February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By L. Roger Owens
Opening the box of ten free author copies, then holding the book, feeling the weight of its 70,000 words, of it 186 pages, being surprised by my name on the front cover, which I knew would be there, and by my photograph on the back, which I didn’t—it all feels like a miracle. Where did you come from?
The sense of the miraculous deepens as I reread words I wrote. I know these words slid out of my mind, down my arm, and slipped from the tip of my pen onto the page. But I don’t remember how the words got into my mind—this turn of phrase, this rambling sentence, this metaphor—even though the name on the cover should be proof enough that I conjured them.
That is, I feel alienated from the spiritual memoir I wrote. I struggle to imagine how it came to be, which invites a sense of dread: If I can’t conceive how it is that I wrote this book, then isn’t it possible that I won’t be able to write another?
If its birth was a miracle, what guarantees it can happen again?
In the face of this fear, there’s only one choice—attend to reality, force myself to recall some of the signposts on the journey from idea to book, signposts that remind me it wasn’t just a felicitous conjoining of miracle and serendipity that produced this book. Agency and intention were at work as well—mine.
I let an idea stick. That was a choice. I have lots of ideas, and they flutter away as fast as they appear. But I let this idea stick. I wrote it down the evening I had it. I explored it the next day in my morning pages. I turned the seed of an idea into sentences and paragraphs and pages. These were acts over which I had some control. Certainly, I can again let an idea with energy linger, show it some hospitality, nurture it.
That part wasn’t luck.
I sent up test balloons. When the book arrives in a box on your doorstep, it gives the impression it simply appeared fully formed, Athena from Zeus’s head. But my investigation of reality tells me that’s not true. I wrote shorter pieces along the way. I let other people read them (I received invaluable feedback from a group of writers at the Collegeville Institute). I submitted a portion of the book as an essay to the journal Rock & Sling, which published it. In each case, these test balloons were greeted with encouraging feedback that helped me improve the writing and beckoned me to keep at it.
Holding portions of the work to the light of day wasn’t a fluke. It’s something I can do again.
I continued to hone my craft. I didn’t begin the book knowing how to write it. I’d never written a book like this before. The form was new to me—forty short chapters, each a kind of personal essay, but which together needed to maintain a narrative arc. I had much to learn. So I took an online course through the journal Creative Nonfiction called “Spiritual Writing” while I was midway through badlands of writing the book. The assigned readings inspired and challenged me (Could I attempt the kind of density of description characteristic of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work? I wondered). The feedback from the instructor showed me that I needed to prioritize the reader’s experience and taught me how.
It eases my mind to know that, when I begin my next project, I don’t need to have it figured out before I start. I can learn as I go.
I kept my hand moving. This is what I learned from Natalie Goldberg in the first creative writing course I took twenty-one years ago, her most important rule for writing—keep the hand moving. From my first notes, scribbled in orange ink in a Moleskin journal on November 27, 2015—“But I had another good idea today …”—to final revisions sent to my editor three years later, I kept the tip of the pen scratching across the page. That was the only way those 70,000 words showed up (along with the 10,000 that didn’t make the cut).
If I was the one moving the pen, then it can happen again.
Other ingredients went into creating the book as well: chats with my wife and children, feedback from friends, a sanity-saving conversation with my English professor brother as I despaired over editorial changes.
Along with, no doubt, a dash of miracle and a pinch of luck.
But mostly choices I made and can make again—like getting my butt in a chair, a pen in my hand, and words on a page.
Roger Owens is the author of the spiritual memoir Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife, along with three other books. He teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
February 6, 2019 § 21 Comments
By Gayle Brandeis
The boy who sat behind my mother in primary school dipped the tip of her braid into the inkwell carved into his desk, turned her hair into a brush slashing calligraphy across the back of her shirt, marking her with his intent. My grandmother told her to be flattered, said it meant he liked her, but did my grandmother worry about this boy, this ink, his intent? Did she scrub and scrub at her daughter’s shirt, hoping it would come clean? Did it ever come clean? Did the ink wash out of my mother’s hair, dark swirls of it disappearing down the drain, or did it seep deeply into each shaft, dyeing it until her mother trimmed off the ends, littering the floor with the intent of that boy? And where is it all now, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy, in what landfill, what house, what dust molecule? Have I breathed in flecks of it, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy?
