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.

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


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.


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.

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.



Post-AWP Bargain: Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, Low Price, Free Shipping

March 10, 2020 § 3 Comments

Flash-NonfictionFieldGuide-300x426Since so many writers and readers had to change their plans to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference last week (#AWP2020), and miss the bookfair, Rose Metal Press is offering a we-couldn’t-go-to-AWP online sale, with all books nicely discounted and free shipping too (use the code AWPFREESHIP).

Actually a lot of presses that had to miss the conference are offering post-AWP discounts, and please support them all if you can, but Rose Metal is home to The Rose Metal Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book, frankly, toward which we feel a great fondness.

But, hey, listen to Phillip Lopate: “The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction … is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”

Great for teaching, and perfect for the the individual writer in need of prompts and inspiration!

The sale only lasts through March 12th, so jump on it today!


On Loving People I’ve Never Met

February 21, 2020 § 13 Comments

PREUS author photoBy Kaia Solveig Preus

At first, I was afraid to write my way back into my manuscript after it had been accepted for publication and had undergone its first round of edits. I worried that I had forgotten all of the facts that I had learned in order to write the book years before. My book, The War Requiem, is a book-length essay that blends memoir with historical fiction and research to bring to life a piece of music. I focus on Benjamin Britten, who composed War Requiem, Op. 66, and Wilfred Owen, the WWI soldier-poet whose poems were set in the music. I braid their stories along with mine––a college student learning to sing the War Requiem.

I was afraid, but I shouldn’t have been. As soon as I typed a few words, I fell back into the world I had created. I remembered these men, their voices, their signatures and preferred valedictions in the hundreds of letters they wrote. I knew their lives in the way I knew my own life seasons––my semester abroad, my lonely life in graduate school, my bumbling first few years of teaching––a little blurry around the edges, perhaps, but studded with crystalline memories so clear and sharp they cut me.

The fact that I’d never met either Benjamin Britten or Wilfred Owen, but still knew them, somehow, intimately––well, that was a kind of magic. We all do this to some extent, hopefully, by being open minded and willing to discover. Learning begets empathy begets understanding begets love. Yes, I love Britten and Owen. Yes, I love two dead men I’ve never met and even though I only know about a portion of their lives, I love them deeply.

Think of the way your beloved knows you––knows the backs of your knees, the difference between your fake and real laugh, the last nightmare from which you woke––think of all of the things they know about you. Now stack them up one by one into a pile reaching high.

Now think of all they don’t know about you––the way you sneezed four times in a row on your way to work today, the way your hamstrings ached to run even though you were stuck at the front of the classroom, the way, when you bit into your apple at lunch, you were jolted through time to a date with your high school boyfriend––the air so cold, your toes frozen in your boots, his gold Chevy Malibu in the apple orchard’s parking lot, the warming kisses that would soon take place there––

If you were to pile all the things your beloved doesn’t know about you––the person who ostensibly knows you best––the pile would tower dramatically over all that they knew. We hold so much within ourselves that can’t be given or released. It is not mentally or physically or emotionally possible. Such is the reality of being a human.

Now imagine the stacks of known and unknown things for a person who has died. For a person you know of but have never met. For a person you will never meet. The imbalance is so significant. Every known fact we have about another person, dead or alive, is a gift. A treasure. A thing to be held close to our thrumming hearts.

My grandfather, Paul, died ten years ago, when I was eighteen and he was ninety-six. At eighteen, I didn’t know much about myself. I knew that I liked to write and sing, but I did not know how much I would grow to love classical music. I could not have foreseen listening to a single piece hundreds of times or writing a book about it.

My grandfather was a musician: a conductor, pianist, and drummer. When we visited him, I would wake on the pull-out couch to the sounds of string sonatas on the radio and the scraping of a spatula on a pan as my grandfather made his strange breakfasts for us––scrambled eggs seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla. I wish I could show him my research and ask him what he thought about the War Requiem. I wish he could read my book and see how much I love music, like he did.

I wonder if my quest to learn about Britten and Owen is a quest to learn if it is possible to continue growing a relationship with people who have died. I do not have hundreds of my grandfather’s letters to read or biographies I can check out in a library. I have a few letters and birthday cards, and I have photographs, and I have the stories my family members tell me over the breakfasts where we miss him filling out his daily crossword puzzle. I have links to him, however small, that I can unearth and try to understand.

I remember the collage of songs my grandfather played on my family’s piano when he visited. It started slow and quiet, his slippers with the toes cut out pressing the una corda pedal. Over the next few songs, the tone grew lighter, the una corda and damper pressed less. Finally, he would swing into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and make me sing along. Sometimes, I will be crossing the street or falling asleep and I will hear the opening chords of my grandfather’s repertoire, and then just as quickly, as easily, it will fall away and I cannot remember it anymore. I asked him once to write down the chords of that first song for me. I held out the pencil he used for crosswords and a yellowed piece of blank sheet music that I’d found in a second-hand store. I watched, amazed as he played through it once and then sketched in the notes, the flats, the naturals, and the time signature without referencing the piano again. He handed it to me, and I told myself that I would learn to play it. I wish I knew where that sheet was now.

