The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

This week, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction begins shipping from warehouses across the country (and becomes available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing.) We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who pre-ordered, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.

We also have two launch events this week, our West Coast Launch in Los Angeles and our East Coast Launch on the Three Rivers Coastline of Pittsburgh. We hope you will join us to celebrate!

Here are the particulars:

SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, Wednesday Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm PST (9:30 pm EST)

Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be joined by authors Daisy Hernández, Nicole Walker, and Ira Sukrungruang. Following a reading of three brief (of course) essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. You can pre-register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-best-of-brevity/register

WHITE WHALE BOOKSTORE, Pittsburgh, Thursday Nov. 19th at 7 pm EST

At this East Coast event, Zoë and Dinty will be joined by authors Julie Hakim Azzam, Lori Jakiela, and Deesha Philyaw. Following a reading of their three brief essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. Preregister for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/east-coast-launch-for-the-best-of-brevity-registration-127005140795

And here’s more on the book:

Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites from the journal, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.

With contributions from Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more. 
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“The Best of Brevity feels like the condensed energy of a coiled spring. A vibrant collection, dynamic in its exploration and celebration of the flash form.”

                         -Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers    
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Election Anxiety Got You Down? Write More, Post Less

October 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

In the fall of 2016, as the insanity of the presidential election approached its fever pitch, I found myself, like many of you, embroiled in what felt like an endless maelstrom of social media debate. Encouraged by the steady accumulation of “likes” from like-minded followers, I peppered my Facebook thread with pathos-rich political ads, Anti-Trump opinion pieces, and lengthy articles by overworked fact checkers, and then I planted my flag in the comment section of every pro-Trump post that showed up in my feed.

It felt like rhetorical calisthenics—my daily denunciation of hypocrisy, logical fallacy, and fake news—but in the end, what good came from arguing online with neighbors, high school friends, and that old lady from my childhood congregation? If the goal was to change hearts and minds, then not much.  In all my 2016 social media activism (such an oxymoronic phrase—like “healthy tan” or “bacon cleanse”) I didn’t win a single convert.

In the face of unremitting Trump anxiety though, it was easy to get caught up in what former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya calls “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” of online engagement. It was easier to imagine such interaction as a noble, civic-minded exercise of free speech, than to accept the reality that such debate often felt more like throwing punches on the playground or leaving a flaming bag of poo on old man Moore’s front porch. 

What it almost never felt like? Self-awareness, empathy, and the mind-expanding reflection that comes whenever I essay. If social media debates are generally about declaring to the world what I think I know, and then daring other people to disagree with me, then essaying is a declaration to myself that I don’t know anything, and then daring myself to do something about it.

 Montaigne says it best, I think:

“We only learn to dispute that we may contradict; and so . . . it falls out that the fruit of disputation is to lose and annihilate truth.”

Not that political disagreements and public debate are inessential to discovering truth, but that too often online debate has more in common with Alex Jones than with Alexander Hamilton.

Thus, in the wake of the 2016 election, disillusioned by my online echo chamber’s inability to actually change the world, I found myself in a hopeless stupor of slack-jawed exhaustion. And in that stupor, I nearly forgot that I write essays—that making sense of the world at its most senseless is sorta what essays do best, and that outside the insular and artificial world of social media, I had plenty I wanted to make sense of—white supremacists marching on Charlottesville, a racist travel ban on Muslims, black Americans losing their lives to police and vigilante violence. Toxic male culture, religious nihilism, and a bougie disregard for the poor at every turn. Refocusing my intellectual work away from social media and towards writing helped remind me that where social media so often fails, the essay just might succeed—maybe not in changing the world, but certainly in changing me. And that’s an important start.

In his 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Internet technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier argues that social media engagement is depleting our creativity, dumbing-down our belief systems, and stunting our ability to see and do good in the world. He writes that too many of us are sacrificing our intellectual energy on the short-term benefits of a social media presence:

What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everyone with nothing?

