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 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 25, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Kristen Dalli
As an MFA student in the midst of writing a thesis, I’m always looking for more time to write. When classes, meetings, and assignments all migrated online in the last week, I thought having more time at home would mean more time to write. This was the perfect excuse for me to finish my thesis.
I should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as that. Writing is hard enough without the general anxiety about the state of the world interrupting motivation that is already hard to come by. Regardless, I spent the better part of the last week beating myself up over not getting enough work done, not making enough progress, and feeling the looming panic of how quickly my next deadline is approaching.
Sleep, too, has been hard to come by. As I was lying awake in bed recently, tossing and turning and talking myself out of panic, I thought back to the conversations I’ve had with friends in my MFA program. I certainly wasn’t alone in my feeling; we all were struggling to sit down, focus, and write.
The longer I lay there not sleeping, the more I thought about the things that have helped me – and the things that have definitely not helped me try to get words on the page. And how in these times of uncertainty, it’s important to find comfort in the things we hold dear. So, my fellow MFAers, here are some “do’s and don’ts” that could help make writing from home during these uncertain times even a little bit easier.
Do: Anticipate that writing will be hard. And that it’s hard for everyone.
As an MFA student, there is always a deadline – or three – looming. Despite everything going on in the world, I was treating my writing the same as it’s always been. I was mentally calculating how many days I had left until I had to submit more work, and weighing the pros and cons of skipping a day or two of writing. I also assumed I was the only one feeling the weight of these uncertain times in my writing practice.
As my friends made clear, I am not alone in my struggles. We all were having a hard time. In a low-residency program, self-motivation and focus are crucial, and both have been incredibly hard to come by recently. This is normal. Expect some bumps in the road.
Don’t: Deprive yourself of breaks.
I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough for my thesis. I’m not writing enough, editing enough, reading enough. It’s hard giving myself space and distance, and it’s even harder when self-quarantining has given me a seemingly endless amount of time. Last week, I wrote three pages. Every day that I couldn’t do more than edit a few paragraphs, I grew increasingly more frustrated with myself. I should be doing more, I kept thinking.
That line of thinking wasn’t helping. It was making me more anxious. After I gave myself a few days of absolutely no thesis-related work, I was able to reopen the document and actually do work I felt good about. I’m still not firing off pages, but I feel better equipped to make incremental progress day after day. Give yourself some space to breathe. To bake. To read something that inspires you. To watch a new show on Netflix. To take a walk. To color. And then come back to writing.
Do: Reach out to your friends and faculty members.
We’re all in this together. We’re all trying to figure out how to incorporate writing into the rest of our new indoor routines. No one knows what it’s like to doubt your work, your routine – all of it – better than other writers. My group chat of MFA friends has been an endless stream of support, shared worries, and distracting memes to get us all through the day.
While we’re all social distancing, it can be hard to feel connected to people – especially those we’re used to seeing and talking with on a regular basis. Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Stay in touch. Check in regularly. It makes all the difference.
Don’t: Give up.
Writing is always hard. Being an MFA student is always hard. There have been several times over the last week where I’ve thought about how inconsequential it all feels in the face of a global pandemic. I couldn’t see the point in sitting in front my laptop and watching my cursor blink back and forth, taunting me for an hour, while the whole time I’m so anxious about everything else going on in the world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how silly it felt to even be writing what I’m writing, or writing at all, for that matter. Given the state of the world, everything has felt so trivial and unimportant.
I don’t think it is, though. Celebrate every new word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Big or small, what you’re doing counts. We always need stories. We always need art. Hang in there. Don’t give up.
Kristen Dalli is an emerging writer from New York. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor’s degree in English, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University, where she serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of CausewayLit, and as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe and For Women Who Roar.
March 18, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Brenda Ridley
Assuming that you are up and about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could view this period of social distancing as an unexpected gift to your writing life. That’s the attitude I’ve adopted as I decide how to use my time while exiled from my job for two weeks.
