May 27, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Jason Poole
If I had written a fan letter to Brian Doyle before he died, I’d have told him how he (almost singlehandedly) changed my life, starting with the time I read one of his pieces in Creative Nonfiction magazine, in an issue about bringing joy back to writing, because, at the time, there was so little joy in my writing life, and I wondered who this man was who wrote such long-and-winding sentences, and then it dawned on me: this man was writing with joyful abandon and his words were like kids rolling in the grass, like that moment when Carrie, from Little House on the Prairie, goes running down the hill in the show’s opening credits, and then she wipes out, but nothing terrible happens; instead her head pops up above the greenery, and even though the moment is grossly overscored by the show’s theme music, you can almost hear her laughing, and that’s how Doyle wrote (but never saccharine or sappy), and I know that to be true because after I read his piece in the magazine, I immediately went online and searched the database at The Strand and found out they had several of his books, his collections of “proems,” and the next day I went there and climbed up one of those dangerous ladders which resemble staircases (the ones which look innocent but if you make a false move, they’ll send you sprawling and crashing into those impossible shelves on the main floor, maybe knocking down and an old person, or two, who’d only come inside to get out of the rain or the sun, who might’ve been enjoying a temperature-controlled moment in the quiet of the stacks and o! thank! god! that didn’t happen), and I bought all the Doyles without even opening them to read a page or two, because I trusted that anyone who could write like that—like rolling down a grassy hill—would be my new favorite writer, and then I walked across the street to Au Bon Pain and stood at the counter in the window (because they never have an open table), and I read the first book and got all misty-eyed, and then—afraid people would see me as a simp—I poured myself into a cab and went home to read them all, cover to glorious cover, while lying on the couch and crying into a cup of lukewarm coffee in the safety of my own home, and my world shifted, I think (picture pulling on an ingrown hair, which on the surface may look like just a little black speck, but when teased with the tip of tweezer, reveals itself to be as long as an arm and wildly twisted like the root of a tree), all those words and images, those grainy images, growing clearer and sharper and smarter as I read them, making me want to push myself to be a better writer, and I wish now I’d written to him, dear Brian Doyle, and thanked him and told him I loved him before he died.
Jason Craig Poole is a word nerd who plays in all the literary sandboxes. His work has appeared in riksha, Paterson Literary Review and his songs and story are featured in the documentary, Sons of Hālawa. He’s currently working on his first novel for middle grade readers. He lives with his family in South Orange, New Jersey.
May 6, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Candy Schulman
It began during the pandemic lockdown. Teaching my nonfiction writing workshops to Zoom rectangles, I could hear Black Lives Matter marches outside my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their voices made me understand that my own reading habits and recommendations to students were still not diverse enough.
My millennial daughter pointed out that I was drawn to work by women whose lives mirrored mine. These writers made me feel less alone in a complex world. One weekend my daughter’s friend read aloud the first paragraph of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had….If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.”
Kawakami’s first novel, Heaven, was about bullying. This heartbreaking, deeply disturbing allegory transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn—where I too had been bullied at fourteen, 6,894 miles away from Osaka. My essays on bullying were similar to Kawakami’s experience, and also different. Reading diverse authors emphasized the universality of the human condition.
Next my daughter recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel spanning 300 years, from Ghana to American slavery and beyond. It was so disturbing that I could not read it before bedtime. In my classes I’d often paraphrased Kafka’s claim that the job of an artist is to make us uncomfortable, not happy. Gyasi’s horrifying descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves emphasized Kafka’s view that “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”
As writers we need to “wake up” in order to surprise our readers and create original voices. With over two million books published worldwide, I was grateful for my daughter’s guidance. I’d introduced her to reading and was always proud that she grew up to love literature. Now she was teaching me.
I followed her recommendations as if she were my book club leader. Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, illuminated her shame, depression, and racial identity struggles as the daughter of Korean immigrants in America. As soon as I read the last page of Hong’s hybrid memoir of personal experience and cultural criticism, I put it on my syllabus. An Asian American student emailed me: “Minor Feelings changed my life. Thank you.”
I studied books and styles I might never have read before. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an inventive memoir about psychological abuse in a love relationship between two women. Its innovative structure where each chapter is crafted around a narrative trope made me think anew about ways we order our essays and memoirs.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, a Chinese American coming-of-age story begins, “Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house…” Her first paragraph was the lengthy kind I urged my students to divide into shorter morsels. Yes, a writer could break the rules—once traditional craft is mastered.