And though Lanier isn’t talking about literary publishing, is there a more apt description of what we all aspire to do than “heeding a passion for ethics or beauty” in hopes of “deeply reaching a small number of people?” One might even argue that literary endeavors and social media engagement are incompatible, or at least working in opposite directions.

For my part, in the months and years since the last presidential election, I have tried to write more, and post less. I haven’t managed to quit social media entirely, but I have written a book. And though it likely won’t go viral or win any national awards (or many Amazon reviews for that matter), it does represent the best of my ideas revised and reconsidered over the past four years—ideas born of research, self-reflection, meditation, and a desire for clarity about some of the ugliness in the world and my part in it. And that feels like a small, but important literary victory—the kind of victory that comes not from the closed fist of the social media rant, but from the open palm of the essay.
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Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
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Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

Review of Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir

October 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

By Debra Wilson Frank

When my husband died suddenly at forty-four of an undetected genetic heart defect, I was bereft. Entering the funeral home’s side entrance, I felt myself separate from my body and perch above the door where I could view the whole room, including myself, walking to the front row, dressed in black, blond and thin, ten pounds gone in ten days.

Natasha Trethewey experienced disassociation too, as she stepped through her mother’s apartment door the day after her stepfather, “Big Joe,” a troubled Vietnam vet, murdered her mother. As she writes in her memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, she “felt as though I were watching someone else….”

The thresholds of the funeral home for me, and her mother’s apartment for Trethewey, were metaphoric entrances into lives changed forever—into new versions of ourselves. Trethewey, then a college student, responded with “willed amnesia” and decided to leave Atlanta for good, her memories locked away in “mute avoidance of the past,” while I was midstream in my life, with young children, and found myself revisiting my long-avoided past. My stepfather wasn’t a murderer, but he ruled my mother, who handed over the grocery money for his drugs, and her daughters (I was twelve and my sister, sixteen) for his other appetites. When I escaped into the safety of my father’s home after nearly a year, I put the experience under my mental floorboards. I even stopped writing, something I’d always done as a kid, to ensure nothing seeped out.

When Trethewey moved back to Atlanta three decades after the murder, she found reminders of her mother’s life and death everywhere and realized she needed to face her past. The result is an exquisitely-crafted memoir that reflects her poetic gifts. Trethewey served two terms as United States poet laureate (2012 and 2013), and her collection, Native Guard, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

The book is structured with remarkable symmetry—the opening and closing so well matched, I thought of a palindrome. Trethewey begins with a quote from John Banville in The Sea, “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” and closes with a scene in which her mother (Gwen) allows fifteen-year-old Tasha to take the wheel during a road trip—a prelude to learning to drive—and the author feels her mother’s heart beating so close to her own, it’s as if she has not one, but two hearts. It’s an elegant and touching way for the author to express her love for her mother. The memoir starts and ends with that love.

The bookend of hearts brackets a second set of bookends—a dream Trethewey describes at the beginning and again at the end of the book. Three weeks after her mother’s murder, Trethewey dreams the two are walking around a track, her mother with a bullet hole in her forehead. “Do you know what it’s like to have a wound that doesn’t heal?” Gwen asks.

The dream conflates the murder with a real incident that happens just after Gwen goes to a women’s shelter to escape Big Joe. At a high school football game, Tasha is standing on the track with the other cheerleaders when she sees Big Joe enter the stadium. On a hunch, she smiles and waves at him. Later she learns he’d come to kill her—to punish Gwen. Tasha’s kindness changed his mind. The dream acknowledges what Trethewey resists. If Big Joe had killed her, he would have been locked up, and her mother’s life would have been spared. When Trethewey revisits the dream at the end of the book, she recognizes her own wound that won’t heal—her survivor’s guilt.

Within this frame, Trethewey tells her story, mining her memories for the metaphors that help her make sense of the trauma that haunts her.

