October 13, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Holly Hagman
The heat of summer still sizzles on the pavement outside when Mom asks me to pick up the sandwiches she’s ordered for lunch. Having slept in, I am still in my pajamas, braless, shorts and flip-flops, clutching my coffee mug in my fist. Despite the warmth outside, I throw the nearest hoodie on top of my sleep-wrinkled clothes and drive to the sub shop. The cool wind from the air conditioning hits my face, and I finally breathe. I walk over to the refrigerated cooler to grab a bottled iced tea when an older woman scratching a lottery ticket looks up at me and smiles.
“Me too,” she says, the noise of her nickel against the table clattering in my ears. I stare at her, confused, under-caffeinated, and hot. She points at my sweatshirt. I look down and read the words in bold blue print: “Book Nerd.” I smile back and nod, grabbing my iced tea and the sandwiches before I check out, leaving the woman and the lie I just told her behind me.
Honestly, at the time this exchange occurred, I hadn’t read a book for pleasure in months. With the required readings for the English classes I teach and the general state of the world, sitting down to read a whole book often resulted in fidgeting, examining the same paragraph for what seemed like hours, then shutting the book and ultimately watching Brooklyn 99 on Hulu for the second time. My brain was already stuffed to the brim with quiz questions to make for Death of a Salesman, vaccine appointment dates, and whatever drama had been trending each day on Twitter. Consuming – and retaining – a new novel or memoir was liable to short-circuit my already fried nerves and cause a total system shutdown.
So I finished Brooklyn 99, and The Good Place, and most of Bones before selecting a hardcover memoir from my TBR pile, grabbing a bookmark from my desk drawer, and starting to read again. Just like that, it was like rekindling a relationship with an old friend. I felt the texture of the pages between my thumb and forefinger, inhaled the scent of the ink, and sighed. It felt like coming home.
Now, I wear my “Book Nerd” sweatshirt fairly often. I wear it when I run to the store, watch a movie, cook dinner, and, increasingly, when I read. I still get sucked into television rabbit holes (don’t even get me started on 90 Day Fiancé) and the books on my shelves continue to multiply, but I take comfort in the fact that we can take a break and still find our way back together, that they will always be there, pages fresh, spines ready to be cracked, quiet and waiting.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She continued her studies, earning her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been an assistant editor for Brevity, the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit, and is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature. Her work can be viewed in The Citron Review, Complete Sentence, and Porcupine Literary. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs and napping with her cats.
September 27, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Shiv Dutta
If you walk into my house and look to the left or to the right or straight ahead, you’ll see piles of books. You’ll see them on the end tables, you’ll see them on the coffee table, you’ll see them even on the dining table. I have no room left for them on my bookshelves.
I’m a book hoarder but I prefer to be called a bibliophile or a bibliophilist or even a bibliomaniac. People get addicted to caffeine or alcohol or smoking. I’m addicted to books. I buy every single book I read. I rarely depend on libraries except for fat and oversize reference books.
The school of hard knocks has taught me never to lend books. I used to lend them before but every single book I ever lent never came back. During my many moves, I’ve given away a lot of my possessions, including TVs, VCRs and DVDs, but I’ve never parted with my books. I still have a copy of Chariots of the Gods by infamous Erich Von Daniken, a book I bought in Canada in 1972 for $1.25; a copy of The Saint by Leslie Charteris I bought eons ago for less than a dollar; and a copy of Men and Women by Hugh Garner I bought in 1973 for $1.
I’ve been buying books for as long as I can remember. Over the years this habit has turned into a private yearning and compulsive need. However, I don’t buy them randomly. There is a method to this madness. I buy mainly memoirs. Occasionally I do buy books of poetry, fictions and essays. I’m usually drawn to books no longer than 250-300 pages. But I let loose my madness when it comes to books by my teachers, mentors and friends. I buy their books regardless of genres or length.
Like blind love, my support for the book industry is unconditional. Every time I have gone to a bookstore to get a particular book, I usually ended up getting several. I always maintain a list of books I want to acquire so I’m never in a fix to decide what to pick. When I have money, food and books are at the top of my priorities. If any money is left I consider spending it on other things!
