On Writing the Same, Only Different

December 7, 2018 § 8 Comments

zz_kathyby Kathy Stevenson

Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”

That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.

Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)

It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.

For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.

Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”

Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.

After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.

Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!

Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”

For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.

And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?

It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.
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Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.

On Polyester Maternity Dresses Posing as Essay Collections

October 18, 2018 § 4 Comments

dewittIt is easy to hate Amazon, but they do sell a lot of books for us, don’t they?

Well maybe not. DeWitt Henry,  founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, waited expectantly for his latest book to show up on the popular, monopolistic bookseller’s pages only to surf through two nights ago to encounter a rather peculiar surprise. He writes about it here:

For weeks I’ve been anticipating my launch on Amazon for SWEET MARJORAM: NOTES AND ESSAYS.  The release date was 10-15, and I kept checking obsessively, but only found my earlier title, SWEET DREAMS.  The night of 10-16, I typed in the product search, and there it was at last!

I called my wife away from CNN: “Hey, look at this!”

But when we clicked for the order page what came up was a large pic of the cover alongside ordering information for “Keaac Womens Chiffon Print Sleeveless Irregular Hem A Line Top Dress,” a maternity dress from China, available in “Small=China X-Large: Length:25.59″ (65cm), Bust:42.52″ (108cm); Medium=China 2X-Large: Length:25.98″ (66cm), Bust:44.09″ (112cm);” and other sizes that seemed nothing like the essay collection I have worked on for years.

Meanwhile the “real” book is available from www.MadHat-Press.com and I hope happy readers will spread the word and even leave reviews on Amazon.

Resurrecting Ghosts in Memoir

October 1, 2018 § 6 Comments

Cat photo for wvwBy Cat Pleska

The time had finally arrived: my first book launch. I’d worked on my memoir for fifteen years before a university press published it. I justified the long time it took to finish by saying sometimes you have to live a little longer and grow to understand what your life story is and what it means.

A few months in advance of my book’s release, I’d scheduled its launch at an independent bookstore nearby. Then a month before, I had a dream. In the dream I walked into the bookstore’s reading space. The reading table for authors was at the back of the room and there to one side of it stood my parents and my dad’s parents, shoulder to shoulder. Beaming smiles. I felt their approval for the book, their pride in me. I woke, haunted by the fact that these four people, who appeared prominently in my memoir, were all gone. They would never see me in this life-affirming moment.

The image stayed with me and an idea began to form in the back of my mind. Because I had previously portrayed historical characters, one for my state’s humanity council’s History Alive! program and another for the national Mother’s Day Foundation, I was accustomed to costumes and performances to become someone else. Two weeks before the launch, I hatched a plan.

In my local Goodwill, I found an old work shirt and in Cabela’s an orange hunting hat. From Ebay, I ordered a cigarette rolling machine identical to the one my grandfather allowed me to roll his cigarettes for him when I was a child. I borrowed my husband’s steel toe work boots. I found my old reading glasses that looked like the ones my grandmother wore and dug out one of her ashtrays. For my mother, I could find no costume items, so I decided to express her with stance and attitude.

The day came and I rounded the door to the reading space, half expecting my family to be standing as I saw them in my dream. Approaching the table, I sat a chair on either side then placed my props. It was show time!

ohio county photo 4 (2)

The Author, Dressed as Her Father

I drew in a shaky breath and prepared to let the audience know I had not come alone. In front of them, I donned the tan work shirt over my clothes and pulled on the boots. I rolled a cigarette in the rolling machine with tobacco torn from a borrowed cigarette (since I don’t smoke) and launched into a story my grandfather always told, copying his vernacular and physical stance. I drew laughs when I changed in front of them and switched chairs to portray my grandmother tapping her “ashes” into her hand— she usually ignored her ashtrays—as she told a story about me when I was a baby. Then I switched to a flannel shirt and hunting hat, cigarette dangling from my lip as Dad told his famous “Night on Cheat Mountain” wild tale. Again I switched chairs and took off any props to sit proper, legs crossed, and told a rollicking tale of my mother’s, her cigarette flashing in the air as she gestured.