In one poignant scene, after Gwen, newly divorced, and Tasha, then six, having moved to Atlanta, the girl watches her mother dress for her job as a cocktail waitress in Underground Atlanta and notices the daffodils she’d picked earlier that day on the dresser. Gwen’s costume includes a belt made of bullets. Looking back, Trethewey wonders if maybe it’s the night her mother meets Big Joe. “. . . her body ringed in the objects of her undoing.” She goes deeper with the metaphor, evoking the myth of Persephone, who is lured by yellow narcissi to her doom in the underworld. Has Trethewey as a little girl supplied the flowers that lead to her mother’s destruction? Survival guilt reaches across time to make it seem that way.

Later, now married to Big Joe, her mother celebrates completing her graduate degree with a party. In a memorable moment, the crowd parts, Soul Train style, and Gwen dances between them. Trethewey recalls that image with another nine years later when mourners part for her mother’s casket to pass between them on its way to the hearse.

Trethewey uses this pattern dramatically in her scenes throughout the memoir, connecting different moments in time, so she doesn’t just narrate events, she embeds her reflection in them.

At the end of the book, when Trethewey revisits the “wound” dream, she writes, “This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose…. It’s the story I tell myself to survive.”

As Trethewey did, I had to exhume my past to make sense of my life. The trauma of losing my husband was a second abandonment that plunged me back to the first—and like a toggle switch, I started writing again. I discovered a tougher kid than I remembered, a younger me who might show me how to weather an even worse blow. A story that could show me how to survive.
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Debra Wilson Frank holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published in The Rumpus and her work will be included in the anthology, Being Home to be published by Madville Press, in September, 2021. She is writing a memoir about early widowhood and her traumatic childhood. Debra lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and her two adult children.

A Life In Progress: Writing My Last Eight-Thousand Days

October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:

DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?

LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.

The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.

As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.

One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.

DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again? 

LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.

DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?

LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.

More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
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Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.

Finding Your Audience: Writing to the Younger Self

October 1, 2020 § 13 Comments

by Suzanne Roberts

I had a dream I lived in a flat in Copenhagen, and outside my apartment, I kept my bicycle. Young women in flowery dresses constantly came up to my house to take pictures of themselves in front of my cute house, pretending to ride my cute bicycle. They wanted to post themselves on Instagram. In my dream, I was upset by all of these young women who were pretending to live my life.

When I woke up, I was back to being alone in my Dublin hotel room. I guessed that the dream was the intersection between the waking hours I had spent looking at hotels in Copenhagen and the streets of the Temple Bar below my window, filled with people, trying to get the perfect shot, proving to all their Instagram followers that they were, indeed, living their best lives. I wanted to live my best life, too, which was why I was researching a quick weekend trip to Copenhagen after teaching in Ireland, but I had too much work to do, so I ended up staying put in Dublin until my flight home. I had also gone to bed thinking about an email an editor sent me, asking me who the reader for my next book is.

I realized the women snapping selfies with my Danish dream bicycle are my readers. Women who are trying to be more adventurous, but sometimes doing inappropriate things in the process, are the audience for my forthcoming book of travel essays, not ironically called Bad Tourist.

I know saying “my audience is a girl in a flowered dress with a selfie stick” might sound ludicrous to book-marketing professionals. But we all know this girl, don’t we? She has been to college, and she posts pictures of smart books (she swears she means to read) on her Instagram feed. She isn’t entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, but she dreams of traveling the world. Mostly, she feels like the awkward teenager she once was, craving the attention of the wrong boys and then men; she wants to feel less alone. When people like and leave heart emojis on the pictures she posts of herself, it makes her feel good. She wants people to like her. Her name might be Lauren or Becca or Hannah. Or Suzanne—the younger version of myself, the me who dreamed of someday becoming older me, a travel writer with a passport full of stamps.

Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel is about how I try not to be a bad tourist but so often fail. Would my younger self be okay that my older self is telling all of her secrets? She felt so much shame over those transgressions. I want to reach back and tell her it’s all going to be okay, and maybe that’s why I’m writing memoir to begin with—it’s a letter to my younger self.

When I was working on my last memoir, a critic said how much he hated my narrator (me). He also said her humor was unseemly, which sounded so archaic it made me laugh between the tears. But then I realized that I hated my narrator, too, so Dr. Meanie Critic and I had this in common. My younger self complained too much. She was self-centered. I thought about giving up altogether, but something in me knew the even older self I would later become would not want the now-me to give up—sometimes the act of writing is a conversation with both the past and the future.