One night in class, after workshopping a student’s personal essay written in the second person, I warned that the “you” voice was tricky and rarely effective. A student recommended “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” a second person epistolary essay by Ocean Vuong. His brilliant lyricism, in spite of numerous transitional spaces, was the kind I warned students often made prose feel jumpy. I changed my mind when saw how effortlessly Vuong achieved it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Writers need to stretch and grow. I tell my students that learning to write is a lifelong process. My essay style has evolved over the years. Broader reading tastes have enabled me to penetrate new boundaries in style, format, chronology, and language. All writers can spread our literary wings across oceans. After 35 years of teaching, I’ve expanded my knowledge about the craft of writing—as well as systemic racism, slavery, immigration, and prejudice.
My teaching syllabus has evolved from mostly white voices of women who’d grown up with more than one or two windows in their house. The daughter of first-generation Americans, I was raised in a modest Brooklyn house with five windows. My apartment today has eight windows. I keep opening them as wide as possible, inviting a wide array of today’s literary voices into my writing life and my classroom.
Candy Schulman is an essayist, memoir writer, and creative nonfiction professor at The New School in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Longreads, Salon, among others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press), Same Time Next Week (In Fact Books/Creative Nonfiction), and forthcoming Embrace the Merciless Joy (McSweeney’s). Candy has twice won the Best Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and notable honors from Best American Essays.
April 18, 2022 § 6 Comments
by Kate Walter
After writing and publishing a memoir in essays in less than two years, I felt my essay ideas had dried up. I had pushed myself hard because the subject of my book – a pandemic memoir – was timely, and because I had a firm deadline from my publisher.
By the time my memoir, Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter, was released last fall, I felt completely wiped out. Not just from writing and editing and proofreading during such a short window of time, but I was exhausted from living through the pandemic by myself, which is the subject of my book. I knew I was supposed to be writing related new essays to promote the book, but I just didn’t have any in me.
I did promotional events in December (a Zoom panel, a podcast, a radio interview). I even squeezed in one in-person reading before Omicron hit. Then I stepped back to work on scheduling events for the spring. I wrote copy for flyers for upcoming events. But no essays. I had gone from churning out personal pieces to no output. I started to panic a little.
So when an editor offered me a fun assignment reporting about a museum, I accepted. It was good to be back writing and I could use the money. I also realized that I’m like a farmer and needed to rotate the crops. Give essays a rest until that soil is fertile with ideas again.
Should go back to that novel I started years ago which includes outtakes from my debut memoir? When I read part of it in my writing group years ago (when we were still meeting in person) people really liked it, especially the younger writers. The story takes place in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, before their time. They loved the details about a friend throwing down the keys from the fire escape after we called from a pay phone because we didn’t have cell phones and some tenements did not have buzzers by the door. Or should I return to that queer murder mystery? I had moved away completely from fiction during the pandemic.
The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.
The strange thing is that after I came to this conclusion and stopped pushing myself to come up with essay ideas, I came up with three ideas. This happened organically which is basically how my process always worked.
So I’ve started a new piece about what it will feel like to take off the masks in my large New York City apartment building, starting April 1. What will it be like to step into the hall or elevator without a mask? And I realized this topic compliments my pandemic memoir.
I’ve learned it’s fine to rotate away from essay writing for a few months. If I take a break, I am composting and when I do that, ideas pop into my head. What a relief to realize that.
Kate Walter is the author of two memoirs: Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter; and Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, AM-NY, Next Avenue, The Advocate, The Village Sun and many other outlets. She taught writing at CUNY and NYU for three decades.
March 28, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Colleen Kinder
I’m one of those writing teachers who swears by prompts. Narrative directives like, “Write about a childhood memory, set in a car.” or “Begin every single sentence with ‘I remember.’” (Hat tip, Joe Brainard). “Write an apology letter to a place.” 500 words, tops. Ready-set-go.
Usually, the more specific the prompt, the more magnificent the outcome. Students I would not have called exceptional writers burst out with essayettes I’ll remember for years. In ten minutes, they slide under the spell of voices so unmistakably their own, grounded in the radiant particulars of their lives. Again and again, it astonishes me: how writing students churn out their finest, most strident work when forced to create inside what seems like a box. All I have to do is design the walls of the container, then flip over the egg timer. Go.
I know teachers who take these constraint principles even further, assigning lipograms—essays or poems in which only one vowel is fair game—and pushing students to the point of exasperation, to the sense of handicap, which only disarms them for amazement at what they improbably produce.