Finally, it was just me, in front of friends and strangers reading from my memoir. Stories about growing up with these giants, these people who were wonderful and wonderfully flawed, who loved me, despite my own flaws. I remembered their stories and my own like the lines of a play.

In my imagination, with each reading, they would fill the back row of the audience. Over time, I imagined them less. Then they were gone. I became the lone character.

To my utter shock, I plunged into mourning their deaths again. No one had told me this might happen when you recreate and write about long-gone loved ones.

For the next few months, as I exulted in my first published book, I also felt the heavy burden of grief. This time, all four of them at once. The truth is that to write memoir, we must visit the good, the bad, the past, the present, and resurrect ghosts to convey to our readers the lived life.

In my memoir, I wrote their story, as they had asked me to over the years, and I boldly added my own. They showed up to let me know they were proud of me and to take a final bow.
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Cat Pleska is the author of Riding on Comets: a Memoir, (West Virginia University Press, 2015). Even though she lives in and writes from the heart of Appalachia, she is currently working on a collection of travel/personal essays titled The I’s Have It: Traveling in Ireland and Iceland. She teaches full time in the online Master of Liberal Studies Program, for Arizona State University.

On the Graphic Memoir: Picturing the Hybrid Form

September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

1 title block for brevityWhile she was writing her last memoir, Rebecca Fish Ewan discovered that sketching helped her characterize scenes she was drafting in richly worded detail. Surprisingly, the sketches made their way into the narrative itself. In this craft essay, she explains how drawing can inform the writing process and bring more nuance and texture into the narrative and maybe even become part of the finished work.

An excerpt from Ewan’s illustrated essay:

When you make marks on a blank page, you create meaning, either through words or pictures. By hybridizing these two mechanisms for creating meaning, you can explore alternative ways to communicate thoughts and stories.

Read the full essay in Brevity’s new issue.

The Madness of Book Marketing

September 26, 2018 § 9 Comments

Sarah_Fawn_Montgomery_QUITE_MAD_author_photoBy Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Writers have peculiar behaviors, one of which is sitting alone day after day, month after month laboring over a notebook or keyboard, hoping that what we create in private will ultimately be enjoyed in public. We embrace the contradiction that writing is an act of solitude, but also a social one.

But this contradiction is not without it challenges, as evidenced by how often jarring it is to pull ourselves from the world we make on the page (even if it is nonfiction) to go about the reality of our day. More so, by how anxiety-producing it can be for the writer to move from the private act of writing to the performance of publication. Real time living hardly affords the control or revision of writing, and many writers agree that the months leading up to publication can be nerve-racking.

As someone for whom anxiety is a natural state—I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, OCD, and PTSD more than a decade ago—the marketing process for my book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir proved more difficult than the writing process. I’d assumed that reliving my experiences with mental illness in order to write the book would be taxing, but the thought of marketing made me experience panic attacks and the general feeling that I was being crushed under the weight of my fragile writer ego.

I don’t exaggerate! I saw things, heard things. I counted, doublechecked, twitched. Felt organs sputter inside. In sleep, I ground holes in the mouthguard designed to prevent such grinding. Being “forthcoming” was not exciting. It was miserable. Marketing proved maddening, for as a human I prefer to go unnoticed, a quiet observer made fierce by the solitude of the page, but as writers, we want to be seen.

*

Hallucinations aside, I am not alone: many writers have reflected on the difficulties of marketing, the challenges that come from asking for attention in a world saturated with selfies and side hustles, the guilt we feel over demanding individual praise when the world seems to be collectively falling apart. I’ve witnessed writers judge others for posting too frequently about themselves, asking them to purchase a book, or simply sharing good news. “Shameless self-promotion” begins most social media posts as a result, an apology that sets the tone for how readers engage with the content. We require, it seems, both humility and humiliation of writers if we are to reward them with a ‘like’ much less the purchase of their latest project.