I called the mentor I’d had when I was the age of my young narrator. Al Landwehr had been my creative writing professor when I was 22, the age of the girl I was trying to write about. I asked him what to do. Al said, “You have to think of that younger self as a sort of daughter, someone who drives you crazy, but you still love her. You must remember to love her.”

And I do love her because even if no one else cares about my story, she would. She feels the same way I do; she would just look better in selfies, if there had been such a thing back then. She wants to travel the world and live her best life. She has no idea that there will be something called social media in the future, but she still spends too much time worrying about what others think of her. She wonders about the big questions, too. Is she making the world a better place or are her travels negatively impacting the world? Will anyone care what she has to say? Are her stories worth telling?

Al Landwehr always gave me sound advice, so I trusted him and held my younger self in my mind’s eye during revision, and I remembered to love her (even if she drove me crazy). It is in this way that I have written books for her (and for the young women of today who are like her: Lauren and Becca and Hannah). I hope they like my books, and they don’t mind that it’s late in the afternoon, and I’m still wearing my pajamas, revising a book rather than out exploring the rain-slicked streets, drinking a Smithwick’s, and listening to Irish music in a dark, crowded pub.

And even if sitting on my hotel bed with my laptop sounds boring to Lauren and Becca and Hannah, I know I am here, living my best life.

Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel is available now, from University of Nebraska Press.

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Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award). Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low-residency MFA at Sierra Nevada University. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.

 

Everything’s Coming Up Photocopies: Medical Records for the Writing Process

September 23, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Alysia Sawchyn

I was nineteen, maybe twenty, the first time I requested my medical records. Back then, I was still on my parents’ insurance, and they were filing a claim, hoping to be reimbursed, at least in part, for the expensive drug rehab where they’d sent me. It was a facile experience; I barely lifted a finger. My role was a HIPAA formality—I (resentfully) waved at the familiar receptionist, doctors, and nurses and said, Yes, my parents can access my medical records. The staff presented my father with a thick manila envelope, and I practically skipped out the front door, still enjoying my freedoms. Nothing to it.

Seven-ish years later, I started writing a book about my mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses, which eventually became A Fish Growing Lungs.  My memory is not great (see rehab above), and some of the dates, appointments, facilities, and doctors muddled together, making drafting difficult. I wanted specifics, and my old medical records would be able to provide at least some particulars, untainted by time. I envisioned the recorded dates like scaffolding around which I could build a structure made of memory.

The list of doctors and institutions I drafted was daunting both because of its length and its incompleteness. I live by my checklists, and excerpts of this one read like a classified document:

  • (firstname?) Jones — psychiatrist, private practice? NoVA, 2004/2005-2006
  • Psych ward doctor — Psych ward (??), state run? NoVA, March 11? 2007
  • Doctor? NP? — Clinic, Greensboro, NC, March/April? 2007
  • (firstname) Sharif & Dr. Jarod Diaz — psychiatrists, Rolling Hills Treatment, Clearwater, May 1-30 2007?

Imagine calling a doctor’s office and saying something like, Hi, yes, I think I was a patient at your institution seven-ish years ago, could you please check if I was actually there and, if so, could you please send me copies of my medical records? The process was an odd mix of social engineering and verifying my own identity eight different ways on a phone line.

Only one acquisition was relatively straightforward: My longest-standing former psychiatrist (whose name I remember and who hadn’t moved offices or closed their practice) immediately said, Yes, and hardcopies were available for me to pick up the next day. I think he may have even waived the fee.

The rest of the items on my checklist were a mix of awkward; unattainable; or achieved only by sheer, dumb luck. One of my former therapists basically said, Ugh, do I have to; they’re somewhere in my storage unit, and at that time I still had not yet had enough therapy to say, Yes, Jennifer, please go get my goddamn medical records.