Last week, Pennsylvania’s governor ordered schools state-wide closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The small independent school where I double as admissions coordinator and office manager complied. While the risk to our students of COVID-19 exposure is probably low, we could not in good conscience remain open while 99% of the schools in Philadelphia shut down. Ours is a very small school but, luckily, one with digital resources that teachers can use for online instruction. Most of my work time is spent on the phone, making sure that teachers have the resources they need, the office runs smoothly, and performing first aid in the absence of a school nurse. I have some online tools that I can use, but only a couple projects that I think I can finish at home. That leaves some open time periods during the day that I don’t usually have for writing. Here is my plan for writing while quarantined with some suggestions that you might find helpful:
1) Keep a schedule. It is so tempting to sleep in when you get up before six o’clock every weekday morning and now don’t have to. But if you don’t set up a schedule for the week, you’ll wonder where the time went and why that essay you started three months ago still isn’t finished. I’ll set my alarm for 7 a.m. and plan to start writing at 9, after exercise, breakfast, and kitty time. I have better focus in the morning, but you should create a schedule that works for you; just schedule your writing time no matter what.
2) Limit socializing. Life as I’ve known it has temporarily shifted. Everything is closed: my yoga studio, the public library, my writing group is on hiatus, even my church is practicing social distancing. Of course you can call, text, or email friends and family, but don’t do it all day. Your pen or keyboard needs you to propel it. Block out a social hour or two when you can catch up and commiserate with everyone each day.
3) Reconnect with your partner, your kids, or your pets. I rush out of the house early on workdays and don’t usually come home until almost six. I see the kitties briefly when I feed them breakfast, but there’s no time for cuddles and chatfests. My partner is still asleep when I leave. While my schedule is more flexible I can carve out some time for canoodling when I’m not drifting off to sleep and muttering incoherently. Imagine the boost some quality time can give to our relationships.
4) Eat well and rest. I enjoy cooking but don’t like to spend all day at it. When home for the day I usually prep dinner early so that at dinner time there is less to do. Doing most of the work early in the day makes it more likely that you’ll eat better instead of grabbing fast food or ordering a pizza. And set a reasonable bedtime that ensures you get enough sleep. A poorly-fed, sleep-deprived writer might produce something, but is it something you really want others to read?
5) Get outdoors at least every other day. There is plenty of evidence that walking outdoors, forest bathing, hiking and other activities make you feel better. My attitude improves considerably when I’ve returned from a brisk walk.
6) Turn off your television. Too much news is not a good thing, and a lot of conjecture by pundits and talk show hosts isn’t news. All of the chatter about COVID-19 is increasing people’s anxiety. If you must know what’s happening with the virus on a daily basis, choose one reliable news source and limit yourself to 30 minutes of “information” per day. Your nervous system will thank you.
7) Put your writing house in order. I know I have two weeks before I return to work or am told to stay at home a little longer. I’m a writing newbie and don’t have tons of projects to work on, but I have at least three essays I’ve not been able to finish. My modest goal is to finish at least one of them and to develop a strategy for completing the other two. If I stick to the schedule I’ve set for myself, I think I can accomplish what I’ve set out to do.
8) Read. No need to say more.
9) Stay open and flexible. COVID-19 has made a fast and furious impact on everyone I know, even though none of my friends or family members have contracted it. All of the twists and turns science is taking in order to get a handle on this virus require us to think about how what we do impacts someone else. Stay flexible enough to shift with the tide of events and follow the lead of experts who know what they are talking about.
10) Finally, breathe and write; breathe and write some more. I came to writing as a late bloomer but quickly found it to be a practice that I can pour almost any emotion into. Some of those scribbles are just for me, not an audience, but writing helps me to clarify my thoughts and emotions so that I can get the junk out of the way and focus on what I want to say. So, breathe and write your way through if you’re quarantined. Appreciate the gift you’ve been given.
Brenda Ridley is a Philadelphia writer who is always looking for ways to fit writing around her job and other obligations. This essay is her first submission for publication.