“I’m jealous of your prompts!” I’ve joked many times to my students, because I’m one of those writers who chronically craves more time, more space. When I start a writing project, I easily get lost in it for years, paying zero heed to my snow-balling word count let alone the modest figures in my bank account. In short: I’ve always known, deep down, that the very creative limits I dole out to pupils would do me good.
Seven years ago, I finally acted on that hunch. What if “the prompt” wasn’t such a rudimentary tool, exclusively impactful in the classroom? Perhaps other writers also stood to benefit from some creative straightjacketing. When I asked around, my peers responded to these questions and theories with some version of “Amen,” or “yes, please.” With their help, I co-founded a literary magazine, Off Assignment, whose every column is rooted in a specific prompt.
Of all our early columns, “Letter to a Stranger” was the mightiest, the most universally generative. Write a letter to someone you’ve met in passing but still think about, we challenged writers. Write it in letter form, in the second person. 800-1200 words was the sweet spot, we said, setting a deadline that was arbitrary, but a deadline nonetheless.
Leslie Jamison was the first writer to submit a “Letter to a Stranger” essay. “Immediately, I knew the stranger I would write about: a one-legged traveling magician I’d crossed paths with several times when I lived in Nicaragua,” Jamison writes in the Foreword to Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, March 2022), a collection inspired by this flagship column. Like so many writers I’ve by now worked with on “Letter to a Stranger” essays, Leslie didn’t have to mull the prompt over—not for a month, or a day. Memory had done the work of distilling the scene, casting a strobe light on that one, glinting figure.
“Honestly I didn’t really know what [my letter] would be about,” Jamison goes on. “I just knew it would be a letter to him. And when I wrote it, several weeks later, it came out dark and gleaming and alive, as if it had already existed inside of me, fully formed. A secret stowaway. It just needed a home. The invitation of a letter had given it a home. This invitation said: Write to this man, even if you don’t know why you want to. It said: Write into that mystery.”
Another letter, from Lavinia Spalding, rolled in shortly after—a focused and searing account of a dalliance on a Thai beach. As for journalist Ted Conover, he sort of already had a “Letter to a Stranger” in progress, a side-story jotted down while on a New Yorker assignment in Rwanda almost twenty years earlier.
These seminal letters, published in the inaugural batch of essays in Off Assignment’s “Letter to a Stranger” column, opened the floodgates for hundreds more missives. Stories about missed connections and near-death scrapes; stories featuring gamblers and widows and DHL drivers; scenes set in the northern reaches of Norway, the rainstorms of Benin, Caracas at night, the South Pacific at age 22.
The letter, it turned out, was the perfect vessel for these particular tales: a form brief and intimate, one keen on collapsing distance. What electrified Off Assignment early on was the sense that we’d found a literary shape that corresponded with a species of story already alive inside the writer. The letter form works like a whispered summons, coaxing out the long-dormant story. Come out. Here’s your place. Come, ghost: fill this nook out here in the world. If you’re going to haunt so persistently, then haunt us all.
I no longer worry that we might exhaust the form of the “Letter to a Stranger,” thanks to the endless parade of writers who have since walloped me with surprises, bending our prompt in fresh ways. Writers like Anna Vodicka, who wrote not to one stranger, but to a room full of them at a Bolivian hostel; and Rachel Yoder, who penned a letter to the man who stalked her in high school, a fuming missive that felt destined for our collection, and yet entirely unforeseen.
I learned so much from editing the 65 essays that comprise Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us: namely, that any nagging ghost makes for a glorious muse; that memory goes to work on the rough drafts of our pasts like a ruthless editor, whittling them down until all we see clearly are the scenes that glint with significance; and that there’s a great kingdom of narrative at the terminus of a simple, specific question: “Who haunts you?”
I’m convinced now that we “seasoned professionals” often need a dose of the medicine we prescribe to our apprentices. When our students amaze us with their output and their focus, their sudden lyricism and the singularity of their sentences, we’re wise to pay heed to what triggered it: those narrow instructions that sent them right on their way.
Colleen Kinder is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, National Geographic Traveler, Virginia Quarterly Review, AFAR, Salon.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, A Public Space, and The Best American Travel Writing. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, 2022), and the co-founder of the nonprofit magazine Off Assignment. A former Fulbright scholar and MacDowell fellow, Kinder has taught writing at Yale University, the Chautauqua Institution, and Semester at Sea.