*

Much harder than acquiring my medical records was reading them. Writing personal essay necessitates constructing a persona on the page, and while I am accustomed to trying to make sense of my past self, this added another layer of complexity. This was me trying to make sense of how others had made sense of me. Reading the documents felt like handling a nesting doll made out of so many jellyfish. My first few attempts ended with me shoving the stacks of paper under my bed and going outside to smoke. The solution I ultimately settled on (after having to reorder the documents a few times) was to camp out on my balcony with a pack of cigarettes and chain-smoke my way through the folders. It wasn’t graceful. To see oneself through the eyes of others is charming when you’ve just started dating; it’s markedly less so when you’re having a psychotic break in the ER.

Earlier drafts of Fish relied heavily on these doctors’ notes. I incorporated direct quotes into several different essays, and one was entirely devoted to the nuances of my diagnoses juxtaposed against sections of previous and current versions of the DSM. Over the course of about a year, different readers of that particular essay, creatively titled “Diagnosis,” flagged it as bulky and dragging, and each time I made appreciative mhmm sounds before hoping the next reader would say something different.

I tell people I am a slow writer because I need lots of time between drafts to be able to see what I’ve actually written, instead of what I’d wanted to write. A lot of scholarly work exists around illness narratives—the hows and whys of their construction; their benefits and potential pitfalls, both for the author and audience; how they can inadvertently reinforce medical institutions’ granting power of legitimacy—but I’m going to leave all that aside and say that, in the end, I cut “Diagnosis,” salvaging only a few darling phrases to sprinkle throughout the remaining essays.

When I was finally able to set my manuscript aside for half a year, I returned to it to find that I agreed with my earlier readers’ comments. What I found was not an essay that added to the collection, but a document I’d created in order to write all the other essays around it. “Diagnosis” was how I’d made sense of how others had made sense of me; the only way I knew how to unpack those pesky, slippery dolls was to write them out.

The moral of this is not “Do whatever your readers tell you to do” (though I did have excellent readers). The moral is “It takes every word it takes.” Today, my medical records are in a plastic bin in my attic crawlspace labeled “BOOK 1,” alongside all the other articles and handouts and lists and notes I read and made for Fish—not dogma, but just another type of source material. I had to read and write every sentence to get to the end. All this digging and drafting happens not because everything I uncover should make its way into the final written product, but because the process is the bulk of the work, and thus, where the bulk of the joy resides.
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Alysia Sawchyn is a Features Editor at The Rumpus. Her essay collection about misdiagnosed mental illness, A Fish Growing Lungs, was published by Burrow Press in June 2020. You can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

A Memoir Takes Its Place: A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan

September 8, 2020 § Leave a comment

We are posting one of our September Craft Essays a bit early to celebrate the recent release of Rebecca McClanahan’s new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays (Red Hen Press). In this craft contribution, Nancy Geyer talks with McClanahan, a frequent Brevity contributor over the years, about the crafting of her memoir, with a focus on conveying setting.

Here’s an excerpt,

Nancy Geyer: In one of your craft essays for Brevity“Forest in the Trees,” you mention recurring patterns or motifs as a way to unify a book. They can also reinforce the feel of a place, right? I’m thinking of your squirrels and park benches.

Rebecca McClanahan: Yes, recurring motifs seem a natural way to unify a book and to situate the reader in a place. And you’re right about animals and park benches! Squirrels do indeed scamper now and then through the book’s pages, but quite a few other creatures make appearances as well—pigeons and ducks, including the duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen statue, and the dogs in the park, and even the baby bird that the homeless man shows me nesting in the lining of his jacket.

And yes, the park bench was such an important part of my experience of New York—not only as my own physical (if temporary) stake on the landscape and a place from which to view the scene, but also as an opportunity for conversations with strangers, who were always eager to share their stories and their sometimes strange but always intriguing wisdom. In that way, a park bench is where the public and private meet, right? Which seems to echo the experience of living in New York. At least my own experience during the time we lived there.

Now, take a moment to pop over and read the full interview here.

