Writing is Centering, Like Prayer

May 23, 2017 § 10 Comments

marciabilykBy Marcia Krause Bilyk

The day after Trump’s inauguration, when Sean Spicer stood at the White House podium and declared the crowd the largest in Inaugural history, instead of scoffing at him, instead of declaring him as nuts as his boss, I was transported to my childhood feelings of rage, fear, and despair.

I grew up with a narcissistic father. Our home was suffused with his grandiosity, his exaggerations, his uninformed opinions. Mother, for reasons I couldn’t understand, didn’t contradict or question him. If I complained to her in private about his bullying, she’d say, “Your father loves you.” It felt crazy. Mother warned us not to speak of what went on at home to our friends. Dad’s rages were a closely guarded secret. There was no predicting what might set him off.

I withheld from Dad what he wanted and expected of me: affirmation, loyalty, devotion. I vowed I’d be factual and avoid using his imperatives. This is the greatest, isn’t it?! I was so invested in being not-like-father, it took me years of therapy to discern my identity separate from his.

I thought my reactive days were behind me, but the triggers for post-traumatic-Dad stress are escalating. Trump fires Comey, dashing my hope for someone to stand up to him. I feel the rage underlying Trump’s tweeted “tapes” threat. In the Oval Office photo with Russian officials, Trump’s face mirrors Dad’s boyish infatuation with power. Through an absence of appropriate boundaries, Trump exposes and betrays a vulnerable source. And, now, Paul Ryan sounds like Mother. “No leaks. This is how we know we’re a real family…”

When I’m able, I detach from the news, but anyone who’s grown up amidst family dysfunction will tell you about their hyper-vigilance, their need to be aware, at all time, of where the danger lies.

And so, I sit at my computer and I write. It’s confessional, an acknowledgment of what God already knows is churning inside me. It helps me to identify the feelings I need to set aside in order to access the still and silent God-place within. Writing, for me, is centering, like prayer.

There is a response to my outpouring. Newfound understanding and compassion for my emotional flashbacks make it possible to move on to activities that bring me joy. I gaze at the seedlings on my office windowsill and decide it’s time to plant them in my garden.

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Marcia Krause Bilyk is a retired pastor, who works part-time in a long-term residential treatment center for chronic relapse addicts. Her work has appeared in Gravel, The Interpreter, Five2One, Drunk Monkeys, and The Upper Room.

Out in a Flash: Brevity’s 55th Issue

May 16, 2017 § 1 Comment

Xenia_Karen Babine-Our May 2017 issue looks at sucker punches, the canine search for meaning, memory loss, kindness to strangers, and the infinite multiverse, featuring outstanding new nonfiction from Rebecca McClanahan, Sarah Carson, Karen Babine, Amy Butcher, Brian Trapp, Stephen J. West, John Rybicki, Donna Steiner, Kate Martin Rowe, Charlotte Pence, Ashlyn Mooney, Rachel Palmer, Maya Klein, Margaret MacInnis, and Georgie Hunt.

Original artwork by Heather Kresge.

In our craft section, Peggy Shumaker reminds us that language must come alive before our written lives become interesting to others, Judith Padow examines the use of fictional “imagining” in nonfiction, and Jeanette Luise Eberhardy explores connections between visual artists and writing flash essays.​

And in other news:

The Story Cure

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore has a new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir.  Booklist writes, “few guides are as tight, thorough, and engaging as this one… In a field littered with gimmicky advice, this strong, lean title stands out.” ​Poets & Writers adds, “Moore’s signature wit and wisdom are once again on display in this useful guide for writers of all levels of experience.”
 cure

Defeating Conference Regret

April 24, 2017 § 14 Comments

zz Sarah Evans.jpgBy Sarah Evans

The first type of writing conference regret typically hits shortly after the event begins.

You’ve just walked out of your first breakout session, one that you picked after poring over the descriptions and presenter bios to decide which one was right for you. In the hallway, you bump into attendees who went to a different session — one you’d considered but eventually rejected — and all of them are buzzing about how amazing their presenter was, how their notebooks are filled with words of inspiration, how the whole conference was worth it for just that one talk.