March 23, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Brooke Champagne
How does a self-proclaimed nostalgic square her affection for the past with progressive politics? How can one remain a nostalgic American when others use that sentiment for ill intent? Jennifer Niesslein, editor of Full Grown People, addresses these and other issues in her exciting new collection Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia. She spoke with me about race, class, family, humor, and Little Women for the Brevity blog.
Brooke Champagne: Jennifer, I loved this book, and want to thank you for writing it. Dreadful Sorry could not have been more prescient for this moment in American culture. I was curious if there was an event or essay or epiphany that created the impetus for this themed collection on nostalgia. How/when/why was the first idea for this born?
Jennifer Niesslein: Thanks, Brooke! Like most writers, I have my themes I return to again and again. Over the years, I’d been writing essays: The one about my boot-legging great-great-grandmother. The one where I visit my childhood hometown—during an eclipse—for the first time since we left. The one where I talk to a psychic medium. They all start out with some degree of nostalgia, and I didn’t realize this because I’m a nostalgic, through and through. The theme was invisible to me for a while.
At some point I realized that the more regressive people in the country were using nostalgia as a tool for evil. (I live in Charlottesville. I’m not using “evil” lightly.) I wanted to explore how nostalgia—a source of comfort to me—could also create such devastation.
BC: This book feels like a crucial examination of White identity in a way that’s feared in politically-conservative circles. What role do you think nostalgia plays in the current right-wing preoccupation with banning books dealing with a difficult, complicated American past?
JN: The book banning in schools is part of conservatives’ efforts to undermine public education, no different from the anti-intellectual actions designed to undermine other professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding policy and medicine and justice, etc. If you don’t trust anyone but the people encouraging you to distrust, you can only put your trust in their authoritarian regime.
I can’t really speak for the conservatives, but I suspect that they use nostalgia to appeal to a time when White people—White men, in particular—were considered the neutral standard and everyone else was an aberration. Are you Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Hispanic, Latino, or normal? Are you a woman or are you normal? Do you have a disability or are you normal? I mean, holy hell, Archie Bunker has been off the air for forty years.
Speaking for myself, once I realized that a White perspective is an actual perspective, it opened the door to my becoming a more just person.
BC: I so appreciated how you spoke so openly about class in these essays. In your essay “Respect,” you note how in college, you learned much about historic female trailblazers, but little about the American working-class women who made you, and built this country. As not just a writer but an editor, I was wondering how you think this translates into the publishing industry today. Do you see a particular privilege or pedigree in much of what we see lionized in publishing?
JN: I don’t know. I can only see from my little corner of publishing. At Full Grown People, I’m definitely partial to essays about class. But I’ve always been struck by what Deesha Philyaw said about publishing rewarding the dominant narrative: writing that reinforces the status quo gets the attention. Class-wise, we definitely saw that with Hillbilly Elegy. And did you see Tara Westover’s piece in the NY Times, “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream”? She’s definitely pushing against the idea that, with enough gumption, anyone can achieve what she did.
I think it’s hard to write about class especially in the big squishy middle (where everyone imagines themselves) because there are such different forms of status symbols. Take my son: he’s a highly skilled musician with a breadth and depth of musical genres that’s rare. But we were talking about a recipe I sent him, and he didn’t know that if the recipe calls for broth, you can just pop a bouillon cube and water in the pot. After we hung up, I thought, “Shit. I forgot to teach him how to be poor.”
BC: There’s such a fun, dry wit in the book that comes from the most surprising places. Are you intentional about how and where you employ humor? Is it a way for the medicine (of discussing difficult subjects like race and class) to go down easier?
JN: At this point in my career, the humor is just a reflex. It’s not so much a literary device as it is a life skill for me, so it comes out in my writing.
That said, some passages didn’t make it into the book. When the funny distracts from critical thinking, it doesn’t work.
BC: In your essay “Little Women,” there’s a reference to your childhood couch having been used on the set of the 1994 movie version. I’m deeply nostalgic for the Susan Sarandon of that time, before I unfairly blamed her (and many, many others) for the Democratic loss of 2016. Can you share the story of how your couch made it to 1994’s Little Women?
JN: Without giving too much away about the essay, I think the couch stands in for a truth my mom knew but we sisters didn’t realize yet.