Under the Table with Fiona

August 19, 2020 § 3 Comments

StevenBarker_AuthorPhotoBy Steven Barker

“Hiding under the table and listening to Fiona Apple,” I texted back to my buddy that asked, “How’s the writing going?” He responded with a laughing emoji and I wasn’t sure if he took me seriously.

I was listening to The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do after spending the previous 10 hours sitting at the table above; typing, deleting, and re-writing my book, which was due in a day. I was laid out on my back, looking up at the bottom of my IKEA dining table that rarely saw napkins, knives, or forks, feeling less alone hearing Fiona admit, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” She reassured me that I was worthy, singing, “I like watching you live.”

I was almost a published author and I’d no longer feel like a fraud when telling people I was a writer. If someone asked, “What have you written?” I could give them the title of a book to lookup in a library database that had my name on the cover. At least that’s how I expected I’d feel. Until then, I went under the table to hide from my anxiety telling me I wasn’t good enough and it was only a matter of time before my publisher realized they’d made a mistake and took it all away.

I titled my manuscript, Now for the Disappointing Part: A Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better. My editor said it was missing a persona-defining detail to tell the reader who I was—a note I agreed with, although I disagreed with his suggestion to call myself a “Millennial.” I was born in 1980 and can be called a Millennial, Xennial, or Gen X depending on the source, but teetering between generations made me at least five years too old to have written the common person’s perception of a Millennial experience. It felt like an attempt to capitalize on a buzzword to get copies on a display table in Urban Outfitters.

Up until that point, I was so high off the idea that I was actually putting a book in the world that I went along with everything my publisher suggested. I didn’t say anything when they went with my second choice for the cover design, because I could live with it, but I knew I’d never be happy with a title that made me feel like a phony. There must have been a moment when Fiona had to tell a record exec that she didn’t give a shit if he thought a 23-word album title was too long. I pushed back against a week’s worth of emails until they were okay with changing “Millennial” to “Pseudo-Adult.”

My book wasn’t sold in Urban Outfitters, it didn’t get a Kirkus review, I didn’t get requests for interviews, or land on any best new author lists. It’s been three years since it’s been released and recently I typed the title into Google. When I didn’t find the validation I was fishing for, I looked up, “Fiona Apple 1997 VMAs.”

The moon man trophy for best new artist propped up on the podium in front of her is large enough to hide half of her delicate frame. “I didn’t prepare a speech,” she says. “Because I’m not going to do it like everybody else does it.” There’s light enthusiasm from the crowd, but in hindsight and knowing how she’ll be portrayed in the media the following day it seems more like awkward applause. Later she’d be called crazy and some would speculate she was on drugs. I might have thought that too when I watched it live, but at the time I was still in high school and hadn’t yet created something that made me afraid to let out in the world for strangers to judge.

Most people only remember that she said, “This world is bullshit,” which resonates with me more today than it did back then, but it’s not the reason why I regularly re-watch a speech from twenty plus years ago. It’s when she said, “Go with yourself. Go with yourself,” that sticks with me. It’s a fairly mundane mantra that I wouldn’t give a second thought if I saw it written in fancy script on an IKEA accent pillow, but I’m inspired when I hear it from Fiona. She said those words accepting an award for an album she wrote when she was 17, same age as me when I first heard them. Two decades later, she’s still making art that makes me cry.

My first attempt at a second book was a novel that never compelled me to seek comfort under the table with Fiona and eventually I realized it sucked. I reasoned it was because I was writing at a dinner table, which then made me wonder why I dedicated a large portion of my apartment to a table that never served its purpose, so I got rid of it and replaced it with a desk. When I flipped over the IKEA table to remove the legs for easy transport to Goodwill, I noticed a message written in Sharpie: 3/01/2016Go with yourself.

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Steven Barker is the author of the essay collection Now for the Disappointing Part: A Pseudo-Adult’s Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better released by Skyhorse Publishing in November, 2016. He is a 2014-2015 Made at Hugo Fellow, and a co-founder of “Cheap Wine & Poetry” and “Cheap Beer & Prose.” His work has appeared in Salon, The Weeklings, Split Lip Magazine, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere.