Kaia Solveig Preus is from Excelsior, Minnesota. She teaches creative writing in Minneapolis, and her first book, The War Requiem, is forthcoming from Essay Press in March 2020. Kaia holds her MFA from the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia and was a 2019 Author Fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Pleiades, The Drum, The Briar Cliff Review, Watershed Review, and Barely South Review. She is currently at work on both a collection of essays and a novel.

Review of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House: A Memoir

February 3, 2020 § 2 Comments

dreamhouseBy Candace Walsh

Imagine a memoir in the form of a centipede. Each segment of its body is a chapter. In each chapter, the narrative takes on a new genre’s characteristics, from noir to Choose Your Own Adventure. This is Carmen Maria Machado’s second book, In the Dream House: A Memoir. Her narrative flows through each discrete-genre segment like the centipede’s life force: potent, skittery, undulant, spiky, and fluid.

Once, Carmen Maria Machado fell in love with an unnamed woman writer, who gained her trust, mingled their worlds,  and then steadily turned their love affair from a fairy tale into a horror movie.

The story Machado tells, of her time with an abusive girlfriend, is executed in her signature gorgeous-surprising style, but the story of one woman abusing another is absolutely horrid, because we women can at least, while enduring vagaries petty and seismic of the patriarchy, comfort ourselves from the lofty moral high ground. No, we can’t? Not entirely.

In the book’s prologue, Machado acknowledges the brutal incompleteness of queer life in historical archives; even sparser, depictions of queer abuse. She writes, “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence.”

Machado’s story is also absolutely horrid because we queer women can at least, while enduring homophobia, heteronormativity, physical threats, and microaggressions, feel smug because as Machado avers, “To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.” But it is sometimes hell instead? Yes.

The ever shape-shifting momentum of the book, powered by its thrumming, antic centipede energy, echoes the relationship’s mutability from heart-shaped bed to haunted basement, bliss portal to sinkhole; Machado’s role from chosen to chastised as her girlfriend rapid cycles through the roles of love-bomber, interrogator, waif, harpy, terrorist.

The book’s structure and craft choices also foil merciful dissociation. Even the most traumatized, abuse-experienced readers who would otherwise dissociate or put the book down are strapped in by her use of second person point of view, and captivated by the pleasures of her text: the how and the wow of Machado pulling off her ongoing legerdemain, iron-hand-in-velvet-glove with the recognition of Machado’s girlfriend’s moves and the speaker’s justifying responses. The gullibility. The freeze hunkered down in a seat reserved for flee: when the girlfriend squeezes her wrist, “It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do. This is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation, and it hurts more and more, and everything is static.” The mucky, shamed feeling of being treated like garbage. Maybe I’m garbage? Garbage that dare not speak its name: a partner-abused queer person.

Why the silence? That comes down to questions like: Who gets to be a bad person or be the prey of a bad person? Not a marginalized person, not without maligning the fragile reputation of their already-marginalized group. These conundra pace the perimeter of In the Dream House’s scar-tissued heart. It’s definitely Bad for Lesbians when an abusive lesbian is outed. Back when Machado was tweeting about writing this book, my unvoiced gut response took the form of tut-tutting thoughts: “Can’t you write about something else? Didn’t you get the memo about how we all have to be exemplary citizens in order to maintain our meager patch of societal acceptability?” Queer women can’t afford to be as publicly bad or done-bad as straight white couples, for fear our singular stories will erase all the Ellen-and-Portia happily ever afters that justify us to straight relatives, friends, and legislators, and reassure vulnerable young queer folks that It Gets Better.

Garbage festers in dark, covered places. Having to be perfect is another way society tells us we’re not allowed to be who we are, what we are: flawed humans. Not flawed because of who we love. Flawed because we’re humans. As Machado puts it, “queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.”

For all this talk of flaws, Machado’s book is free of them. Machado is a master of roping the glancing and the glinting, the ineffable and the unseemly. She hazards offbeat comparisons: “In those months, hazy from lack of sleep and raw with anxiety, I felt like a calculator with someone’s finger over the solar panel—fading in and out, threatening to shut off altogether.” She also describes things we often banish from our minds before putting them into words, like the dissipating pleasure that anticipates an argument with a volatile person: “By the time you’ve wound out of the mountains and gotten back to a freeway, the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.”

In the Dream House is intoxicating, mesmerizing, and addictive like the best bad relationships are, but at the end, we aren’t abruptly dumped as readers the way the horrid girlfriend dumps the speaker. Machado ushers us to a curtailed freedom via final chapters limning her release and recovery: a chiaroscuro of rebound sex, epiphany, and her friends’ and acquaintances’ stinging skepticism: “Maybe it was rough, but was it really abusive?” She exits the dream house, but the dream house has forever changed the way she sees the world, imparting the fraught knowledge that far too many people on the outside are zombified by the same inertia and denial that once kept her captivated and captive.

