel has been transformative, and I wanted to share some things I learned.
I won’t lie; it’s been exciting, humbling and exhausting. The release of my 12th book (but debut U.S. novel) Louisiana Catch, a story that centers around a sexual abuse survivor from New Delhi, coincides with the #MeToo movement. It’s on U.K.’s The Asian Writer’s “Books to Read in 2018” list. Frankly, I don’t know what’s in store for the book, but I do know that I have enjoyed the whole process and realized a few things along the way, specifically as it relates to publishing via a small press.
The problem is you: The lack of gratitude. I have seen writers apologize for their small press partnerships and feel small…like they are embarrassed. Stop! The fact that someone took a chance on your work and wants to publish you, means a lot. Publishing is about several permutations and combinations. Working with a small press doesn’t make you any less talented or skilled compared to a writer who has a book coming out with a Penguin/Random House or Hachette. Small press has limitations, which teaches you to become self-reliant and seek out opportunities. Once you adjust your attitude and appreciate a challenge, the journey becomes more exciting. I was out of ARCs and an opportunity arose to send a few copies of Louisiana Catch to Hollywood. My publisher—Modern History Press—sent me the copies overnight (Not cheap for a small press), and I went and made the drop at the crack-of-dawn. It was like a relay race where we kept an eye on the goal and made it happen as a team.
Own your choice—Yes, for majority of us (fair to make the assumption?), there is this dream of being represented by one of the big five publishing houses. I didn’t try the agent route, very deliberately. I consciously chose to work with a small press for this novel. My last manuscript died because my then agent hit a midlife crisis after I had spent a couple of years changing the book to fit their perception of a “good book.” We went from “blah blah (Insert name of one of the top 5 publishing houses) is buying your book to popping congratulatory champagne to “I am like not sure where my life is headed.” My book sank along with my heart. I decided that I wanted to work with a press that understood my voice and stories and wanted to represent my work. Pick your route and do not doubt your decision.
Face facts—Whether you are being published by one of the top five or a small press, the chances are that you are a small fish—majority of us fall in that space. Your grandma might throw a block party in your honor but at the publisher’s end, you are one of the many authors. You have to put in a lot of work. And working with a small press, I have had a lot of say in defining what that work means. My publisher at Modern History Press, Victor Volkman, and I developed a true partnership. He acknowledged my hard work and increased the stakes. And now we have an audiobook for Louisiana Catch in the making. It’s come to a point where my publisher leaves notes, #BeLikeAhana, after one of the early reviewers of the book started this hashtag (Based on the female protagonist in Louisiana Catch) on Instagram, on my social media posts.
Size doesn’t guarantee success—I agree; working with a big publishing house often means incredible distribution system. Your friends and family will see your books at bookstores and Target and airport spaces. Let’s be honest; I would like that too. When I saw my 1st novel in a store in India, I couldn’t believe it. But I’ve worked in the marketing department for Kellogg’s breakfast cereals and let me tell you one thing—while placement seems to be everything, it also isn’t everything. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales. I have a professor interested in teaching Louisiana Catch to her students. If your book becomes part of an academic course, that’s when you know X no. of copies will be sold every semester, not one season.
Innovation is the name—Remember: While the budgets are limited, the intentions and efforts aren’t because a small press cares about their authors and their stories. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I decided to partner up with organizations and brands for reviews and book release events. On April 18, Lululemon Hub Seventeen in NYC is hosting the book release party for Louisiana Catch and organizations like Exhale to Inhale have helped plan the all-female panel at this party. I have also partnered up with leading yoga studios, organizations working on women’s empowerment, and independent bookstores for book launch events in three different states. I like the idea of community, so at each of these events, I’ve invited other authors or specialists to participate. My publisher has offered to get bookmarks and posters shipped to these locations.
You aren’t forgotten—Sure, many big-name magazines might not look at books from small presses and review them. It boils down to connections and budgets and priorities and the TBR pile on the reviewers’ desk. Yes, it’s frustrating and disappointing. But it’s not the end. I once cold-pitched an essay, “Familiar Dish, Familiar Friend,” to the New York Times, and it got accepted. Louisiana Catch and I have been profiled in different countries in leading ethnic and/or feminist newspapers and magazines. Not having an in-house publishing team doing all the work for me has worked in my favor. I don’t wait for things to happen; I go out and make them happen.