In case you’re thinking I’m a bibliophile running amok only to satiate my acquisitive predilections, let me hasten to assure you I’m a bibliophage as well.
Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Well, I’m an aspiring writer, and I do make it a point to set aside enough time to read! I buy nearly 50 books a year, and though I aim to read just as many in the same period of time, more often than not, I miss my target. I cannot ever half-read a book even if it fails to hold my interest. I’m a slow reader to boot. Not only do I have to read every single word in the book I read, I have to digest their nuances and subtleties as I go along. In this, I follow what Francis Bacon said almost 400 years ago: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” As a result of the mismatch between my purchase and the reading target, I often end up with a heap of books on my TBR stack. This serves me well because I never find myself without a book when I want to read one.
When I get a new book, the first thing I do is give it a tight hug and feel its soft slick pages. I smell the prints and the covers and read the first couple of pages to find out when the book was published, who published it, is this first book by the author? No, what other books has the author published?
When I’m finished reading it, I always sign my name and add the date I finished it on. The date helps me track the number of books read in a year, and the signature will let whoever the book passes to after me know the identity of the original owner. Maybe he/she’ll put his/her signature below mine, and the book will thus continue to move on and leave a trail of ownership.
Cicero would have been gratified at the sight of so many books in my study! He thought a room without books is like a body without a soul. When I’m in it, surrounded by walls of books, I feel the presence of kindred spirits. I can almost hear them quietly shuffling around and showering me with their blessings. The room seethes with the collective wisdom of legions of muted souls.
James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive,” I hear an echo of my feelings in these words. Books have saved me more than once. In times of loneliness and despondency when I looked for someone or something to reach out and touch, I found succor in their pages. To paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, books have helped me understand who I am, what other people are thinking and doing and feeling.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” That’s what George R.R. Martin said, and I find myself in concurrence with him. I’ve certainly lived a thousand lives already. To me, books are, to quote Sarah MacLean, “Happiness.” I need them just as much as I need air to breathe.
Shiv Dutta‘s writing has appeared in several places including Brevity Blog, Tampa Review, Under the Sun, Tin House, Hippocampus Magazine, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Connotation Press, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Eclectica Magazine. He has also produced 45 technical papers and co-authored two technical books. Two of his personal essays were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is currently writing his memoirs. When not engaged in literary pursuits, Shiv spends his time on Facebook and music.
August 6, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Matt Caprioli
I’d like to tell you about a morning ritual of mine: The Bradbury.
Basically, I take three random books – poetry, nonfiction, fiction – and read each for 10 minutes. I don’t worry if these books support my projects or whether I’m using my time wisely. I choose to feel zero guilt over commercial vs. literary, whether I skip the beginning, or if I’m actually decreasing the ratio between read and unread books in my New York City apartment. The point of the Bradbury is to read: to open my eyes and let the world in, to find surprise and delight in “my own explicable life.”
That quote comes from a Lucille Clifton poem I encountered today, “Wild Blessings.”
For today’s fiction portion, I read chapter three of Annie and the Wolves by fellow Alaskan author, Andromeda Romano-Lax. Blending historical fiction with a contemporary thriller, the novel alternates between the famed American sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a young historian, Ruth McClintock, who’s obsessed at articulating the unspoken and awful truth behind official documents. The dialogue is especially compelling, and Romano-Lax somehow bridges plausible speech across three centuries. Here’s one admirably restrained example from one of Annie’s battles against yellow journalism:
At her very first trial, in Scranton, the defense lawyer had taunted her. “You’re the woman who used to shoot out here and run along and turn head over heels, allowing your skirts to fall.”
“I beg your pardon,” Annie replied without emotion. “I didn’t allow my skirts to fall.”
For nonfiction, I grabbed What It Means to Write about Art: Interviews with Art Critics. This is a brilliant compilation by Jarrett Earnest of spellbinding interviews with Hilton Als, Chris Kraus, Siri Hustvedt. Today, I started the interview with renowned art critic, Rosalind Krauss. The app on my phone starts, ten minutes per genre, and I don’t pause when life comes up. During the countdown with Krauss, I wanted coffee; I wanted to hug my partner in the kitchen and joke about the co-working space our kitchen has become during Covid. This took about two minutes away from Krauss. But the Bradbury absorbs these incursions. It knows life is more important. What I ultimately took away from the starting the Krauss interview was that at least twice a year, she and Leo Steinberg would have dinner. I love that policy: twice a year, two friends, two dinners.