Once, I was hosting a dinner party for a dozen writers when news broke that a lovely absent friend had secured a two-book deal. Within moments the atmosphere changed from one of merlot’d merriment to acrimony, and most of the table never forgave the writer for their success. It is no wonder writers pause before sharing reviews or media mentions, feel such self-doubt and shame for hoping others will celebrate their accomplishments.

At this same dinner, however, my cat spied a toy mouse on the floor, meandered over and began yowling victory as though a brutal battle had ensued, a bold albeit lazy performance that prompted delight from guests. Years later, I still wonder why our friend’s literary accomplishments seemed suspect while a housecat’s guttural gloating was cause for applause.

*

There is much practical advice about marketing—don’t dwell on reviews if you are lucky enough to receive them, try to work on new writing but don’t be disappointed when this is difficult or impossible, remember that “book tour” is code for awkward writers, small crowds, and strange questions that aren’t really questions. For me, however, the best strategy leading up to publication was not marketing myself, but supporting other writers, many whom were also in a forthcoming frenzy. This allowed me to engage with the literary community in ways that were sustaining rather than suspicious, and to foster connections with people who love words rather than wondering why family members I’ve never witnessed reading weren’t eager to talk about my writing. Most important, championing good work helped me remember why I love writing and writers in the first place.

I am a patient, enthusiast, forgiving reader. (I may be a better reader than person.) When I find a piece I love, I read it again and again until the muscles in my face have memorized the movement. I read it aloud, often with waving hands, to anyone who will listen. I geek out, students held hostage by my syllabus, or my partner, who cooks dinner while I pace the kitchen ranting about the best metaphor ever before finding another best

I fall hard for writers, reading everything they’ve written, swooning over their language, acquiring extra copies to fling at others like it’s December and I’m hosting my own Favorite Things episode. And yes, like anyone in love, I send mushy messages to writers I admire, though I try to keep the XOs to myself. When I encourage students to contact writers they love, they return to class shocked, whispering, “They actually wrote back.”

*

quitmad

The first email I received from a reader about Quite Mad made me catch my breath. I was in the midst of months of mental illness setbacks, uncertain when or if they would end, gasping and heaving, existing beyond going to work and returning home seemingly impossible. I was seeing and hearing things, experiencing panic attacks for several hours each day, convinced a piece of ice was a shard of glass that had slit me belly to bowel on the way down, or that I’d drunk bleach, or that a vein was about to burst. I could not bear to exist in the cage of my body let alone think about marketing my broken self to others. Who would want to read a story about a skittish, frightened brain, a woman so afraid she could not look in the mirror without panicking?

The reader was writing, she explained, because she felt the same, because my book about panic and compulsion and trauma made her feel normal for once and less alone. And suddenly so did I—the private had become public and I had not died or caught fire or shriveled like a tuber into the earth or all the other terrible things anxiety convinces us will happen if we prove fallible.

My mental illness did not disappear with this small praise, just as the release of my book has not quelled it, but this kindness reminded me of the importance of small literary acts—an email to a writer, sharing a beautiful line with others, buying books, gifting books, teaching books.

The way I see it, we have two choices: We can ruin the dinner party by dismissing well-deserved accomplishments (either those of others, but more often than not, our own), or we can yowl. Writing an essay or poem or story, or hell, a whole book, is much more demanding than rolling over and spotting a faux mouse, yet we hesitate to celebrate.