Memoir as a Lyrical Journey Toward Understanding: A Review of Cinthia Ritchie’s Malnourished

March 16, 2020 § 24 Comments

malnourishedBy Marie A Bailey

Caveat: Cinthia Ritchie, author of the memoir Malnourished: A Memoir of Sisterhood and Hunger, is my friend, and I read her memoir keenly aware of my affection for her. I don’t claim to be objective in my review, but, in all honesty, I don’t know that I’ve ever been objective when reviewing any writing. It’s the subjectivity of writing and reading that attracts me, after all.

This doesn’t mean that I would automatically give “5 stars” to Malnourished, although I will. It’s unlike any memoir I’ve read before now. Ritchie’s story of her relationship with her sister is so honest I sometimes felt I was swallowing broken glass.

Malnourished starts haltingly, as if Ritchie is trying to get into position before diving into her memoir. Knowing already that her sister died from an eating disorder, I felt hesitant about reading her story. I knew it would be painful and yet Ritchie’s acknowledgement of how “memory is a funny thing,” encouraged me to dive in with her:

“Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it, how it adds and subtracts, takes something as simple as watching a whale swim along the shore and mixes it up in your mind so that your sister is there beside you, even though she’s been dead for years.”

Richie’s conversational tone—as if we were two women sitting on a living room carpet, our backs against the couch, a bottle of wine between us, talking in the dark—kept me anchored. Even when she admitted to lying: “I lie, I’ve always lied. Growing up, we all lied, though perhaps this is common in most families, the ability and need to lie.”

We all lie. I think of how I might never be able to write a “true” memoir because of the lies told by my family through the years, although perhaps they’re not all truly lies. What do they call it? Selective memory? Choosing to remember some things and not others? Choosing to believe that not telling can mean it didn’t happen.

I cringed sometimes at Richie’s raw honesty as with her take-no-prisoners unearthing of her sexual use of men as she took herself farther and farther away from home, from her sister, Deena. They were close as children but grew apart during high school as Deena became anorexic.

Both of them were subjected to sexual abuse by their stepfather, although Richie never quite tells you that, except in one short paragraph, almost buried in the book. Before then, she doesn’t give you details, but she makes you feel her fear of the creaking of footsteps on stairs, the guilty relief when the door being opened is not the one to her bedroom. That one short paragraph gives you only the least of details, just enough to make your imagination explode in horror.

I cringed at her raw honesty, her (what some might call) promiscuity, her hunger and thirst for touch, just to be touched. I cringed because I recognized myself in a way I’ve never done with anyone else’s story. For once I could reflect on my own promiscuous era and believe that someone, notably Richie, would understand what drove me to that particular brand of self-destructiveness. She absolved me of guilt while she heaped it on herself.

Richie also doesn’t spare herself when describing her neglect or disregard of Deena as they grew older and resumed their relationship. Deena had become “crazy,” and Richie often didn’t want to deal with it. It was a losing battle, as such battles are with families, even those not dealing with abuse and eating disorders. Sometimes, as Ritchie notes, you just don’t have the energy. “We could barely keep ourselves together.” Again, I saw her story in myself, in the way I avoided my father as his mental health deteriorated, not wanting to deal with him when he needed me most.

Malnourished weaves back and forth, in and out of time, and at first that was a little disorienting. But Richie is a poet as well as a journalist and novelist and whatever writing -ist may be included. After awhile I read the ebb and flow of her memories as shifts between fasting and satiety, between lightheadedness and clarity, between not remembering and remembering.

Malnourished is a journey toward understanding: “It would take over fifteen years and her death before I’d understand that I’d never gotten over the closeness we shared growing up.” Malnourished is a journey I won’t soon forget.

Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com. She’s been published in Brevity, by Nightingale & Sparrow, and in various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

On Memoir Writing: Do We Have to Call It Therapy?

March 13, 2020 § 15 Comments

Mary J BreenBy Mary J. Breen

I teach memoir classes with seniors. People who hear about these classes are forever telling me how much they approve. “Writing is such good therapy!” they say, one after another. But is it useful to call it therapy? I don’t think so, and I think it’s time we stopped.

