Reading: A Non-Linear Journey

October 28, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Ali Solomon

One of the reasons I love holding an actual, printed book is so that I can read it in any fashion I choose. At any given moment, my fingers are bookmarking multiple pages, I’m re-reading favorite passages, skipping to the ending, then flipping backwards to see how the author got there. It’s unconventional, but satisfying (and frequently scoffed at by friends who prefer their literature straightforward and spoiler-free).

See what I mean:

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Ali Solomon is a teacher and cartoonist from NYC whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, WIRED, and The Believer, among other places. Her first book, I am ‘Why Do I Need Venmo’ Years Old, is forthcoming from Running Press in July 2021. Find more of her cartoons on Instagram @alisolomain

Learning My Place

October 22, 2020 § 24 Comments

by Heidi Croot

My friend, a fellow writer, waved for help.

A literary journal had just rejected her short story. The editor’s comments troubled her. She wanted to know what we had to say, the seven of us in the same cherished writers’ group.

“I’m usually eager to take an editor’s advice,” she told us, “but if I try to fix what the editor identified as problem areas, I risk losing the tone and voice I was going for.”

We knew her story—about a woman who meets a 13-year-old boy for the first time in tragic circumstances—having shared our feedback weeks earlier. “It’s ready,” we told her. “Put it out there.”

But the editor found the woman’s “awkwardness” with the boy “unconvincing.”

“Send me the story,” I said. “I’ll re-read it while standing in the editor’s shoes.”

Which I did.

The editor’s shoes did not fit.

I could not detect in the female character one grain of awkwardness. Quite the opposite. I saw a woman with a hardscrabble past and a broken relationship with her parents, who likes this 13-year-old kid all right, but feels no need to cater to him. She observes him closely and speaks to him like an adult. Casually serves him his first-ever cup of coffee. Lights a cigarette, because she is simply being herself, with no apologies.

The boy responds in kind. He makes no extra effort to impress her. He navigates the encounter on its own terms.

In the poignant final scene, the woman delivers, in practical, straight-up terms, some hard-won advice. Topped out with emotion, the kid promises to heed her warning.

I liked the woman’s cool demeanor. Her honesty. Her brusque talk. “She relates to the kid with respect and authenticity,” I reported to my friend. “She’s raised him to her level instead of talking down.”

I spoke the words many a conflicted writer yearns to hear: “Pay no attention to the editor.”

But I had missed something crucial.

A fellow colleague—another professional editor—saw the female character as emotionally stunted because of her own dysfunctional childhood and therefore unable to engage “appropriately” with the kid.

I was dumbfounded. What was going on here? Why was my interpretation so unlike theirs?

I read the story again.

A divine light did not shine down on me. I could not see the woman as flawed.

My friend, the writer, came to my rescue.

“You were an only child and your parents spoke to you as an adult,” she said, drawing on what she knew from chapters from my manuscript. “So that’s what you picked up. And you weren’t wrong. Your own experience pointed to it being a plus, and not awkwardness.”

Holy Hannah. She was right. I’d had a plain-dealing mother with a traumatic past who prided herself on delivering hard truths with no regard for any age I might be, using the full range of her Latinate vocabulary. I didn’t mind. It was just how things were done.

On some unexamined level, I knew readers brought their own background and experience to a story. But now I had witnessed myself responding in real time, in a way completely at odds with two other respected writers.

My next thought was, My feedback had failed my friend.

“Nope,” she told me. “That’s the beauty of having different people look at a piece of writing. Everyone sees something different.”

Fair enough. But wouldn’t competing takes on a narrative confuse a writer?

“It doesn’t matter what was in my mind when I wrote the story,” said my friend, echoing Beth Kephart in her luminous Brevity craft essay, Circus Act. “Once we release our art to the world, it doesn’t belong to us anymore.”

But if I’m supposed to be providing actionable feedback, don’t I have an obligation to switch off my personal lens, so as not to throw the writer off her game?

“Why would you want to switch it off?” asked my friend, whom I was appreciating more and more by the minute. “Bring on the different perspectives. Your opinion may differ from everyone else’s, but that difference is important.”

But…

But nothing.