Part of my identity, though, is rooted in being one of four sisters, and Little Women, both the book and movie adaptations, are the go-to for the four-sister-and-mother archetype. I love any mention of it because I love us. I reread the book not too long ago, and I had to laugh at how preachy it was. There’s one point when Marmee tells Amy that, essentially, Beth is a better person than Amy is. Jesus, Amy, just try. No. Harder.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece ‘Exercises,’ which was published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019. Her writing has appeared in many print and online journals, most recently in Under the Sun, Barrelhouse, and Hunger Mountain. She is seeking publication for her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.
March 16, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Sarah Einstein
I came out of the worst of the pandemic feeling creatively dull and uninspired, in spite of having a book under contract with WVU Press that I was very excited about. I was really enjoying the research process, but I just wasn’t able to get any words on the page. Starting a Substack newsletter, Writing Family Histories, about my research really turned that around, and I think it might be useful to other writers of nonfiction as well.
My current project asks the question of whether or not I am, or even could be, an Appalachian Jew. It relies on family history, and I started the newsletter as a way to share my research with my family in a centralized way. It’s been a great boon because multiple relatives send me email after almost every post, filling in missing pieces of our history and—especially—letting me know when I’ve gotten something wrong. I’d tried a few other ways to do this before, including a Facebook group, but the newsletter has been the most effective way for us all to engage, perhaps because when someone answers the email I send out, it only goes to me, so nobody’s starting any family fights.
I’m also excited by the way it allows me to get nearly instant feedback on my research from both family and fellow writers doing the same sort of work. My partner and I are about to embark on a three month research trip—where, among other things, I’ll be visiting the part of Lithuania my great-great-grandparents lived before emigrating to escape Russian persecution—and I’m relieved that I can share what I find and get responses quickly enough to alter my research trajectory when someone with more complete knowledge is able to recognize a mistake or opportunity.
An unexpected boon of the newsletter has been the way it’s become really useful prewriting for the final project. In order to share my family stories, I have to write them out, but with none of the pressure of working on the manuscript. It’s absolutely lifted the pandemic pall and I wake up excited to write again. The immediacy of it, but also the fact that it feels very low stakes, has been really helpful in getting me over the post-lockdown funk. As soon as I learn some new thing—the story of my Uncle Henry’s murder, or the fact that my grandfather didn’t want my mother to give me an obviously Jewish name, I’m excited to share that with my family and the growing group of other writers who have joined the community. It has absolutely gotten me back in the chair.
There are three things I wish I’d known starting out that I’d like to share with you:
- More people will be interested in what you’re writing than you expect, and you should plan for that. Originally, I expected to be writing something only my own family members would be interested in, but in just a month we’ve built a community of writers and Jewish folk interested in genealogy of just over 200 people. If I had understood that there would be an audience for this kind of work, I’d have planned the elements of the newsletter that are about engagement a little better. I’m now set up with conversations and writing prompts for subscribers, but initially I was just writing about my family for my family. So, plan for people to show up and have something to offer them.
- The paywall is an absolute necessity if you’re writing about anything that can rile up the internet trolls. I had to trash the first iteration of my newsletter because I didn’t have one, and almost instantly got a couple of online bigots posting antisemitic messages. You have choices you can make about what content goes to people with free memberships; I’ve set mine so that everybody can read everything, but only paid subscribers can make comments or join discussion threads. Even if you’re writing about something you think is troll-proof, remember that the internet can get het up about almost anything.
- If you’re at all like me, you’ll start out so excited to be doing a new project you’ll want to post every—or even several times a—day. Unless you think you can keep this up, don’t. You don’t want to set an expectation you aren’t going to meet. I post 2-3 times a week, and vary the posts so that sometimes I’m talking about my findings, sometimes I’m talking about my methodology, and sometimes I’m just talking. I’ve even revived an old comic strip I used to co-write for a Jewish punk zine back in the 90s, Ma and Pa Shtetl, just for the newsletter. Keeping things varied ensures that different parts of your audience are finding something that is engaging to them.
I hope you find this useful for your own writing practice. I like to think of my newsletter as a set of public process notes—here is what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what I’ve discovered—toward the final manuscript. But it’s also becoming a place where other people are sharing their stories with me, and that’s helping me to find and create more context for my own. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll join us, and if you start your own newsletter, please let me know!
Sarah Einstein teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks, 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other journals. Her work has been reprinted in the Best of the Net and awarded a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction.
February 16, 2022 § 8 Comments
By Sarah M. Wells
Today, I began a book a writer friend of mine wrote over a decade ago (he published it 12 years ago, so probably it was written even more years earlier). I bought it in 2012 at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, where we met (I think for the first time?) and walked with Brian Doyle past tennis courts along thinly shaded asphalt paths in search of the auditorium. We took the long way (we were lost).