Candace Walsh is a first-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. Her essays have recently appeared in Pigeon Pages, The New Limestone Review, and K’in Literary Journal. She also has a short story in Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir. Follow her on Twitter @candacewalsh.  

It Only Takes a Few Words to Love a Book

January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments

baileyBy Marie A Bailey

The first time I saw Pam Houston was in 1991 or 1992. I was a graduate student in English at Florida State University. The university was hosting a creative writing conference and Houston was on one of the panels. I had not read her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in part because I didn’t like cowboys.

During the panel, one of my professors asked Houston whether she thought being a woman created roadblocks for her in the literary world. Houston’s response was brusque and silencing, along the lines of “I’ve never had a problem with that.” I felt that my professor had unwittingly hit a tender spot and Houston had nipped back at her.

Later I saw Houston walk across the floor, adjusting the elastic waistband of her flowing skirt, looking irritated. There was something about Houston that day that both intimidated and attracted me, both as a woman and a writer. Even though I’m several years older than her, I would have bowed that day to her seniority in life experience and writing.

I didn’t think about Houston again until early 2019 when she came to a local independent bookstore to give a reading from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I think I fell in love.

I’m a happily married cis woman but I am still attracted to strong women, of which Houston is one. I saw her from the back as she walked past me to the front of the room. She was wearing a light-colored lace dress with cowboy boots, her calves solid as rocks. Her smile was infectious and her ease with the audience (packed in like sardines) was downright joyful.

By the time Houston was done with the reading and Q&A, I had placed her way high on a pedestal, nose-bleed high. So even though I had purchased a copy of Deep Creek before the reading, I slipped out without asking her to sign it. I knew I couldn’t reach that high, and I didn’t want to ask her to bend down for me.

I read Deep Creek off and on for the next couple of months. That’s one of the things I love about collections: you don’t feel that you have to read the whole book in one sitting. There’s much about her life with her parents, her ranch, her dogs, her sheep, and the wildfire that almost took everything. But Deep Creek is more than a collection of essays. It is a thoughtful rendering of a woman’s life, her journey from someone “born to two humans who wanted me not at all” to “a child of the wilderness.”

Deep Creek is a love letter to Mother Earth, to Mother Nature: “When you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.” Her love for her ranch and the creatures great and small that abide there is the gift one gets from reading Deep Creek.

Deep Creek is the first book of Houston’s that I’ve read. I knew little of her personal life. I read in horror of her parent’s abuse and neglect of her, but I don’t know if the horror I felt was over their acts or Houston’s even, detached tone as she related the abuses. I felt no cathartic cry of anguish and anger, but a steady movement toward love and belonging.

Houston has survived numerous life-threatening events, some a result of her risk-taking behavior. At least that’s how some would see her behavior. For Houston, “it was hard not to believe the earth was somehow keeping my best interests in mind.” She has survived multiple abuses, car wrecks, and natural disasters, and she’s survived it all with her heart intact and open to love.

Through Deep Creek, I’ve learned to marvel at this young woman who has met every challenge that Life and Nature will throw her way only to come through with more love for the wild things, people included. When she got a “precancer diagnosis in the form of HPV 16,” she decided to make some changes. “… I’ve said for years if I ever had to make a choice between giving up coffee and dying, I would choose death. But as it turned out, all death had to do was wave at me from the window of a bus at a distant intersection for me to quit all caffeinated beverages cold turkey.”

I compare myself to her, like I compare myself to anyone who might be superior to me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and had to have a total abdominal hysterectomy salpingo-oophorectomy. I haven’t stopped drinking coffee or wine, and although my cancer is gone, I still sometimes behave with fatalistic abandon.

Yet, Houston nails my truth, and the truth of many of us women over fifty, when she writes:

“Two mostly wonderful things about life after fifty: I’m never sure what I am going to say until I hear myself saying it, and it’s hard to remember, with any real accuracy, feeling any way other than how I feel right now.”

I embrace these words. For them alone, I’m grateful to Houston.

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 and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

Biting Ants and Dengue Fever: Facing My Own Character in Memoir

January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

RashBy Lisa Kusel

A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.

“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”

“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”

“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”

“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”

“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.

“Did I—what?”

“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”

“Well, I guess I learned—”

“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”

“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”

“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.

As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.

Should I tell the Bali story?

More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.

Could I tell the Bali story?

I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.

I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?

I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.

By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.

But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.

And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.

I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.

Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.

So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.

I gazed deeply into my own navel.

And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.

I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.

Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.

After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.

“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”

“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.

“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.

More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.

And I’m really glad I did.

Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LisaKusel12 and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lisa_kusel/


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