If you are still too shy to yowl for yourself, yowl for others, and know that lovers of words will be happy to yowl for yours.
__

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard ReviewDIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

On Mental Illness and The Impulse to Write

July 11, 2018 § 7 Comments

By Leslie Schwartz

schwartzIn 2014, after 14 years clean and sober, I relapsed into drug and alcohol addiction, and nearly destroyed my life. The genetic intensity of addiction is no joke. For many of us, stopping is all but impossible once we start. At six months into new sobriety, I was sentenced to 90 days in Los Angeles County Jail for three misdemeanors related to offenses I committed while loaded. Jail was the end run to a relapse that not only damaged my friends and family, but nearly took my writing career with it.

As a person who was born feeling different and always expressed and calmed myself through my writing, it was comforting to know that many writers have suffered from addiction and mental illness: Virginia Woolf, Raymond Carver, Leo Tolstoy and Sylvia Plath to name a few.

The link between mental illness and creativity has been well established. Researchers like Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison have definitively established the connection between writing and mood disorders, many of these associated with addiction, depression and social anxiety disorders. Some theorized that Emily Brontë may have had Asperger’s Syndrome. Reclusive and at times violent – she nearly blinded the family dog after punching it – Emily was famously known to have been antisocial.

The idea that literary genius is more likely to stem from distress and struggle than from complacency and contentment seems true when we look at some writers well-known for their mental illnesses. Sylvia Plath, Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf all lost a parent in childhood, and all suffered from addiction or some form of mental illness later. The impetus to connect to their loss and find release from their sadness was surely expressed in the stories they wrote.

This is not to say that mental illness is a requirement for literary prowess. There are plenty of stable writers out there who produce works of genius without keeping a bottle at their elbows or like Coleridge, opium. (As his addiction progressed he expressed the view that his illness was moral or spiritual in nature and often spoke about the boils behind his ears.) But for some writers the yoke between mental illness and writing is a strong one. It seems like those who are mentally ill yet also exhibit intelligence, sensitivity and resilience are often hardwired for creativity.

renewal_In my case, addiction and the mental illness that follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time. Even though I was unable to write while in active addiction, it was precisely the fallout from it that gave me the courage and impetus to explore themes like the holiness of suffering and the redemptive nature of literature. (Spoiler alert: The good news about jail is that there’s an excessive amount of reading time available.)

Only through the suffering and loneliness of my addiction did I gain particular insight into the human condition. While not all people suffer from mental illness or addiction, all people suffer. Falling into the depths of my disease allowed me to experience first-hand both the nature of human pain in all its varieties, and also the brilliance of renewal and transformation. The loss of so much, and the reckoning with shame and the hurt I brought on others was like an empathy expander. And it is empathy that writers require to create meaningful stories.

Andreasen in her study on mental illness and literary creativity determined that many writers who experience the loneliness and emotional upheaval of their disorders encounter grave frustration with their attempts to relate to people in socially acceptable ways. But writing freed them from their sense of isolation. Writing for many like Milton and Emily Bronte, was an outlet for communication and even perhaps a sense of grounding sanity. When I write, I feel sane. When I don’t write, I am lost.

I wouldn’t wish my addiction on anyone. I’m sure that Virginia Woolf would rather have not stuffed her pockets with stones and walked into the water. But I am grateful for the abundance addiction and the mental illness that stems from it while it is active has brought me back to my life, and my writing career.
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Leslie Schwartz is the author of two novels, Jumping the Green and Angels Crest. Her memoir, The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time is out this month from Penguin/Random House.

A Brief Interview with a Hideous Man

May 22, 2018 § 10 Comments

zz unnamedAuthor Steve Almond’s four-year-old daughter Rosalie interviews him about his depressing new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country :

Rosalie Almond: What’s wrong with you?

Steve Almond: I have a new book out.

RA: The one about stupid stories?

SA: It’s about bad stories.

RA: Like something bad happens?

SA: Not exactly. There are bad stories in which something bad happens. But when I say “bad stories” I mean stories that lead to bad things happening. Stories that are untrue or that are cruel, stories that make people want to break things, rather than build things.

RA: I don’t get it.