You sigh, because even though the session you picked was quite good, it never seems to live up to the mythic-level one you didn’t attend.

This happened to me last May at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers asked us to choose our first session months in advance of the event, and I wavered between my top two picks: “Structure for Long-Form Nonfiction” and “What Do I Write About?”

I picked the first, a session that offered a solid nuts and bolts lesson, specific tools and devices we could try with longer works. Among other things, the session leader analyzed the techniques Jeannette Walls used in the opening of her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” advocating that we start our story, like Walls, “close to the peak of action, right before a defining moment” — before leaving that scene and going somewhere else in the story for a while. The result: you make the reader want to ride along to find out how that opening scene will conclude.

“I already know this,” I thought at first — I had used this technique for years in my magazine writing. But as I continued jotting notes, a question nagged at me: Why wasn’t I also using this technique for my memoir-in-progress? I wrote in the margin of my notebook, “Open memoir with me meeting Mom at 7-11 after the funeral.” Minutes later, I walked out of the talk satisfied that I’d gleaned several potential ideas to play with when I got home.

Then I ran into the people who had gone to the other session. They talked about how inspiring it was, how the session leader had given them all these great nuggets of wisdom to remember and reflect upon, adages like, “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning.”

Regret rushed in. I appreciated the nuts and bolts, but also hungered for those motivating tidbits to remind me why I was a writer. I definitely encountered some later in the conference, but as I flew home afterward, part of me still wondered what else I might have missed.

Those precious post-conference days are when you may encounter another form of conference regret: wasting your inspiration. You come home with your brain and your notebook brimming with ideas and notes, and then … you do nothing with them. If you’re like me — a writer who also works a pays-the-bills job while raising a young family — it’s easy to return to that former life of not always writing, of pushing it aside until later when you’re less busy and less tired (which never happens). You have high hopes for what you’re going to do with your conference inspiration, and then you leave that notebook closed on your desk.

This time around, the new idea about how to open my memoir just wouldn’t leave me. I thought about it throughout the conference and on the plane ride home. It continued to taunt me as I attended office meetings and wiped runny noses. So within a week of returning to Oregon, I sat down and wrote. I only wrote about a page and a half, but I could tell it was the best I’d written in a while. When friends asked me about the conference, I told them how I’d written this new prologue for the book I hoped to finish someday, and how jazzed I was about the new direction. They smiled and nodded — most of them weren’t writers, so they didn’t understand the import of this development. Inside, I rejoiced that for once I hadn’t completely squandered the weekend.

I wish I could say that prologue turned into a regular routine where new chapters poured out of me every week. Instead, my kids and my regular life stepped back in and I’ve actually written very little of my memoir since then. But just getting that prologue onto the page was a game-changer. It led to me digging out old chapters to revisit with my writing group, thinking about the structure of my memoir often, and feeling reinvigorated about returning to the project.

Months later, I entered the prologue into the Oregon Writers Colony Writing Contest, and it won third prize for nonfiction first chapter. Take that, conference regret.

So the next time I come out of a session and hear the other attendees gushing about their presenter, I will smile, but I will not feel regret. I got what I needed out of the day, and that is what conferences are all about. And the next time I leave a conference, I’ll try harder to write something immediately after, even if it’s brief. It’s better than nothing, and it could signal a new beginning.

I didn’t even get to the third type of conference regret: when you meet that famous writer you admire and you blabber on or say something stupid. If you figure out how to defeat that one, let me know.

__

Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who is working (sometimes) on a memoir about her teenage years as a punk-rocker in small-town Texas. She is a graduate of the MFA in writing program at Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.