My students tell me they want to write their memoirs for many reasons. Often they want them to be gifts for their children and grandchildren; sometimes they want to honour someone now dead, and sometimes they want to give voice to people whose stories haven’t been heard. Some people want the opportunity of taking a good look back at their lives. I’ve never had anyone say they were there because they thought memoir writing would be therapeutic. They’re there to write.

And they’re right. The focus of a memoir class is supposed to be the telling and the writing of true storiesnot judging the lives people have led. Keeping discussion away from psychoanalyzing keeps the focus on the page where it belongs.

Therapy is what we need when something needs to be fixed; physical therapy, for example, might help regain the use of a broken wrist; family therapy might bring a family together again. I don’t think we should suggest to our students that they are broken and need fixing in any way.

Framing memoir writing as therapy suggests students should be looking for problematic topics to be addressed. I want my students to feel free to explore and write about—or not—whatever they choose. There is no question that catharsis can result from thinking about and writing about difficult events, but catharsis isn’t a daily occurrence for any memoir writer. I don’t want students to feel disappointed when their writing doesn’t feel “therapeutic” or “therapeutic” enough. Expecting therapeutic change, for example, may be unrealistic for someone writing about the many ways she and her big sister had such a hard time getting along, or for the writer describing a relationship with a neighbour who showed him never-ending love and acceptance while he grew up in a difficult family. These are perfectly good topics for a memoir. I don’t want students or teachers waiting for the “therapeutic” moments, and rejecting those that are not.

In my teaching experience, many people—especially older people—do not want to delve deeply into the painful parts of their pasts. I’ve often heard students say they want to remember the good not the bad, and as a teacher, I don’t think it’s my role to challenge this. This is especially important because some memories are so painful that they should not be recalled without care, and certainly not in front of a class. I remember asking a student if she was going to write about what happened to her as a small child in Germany during World War 2. She looked at me with alarm and simply said, “Oh, but I can’t.” When I saw the fear in her eyes, I realized how deep this old pain was, and I saw that pushing her in any way would have been very wrong. I have since learned that returning to memories of extreme trauma can lead to re-traumatizing—a painful reliving or even re-inhabiting of a terrible situation and the trauma that came with it. Few teachers would be adept at dealing with this.

Therapy suggests an intervention by expert professionals whose viewpoint is, by definition, outside the client. Referring to memoir writing as “therapy” moves the expertise away from the writer and into the hands of those who are on the outside looking in. Of course, experts can sometimes perceive things about us that we’re unaware of, but I want the writer to be firmly established as the authority in his/her life. I want decisions about what matters and what doesn’t to remain with the writer.

Older people are bombarded with advice about what we need—exercise programs, proper diet, vitamins, medical tests—in order to enjoy “healthy aging,” and I’m unwilling to lump memoir writing in with these prescribed behaviours. Like music and yoga and spending time with grandkids, memoir writing can be interesting and useful and fun, but it doesn’t need to be viewed as one of the approved ways to grow old correctly.

I’m not saying that writing can’t be “therapeutic.” There is no question that writing can take us deeper into what we know and who we are and have always been. It can illuminate things and let us examine parts of our past we hadn’t known were there. Some say that writing their memoirs was how they reclaimed their past. Others even say it saved their lives. Writing about our past can help us figure out our motivations and our fears, and it can give us a stronger sense of ourselves. It can also help us live more easily with what hurt us. If these things are “therapeutic,” then great. Even so, I prefer to talk about memoir writing as a chance to revisit your life, to start accepting yourself, warts and all—to look back and to look forward. The results can be a new and helpful perspective on who you are and who you want to be. Memoir writing is often enjoyable, interesting, illustrative, and even transformative. As memoir teachers, we have the privilege of helping people examine their lives—in whichever way they want. We are not therapists. We are teachers-cheerleaders-guides-coaches-listeners-witnesses, and I think this role is very important just as it is.
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Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines, and she has written two books about women’s health. She has taught creative non-fiction and memoir courses for the past 15 years.

 

 

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