I have been meaning to read Quotidiana by Patrick Madden ever since, but it’s sat on my shelf, sandwiched between Mackall and Mairs, its spine uncracked, its pages still pressed together. Other books have been read and finished in the decade since I bought this, probably hundreds of books, even, but yesterday, when I finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers that reaches far into the universe and deep within the inner world of the mind, I wanted something else. Something nonfiction. Something meandering and pondering and humble.
Yes! Essays! That is what this mood demands. The higher priority to-read books that blink hopefully from their stack just to the left of my laptop are all nonfiction, but only two are essays, and one is Quotidiana. Perhaps it’s time for Quotidiana, I told myself.
Call it intuition, luck, serendipity, or the prejudiced eye of the mind’s hankering, but I think some books find us when we most need them. The spirit in a book might be quiet for a while, maybe years, maybe longer, before the spirit within us hears its beckoning.
What did I say? It’s been 12 years since Madden published Quotidiana, and I’ve owned it for a decade, yet today, the day when I’ve felt low and moody about writing anything worthwhile ever again, when I’ve spent days thinking I have nothing to say that is important, I’m reminded of the mundane, the quotidian, how much I love the essay’s humble hunt for meaning amidst the minor messes of our lives, the essayist’s meandering stroll through thoughts the way Patrick and Brian and I meandered our way around a college campus with no idea where we were going, knowing we’d know our destination well enough when we arrived, but even if we never arrived, the walk was enough.
I only pulled myself away from Patrick’s first few pages to write this, and then I think I’ll go back to it, because not only did I need the familiar “I” of the essayist to remind me how much I love to write like I think and think as I write, but I also needed to be reminded of shelf life.
My own essay collection / memoir has been out for almost two months. Why haven’t you all read it yet?! My book is forever before me in my mind. Who is reading it? When will they tell me about what they thought? Will they review it? Do they hate it and are embarrassed to say so? Are they avoiding reviewing it because they can’t be honest? Aren’t they ever and always thinking about my life and the story I decided to share, the way I am always and ever thinking about my life and the story I decided to share?
No, no they are not, silly girl. They are doing what you have done with hundreds of other books. If they bought it, they shelved it with the good intention of reading it someday, and promptly moved on to unload the dishwasher or enter the wi-fi password for one of their children’s friends. Even more likely they haven’t bought it at all, but maybe someday they will.
A book is not like a blog post, or a magazine article, or even an essay you published once in a journal. A book has shelf life. Its shelf life might be short, or maybe it will latch onto the coattails of time and ride along into other generation’s hands. Maybe its shelf life will be a decade. Maybe it will make it fifty years. Maybe it will find its way into a library where someone stumbles upon it and it calls to them. Or maybe its life on this shelf is for this moment.
The point is, you can only do what you can do to get the word about your book into the world. You can only show up, bring the self you put on the page, mention that you have a book, and hope it lands on their front porch in a brown package. From there, it’s up to the spirit that dictates which books one will read next. From there, it’s in the hands of the reader to discern when it’s time to read.
And once you’ve done all that showing up and being yourself and mentioning your book in the most humbly egotistical way possible, go back to the place you began. Keep writing your way into and out of your mind’s eye, forgetting how much you want to say something important and remembering instead that the most important things leak out of strange, mundane places, like cups of tea, or sweet potatoes, or cool spring walks with other writers in Grand Rapids. You never know, you never know until you show up, until you begin where you began, again.
Sarah M. Wells is the author of five books, most recently a memoir-in-essays, American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation. She is a freelance marketing content writer and also writes regularly for Root & Vine News and God Hears Her, a blog from Our Daily Bread. She lives in Ashland, Ohio, with her husband, a dozen fish, three children, two westies, and one bearded dragon named Joey. sarahmariewells.com
February 11, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Premarital sex. Abandonment. Divorce. A love child. Mental illness. Domestic abuse. Betrayal. Alcoholism. Suicide and other tragic deaths.
Many of these subjects lurk, often unspoken, in our family histories. Yet those of us who want to write our family histories need to decide how to handle these skeletons. I dealt with all of these situations in my family history, If We Can Winter This: Essays and Genealogies, The Gordon Family of County Leitrim, Ireland, and The Norris Family of County Tyrone, (now) Northern Ireland.