Seeking Essays on How You Teach Brevity

April 14, 2017 § 1 Comment

antique schoolbook reader page schoolhouse graphicBrevity is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! As part of our celebration, we’d like to showcase the various ways the journal is used in classrooms and other workshop settings. Do you teach from Brevity? Send us a brief (but not necessarily Brevity brief) piece about how you use Brevity: a lesson plan, thoughts on a Brevity essay you most like to teach, reminiscences of student reactions to the work. We’ll be collecting these and publishing a selection on the Brevity blog in conjunction with our special anniversary issue, slated for early September.

Send your contributions by August 31, 2017, to brevityintheclassroom@gmail.com

‘Tell Me a Story’: Notes from The Rivendell Writers’ Colony

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

0N8A9253.jpgBy Kate Parrish

“The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity and art itself.” Pat Conroy wrote these words in 2010, and today, when the arts are under attack—when not even Bert and Ernie are safe—they read more like an omen than a salvation. Without access to the arts, will we lose access to our humanity? How long can we survive without each other’s stories? For us at Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the answers are unknown but our response plan remains the same: create more opportunity for creation. It’s why we’re offering four new two-week residency fellowships this year.

Let us tell you a little of our story. Maybe you’ll find its one in which you’d like to help write.

Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the first writers’ residency in Tennessee, opened its doors to storytellers of all genres in 2013. But, of course, that isn’t exactly where the story begins. Located in Sewanee, Tenn., Rivendell sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, a region forged out of layers of sandstone and shale lifted 2,000 feet above sea level nearly 300 million years ago. Hundreds of caves dot the landscape concealing some of the area’s oldest stories: finger-traced mud glyphs left behind 2,000 thousand years ago by individuals with something to say. Individuals who would have ducked into low chambers, squeezed through impossible passes, and crawled on their bellies deep into the earth to write down their stories. Taproot is right.

Sewanee is something of a literary hamlet, a bastion of the written word. It is home to the University of the South, which is home to the Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, and the prestigious Tennessee Williams estate-funded Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Literary juggernauts like Fugitive poet Allen Tate, Agrarian poet Andrew Lytle, novelists William Alexander Percy and his cousin Walker Percy have all lived in Sewanee. In more recent years, John Jeremiah Sullivan, popular essayist and southern editor of The Paris Review, and Kevin Wilson, author of the book-turned-movie The Family Fang, have called Sewanee home. A little more than a decade ago, the university started the School of Letters, a summers-only MFA and MA program, the only one of its kind in the country. For a town with only two blinking red lights, it has a larger literary footprint than many major cities. But what it didn’t have—what it needed—was a writers’ residency.

Built between 1905-1910, the nearly 7,000-square-foot house, referred to simply as “the Manor,” is positioned on the edge of a bluff overlooking Lost Cove. Many mornings the home, the expansive yard dotted with oak and white pine, and the entirety of the bluff are blanketed in a dense fog. Families of deer, fox and skunks move under its protective cover. Lost Cove disappears completely. It is the Manor’s position on the bluff and the frequent presence of fog that inspired one of the property’s former owners to name the space Rivendell after the elven realm in The Lord of the Rings.

RivendellAutumn-6377.jpgRivendell, which adjoins the historic Brinkwood property, former home of William Alexander Percy, and later, Walker Percy, changed hands for the last time in 1990. Mary Elizabeth Nelson, a Nashville resident with a deep fondness for Sewanee, purchased the property and set to work meticulously renovating it. Today it features two full kitchens, two dining rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a wood-burning fireplace, a third-story writers’ loft, and a wrap-around porch with a panoramic view of the cove. Rivendell was the first renovation project in Tennessee to earn LEED silver certification.

But Ms. Nelson didn’t set out to create a writers’ residency or a nonprofit. Rivendell Writers’ Colony was born out of one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of conversations that only a long lunch on a back porch in the middle of summer could create. Sewanee friends and colleagues spit balling and dreaming over iced tea and local greens. What if Rivendell became something else? Could it grow into something more? It was the literary piece Sewanee still lacked. Ms. Nelson, a literature lover but not a “Writer” by trade, was listening. And as stories go, the rest is history.

