OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

April 5, 2021 § 27 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.

I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.

After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.

Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling.  My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.

I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.

While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.

A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding  of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.

But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.

Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.

I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.

By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.

That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.

In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.

Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.

Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.

If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.

“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)

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Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.

A Conversation with Naturalist Writer Scott Weidensaul

March 25, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Lynn Haraldson

Twenty years ago, when I worked at a small newspaper in northwest Pennsylvania, the local Audubon chapter asked if I would interview naturalist Scott Weidensaul to publicize his upcoming lecture. They gave me a copy of his book, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds (North Point Press, 1999), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Although impressed by the Pulitzer nod, I was skeptical about the topic. I liked birds and all, but four hundred pages of them?

I decided I would skim a few chapters so I could ask a few reasonably informed questions. But from the first paragraph, I was drawn into a world I’d never really seen, although it was all around me.

Sitting in the Pennsylvania sun…a redstart sings. I open my eyes and he’s right in front of me, in a low willow thicket that was half-flattened by the winter ice floes. He is no bigger than my thumb, all black except for the colorful patches on his wings, flanks and tail – the same pink-orange color, it occurs to me, as the meat of the native brook trout that still live in the small headwater streams hereabouts, the same color as a monarch butterfly’s wings, and the wild turk’s-cap lilies that bloom here in summer. That symmetry feels proper, somehow, almost pre-ordained.

I read every word of this vivid prose, captivated in the same way as when I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces.

Scott and I spoke again recently about his writing and about how, and why, it reflects his compassion for nature and passion for conservation.

Growing up in the shadow of Ashland Mountain in central Pennsylvania, his mother each year noted in a journal when the juncos, white-throated sparrows, and geese returned to their yard. It was there, on the Kittatinny Ridge, where he first witnessed raptor migration. It was also where he witnessed the destruction of their habitat.

“I was all over that ridge as a kid,” he said. “A powerline crossed the top of the mountain, and I could look south into the valley where we lived, a quiet, Pennsylvania Dutch farming valley, or north toward the town of Girardville, where the anthracite seams were close enough to the surface to deep mine and strip mine — to my eye, a hellscape wasteland of stripping pits and culm banks and dead streams. The impact was profound, and I remember making a very clear decision: I don’t want a world that looks like that.”

The heart of Weidensaul’s writing is inspired by authors such as American naturalist John Burroughs, environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and J.A. Baker, Henry Beston and Carl Sofina. He strives to bridge the world between science and lay knowledge, and takes us with him to places we might never go and invites us to consider questions we might never have asked.

“I’ve often chosen topics about which I knew a little, but wanted to know much more,” he said. “And while publishers require a fairly detailed sense of what the book will say and the narrative framework in which I’ll say it, there’s definitely a great deal of let’s-see-where-this-leads, and simple serendipity.”

Weidensaul’s new book, A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds (W.W. Norton, 2021), expands on his research from Living on the Wind, and while the poetics are similar, his writing is more personal. Whether he’s comparing the diets and physiology of godwits to humans, describing the plight of spoon-billed sandpipers along the Yellow Sea coastline or his encounter with a grizzly bear while banding thrushes in Denali National Park, his descriptions are breathtaking and at times urgent, in the vein of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

When he began working on A World on the Wing, Weidensaul thought his job would be to document the destruction of migratory bird populations. In the prologue, upon spying a grey-cheeked thrush in his own backyard, he writes:

It was an utterly ordinary, extraordinary bird – as is every migrant that makes the leap into the void, guided by instinct, shaped by millions of generations of toil and savage selection, crossing the vaults of space through dangers we cannot comprehend, by lucky chance and near-calamity and great endurance, on the strength of its own muscle and wings. For eons uncounted, that has always been enough. But no longer. Now their future, for good or ill, lies in our hands.

Further along in the book, his storytelling pivots a bit and reflects a cautious hope that, while there is widespread loss of habitat in many places around the world, conservation efforts are succeeding in others. He keeps readers close to his side and asks – without lecturing – for us, like him, to view this other world through the lens of appreciation, awe, and reverence, and to own our culpability and responsibility for the world we inhabit.

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Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. Her book, Common Ground: Writings on Family, Change, Loss & Resilience, is a collection of more than twenty years of her columns and blogs. She writes at ZenBagLady.com.

Virtual AWP: Dinty W Moore “Signs” His Hellish Book

March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.

You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.

It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:

To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.

The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.

Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”

If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.

Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
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Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.

Crossing the Border between Memoir and Fiction: An Interview with Anika Fajardo

March 1, 2021 § 3 Comments

Anika Fajardo

Minneapolis writer, Anika Fajardo, was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, a memoir about crossing continents to connect with her Columbian father and brother. In her debut novel for young readers, What If a Fish, her main character, Little Eddie, is also both Colombian and Minnesotan and, like Fajardo, wrestles with issues of family and identity.

