February 26, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Nathan Strobel
Exactly three months after my wife told me that she wanted a divorce, I sat on the floor of what used to be our bedroom and watched the dull flash of Roanoke’s Fifth of July fireworks through the window. The show had been rained out the night before. Our four-year-old daughter was asleep across the hall and my wife, who by that time was paying me rent to live in the basement, was, I could only presume, out with someone else. A thick volume containing all of Jane Austen’s novels was on my bedside table. I was halfway through Sense and Sensibility.
The day after our separation that April, I did only what had to be done, which seemed outsized in its cruelty: listen for the morning rustlings of my daughter; brush her hair and teeth and give her a waffle and strawberries for breakfast; tell her that we were going to visit her grandma, my mother, for a week but that she would see mommy when we got back. My efforts at normalcy felt like a lie that would widen into a chasm and swallow everything I thought my life had been. Words like “custody,” “visitation,” and “attorneys” were already rising out of this breach and choking me with anxiety as I shoved my daughter’s Elsa suitcase into the back of the minivan.
We left for the four-hour drive across Virginia to my hometown. During a stop at Bojangles’, I texted my brother that it seemed like I should be taking notes on this day for posterity. If one is lucky enough to live the fairly insulated middle-class life that I do, there are only a handful of such ruptures in a lifetime. So, I remember the man in the blue shirt in the restaurant who handed me a straw when he saw me standing behind him, and the minimum-wage cashier who carried our tray to a table for us because she saw that I had my daughter on my hip. They were kindnesses that would normally be noticed in the moment but quickly forgotten. But in the darkness of personal tragedy, they felt like pricks of light, and I wanted to ask, “Do you know?” But they couldn’t have.
When I finally reached my family and hugged my mother on the doorstep of my childhood home, the kindnesses widened: offers for dinner or coffee from old friends, unsolicited nuggets of calming wisdom, phone numbers of divorce lawyers. But most of the advice consisted of encouragement to pursue what I loved and from which I’d been restricted by the toxicity of the relationship that had been the dominant feature of my entire adult life to that point.
I decided that I needed to start reading again, really reading. In the preceding months, as I had felt my marriage dying, my books had become nothing more than a frame around the IKEA shelf on which the TV sat. They gathered dust as my wife and I sat down for another desultory night of Netflix surfing.
In what was now my bedroom, I started Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. I was embarrassed to be reading it because it had a sunrise on the cover and looked like a self-help book. But she described the last stage of post-divorce grief not as “acceptance” but as “lifting,” a sense that one deserves better than a plain peace with the facts, that life after loss can be a work of art rather than a newspaper article.
So, I picked up Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which, when I read it as a college student, had filled me with a sense of inestimable possibility. Now I was picking it up as a 32-year-old soon-to-be divorcee looking back on a decade crisscrossed with decisions and events that served as a mesh preventing me from going back and recapturing that fire for the written word with which I had been so wholly consumed. When I’d first read Dillard, it was like a lightning strike, and I’d spent the months afterward devouring Dostoevsky, Henry James, George Eliot, and dozens more that I can’t even recall. This time it would need to be more of a slow burn.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell that college student to choose a different path, to pursue his PhD in literature instead of moving to New York in the depths of the Great Recession with his then-girlfriend on the fantastical notion of either becoming a big-time editor or a fiction writer. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, until my dad died and we found ourselves back in my hometown with my pursuit of an MFA aborted. I know what I love: I love reading words, analyzing them, discussing them. But no one particularly cares about your reflections on Jane Austen and her exigency in modern life unless you hold a doctorate.
That takes me back to Annie Dillard, who went into the woods just a few miles from where I live now and wrote about what she saw. It was as simple as that. The result of her observations opened my heart to a beauty with which it’s still being filled today, even as I sit in the midst of a failed marriage wondering what could have been. But what if she’d said to herself, “No one will care about my musings on elm trees and muskrats and hoop snakes,” and put her manuscript away? What if she had been terrified by her awe instead of inspired? In my new life, I want to be like Annie Dillard: so filled with love and wonder that it can’t help but overflow into creation.
Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his daughter and an Australian shepherd.
January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments
By 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.
December 4, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
The classic 1902 edition of The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman begins, “Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”
Well, if my home is a living organism (which I believe it is – it protects me, but also reflects me so well that any stranger who walked in would immediately know much about me based solely on its “decorations”) then that organism is obviously sustained by one thing: books, and all things related to books, writing, and reading.
No matter where I am in my house, there will be a tchotchke, a bookcase, a shelf or wall art that reminds me – in the background of my life – that I am a reader and a writer. Being surrounded by tangible reminders of the reading and writing life nourishes me in a way that most belongings don’t. I could easily give up any number of personal effects and most of my shoes, but my complete set of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1913, Eleventh Edition, found at an antiques fair) in its handsome Arts & Crafts style bookcase will be with me until I die. (Although that might be the first thing to go in the giant garage sale my children will have when I pass on…)
I’m trying to think back to when I first started decorating whatever space I was living in with a writer’s accouterments. I’m sixty-seven, so it’s a long think back. Bookcases, of course, and a writing space – table or desk – there have been so many versions of those. But at some point, I also started to surround my living space with other writerly objects. Was my collection of paintings and posters and wall and shelf art just “stuff,” there merely to remind myself that I am a writer?