The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, the memoir I wrote about my mother, her delusion, her suicide, was the most necessary book I’ve ever written; as hard as it was to write, I desperately had to get it out of my body, get it onto the page, start to find shape for the mess of my grief. Writing it helped me find compassion for my mom, helped me feel closer to her than I had in years, if ever. It helped me feel much clearer inside myself, more whole. Still, when it was published in late 2017 and interviewers asked how my mother would have felt about the book being in the world, shame crept over me, and I started to wonder: had I done the same thing as that boy? Had I dipped my mother’s hair in ink, too, used her as an unwitting pen? Was I as complicit as that boy, doing something without her consent, taking what was hers and making it my own? Were my hands irrevocably stained?
Trusting the urgency of the creative process is one thing; holding on to that trust after publication is another. While the book was received with overwhelmingly open arms and led to breathtakingly profound conversations, I also received Tweets like “Shame on you” after an excerpt was published, and “If I was your mother, I would kill myself, too.” Of course I am not alone in such trolling—it is sadly part and parcel of being a writer in the world these days, especially a woman writer—and I’ve received very little compared to many writers I know, but those Tweets got under my skin, fed the doubts and guilt already bubbling and growing inside me like a yeast. What had I done to my mother? Was I that boy, that ink?
The question of how my mother would have felt about my memoir came up again at a university reading last year, and the same shame started to re-percolate in my gut. Then my gracious host said he sensed my mom would have loved seeing her face on the cover of my book, and I realized, yes, that’s true—my mother always wanted to be the center of attention; she would likely be thrilled to see herself on the cover of a book. Something relaxed in me at this revelation. And I trust that at her best, truest self, my mother would understand I wrote this book from a place of love, from a sincere desire to fathom her, to connect. I may have started writing my memoir with a lot of anger and confusion, but every single word ultimately became a love letter. If I’ve plunged my mom’s hair into ink, I’ve also written her more deeply into my heart, tattooed her there, her presence now refreshed, indelible.
Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com
January 11, 2019 § 58 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
It’s the thing you most need to write, so for years that’s what you do, between teaching jobs and magazine gigs, between kids’ soccer games and the holiday dinners where you sit with the restlessness of the story wanting to be told, most inconveniently when your family expects your presence, but all you can do is wonder if the homemade gravy was worth the hours away from words.
You write and rewrite through the seasons, until autumn circles around again, and you find yourself making a familiar wish on your lovely white cream birthday cake: to finish your memoir and find an editor who takes it.
At last, one autumn day it’s done, and you send out queries, and when the email arrives like a Christmas miracle, your family dances you around the kitchen in the fading winter light. There’s a phone call and a contract and a trip to NYC where you sit across from your spunky agent in a Union Square diner on a custom-made spring day, and between bites of a salad, you whisper your thanks to the literary goddesses.
You go back to Boston and rewrite again, this time with—that magic word—representation. Then the agent sends it out, and you cross your fingers and look for signs—pennies, trinkets, stones, and fortunes—that the publishing world will soon shout yes.
Random House says, “It’s wonderfully written, earnest, humorous, and endearing. The problem is the author’s small platform.”
And Viking says, “I’m sorry not to be able to take it forward at this stage. She’s a compelling writer and something about the voice is quite good.”
And with every “almost, but…no” comes a pain as real as a punch to the gut, one that radiates to the heart, the head, the limbs. But then you recover and dive back in and tweak again and wish again and send again, until your birthday comes around again and your favorite cake tastes less like Chantilly cream and more like longing. You are starting to feel like you are made of longing.
Your writer friends throw lifelines, doing for you what you have done for them, reading and editing, praising, cheering. And you toast to their book deals with a bittersweet joy, wondering if your turn will come. At night in bed you count the years like mistakes. In the morning you scan LinkedIn for a job—any job—that’s not baring your soul into a void.
But then Cynthia says, “It’s no. It’s no. It’s no. Until it’s yes.”
And Erica says, “It took me 27 fucking years!”
And your husband says, “I believe in you,” which makes you cry because you are struggling to believe in yourself.
You are afraid to doubt. You are afraid to hope. And you’re afraid not to hope because the universe can hear the tick of your uncertainty. You plant a crystal in the dirt outside of the Flatiron building, but when nothing grows, you call Lisa in despair. “Trust that your book is strong enough to make the journey,” she says. But it’s your birthday again and the journey has worn you down, and you don’t really want the cake that your husband carries to you, as if cradling your pain.
Another Christmas. Another New Year’s. Spring flashes past, then it’s summer again, you rewrite again, and Graywolf says you have a great eye and a strong, resonant story, but it’s not a bulls-eye for our list.
And that’s when you quit.
You quit the agent. You quit the pain. You quit pretending that you can wait anymore for one of the cool kids to want you. So you shut your eyes and sail your words off to a place across the country where you feel like they might be heard.