You may have guessed that The Bradbury comes from Ray Bradbury. My memory has revised it to be a morning ritual, when Bradbury actually suggested this activity at night. I appear to have invented the 10-minute markers, and I have egregiously ignored his advice on avoiding contemporary poetry. I’m fine with this productive misremembering. The point is to reawaken the senses, make the material your own, find your own forms, regardless of social propriety or a publisher’s template.
The Bradbury is orderly and not. The result typically is the same: a refresh for the new day, a reorientation toward life marked by readiness. After this ritual, my mind is jolted to recognize everything in new ways; my eyes enjoy a sort of popping noise, as if they are literally moving closer to the world. My awareness of the world simply reaches a greater resolution, like my vision’s been upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 12.
Oftentimes, I’ll find titles for potential stories or essays: Practical Nihilism; a Jesuit in Paraguay; Enjoy the Ride; Themes of Sexuality; Player King; Sines and Co-Signs; If You Have to Advertise; Update Your Model; The Subject of Fate; a Life of Constant Improvement.
Forced into Procrustean time limits, I see fragments in greater resolution. Sometimes life interrupts, and I only have a line or two to think about; sometimes those lines are all I needed. One day I only got a paragraph into Rayola (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. But that paragraph was enough for me to appreciate the granular brilliance of that novel, how well it describes quotidian love: “Oh,” Talita said, picking up the duck and wiping off the footprint with a kitchen rag. “You’ve caved in its ribs. So it’s something else.”
Other days, I will act first and think later, assembling whatever books my groggy eyes first pass. The other day that included a college copy of Candide (happy to report my French has improved!), Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremey Atherton Lin, and The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde.
With The Bradbury, long-standing gaps in my education are unexpectedly closed. One morning I dipped into Basic Writings of Nietzsche to learn that Zarathustra had a lot in common with Dionysius, or “The Dionysian Monster,” as Nietzsche calls him. I had tried to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra in high school and enjoyed the rhythm but zero clue as to who was even speaking. Now, years and years later, I have my clue.
Some books are so good I only want to experience them slowly. This is how I have come to know the tactile atmosphere of Gwendolyn MacEwan’s brilliant travelogue, Mermaids and Ikons: a Greek Summer.: “A Fred Astaire film came on television, and Christina went out into the garden to feed the doves in their big wire cage.” It’s the daily acuity here that builds to such thunderous sentences as:
‘In this country you are drawn like a bow between heaven and earth, and you may come to know life and death as one blinding, fluid reality. The soul is the arrow shot from that bow, only once.”
By this time I’m amped-up and inspired. Beautiful things beget beautiful things, and I’m eager to move my own hands toward something approaching creation.
Matt Caprioli lives in Queens, New York by way of Anchorage, Alaska. His essays and short stories have appeared in Best Gay Stories, Opossum Literary, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the Netflix docuseries, Worn Stories. His memoir on a mother-son relationship spent driving around Alaska, One Headlight, is forthcoming from Cirque Press. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College and is a CCE/tenure-track writing and literature Lecturer at Lehman College, City University of New York.
July 5, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
My mother once visited a book-loving relative on the West Coast, and when I asked her what the house was like, she said, “He decorates like you do.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but her tone of mild disapproval mixed with amusement (and delivered in her heavy Brooklyn accent) implied he had books strewn about, mementos from his travels, items tacked up casually on the wall and art of personal, rather than aesthetic, significance.
My parents’ house where I grew up was also filled with books, and my mother and father have always been voracious readers (not to mention appreciators of art).
But neither of them worked with books the way I do as a writer, teacher and translator. Their home was a place to raise children, sleep and eat. My home, where I do much of my work as an itinerant wordsmith, is the external manifestation of my thoughts, my ongoing projects, not to mention my plans for dozens of writing, translation and journalism ventures I’ve not even begun.
So I let the written word in all forms act as my decorating motif. This approach to home decor reflects where I write. Which is to say, not in an office at a college or on a magazine staff. And perhaps that’s because I began to keep a regular writing practice only as an older person with a day job. Translation: I don’t have a nice, tenured position that comes with a permanent office.