Take my collection of literary-themed plates (please, take them…). Although I guess five doesn’t really count as a collection. Only because I was able to stop myself before I went on the hunt for more. I bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a literary-themed, dinner-sized plate. Of course these are not to eat dinner on – these are to display on special wall hangers just for this purpose. I have three Shakespeare motifs, one Mark Twain, and a House of the Seven Gables.
Do you see the slippery slope here? These items (and more…) were purchased at random antique shows and shops over the years. I have never bought any of my treasures online or on Amazon. For me, it’s been the thrill of the random discovery. Anyone can go online and get this stuff in ten minutes. Although I’d like to meet the delivery guy who could lift the ancient Remington manual typewriter I found at a garage sale years ago. I had to have it – twenty bucks!
Having a writer for a mom or a spouse or a friend makes gift-giving easy. On an office shelf I have a small ceramic typewriter, an antique tortoiseshell magnifying glass (for making print bigger), and framed postcards of famous writers’ homes, gifts from friends and family.
You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned books themselves, or the bookcases that contain them. My husband knows I don’t want jewelry. The best gift he ever got me was a tall antique bookcase with a beveled glass front, where I could store my collectible books. Of course I have collectible books! But that’s for another, much longer essay.
At some point in my life, long ago, I bought a painting of a woman reading. Right off the wall of an indie bookstore in New Jersey. There wasn’t a price sticker on it, but I got dizzy when I saw it, and I asked the bookstore owner if it was for sale. She named a reasonable price, and I walked right out the door with it. It reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting, and I have even harbored a private fantasy that it is a long-lost Edward Hopper painting. The signature is illegible. I even took it to a friend who is an art appraiser/sleuth, and she was stumped. It remains a mystery, and I remain intrigued.
It has been my husband who has gifted me with paintings of women reading over the years. I told him once that I don’t like jewelry, and I am pretty low maintenance. So, we see it as an investment that rewards us with both immediate and long-term gratification. It makes a house a home. Our home. A home where a woman reads and writes.
French poet and novelist Remy de Gourmont wrote, “Aesthetic emotion puts man in a state favorable to the reception of erotic emotion. Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no longer art.”
I didn’t set out to design a life with decorations, like Edith Wharton. There was no grand plan. Like much of life, it just kind of happened.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review and – of course – the Brevity Blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01
November 12, 2019 § 18 Comments
1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.
2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.
3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.
4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.
5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.
6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke. Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.
8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.
9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).
10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.
Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.
February 15, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Geoff Watkinson
First published in 1941, E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” traces White’s middle-aged pilgrimage back to the lake in Maine where he spent the Augusts of his childhood. It was the first essay I ever taught, at 23-years-old, as a teaching fellow during grad school.
White’s language is conversational and grounded; the plot of returning to a significant childhood location is universal; and the theme of accepting mortality is The Big One, worthy of a lot of discussion. I felt comfortable teaching it.
The opening paragraph expresses the nostalgia for such a significant childhood place:
“I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”
The lyricism builds a bridge for me to connect with my students. I tell them about the cabin at Fairview Lake in northern New Jersey that my grandparents owned when I was small and my memories of bear tracks in the snow and snakes in the trees and the dozens of sunfish my brother and I caught.
I ask my students to write about their magical place before continuing our discussion—their “holy spot” or “cathedral,” as White calls it. We consider sensory details, using White’s essay as the foundation—“how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”
White’s approachability makes it easy for a first-semester college student to get through the essay. The difficulty comes from the larger symbolism and metaphors: the essay is a definitive example of peeling back the onion to reveal more and more meaning. It becomes challenging, for example, to try to make sense of White’s dizzying sense of “living a dual existence,” as he writes “I began to sustain the illusion that he [his son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there.” When the dragonfly first appears, White becomes convinced “…beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” The passage of time feels like an illusion.
The lake was a “constant and trustworthy body of water.” As the essay progresses, White is both haunted and comforted by this notion, struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. The baton has been passed from one generation to the next as White recognizes that he has taken over his own father’s role while his son has taken his childhood position. Through metaphor, White acknowledges his relative insignificance in this circle of life, as depicted by the school of minnows, “each minnow with its small, individual shadow…”
There is the metaphor, too, of the reducing number of paths from the lake. When White was a child, there were three paths; that number has been reduced to two, representative of the thinning possibilities of his own life: “For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative.” White places the changes in greater context, focusing out from his individual experience to a lyrical recognition of “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible…”
As the end of our first class, we are left trying to make sense of the thunderstorm that emerges over the lake: “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect.” The children scream with delight after bathing in the rain and there is “…the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.” The entire class has been building towards this moment.