Embrace your true self—Working with a small press can level you like none other. It will show you what your strengths and shortcomings are. I am a do-it-yourself author. I like being organized and in control of my book and the promotional plans. My publisher honored every timeline we decided on. I wanted the book to be out in April since it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the female protagonist, Ahana, is a sexual assault survivor; he agreed. In summer of 2017, the final edits came in. By September-October of 2017, the ARCs were ready. In October, we started mailing them out. The early reviewers have had plenty of time to review. It doesn’t mean my book will be on New York Times list or be reviewed by all the top-notch magazines; all it means is that I know that we tried our best. And, sometimes, just knowing that helps you go to bed at night.
I have been at the forefront of every decision made regarding Louisiana Catch—right from the editors to the book cover to the promotional plan to the book birthing cycle to a speaking engagement at Twitter NY. Honestly, had I not worked with a small press, I am not sure how many of these opportunities I might have pursued.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com), featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is a best-selling author of 12 books, five-times Pushcart Prize nominee, mindfulness writing coach, social issues advocate, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative, productive, and healthier lives. Louisiana Catch is her debut U.S. novel and featured on U.K.’s The Asian Writer’s “Books to Read in 2018.” Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States collecting and sharing stories. She writes about women, multiculturalism, wellness, and identity. Sweta, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, amongst other publications, across nine countries on three continents, is an award-winning writer and graduate of Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. You can find her in these online spaces: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta)
February 20, 2018 § 16 Comments
I’ve never been a writing group person.
1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.
2) It’s hard to find the right group.
Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?
The right people are worth a lot of effort.
The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.
Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:
Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.
Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’
I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.
I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.
Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.
Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.
Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.
February 15, 2018 § 14 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.
February 6, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Lisa Romeo
During several periods in my writing life I attended no conferences, and other times I could get to just a few, dictated by a confluence of budget, geography, travel logistics, day-job demands, family obligations. When I could attend, I had to be picky.
I came to understand that a conference will not make me a better writer or a more published writer by itself. But the right conference can help to make me into a writer who better knows how to identify, create, pursue, participate in, and evaluate the writing life, career, projects, and submission/publication plan that will work best for me, and make me happy.
So, I thought I’d offer this list, and hope it has some value for others. All these things lined up for me last year when I attended HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, and I hope my list might be helpful to others attempting to choose the right conference:
What makes a writing conference right:
It directly, seriously, fully, and openly addresses, embraces, and celebrates the genre or category of writing most important to you. If you can find it, specialization rocks! One big reason I love Hippocamp is that it’s focused on CNF writing. Yes, I learn a lot at conferences that aren’t so specialized, but a hyper-focused event means you are with your tribe. Everything that happens, each break-out session, panel, reading, or other element is for folks who write what you write.
Enough of what’s on offer is for writers at your skill and/or experience level. Yes, it’s good when some sessions push you to extend your reach; that’s good for learning what to aspire to. But do you want to spend all day, or most of many days, feeling either completely overwhelmed because you have no idea what the speakers are talking about, or bored and antsy because you already know and have mastered what’s being covered.
The mix, intent, and focus of material jives with what you want and need now. Only craft-related sessions? Hands-on (“generative”) sessions? Lecture style only? Workshops (with feedback)? Presentations with opportunities for Q-and-A? Marketing/submission/querying skills?
The size fits. I love a mid-sized conference best so I can make personal connections. Small to mid-sized events usually also foster casual, follow-up interactions with speakers and presenters at meals, breaks, and just wandering about the venue—another thing I like. (I do occasionally like a huge conference, but for very different reasons.)
The conference organizers respect every attendee, and don’t play favorites. This is one of those intangibles that, for me, can make or break a conference experience. At Hippocamp for example, I’ve heard attendees describe the organizers in ways you might reserve for your favorite teacher, coach, or BFF: they listen, help, and care. Every person on the grounds is IN THE CLUB. (I’ve attended way too many conferences where some writers are made to feel inadequate and lesser-than because they don’t “have a book,” are not sufficiently well-connected, and find themselves feeling left out in an us-and-them kind of way.) At Hippocamp, the club is everyone in the room. Look for that.
The fees make sense. Who wants to be someplace where you feel the conference is mostly interested in your wallet? I happen to like conference fees that also include meals, coffee, snacks and parking; offer hotel room discounts; and small goodies that make me feel welcome. If I can get that, and it also lines up with reasonable travel costs, I’m in. (Don’t go broke attending conferences.)
Everything’s included, but there’s also an a-la-carte add-on menu. One year at Hippocamp, I paid for agent pitch sessions, other years not. Twice I took a pre-conference workshop. Choices like that can add value to your time away from home, and (for someone like me who likes to cram every hour with something useful), make the conference a more robust writerly experience.