Besides, I had just proved that finding this particular off-switch was, for me at least, impossible.

And that’s when another piece of familiar wisdom snapped like a magnet to my frontal lobe—something I’d reminded others of a million times, almost as if I knew what I was talking about.

From writer and creativity mentor Austin Kleon: “Take what you can use, and leave the rest.”

My friend ended up passing on both the editor’s feedback, and mine. She gave what both of us had to say due consideration, but ultimately what we told her didn’t fit. She knew, when faced with conflicting interpretations of her work, that her only obligation was to herself.

As readers, we have a similar freedom.

Our obligation as reviewers is to share our unique perspective with an open heart.

To hope that we will crack a window for the writer, and to accept if we do not—in the spirit of the wild, free, creative winds that press for entry at the windows of all writers.

Best of all, to enjoy her story exactly the way my life and temperament led me to interpret it.

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Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer, published in numerous trade publications. Her creative writing has appeared in Linea magazine and the WCDR anthology Renaissance and has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and others. She lives in beautiful Northumberland County, Canada, and is working on a memoir.

Writing about Writing                      

August 24, 2020 § 25 Comments

ann klotzBy Ann V. Klotz

As a little girl, I wrote elaborate stories in my head and rhymed doggerel that impressed only my mother; in clumsy cursive, I penned an epistolary novel set during the Civil War, carefully stored in a secret compartment of the large desk my grandfather left to me. Today, that desk occupies pride of place in my school office, but the compartment is empty. I would be a novelist because reading was my favorite activity, what I did best. I gobbled books, devouring my school and local library’s juvenile sections so fast that the librarians shook their heads and promoted me to adult fiction when I was nine. As high school loomed, though I loved to read, schoolwork required more carefully structured essays with quotations to support my ideas and fewer flights of fancy.

An uncertain teenager, I would clamber out the window of my sister’s bedroom in our vacation home in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, to sit on the roof to write. Something about the small rebellion of hoisting myself over the sill satisfied a need. My brother, child of the 70’s, smoked dope, sold dope, partied a lot, and died. I did none of those things. From the gentle slope of gritty, green shingles underneath my calves, I could see the world; they could not see me. Danger was minimal, but I knew my mom would scold me if she knew. I wrote with a cartridge pen that had belonged to my brother, navy blue with matching Schaeffer cartridges. I wrote and wrote, trying to write away the sadness, the fury I felt at my parents for fighting with my brother the night before he died, the rage that roiled, volcanic, that they had, somehow, let him die. An English teacher at my school wrote back to me each week with calm encouragement in an era when WASPY teenagers didn’t go to therapy. I wrote about doing plays and the boy I had a crush on. I wrote because I knew that Mrs. Goppelt read my words.

Mrs. Goppelt threw me a lifeline by handing me that first marbled notebook when school started four weeks after Rod’s accident. Her gift gave me a writing practice that lasted through college, through the early years of my marriage and then… After my first miscarriage, no more words. I didn’t even try. Frozen. Mute. The loss of the hope of a baby silenced me. I did other things with words: I taught legions of girls how to write essays with debatable theses about works of literature; I taught seniors how to compose compelling personal narratives with strong verbs that would make them irresistible to colleges; I wrote thank you notes. I had four more miscarriages and then two daughters. Along the way, I became a head of school and produced, a late-life bonus baby son, almost a decade younger than his second sister.

Some years ago, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye told the girls in my school that “Grownups have a way of talking themselves out of what they most want to do.” She advised her audience to write three things each day. I jettisoned my untouched journals, found a pencil whose lead was pleasingly dark, discovered a small notebook in my desk, and began to write again each day. Why had I waited so long? I think of all that I missed: my childrens’ childhoods, my evolution as a school leader, millions of moments left uncaptured. I no longer felt like writing fiction. Non-fiction was strange enough.

During the pandemic, I acquired a dot-journal, thinking squares might help me control the chaos that is Covid-19. I scribble with a shiny turquoise Lamy fountain pen—I coveted one I noticed a woman using in a writing workshop and bought my own. A pandemic requires ink.