SA: Okay. Here’s an example. If I said to you, “You can’t trust people with green eyes, because they will steal your toys. You have a right to play with your toys, don’t you? But if you see a kid with green eyes, you shouldn’t be nice to them, because they just want to steal your toys.”

RA: Why do they want to steal my toys? What did I do to them?

SA: I understand. But okay, wait a second.

RA: I hate them!

SA: Wait a sec—

RA: People with green eyes should die!

SA: Okay. Time out. That was just an example. People with green eyes don’t want to steal your toys.

RA: But you just said they did!

SA: Right. But that wasn’t true. It was just a bad story I told you.

RA: Why did you say that if it wasn’t true?

SA: Because when you tell a bad story a lot of the time people will listen to you, and that gives you a lot of power. Someone who wants to become a famous radio host, or even the president, can tell bad stories as a way of getting attention. They can say, “People with green eyes want to steal your toys!” And, “People who read books think you’re stupid!” And, “You can’t trust people with dark skin!” It doesn’t matter if those stories are mean and untrue.

RA: It doesn’t?

SA: Not if it helps you get power. If you can find people who feel frustrated and angry and who are in pain, bad stories make them feel good.

RA: Why?

9781597092265SA: Because now they have a good reason to feel angry. If they feel like they don’t have enough toys, or they worry that they might not get dessert, or if they see other kids who have more than them, those things make them angry. Bad stories give them a reason to feel angry. And someone to blame.

RA: But why do other kids have more? That’s not fair.

SA: You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. In a fair world, we would divide things up more equally, right? There wouldn’t be people with 100,000 chocolate cakes and other people who don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But if you’re a person with 100,000 chocolate cakes, you can distract people from how greedy you are by telling bad stories, by saying, “The reason you don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread is because some dark-skinned person from another country who doesn’t even speak English stole your job!”

RA: But I don’t have a job.

SA: Right.

RA: Do I have to get a job?

SA: Someday, sure. But for now, I think it’s good for you to just go to pre-school.

RA: Because I can get a job later?

SA: Right, that can happen later.

RA: Will things be fair when I grow up?

SA: I don’t know. I hope so. But the only way they are going to get fair is for people to stop telling bad stories. They have to start telling good stories, which are stories that make people feel nicer and more hopeful and more generous. Stories which make you feel like you can understand how someone who looks different from you, or prays to a different God, actually wants the same things as you. Like they want a safe place to live and good schools for their kids to go do and enough to eat and a good doctor to go to if they get sick. That’s what all of us want, right?

RA: Not the doctor. They do shots!

SA: That’s true. But sometimes shots are the only way to help someone who is sick, right? Remember when you and mama got the flu?

RA: We couldn’t fly on the plane to California. We had to come later.

SA: That’s right. You were so sick. But if you get a shot, you don’t get the flu. Good stories can be like that, too. They can be like a shot that keeps us from getting sick, or helps us get better. So a good story is a true story that helps keep us safe, even if it’s a little scary. Like if we want to keep the planet from getting too hot, we have to use less gas. Or if we want to have a government that helps people we have to vote for people who want to solve problems. Or if we want people to have enough to eat and good schools and good jobs, we might have to take a little bit away from the people who have 100,000 chocolate cakes.

RA: Can I have dessert tonight? I never get dessert.

SA: You already had dessert, my love. You had a lollipop.

RA: I did? Really? Is your book over yet?

SA: Over?

RA: Yeah, I want to read a different book now. One of my books.

SA: Okay. I don’t blame you. I like your books better than mine, anyway.

RA: So why did you write your dumb book, anyway?

SA: I guess because for writers the stories we write are the ones that get stuck in our heads. Stories that won’t go away unless we write them down. That’s just how it works.

RA: That sounds boring.

SA: It is boring.

RA: I told you so.

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Steve Almond is the author of ten books, most recently Bad Stories. His daughter Rosalie has no plans to read the book.

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