I’ve written a dozen family histories in my career as a professional genealogist, both for clients and on my own families. In every person’s family tree, there are bones rattling in closets. But I write only about dead people, never the living. The living have rights to privacy; the dead do not.
If you have solid documentation or reliable sources, you do not need anyone’s permission to write about the dead (public figures are a different story). Consequently, you may have some disgruntled relatives once your book comes out. If you feel you need to ask permission, be prepared to hit delete if someone has a problem with what you’ve written. I had a client who made me cut material. I had written that the average, everyday woman in the eighteenth century, one like her ancestor, was not particularly focused on housework for cleanliness. While historically correct and documented, she felt this cast her long-dead, many-times-great-grandmother in a bad light, so she wanted that taken out. You never know what will upset the living.
If you’re writing your own family history, you decide what to include and what not. I don’t believe in sugar-coating ancestral life stories or asking anyone’s permission to write about dead relatives. My feeling is our ancestors were human, and we need to be honest about their lives. They struggled. And with those struggles comes inspiration and hope for the living.
What makes their stories more compelling and less shocking, though, is putting a person’s conditions into historical perspective. Times may change, but people do not. For example, I have several relatives who suffered from mental illnesses. Not only did I research mental illness for the given time period and circumstances, but I also consulted with a psychotherapist to understand how these people likely suffered. After all, until fairly recently, mental health diagnoses and treatments were considered shocking and rarely discussed.
Thankfully, my health insurance covered mental health visits with a $10 co-pay, so I made an appointment. When I arrived, and he asked me why I was there. I said, “Oh, it’s not for me. I’d like you to help me diagnose my ancestors’ mental illnesses.” Once his surprise wore off, he was most accommodating.
I explained that my great-aunt, forty-nine-year-old Mary (Gordon) Clark, a widow, was afraid to live in her house in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I learned from a newspaper article. In 1908, she told her sister, Annie, someone had tried to break in. Annie, living in neighboring Port Chester, New York, took Mary and her young son in while renovations were done on the house to make her feel safer.
Mary wasn’t always fearful, though. Before moving in with Annie, Mary managed her sewing business well, and she made a comfortable living for herself and her son. But an incident a few months prior triggered her instability. Mary had boarded a trolley car in Greenwich, and finding no seat available, she stood. As she reached to grab the leather ceiling strap, the car lurched forward. Witnesses said she “fell heavily”—she being a “large woman”—and struck the back of her head.
After a few weeks, all the renovations had been completed. Mary and her twelve-year-old son would return to the house in Greenwich. But that afternoon, Annie found Mary in the kitchen, blood seeping onto her shirtwaist.
Mary had a deep wound in her abdomen. A knife on the table had no blood on it, but a can opener did. But the knife had to be the weapon. Had Mary wiped the knife clean? Mary made no attempt to deny or affirm her action.
Annie called Dr. Quinlan, who came to the apartment. He did what he could to dress Mary’s wound, but decided it was best to call for an ambulance to take Mary to Ladies Hospital.
Mary died five days after she stabbed herself. Her death certificate records that her self-inflicted wound became infected. But her chief cause of death was “Burns of scalp, neck and shoulders. Laceration of abdomen.” Contributing was “peritonitis (septic), self inflicted stab in abdomen. Set fire to her hair.”
I showed the death certificate to the therapist. Although ruled a suicide at the time, that isn’t exactly what happened to Mary. Historically, women tended to swallow pills or overdose on laudanum, or they slit their wrists. They didn’t stab themselves in the abdomen.
The therapist also said that a person attempting suicide wouldn’t have wiped clean the knife everyone believed was the weapon. Yet, there was blood on the vintage can opener.
The therapist suspected Mary heard voices. She was already paranoid before hitting her head on the trolley, and we don’t know if that caused brain swelling or bleeding. The injury could have exacerbated her symptoms. Perhaps more likely, Mary tried to cut out of her body her perceived intruders with the can opener. And to silence the voices in her bedeviled mind, she set her head on fire. She wasn’t trying to end her life, but her fear.
By putting Mary’s condition into modern-day light, I was able to remove the stigma of suicide about the aunt no one ever talked about. I was also able to give her illness a probable diagnosis, something that wasn’t likely to happen in 1908.
While we don’t want to take ancestors out of their historical context, we do want to portray them with sensitivity and without judgment as human and sympathetic individuals. So no matter what the unspoken skeleton is in your family history—and I have many in mine—in most situations, you can handle it with care and empathy by researching the context of the times and shedding new light on their circumstances.