This summer, I write on the porch beneath the window out of which I often climbed to take my secret view. Versions of that girl—awkward, sad, determined to leave a record—lurk around corners in this house. I write to preserve and to know what I think. I write so that we will not lose forever the stories of my family. I write to keep grief and change at bay. I write because it is a privilege to spend time arranging words on a page, a respite from other obligations that threaten to swallow me in a gulp. I write because the spigots inside me have unfrozen and there is still time.
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Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection.  Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station.  She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction.  You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog: www.annvklotz.com

 

On Being a Slow Reader in the Literary World

June 1, 2020 § 8 Comments

holly hagmanBy Holly Hagman

One of my earliest memories of spending time with my mother was of us at the beach. Between sandcastles and shell-collecting, my mother would pick up her newest James Patterson novel and suddenly be unreachable for vast chunks of time. She would read all the time while I was growing up; picture books with rhyming words for me, mystery novels and realistic fiction for her. Christmas one year, instead of the traditional booklight, my father bought her a miner’s headlamp to wear in bed at night while she was reading. When she pulled it out of the stocking, we all laughed hysterically, but she wore that thing every night that Dad had work the next day and she needed just one more chapter.

Despite being surrounded by reading for my entire childhood, I didn’t pick it up myself until freshman year of high school. A late bloomer, my love for independent reading didn’t kick in until The Perks of Being a Wallflower was assigned for a friend’s summer reading project. I didn’t like my own summer reading book whose title I cannot even recall. Whether it was the epistolary structure or the relatable teen angst, I’m not sure. Regardless, that book drew me into the magic of literature. Since then I’ve found solace in the texture of a paperback in my hands, the sound of rain against the window, the comforting scent of fresh pages.

Maybe it’s because I started later than your typical “reader,” but I’ve noticed it takes me longer to read something than it does my peers in literary circles. When discussing common reading material with my fellow MFA candidates, they are often chapters ahead of me even though we received the books at the same time. A friend from college runs a “Bookstagram” account that reveals a new novel on average every two to three days. My mother, who still reads at bedtime every night, goes through approximately a book per week. As my personal to-be-read list grows – both figuratively as friends suggest titles to me and literally as I pick them up at Barnes and Noble and stack them in a haphazard pile on my TV stand – I feel more and more defeated.

So, if you’re a slow reader living in literary circles, feeling slightly inferior, what can you do to boost your own morale and avoid feelings of inadequacy?

Count minutes, not pages.

When sitting down to read something, decide on a time frame. Whether that time frame is twenty minutes of a lunch break or an hour of free time, measure the time you spend reading rather than setting a page goal. You will feel much better saying, “I spent forty-five minutes reading on my porch” than saying, “I only got through ten pages yesterday.” Frame it in a positive manner, because the truth is, reading is reading despite how many pages were turned.

Make sure you have the right book.

As a writer, I know that not all magazines are a good fit for the types of essays I write. I submitted the same piece to seven different magazines before it found a home, and that’s a small number when considering the vast, nebulous world of Submittable. The same is true for choosing a book. If you’re reading something, and you find yourself reading the same sentence again and again, maybe that’s not the book for you. Put it down for a while and try something else until you find a match that works. It’s important to know that not all books grab readers the same way; if they did, getting a manuscript published would be a lot easier.

Build a good reading environment.

Are you picturing an empty field of grass with a plaid picnic blanket and a light breeze? Maybe you’re imagining an aisle seat on an uncrowded flight, or a corner spot on the couch by the window. The best reading environments are different for different people. I personally need a place that is quiet, well-lit, and mostly free of distractions. Others may be able to read while a roommate watches Love is Blind or their husband snores in bed next to them. You know yourself best, so in order to read well, place yourself in an environment that suits your reading ability.

Try an audiobook.

As a lover of all things paperback, this one was hard for me to get behind. Then, a friend told me he was able to “read” all of Stephen King’s It in one month all because he played it every day during his commute to and from work. If you’re looking for a way to maximize your time and still engage with literature you love, an audiobook might be a worthy option. Amazon provides Prime members with an Audible free trial, and the subscription is $14.95/month afterwards. If finances are a consideration, many popular books are available for free on YouTube.

Own it.