There’s a little bit of fun built right in. Door prizes? A casual open mic? Fun snacks? Optional, casual meal meet-ups for when it seems everyone else has made dining plans? We’re writers, not robots, and only some find it easy to organize themselves socially.
The conference encourages, and facilitates, continued learning beyond the time limit of each program element. I like to leave a session with something that I’ll consult later (besides my own notes) — handouts, recommended links, the speaker’s email address or resource website, maybe something I’ve been urged to generate during the session. Even better if (as is the case with Hippocamp), I can find some speakers’ entire slide presentations on the conference website later.
There’s a balance between too much and just enough. One day? Four days? Five break-out sessions running concurrently? Or 25 to choose from simultaneously? A crammed daily schedule or one with breaks and free (writing?) time built in? Each is likable for different reasons, by different writers. What do you like at a conference?
The organizers want your feedback. Whether it’s a matter of listening sincerely to an in-person complaint or suggestion during the conference, or providing and urging attendees to fill out post-event surveys, I like it when speaking up about what didn’t go quite right, what was stellar, and what might be a good future addition (or deletion), feels welcomed.
I’m sure I’ve left something out. What do you love about, and look for in the conferences you attend?
A slightly altered version of this post ran previously on Lisa Romeo Writes. Reprinted with Lisa’s kind permission.
You can get more information on the next HippoCamp Conference here.
Lisa Romeo is the author Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss(forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018). She teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program, serves as CNF editor of Compose Journal, and nonfiction craft essays editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her work is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in Brevity, Under the Sun, New York Times, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, O The Oprah Magazine, and many other places. At HippoCamp 2018, she will be leading a workshop on “Transforming Essays Into a Narrative Memoir Manuscript.”
February 5, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
In fall of 2006, Facebook made its debut appearance, available to anyone with an email address over the age of 13. The following year, my 14-year-old son joined and helped me create a profile so I could monitor him. But I just wasn’t into it, and he didn’t need me there. “Why do you want all these people you barely know to see this post?” I asked him on more than one occasion. “It’s so public.”
When high school classmates I hadn’t seen since graduation in 1983 sent friend requests, I mocked not them but the medium. When people posted birthday wishes for worldwide viewing, I squirmed. When I missed a childhood friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, asked to see photos and she said check Facebook, I felt hurt.
By the time Facebook became a verb, my page had withered from inactivity.
When we moved from New York to Israel in 2011, another new immigrant said, “If you want to know what everybody’s up to in this town, scroll Facebook at the end of every day.” I’m not proud, but I turned into a Peeping Tom, skimming people’s posts on a still irregular but more often basis. I neither liked nor commented.
That same year, I opened my own yoga studio and started posting. I taught writing classes and started posting. I launched my blog and posted it. Using it professionally didn’t bother me as much as personally. One new friend teased me, calling me old-fashioned, and email—always my preferred means of communication—obsolete.
Three years later, I entered a low-residency MFA in the U.S. where I made writer friends every one of whom, it seemed, posted with abandon: links to essays, photos from residency, calls for submissions. Sometimes I responded. Sometimes I didn’t. Something still held me back from liking news about a friend’s pet passing or an old classmate’s cancer or a colleague losing a job.
During my second-to-last residency, I attended a panel on literary citizenship, a term I’d never heard before. Its gist: how important it is to support each other, to share each other’s work, to comment for the writer to know and others to see. When our class graduated, one of my friends gave a lecture on a related topic. A year out of school, I attended a writers’ retreat in Ireland, where the instructor insisted we devote a certain number of hours a week to social media, to reading our fellow writers’ stories, to responding to them, to understanding the give and the take in this community.
All throughout these years as writer, I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga too. Back in New York, I attended a weekly teachers’ practice offered by my teacher, Susan. She taught me how to jump from an arm balance called Crow to a low push-up, how to transition from Crow to headstand, how to jump into handstand with both legs. When a fellow yogi mentioned that she was scared to fall, Susan said, “I get it. Me too. Sometimes we might. And that’s okay. Because if we always stay comfortable in our poses and in our practice, if we never let ourselves fall, we’ll never grow.”
Now, whenever I open Facebook, I think about those who have taught me the meaning of being a good literary citizen and about Susan’s message. I think about how in order to grow I have to push myself to tread in uncomfortable territory.
Ten-and-a-half years after I created that first profile, I check it often, to read posts and pieces that otherwise might not have flashed before my eyes, to applaud writers for their beautiful words and to spread them around on social media. I’ve even joined Twitter. On the early vs late adopters scale, I’m on the extremely late, uber slow side, Jennifer Lang, the laggard. I’m not proud, but at least I’m present.
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.