Rivendell, which has now expanded to four residences across two adjoining properties, serves all those who embrace the life of the book. In its brief history as a writers’ residency, it seems to now be fulfilling its intended destiny, as if it had been inching towards this outcome for the last century all along. Over the last four years, hundreds of writers have been able to call Rivendell home for a weekend, two weeks, or a month, joining in Sewanee’s rich literary history in their own way.

We support writers of all genres and writers at varying stages of their literary journeys. Both seasoned and aspiring writers are encouraged to apply. The surroundings, intended to quiet outside distractions (Wi-Fi is limited and there are no TVs), encourage imagination and contemplation. But the accommodations and amenities are anything but austere. Warm and inviting, thoughtful with close attention to detail, this place is meant to feel like home.

In March, we were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, an organization committed to supporting artists who are also raising families. With this award, we are able to offer four, two-week residencies to writers with a child or children age twelve or younger. If making time and space for writing with no children is challenging, writing while parenting young children can feel almost impossible. Applications for the Sustainable Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Parents are being accepted April 1-May 31 for residencies September-December.

In addition to the SAF fellowship, Rivendell also offers five other fellowships, each made possible by the generous contributions of private donors and our past writers-in-residence. All new applicants are considered for one of these awards.

While it appears there are tough days ahead for those of us in the arts, awards like these stand as evidence of our steadfast commitment to providing writers with the time and space to imagine, create, and examine. We are honored to be a protector of the art of storytelling. We look forward to hearing your stories.

Learn more about Rivendell and its programs at rivendellwriterscolony.org. Follow us on Facebook here or find us on Instagram @rivendellwriterscolony.

___

Kate Parrish is a writer, MFA candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters, and doer of whatever needs doing around Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She can be found at kateparrish.com or @parrishdontperish on Instagram.

About a Microwave

March 16, 2017 § 11 Comments

31qKXbCJokLBy Dinty W. Moore

I am reviewing a blank book.  The pages are entirely empty – not a single word.  That makes it nonfiction, yes?

Because there is no fiction printed within.

And the title is Alternative Facts.

Facts are nonfiction, yes?

This is important, because the Brevity blog only reviews books of nonfiction.

So here is my review:

It is an interesting book. A quick read. The paper is nice. The cover feels solid. The entire package fits neatly in your hand.

By the way, royalties from sales of the book are being donated to ProPublica by the publisher, Abrams. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

So there we go.  More facts. More nonfiction.

61Pta82itsLI am beginning to feel pretty good about my book review. I might write some of my good feelings down – in the book, on the blank pages (shown to the left).

Something like this:

“I’m feeling very good about my review.”

Except, hold your horses. (Not literally! “Hold your horses” is just a metaphor.)

But it seems I’ve told a lie here.

So is this review now fiction?

Or is it back to nonfiction, as soon as I admit to the lie.

I don’t know. Ask D’Agata.

But there are, after all, words in this book, but only a very few, printed on the very last page:

Two days into the Trump presidency, the thesaurus gained a new synonym for falsehoods, lies, distortion, deception, and total BS (take your pick). The phrase “alternative facts” has sparked laughter at its absurdity, but also disbelief and fear that this administration shows no hesitation in blatantly rewriting the truth to fit its narrative.

In response, this journal offers the opportunity to ground yourself in reality, to collect and record in writing whatever you wish, and to record your own alternative facts.

Pretty cool, huh?

Here’s an Alternative Fact: I am being spied upon, at this very moment, by my microwave. Someone in Russia is watching me write this review. He or she, I can’t be sure, is quite bored by it all.

Dobroye utro!