This part is probably the hardest thing to do, but if you are a slow reader, own it. Admit that often times when you sit down to read and get through less pages than you would like, it bothers you. Then take that self-consciousness and throw it right out the window. Know that it’s okay if you were only able to read fifteen pages yesterday, that it’s taking you longer to comment on a workshop member’s submission, that even though your friends are raving about it, you just can’t get into that new YA novel. Whatever happens, don’t lose your love of reading. Don’t forget the feeling of accomplishment that spills out of you when you close a book, spin it in your hands, and breathe deeply, releasing a well-deserved sigh. Hold onto the love of literature deep within your gut. Keep turning pages, no matter how long it takes.
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Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Teaching. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brevity blog, The Nightingale, and The Citron Review.

On Annie Dillard and Lifting Through Literature

February 26, 2020 § 10 Comments

Nathan Strobel photoBy 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.
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Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his daughter and an Australian shepherd.

It Only Takes a Few Words to Love a Book

January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments

baileyBy Marie A Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

The Decorations of a Writer’s Home

December 4, 2019 § 5 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson
zz_kathy
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.

zz IMG_1819At 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.
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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

Ten Things I Learned While Reading a Memoir I Will Not Review for Brevity

November 12, 2019 § 18 Comments

By Stacy E. Holden

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[4]

5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s[5] 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.[6]

7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke.[7] 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.[8]

9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).[9]

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.[10]

_________

    Footnotes

[1]

Passengers don’t get on a plane just because it is going somewhere east that may be kinda nice. I need to remember to let my own readers know they are heading to Morocco to join me on a journey of midlife transition in the first few pages. I don’t want them to wonder what is the point of this work, as if lost in the labyrinth of the Old City’s winding streets. I am tracing Edith Wharton’s 1917 journey to discover who I am as a midlife woman now past bearing children or rocking boob-shirts in bars.(go back)

[2]
The surprises of writing and writing and writing til you get it! I could rag on academia, where I work, suggesting the distance I always felt and blaming “them,” but my writing has led me instead to see how my comfort living in working-class places of Morocco stems from my own insecurities and a desire to find community among workers somewhere, since I educated myself out of conversations with family and some friends in the USA.

(go back)

[4]
Show don’t tell…excavate that day in Moulay Idriss when everyone annoyed you, even when they just offered you cookies. What led you to be fragile and sensitive and judgmental that particular day?

(go back)

[5]
Expats…I need to rethink how I describe those rich expats in Marrakesh and other Moroccan places who set up homes in poor neighborhoods of the medina.

(go back)

[6]
Aomar, an anthropologist whose Moroccan identity is wrapped up in sub-Saharan African and Tamazight culture, not Arab. Mina, a professor of history in Rabat. And Sara…the educated daughter of Aicha, friend, illiterate, who appears regularly in the ms.

(go back)

[7]
Moroccan time…do not mention “Moroccan time.”

(go back)

[8]
I thought I would write a love letter to Morocco by returning there to find the recipe for past happiness, but it turns out I am composing a Dear John letter to this country. You cannot repeat today what worked for you yesterday. Sometimes it is time to move on.

(go back)

[9]
Do I sound like a judg-y white American when I talk about Morocco? Is there a sense of using the culture of the US as a marker for how stuff—bathrooms, government administration, luncheon interactions—should work in a perfect world? If so, rethink…

(go back)

[10]
Remember, some will still condemn a white woman writing on her travels in an African country. But look deeply at your work and the images in it. Be confident in your descriptions of your engagement with the people and places in a country long considered a second home. Let the work go, and be damned with the reviewers who will or will not write about my book.

_____________________________________________________

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.

Two People and a Baby: On Accessibility and Literary Publishing

June 26, 2019 § 8 Comments

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Two People and a Baby

By Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter

My fingers manipulate keys, navigating Facebook. Arrowing down, the cursor lands on a picture, and I hear, “Two people and a Baby.” Great, I think, no context. I continue to arrow down, finding another picture. This time, the electronic buzz of my computer’s voice says, “Man in sunglasses.” Again, zero context for me.

