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.
December 20, 2018 § 18 Comments
What I remember of my sister’s room growing up was her little pot pipe shaped like a troll, melted candle drippings on her nightstand, and piles of books on the floor. Tons of them. Books I could never understand because I couldn’t understand anything.
When I was 13 and Laura was 15, I begged her to explain the quotes she wrote in lipstick on her mirror.
Anais Nin: I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.
Did she mean Rambo? I would definitely remember if someone had said, ‘I must be a mermaid, Rambo’ in First Blood.
“I could explain it to you,” she said, “but I don’t think you’d get it.”
Laura made me want to be a writer out of her sheer disdain for me. So when I finished The Emperor of Shoes, I sent it to her and waited. How long had it been? Did she take a break? Go for a run? Fall down the stairs? Then the phone rang.
She loved it.
“How much?” I asked.
She said, “It’s in my top 200.”
And with those words I’ve been condemned like the Ancient Mariner to list the 199 books ahead of me. I have a PhD in English, and I don’t know if I’ve even read 200 novels. I lie awake at night counting. There are a lot of great books. But 199 ahead of me? Laura’s out of her mind.
And then I think Flaubert.
Well, shit, Flaubert is better. I’m not insane. I don’t think my book is better than Bovary. And I start feeling okay.
Then a little voice pipes up: Grace Paley. Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. Are we counting nonfiction, too?
I think my book is good…it’s timely, provocative…Proust. Zora Neale Hurston. Flannery O’Connor. That’s not even getting into contemporary authors. At some point I think I’m done. That’s it. No more authors come to mind. And then the little voice says: Fitzgerald.
I try testing out my place in the rankings just to see how it sounds. Austen, Voltaire, Marquez, Wise.
It doesn’t sound right. I try again. Woolf, Brontë, Homer, Wise.
It really just doesn’t work.
Laura still refuses to apologize. “It’s a compliment.”
Would it have killed her to say top 150?
But it’s too late.
I finally broke down and got most of her list, but she was just as obtuse and infuriating about describing these books as she was about explaining a Depeche Mode song to me 20 years ago.
Laura’s Christmas Shopping List of 199 Books that are Better than Mine (but for sanity’s sake, let’s just do 10)
#1: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
There’s a talking black cat named Behemoth. I don’t know why you’d need more than that. The devil comes to Moscow. Pontius Pilate gets a cameo. I have no idea why. Laura won’t tell me because, well, I wouldn’t get it.
#2: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
“I spilled a bottle of Mom’s perfume on it intentionally, so I could cherish it forever. She was so freaking pissed.”
Laura says the magic of the prose has worn off a little but not the smell. “The book is just a sniffer at this point. It’s also better than yours.”
#3: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
I want to point out that this is not a novel and shouldn’t be counted against me. Instead, a quick story: As kids, Laura tricked me into believing that the way Chanukah really worked was, she got 8 wishes a day for me to fulfill. Wish 1: Carry this 40-pound bag of kitty litter upstairs.
#4: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
When my agent was searching for a publisher and I was mostly in a fetal position on the floor, I asked Laura why editors weren’t buying my novel. She said, “I don’t know, but maybe consider jumping back and forth more in time. And you should probably put a shtetl in it. Yeah. A shtetl and more time travel.”
Wait, so you mean something exactly like this novel?
#5: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
“It’s about mothers and daughters. Feeling misunderstood. The story of my life. Travels back and forth in time. Which you should really consider for your next novel.”
#6: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
“I’m not going to tell you again why I loved The Sheltering Sky.” (She’s never told me.)
Quick story #2: I asked Laura’s advice on a cool outfit for my 7th-grade dance and she dressed me as Robert Smith from the Cure. It wasn’t a costume party. Everyone was in jeans and sneakers and I had black eyeliner and tight black jeans and hairspray-spiked hair. That night I forever lost sweet Betsy Bronstein to hulking blond Sam Velishka, who looked like a Polish resistance fighter from WWII.
#7: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
“Oh my god! I can’t explain every book to you.”
#8: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
“It’s about a little boy.”
This is pretty much all I got out of her. It’s about a little boy. He might stand there for 400 pages for all I know. What are you waiting for? Run to your nearest bookstore.
#9: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
She loves this book and so does Barack Obama (remember the good old days?), so I think this is a good holiday gift.
“A trilogy much better than yours. Spanning worlds. Liu’s a genius.”
“Can I get a synopsis?”
“It’s 10,000 pages. You do not get a synopsis!”
It’s about the Cultural Revolution and Aliens invading Earth. Sounds fantastic. I’m buying it for myself.
#10: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It’s about life in a Russian Gulag and it’s guaranteed to scar whoever you buy it for.
I told you Laura doesn’t know what a novel is.
#199: The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise
Spencer Wise, author of The Emperor of Shoes (Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins), has also contributed work to Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and The New Ohio Review, among others. He is an assistant professor at Augusta University in Augusta, Ga. Follow him on Twitter @spencerwise10.
November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”
The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.
[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]
Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.
In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.
Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:
Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.
This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”
Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.