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a thirty-plus-year veteran Certified Genealogist® with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is Brevity’s copy editor, and the author of twenty-five books in addition to If We Can Winter This, including You Can Write Your Family History, Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief, the biography In Search of Maria B. Hayden: The American Medium Who Brought Spiritualism to the U.K., and her forthcoming memoir, Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (Koehler Books, June 2022). Visit her websites, www.TheGenealogyMedium.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.
February 11, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Catherine Lanser
I consider myself a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve been reading and studying the form for more than 10 years, but until recently, I was hiding a secret. I had never read much Joan Didion.
My Good Reads list says I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking in 2009 but quit after a few pages. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Her dense writing made me feel self-conscious, as if I wasn’t good enough, the same way a woman I used to volunteer for did.
“Evelyn” was the head of an educational nonprofit, and I was helping her lay out her quarterly magazine. She dropped names of people in her movement and at the local university in the same way I thought Didion would. Evelyn’s large sunglasses and smart matching suits with twin sets looked very 1960s to my 1990s eyes and similar to Didion’s favored clothing on publicity photos.
It had been years since I snuck over to Evelyn’s house to drop off the last proofs at her doorstep. I thought of her when I saw her obituary in 2021 and again this fall, a few months before Didion’s death, when I finally read the book.
This time, after struggling through the opening pages, which describe how the first lines were drafted, I continued on. Now older and married, I did have something in common with the author.
I had almost lost my spouse to a heart attack only three years after we were married in 2014. At 47, he was three years older than his father had been when he had his first heart attack. Her text still felt heavy but I continued reading.
Since 2009 I’ve read nearly every memoir about death, illness and grieving as I wrote my manuscript about my father’s stroke and my brain tumor. Though Didion was bereft at the loss of her husband John, I could think of a stack of books that felt more heartbreaking.
The lines I highlighted are clinical and focused. Didion tells us she wrote the book not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death. She explains how words, which she has used her whole life to find meaning, failed her following John’s death. As the title suggests she begins to think like a child does, as if she can change the course of time and bring him back with her actions.
I think about Evelyn. During the time we worked together her husband faced and lost a battle with cancer. When I saw Evelyn months after the funeral in her home, his sweater remained draped over the back of the desk chair where it had always been. Over the remaining time I worked with Evelyn, the sweater never moved as if he might put it on at any minute. I compared it to my mother who cleaned out my dad’s closet, removing nearly everything in the five days between his death and the funeral. Didion talks about giving away her husband’s clothes but keeping his shoes because he would need them should he return.
I had practiced this sort of magical thinking in my life during my illness. First as a teen, when I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone about the “spells” I had I could make them go away. Hiding them for eight years I imagined the other diseases they might be, such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but still told no one.
I also practiced this outcome-based imagination after I learned the spells were seizures caused by a brain tumor. When my dad suffered a stroke only a few years after my brain surgery to remove a tumor from my temporal lobe I wondered if it was my fault for not being thankful enough for surviving.
While Didion’s prose didn’t necessarily feel sad, she made me feel emotions I hadn’t in reading other memoirs. Near the end of the book I’ve circled large paragraphs of text and scribbled notes between the line breaks. As I read it now, my heart catches.
She quotes the Episcopal litany: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” About a half page down she repeats the line and I have underlined the last three words, “world without end.”
Didion describes how she found this line as an antidote to meaninglessness as a child by interpreting it as a description of how the world’s geographic structures were always changing.
I remember this childhood prayer as a Catholic prayer I would say before I went to sleep. I began to recite it one night when I was about seven. I thought the lines would bring me comfort when I could not sleep. Instead, they left me in a state of terror.
As I said the words, I felt myself flying out from my body until I could see the endless universe of blackness surrounding me. It was the first time I understood death and eternity. Only later, did I learn that the out-of-body experience I felt could have been related to the temporal lobe seizures and migraines I soon began to have.
Didion thinks about this line as she contemplates the “unending absence” of grief. Again, she finds some comfort, finding that they mean we must let the dead go. As nature keeps on changing so do we.
I have thought about the place where my tumor was in my brain as the absence. It has remained a solid grey spot of unchanging size among the folds of my brain for almost 30 years. My cells die and are reborn. My brain reroutes and learns but this spot cannot grow.
Still, somehow, I do. I am not the same person I was when I hid my seizures. Or that didn’t know how to act around Evelyn. I am not the person who tried to read this book in 2009. I can admit that now.