Sara Dovre Wudali, St. Paul, Minnesota, essayist and poet, met Fajardo at the Mississippi River—which divides Minneapolis from St. Paul—to talk with her about crossing the border between genres.

When I first met you, you identified as a nonfiction writer—your first book is a memoir and you teach creative nonfiction—but your latest book is fiction. What caused you to make the move from memoir to fiction?

I wrote my young adult novel during depths of despair while I was trying to get my memoir published. I decided that the memoir was never going to be published, but I still had things I wanted to say, so I repurposed my memoir and kept the emotional core. I have never been an 11-year-old boy, but I took the questions I had at that age like, “Where do I belong?” and “How do I fit in?” and “What does it mean to have this happen?”—questions that I don’t know the answers to, and I let my character grapple with them.

Were there ways in which this movement between memoir and novel, tackling the same themes, and even similar plot lines, helped or hindered your writing process?

I also kept a lot of the same things. You know, what’s funny, I was being interviewed by this woman who was Peruvian and she liked What If a Fish but she questioned, “Why would he never have visited Colombia when he was a kid? Why didn’t his mom ever bring him there?” I didn’t have a good answer except to say that it was because I never did. So some of the plot points weren’t the best thought-out in terms of craft for the novel because I was relying on my own experience.

Sara Dovre Wudali

Did your work on the novel help you revise the memoir?

Working on a novel helped me learn about pacing and narrative arc, but mostly it was the other way around. Because I had written a memoir, the novel was easy to write. I wrote it like a nonfiction writer. I first had to come up with all of the truths in that world and then just sit down and write what happened, not straying from those first invented truths. In fact, eventually I was forced, first by my agent and later by my editor, to make changes that I didn’t want to make because in my internal ideas for the book, their changes were lies—not what had happened. From the standpoint of a nonfiction writer, I was saying to myself, “Well, I can’t just make that up!” even though I’d actually made up everything.

And the editor replied, “Why can’t you make it up? This is fiction.”

Right. And they would write, “This scene doesn’t work.” And to myself I’d say, “But it happened, so I have to tell about it!” So, maybe my brain is broken. Or maybe once a nonfiction writer, always a nonfiction writer.

So when it came to writing fiction from memoir, how did you initially invent the details and markers of your identity? Did you change the “what ifs” for the world of your novel, for example, “What if you lost your father because of death rather than divorce?” or “What if you’d been told you had a brother and had been allowed a relationship with him when you were a child?”

I think it was purposeful. The seed for the book was 2 things: First, I saw someone catch this gigantic fish on the lake and then get bit by the fish. And, at the same time, I was thinking that if I had been born a boy, I probably would’ve had the same name as my brother. It’s common for Latin American families to name their kids the same first name and different middle names. So my brother and I would’ve been siblings with the same name and basically the same age. And how weird would that be? And what would that have done to my identity? And so I went to an extreme with the fiction. In reality my brother and I are the same age, so the extreme in the fiction is that the brothers are much different ages.

Are there similar “what ifs” that you’re doing with your next project?

Yes! When I first met my brother, we all listened to reggae. And we all went to the same reggae bar in Santa Cruz. And after I met him, I thought, I could’ve stood in line next to him at this reggae bar before we even met. Would I have known it was him? Would he recognize me? So in my next project, another middle grade novel, Meet Me Halfway, my main characters are two 12-year-old girls who are half-sisters, one who knows they are sisters and one who doesn’t but thinks, “This is really creepy—she looks just like me.” So that’s the what-if I’m playing with. And I was racking my brain trying to figure out why one girl hates the other. But then from my memoir, I remembered what my brother had been told by my dad: that I didn’t want to meet him. That I wanted nothing to do with him. And that solved the problem because, of course, hearing that would make a 12-year-old girl hate someone. If I just use my real-life story, everything makes sense. I wasted so many weeks trying to figure that out. I’m trying to be a fiction writer, but all the answers are in nonfiction.
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Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was a 2020 finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards and awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages. She is the author of the middle-grade novels What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020) and Meet Me Halfway (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming, spring 2022). A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis.

Sara Dovre Wudali is a writer and editor from Saint Paul. She grew up on the plains of southwest Minnesota, where the wind blows strong and box elder bugs rule the earth. Her poems and essays have been published in North Dakota Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction, Sweet, Streetlight Magazine, Saint Paul Almanac, and as part of a public art project in Mankato, Minnesota.

The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

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

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

Here are the particulars:

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

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

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

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

And here’s more on the book:

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

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

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

October 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

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

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

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

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

 Montaigne says it best, I think:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

By Debra Wilson Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Your Audience: Writing to the Younger Self

October 1, 2020 § 13 Comments

by Suzanne Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

September 23, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Alysia Sawchyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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