Fifteen years ago, I became visually impaired. I transferred my visual understanding of the world into a non-visual medium. To use a computer, I now use a program called JAWS, which is a text-to-speech screenreader. It reads whatever the cursor highlights, allowing me to still do email, Google-search, write and, of course, shop! However, if pictures and graphics are not properly captioned, I have no clue what they are.

Recently, a writer friend spoke about the aesthetic appeal of a literary journal she stumbled upon. It occurred to me that, while I can still envision in my head what visual information looks like, I rarely consider aesthetics. Instead, I look at how accessible an online magazine is; is it compatible with my screenreader? Are pictures and graphics labeled well enough for me to understand their point? The kaleidoscope of a world we are surrounded by has narrowed down to sound and touch for me. When looking at publications, I only consider those that have online access as hard-copy print is not readily accessible for blind people. With online magazines, I care little for how they look visually, wanting easy navigation for my screenreader, affording me the same opportunity to read pieces and study submission guidelines.

Our world is extremely visual. Despite it being the least intimate sense, we place so much importance on sight. Since becoming blind, my life does not feel less than, as if I’m missing out on something. I do have to navigate the world non-visually though, and sometimes it’s made more difficult when accessibility is not a factor. Pictures and graphics in particular can be pesky, uninteresting, not-useful pieces of information if not given captions. Whether social media, Amazon or online publications, undescribed photos hold no appeal for me. Some platforms have created generic captions that interact with screenreaders, but they provide bare-bones details, like if a picture is of a group taken outside, my screenreader will likely say, “Several people in nature.” I have no clue who is in the picture, or what kind of nature scene it is. I don’t need a dissertation on the pic, but, some context and brief detail is good. If posting a photo of you and your baby, JAWS might tell me, “Woman and baby.” I want some extra detail to paint a visual in my head.

I have the ability to discover fonts and formatting in a Word document on my laptop, but JAWS is not able to discern this information online. I appreciate innovative structures and playing with format, but at the end of the day, I don’t think much about this unless I’m aware of it. I can only be made aware if it’s noted somewhere. I have several blind friends who are literary, and like me, they read a broad selection. It’s primarily based upon how accessible and easy to navigate a publication is. Some of us use a screenreader, some use both a screenreader and refreshable Braille, which is a device that connects to a computer, and as the cursor jumps from line-to-line, Braille pops up on the device, allowing you to read in Braille. Placing a caption under pictures and graphics and if necessary, providing a brief description of content if the formatting is experimental is a simple solution. This allows people with visual impairments to have equal access.

As a nonfiction writer, I write about the world, using my experiences to address discrimination, isolation, acceptance, breaking stereotypes, usually in context to disability. As a writer, I participate in classes, retreats, conferences and workshops, and often, we are given very visual exercises. Recently, I was asked to create a visual memory map. Having been sighted for twenty-two years, I can recall visual memories in my mind, but creating them on a piece of paper is difficult. I ended up writing a timeline with descriptions of place instead of drawing a map. This emphasis on the visual is so prevalent in the writing community. While I’m actually still a visual person, constantly creating visuals in my head, and while I think visual references can be great and beneficial for sighted writers, I’m also now in this other world where non-visual means of accessing the world make more sense and are much more helpful. Thinking of non-visual means to achieve writing goals not only includes potential blind writers, but is a good sensory exercise for all writers.

Inclusion and equality for all is a big topic these days. However, disability is usually missing from the discussion. It’s not always intentional, we just need more education about accessibility. As the artistic community moves forward, as the world moves forward, we need to consider accessibility, making disabled people an active part of the conversation. Often, it doesn’t take much to make information accessible, but it has to be considered, then implemented. I want to work with the writing community to bring attention to this issue and help create resolutions. The world is a better place when inclusion involves all of our voices.
___

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is currently working on a graduate certificate in nonfiction writing. Her work has appeared in 13th Floor, Breath and Shadow, The Omaha World Herald, Misbehaving Nebraskans and Emerging Nebraska Writers. She was a finalist for the McKenna fellowship. She lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons who provide endless material for her writing, when they give her the time. She tells us that she “recently joined a Crossfit cult. I mean class!”

The Comedian Carrying an Umbrella: Teaching E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

February 15, 2019 § 6 Comments

watkinson_headshotBy 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.

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