___

Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and this blog as well. He is being spied upon, at this very moment, by his microwave

Of Books, Podcasts, and Leaving Home

March 14, 2017 § 6 Comments

Emily and Chris at Savoy v3.jpg

The Book Cougars

By Shuly Cawood

I’ve been listening lately to a new podcast, Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read. I don’t know how in the world the hosts read the number of books they do, but they each read about ten books at the pace I read a measly one. This podcast is where I have learned about free audiobook resources. It’s the podcast where I learned about Roxane Gay pulling her book from Simon & Schuster. It’s the podcast where I can get someone else’s take on the book versus the movie. The two hosts are Chris and Emily, and they take listeners on a tour of their latest reads and biblio adventures, discuss cultural and political issues that come up in the books, provide information about resources at libraries, and share laughter when they find something funny.

It’s the laughter part I love—though don’t get me wrong, I like hearing about authors and new and old books, and just plain learning since I am an author myself. But it’s the laughter that gets me the most. There’s a reason for that, beyond just plain liking to hear joy in people’s voices.

But to explain, I have to tell you a story—well, actually two: one from my life, and one from someone else’s.

When I was in my 20s, I lived for almost two years in a quaint, picturesque college town. The emphasis is on “almost two years,” not picturesque or quaint. I was struggling with love and life and working too hard at a job at which—I heard through the office grapevine—the boss didn’t think I was putting in enough hours, though I was averaging 50-60 a week. To say I was unhappy is putting it lightly. I cried way too much, and I had to push myself to get through the day.

My unhappiness was not the fault of the town or my boss or my job or the apartment I lived in that felt lonely or any one thing but mostly everything all piled together—which means mostly me. At a little over the one-year mark, I wanted to get up and go, but I did not. I was afraid leaving my job would be failing. I realize now I stayed longer than I should have. Even when I had been sad before in my life, I had always been able to find beauty in the landscape—in a sunrise tinged with pink or the swaying of trees—but I remember one day feeling like I couldn’t see beauty anymore. It was winter, and even with the glitter of snow, beauty had vanished for me when I looked out at the world.

Finally, at just over the one-and-a-half-year mark, I got up the courage to give notice—six weeks, so that I would not leave my employer in a lurch. All these years later, I still remember the final day, when I drove with the last of my things on the two-lane then the highways and away from that cute little town that should have been perfect for me but instead, even now, is washed in sadness in my memories of it. They say you can’t escape by leaving. They say that sadness follows you, but mine didn’t. I remember thinking on that drive that the world looked beautiful again, and I had that same feeling the day after, and the next. What I’m trying to say is I know what it means to have to leave a place in order to survive.

I grew up with a friend who was always yearning to leave our hometown. And leave she did—she went to another state for college and then moved to the East Coast where she had her two kids. Then she came back. Not because she missed our hometown but because she knew it was a great place to raise her children. And it was. But, as her kids got older, she kept saying as soon as the youngest was out of high school, she was heading to the East Coast. Meanwhile, she was making friends, running her own business, parenting her (wonderful) children. The years went on. Her first kid graduated from high school, and three years later, her last one did. Still, she stayed put. I knew she was itching for a change, but those roots were deep. It isn’t easy to just drive away when you have a mortgage and a business and long-running friendships and a history. At the same time, my friend knew she had to go, that she just couldn’t live in our hometown anymore. Two years ago, she got rid of most of her belongings, rented out her house until it sold, and got in her car and drove away, landing on the East Coast.

Leaving took guts. If you meet this friend, what you’ll meet is loyalty, endurance, integrity, and strength. She has always been those things. But now she is also happiness—I hear it in her voice, and I can see it in her whole being. This friend loves books—has always loved books. And when she talked about starting a podcast about books with one of her friends, I heard joy in the telling. Yes, she is the Emily of the Book Cougars. So when I listen to the podcast, I hear great conversation, interesting book news, banter about the latest reads, but best of all, laughter.

Hearing her laugh is my favorite part.

__
Book Cougars can be found via the website, www.bookcougars.com, or on Facebook, iTunes, and Twitter.
 
Shuly Cawood’s memoir, The Going and Goodbye, is forthcoming from Platypus Press in August 2017. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared in The Rumpus, Zone 3, Label Me Latina/o, Full Grown People, and Fiction Southeast, among others. She has an MFA in creative writing from Queens University.

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