Even at home, my office is wherever I put my laptop at 6 a.m. But pity me not: I’ve arguably commandeered the whole house, with a table in the dining room for writing and another one in the sunroom, in addition to a large, vintage desk in the living room.
Books are everywhere, but that goes without saying. And besides, having stacks of books isn’t enough for me because book covers of favorite tomes are like the faces of loved ones. So I have books propped up on every flat surface the way other people might position vases or porcelain figures. Exhibit A: a French graphic novel sitting on the bedroom radiator so I can see the cover, which features a curly, girlish script overlaid on a thicket of green vines. I don’t read French fluently but I do read beautiful book covers with foreign titles fluently.
Anything that I find inspiring is taped up onto the wall if it’s made of paper or leaning against the wall if it’s solid. Any card that has words on it – especially words like amore or reading – goes on display. The notecard my Australian artist friend drew for me is tacked up next to a pink and green map of Florence, Italy (which is where I met the Australian friend, back when we were ex-pats in the city of Dante). There are also receipts from Italy, plus old letters from my mother, her familiar handwriting doubling as a writing prompt. The things other people would throw away feed my writing soul.
On the wall of the dining room, I have a large event poster the Italian town of Siena gave out for free before a Palio horse race that I witnessed during a semester abroad. Later, my father framed it, perhaps sensing that I would forever see my life as divided in two – the period before I visited Italy and every moment of reluctant exile that came afterward.
The whole house is wired to pulse me with inspiration, and to envelop me in cozy, literary familiarity.
Initially it wasn’t something I consciously sought. In my 20s and early 30s, I moved from place to place and state to state, working my through journalism jobs, and I wasn’t ever especially interested in interior decorating. I don’t care to know exactly what a pillow sham is. But the process by which I have assembled a kind of mosaic of visual influences and inspirations feels vital – and not a habit I want to part with. There never seems to be enough time for all the ideas I want to pursue but I take solace in the walls of my house and the surface of my desk beaming back to me all the things that occupy my mind.
Indeed, after a while, I realized this approach was essential. When we left Atlanta in 2017 for a new life in Connecticut, the boxes that rode with us in the car contained nothing anyone would ever want to steal, nothing that the movers could break, but everything that had nurtured a fledgling writer’s life: my journals, my books, my papers, my mementos, my private correspondence, and a manila envelope full of the special talismans I had placed around my computer for inspiration. I would desperately need them all in Connecticut when I felt completely untethered from the engine that had powered my writing life.
In essence, I want my home to look like the inside of my mind. And that’s where I store all my grand writing plans. To help me focus, I have seeded the house with photos, strategically chosen to stoke my memoir instinct. Take the photo of my uncle and my grandparents in their home in Bayonne, N.J., which I found after his premature death. They are in the kitchen during what’s likely a family party in the 1960s, judging by the type of photo paper. He had lived in the house his whole life, and it’s the house my father grew up in, where his grandparents had also lived, and which remains in the family. Other families may retain pedigreed estates with fancy names. Not our clan. It’s a rickety, three-story house in a quirky working-class, New Jersey city that doesn’t make you think “The Garden State.” But the house looms so large in my memory, perhaps because my father and his siblings have long referred to it as “Ten East,” an abbreviation of the street address. “Back when I was still living at Ten East…” Or, “Up in the third floor at Ten East…” This mythology is something I hope to probe through writing. Hence the photo, reminding me there are stories to tell.
You could call it all the chaos of reading and writing. Maybe it’s a consolation prize for trying to make it in the literary world, which is the wordsy equivalent of Hollywood — in other words, a cut-throat industry where few succeed but many aspire. I haven’t written a book nor do I have an agent. But one part of my literary life is thriving – and it’s this monument I am building day by day to all the things that fire my imagination.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.
June 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Garber
It was the first day of summer vacation, about 1960, the end of third grade. I sat in the small rocking chair next to a bookcase in the dining room in our old Victorian house. I saw a faded blue bound book with a title that tempted me. I Capture the Castle. The house was quiet. My brothers were napping. I must have begged off my nap, which was rare because my mother always told me “You, of all people, need so much sleep or you are not good for anything.” I usually read through naps, perfecting my face to look asleep if my mother passed by, ready to slip my book out from under the covers. But that day the house was quiet and it was mine. I remember the light coming in the windows and stretching across the floor where my brothers’ wooden blocks spread over the floor.