Who is the comedian? Is it God?
White writes, “Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched [my son], his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he bulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
Why does White feel “the chill of death” and how do we make sense of this?
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and he is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.
February 11, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
I have just been humbled by how work-shopping and reading manuscripts outside of my genre—my CNF comfort zone—has been a tremendous gift and revelation. Fresh out of my MFA program’s winter residency, I am inspired by everything I’ve learned, but as usual, growth does not come without pain.
About six weeks before the residency was set to begin, in anticipation mixed with both curiosity and excitement, I clicked open the shared Google doc folder containing the seven different 40- to 60-page CNF and fiction manuscripts for the “Extreme Workshop” I’d signed up for (“extreme” because normal MS length for workshops is eighteen pages). I’d had a literary fiction project percolating in me for some time, and decided to give it a go, eager to get a feel of whether this was something I could do.
I downloaded the first MS, the page-count ticking in at fifty-eight. I took a deep breath and scanned the opening paragraph, including the author’s letter to us readers. Words like “fantasy fiction” and “sub-genre” and “LitPRG” and “video games,” jumped from the page, as my eyes glossed over. Yeah, ok. No. I’ll save this one for later, I thought as I closed the doc, and opened the next one. Then the next, and the next, only to realize that four out of the seven manuscripts were not only popular-fiction, but its subgenre fantasy-fiction, or its sub-subgenre, urban fan-fic. I recognized nothing about the characters and their worlds or conflicts. When I’m at a bookstore, I never, ever, stop at “that” table or browse “those” shelves. I noticed my fingers going numb and a prickly feeling behind my eyes, or was it along my hairline? Something like panic. Oh. My. God. I. Can’t. Even…
With a great sense of relief, I found the one CNF piece about mourning the loss of a parent, and read it in one, enchanted sitting, and then the one, literary fiction MS, where I was swept away to communist-era Hungary with all its fascinating, dark, and complex realities. Eventually, there was no way around my fate: I had to tackle the fan-fic pieces. It was not easy. After completing the first read-through of MS #1, but before writing my feedback letter to the author, I sent the workshop faculty leaders an email pleading for help. I had to be coaxed down from the ledge of despair. I felt stupid and useless, wallowing in self-doubt, unable to see the bigger picture of what I had to offer, or what the writing could give me. While waiting for the emergency intervention, I willed myself to keep calm and compose the three-page commentary, beginning by stating my uninitiated fan-fic reader status, but vowing to do my best to offer constructive suggestions on plot, character development, scenes, pacing, and the like. I sent it to my teachers, to see if I had managed to generate a reasonable response. Then something surprising happened.
About two hours after they answered my email, reiterating the advantages of reading outside our genre and telling me my feedback was thoughtful and well written, a letter ticked in to my inbox from the very author whose MS I had freaked out about. He admitted having trouble reading my CNF MS (about Jews in Norway during WWII, family secrets, and collaboration), and said he had to force himself to complete it, and feared he would be unable to provide any useful critique. He wondered if I had any suggestions, adding he was aware of the irony that he was asking for advice from the person to whom he was supposed to give counsel. I suddenly realized that reading outside of one’s customary genre isn’t just a challenge for me; that we writers are all in this together. His candid letter made me feel better, and I thanked him for his honesty, adding some guidelines I had tried to follow when I critiqued his MS.
When the ten-day residency began in middle of January, set in the wintery landscape of Freeport, Maine, I spent the first half in a CNF workshop, pouring over often-deeply intimate memoir pieces about illness, trauma, and spiritual journeys. The last day I told the lively group of writers how apprehensive I was about the second half of the residency, and all the fantasy fiction shoptalk I anticipated. I expected to feel like a fish out of water and an outsider, not able to follow the way of the current or appreciate the otherworldly lingo. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
In the Extreme Workshop, my MS was workshopped the first day, and at the end of the session, I was euphoric by all the helpful feedback and validation my fellow students had provided on my project. For four days, we gathered around a massive conference table at the Harraseeket Inn, discussing the many elements of what makes a good story, regardless of its genre; while flames flickered in the quiet gas fireplace we were lucky to have in the meeting room. Where a CNF’er pointed out the need for a fan-fic’er to go deeper into the character’s mind and motives, a fan-fic’er suggested how to improve the pace or increase the stakes in a CNF’ers piece. It was a writer’s dream for a workshop: each participant brought their unique strengths and lens, accumulated over years of honing the craft and sensibilities of their specific genre, sharing generously, and critiquing compassionately.
I don’t believe any one of us left dissatisfied, and I, for one, learned a valuable lesson: that my preconceived notions about what I am capable of as a reader, and what type of writing can be helpful to read as I develop my craft, were misinformed and needed to be shed. Instead, it is exactly by reading as widely as possible that I will optimize my understanding of what works best in storytelling and world building, regardless of genre.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 2nd semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.