An hour later the editor calls and wants more. Two hours later, she wants a phone call. And the next day, you talk to her, the editor you’ve been waiting for. But she’s only read half, so you have to wait. Five days later the email comes. “No, but almost…” She wants it shorter. She wants less thru lines.
You whet your knife and cut 100 pages, take it right down to a sharply focused story about a girl so full of longing that she spends her life on a search for treasure.
You send it back, this tiny gem that you’ve been shaping and polishing for years. You wait. Then one sunny December day you have a phone call. When you hang up, tears are streaking your face, and your heart is just a big, beautiful ache of gratitude.
Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove will be published by Brown Paper Press in the fall of 2019.
January 9, 2019 § 10 Comments
by Zach Shultz
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, something within me exploded. One minute I was cooking dinner, and the next I was hunched over the couch and dialing my psychiatrist to explain through unintelligible sobs, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
Despite countless therapy sessions to help cope with the pain of estrangement from my parents—whose unrelenting homophobia over the years has strained our relationship beyond repair—whenever the holidays approach a familiar feeling of unshakeable loneliness creeps up. There is no shortage of seasonal triggers: Christmas music on loop in every store; the aroma of freshly cut pine wafting in the wind from trees languishing on sidewalks like forgotten kids at daycare; the persistent questions from well-intentioned coworkers, such as “What are your plans?” followed by disingenuous invitations to tag along in their Hallmark family moment.
I had reason to hope things might be different this year. After three years of dating a semi-closeted man, he invited me to his family’s gathering for the first time. We would finally be together as a couple, openly, and I’d never spend the holidays alone again—or so I thought. On Thanksgiving Day, however, my ex called to let me know it was too much for him; he “needed space” and told me to “do my own thing.” Breathless from the gut punch of news, I chased down a Klonopin with a glass of wine, waited for the wave of numbness to wash over me, and sent a resolute text in reply. “Goodbye.”
Weeks later, still reeling in the post-breakup melancholia, I told myself: Enough. Instead of rushing home to mope after work, I schlepped down to Brooklyn for a monthly reading series in a charming bookstore underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I had come to hear Garrard Conley share an excerpt from his conversion therapy memoir but stayed for the surprise delight of Lane Moore reading “Happy Holidays to Everyone But You, You Lonely Weirdo,” from her collection of essays How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t.
In a creative nonfiction course I once took, the teacher told us that the goal of good writing should be to make the reader “tingle with recognition.” If that’s the case, How To Be Alone is like watching the most stimulating ASMR video on YouTube. When Moore writes, “It takes, in no uncertain terms, bravery to admit to yourself, but especially out loud to other people, that your family is not safe, did not do enough, and are not people you want in your life,” a powerful sensation trickled from the back of my hippocampus down my spine.
Moore possesses an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly from bits of self-effacing humor— “Even when I was ten, I was easily forty in trauma years”—to heart wrenching prose that exposes the painful depths of desire, the desire to belong, to be held, to be loved. “I’ve spent so many of my relationships being terrified the person I love will hurt me,” she writes of meeting someone new, “worrying if I love more, or feel more, and what that means if it’s true.” This worry of wanting “too much” is traced throughout her life, from the betrayal of a best friend in high school to a series of failed romances in adulthood.
Like Moore, if I’ve gleaned any lesson from my traumas, past and present, it’s that the people you love most in your life will inevitably disappoint you. That seems like a shitty takeaway, a fact of life we shouldn’t be forced to accept. And yet, Moore lands on something more unexpected and transcendental in the end of How To Be Alone: radical love for yourself and others. “So be the idiot who cares too much,” she urges. “Because someone will remember you forever. In the way that I remember everyone who has ever been kind to me.”
After the reading, with a newly purchased copy of her book in hand, I went up and said, “I wasn’t expecting to hear any of the things you just read out loud tonight, but I’m so glad I did. That’s me!” She was open and generous, chatting with me for a few minutes about how difficult it is for those who don’t come from a broken home to understand what it’s like. She signed my book in messy, elongated lettering, the kind you might find on a note passed to your friend in middle school. “I’m so glad you don’t talk to your dumb family,” she wrote.
“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me!” I beamed, and we both laughed in that knowing, self-deprecating way that only true orphan souls would understand. And for the first time in a very long time I felt happy, if even for a brief moment, and a little less alone.
Zach Shultz is a law school administrator in New York City and freelance writer and blogger. He has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, INTO Magazine, and the Gay and Lesbian Review, and has essays forthcoming in The Rumpus and Entropy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.
December 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
by 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.
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.
October 18, 2018 § 4 Comments
It 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.
October 1, 2018 § 7 Comments
By 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!
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.
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.