I pulled the book from the shelf of grown-up books, and opened to a drawing of a kitchen in an old castle. I knew the book was too old for me, but I wanted to read it so much. It was about a girl writing in a journal. She started: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it: the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I was padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cozy.”
I loved English words like tea-cozy. The narrator was a writer, and I’d begun my first journal. She was sitting in such an unusual way, like someone I’d be a friend with. But at that moment a spindly spider crawled out of the arched space between the sewn binding and the cloth spine and headed down the page. His fine legs like cactus spines tiptoed over the words I wanted to read. I slammed the book shut and threw it down on the floor. My heart pounded. I quickly picked up the book with my fingertips; afraid the spider would pull himself out between the pages and crawl on my hand. I shoved the book back on the shelf, my happiness slammed in with the spider.
I glanced sadly at the book for years, remembering the spider. Even when we moved years later to a modern glass house, the book stayed out of reach.
When I was sixteen, on a quiet afternoon when I was desperate for a book, I glanced at the book shelves, and remembered. I took the fade blue book and opened carefully. The husk of the spider slid off the page. I sat down and as I began to read, the book became mine, written by a girl who wrote in journals. It was perfect. She was me.
I couldn’t bear to let the book leave my bedside table. I’d turn on my side before falling asleep and glance at that book. As if the secret of me was inside. I didn’t believe anyone knew me well enough that I could trust them read the book. It would reveal too much about who I really was.
A year later, I knew I’d truly fallen in love with my first boyfriend when I realized I had to lend him the book. But it was such a risk. Would he understand?
Elizabeth says I have to read a book she loves. She holds the faded book to her chest before placing it in my hands. She’s excited and nervous. I don’t really get how a book written in the 1930’s or something in England could be too revealing for her to share. I smile and reassure her. But I hope I’ll like the book.
Kids at school think we’re kind of weird cause we’re so into books, but that’s part of why I fell in love with her. In English class, we competed over Drieser’s American Tragedy in English class. We’d meet at our lockers to compare pages read. One day she crowed, “I got to page 580!”
I grinned, “Sorry kiddo, I’m at 614.”
So I read I Capture the Castle. In the first paragraph there’s this girl writing in her journal. Her name’s Cassandra. I get right from the start why so many things are perfect for Elizabeth: a long elegant name with no nickname, the narrator is quirky and funny yet insecure about whether her poetry’s any good, and she’s absolutely determined to write everything in her journal. Elizabeth says she finally found someone really like her even though Cassandra’s going on about tea time, and dying dresses with green dye, and exploring the castle. The voice starts to become Elizabeth’s voice, as if I can imagine her writing it.
After a while, the novel becomes a kind of comedy of errors, mistaken identities and hiding under bear skins, all quite light, but through it all the narrator is determined to do the right thing. She works so hard to keep the family together and to understand everyone, and to bring out the best in their crazy father, always hoping that he’ll get better. In contrast to Elizabeth’s dad who keeps getting worse and angrier. The book is a comedy, and the book’s dad actually comes through in the end.
Is this what Elizabeth is hoping, that her dad will get better, and is this really why this is her favorite book, even though she thinks it’s because the heroine writes in a journal?
When I hand back the book, her eyes are so vulnerable. I say, “Yes, the book is perfect. You are Cassandra.” And she cries.
Elizabeth W. Garber is the author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (2018), and four books of poetry. Three poems have been read on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Low Residency Program. She was awarded writing fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming. She is currently pitching her new memoir, Not As Lost As I Thought: The True Story of a Girl at Sea, about when she was eighteen, attended a hippie high school on a derelict square rigger and encountered pirates, avoided a near sinking, was held hostage in Panama, and broke free from tyranny at home. More at: www.elizabethgarber.com.
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:
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
October 22, 2020 § 24 Comments
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.”
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.
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.
August 24, 2020 § 25 Comments
By 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.
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
June 1, 2020 § 8 Comments
By 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.
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.
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.