Reading Like a Writer: On Uncertainty

November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments

By Jennifer Berney

Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”

The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.

[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]

Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.

In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.

Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:

Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?

To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.

Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.

This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.

This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”

Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

On Reading Deeper and Writing Better

October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:

I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice. 

Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:

People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.

You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care. 

Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).

An Aging Writer’s Guide to Vision Problems

October 5, 2018 § 7 Comments

By Karen Zey

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Karen Zey is a Canadian writer with a youthful spirit and aging eyes. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Memoir Magazine, Prick of the Spindle and other places. Karen received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015. You can find her sipping tea at a Pointe-Claire neighborhood cafe, on Twitter @zippyzey or at www.karenzey.com

The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True

September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments

Loree Burns 4 copyBy Loree Griffin Burns

I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.

But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.

Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.

Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”

I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.

When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”

And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.

I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.

That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?

When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.

I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
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Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.

Ursula K. Le Guin Talks Nonfiction

March 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

imagenursula16rs05b15dDavid Naimon, host of “Between the Covers” on Portland, Oregon’s KBOO 90.7 FM, spoke recently with Ursula K. Le Guin about her collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016.

“It is quite rare,” Naimon explains, “that Le Guin talks about her approach to writing nonfiction (essays, literary criticism, book reviews).  We also talk about the risks and rewards of writing across difference (writing as a different race, gender, species), about the four strategies used to keep women writers out of the canon or diminished in the literary conversation, about America’s fear of the imagination, and of science, as well as talking about the work of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Chang-rae Lee, and Jose Saramago.”

You can listen here:

The Language of Appalachian Storytelling: Cat Pleska’s Memoir Riding on Comets

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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An interview conducted by Jeanette Luise Eberhardy:

I return to books that invite me to be “the reader as artist” which Toni Morrison described in her essay by the same title. When I read like an artist, I can almost feel the opening of my imagination with the language of story where heart and mind join together. For me, this experience with imagination is particularly strong when a writer explores the connection between story and nature, including the nature of family. In Riding on Comets: A Memoir by Cat Pleska, I listen for the sound when she writes “thunder’s timbre deepened and boomed and rattled the glass in the windows.”  And when Pleska describes an underground spring flowing towards a creek, I can see how it “stains the grass like tears on a cheek.” I trust this storyteller who expresses such a deep understanding of our place in nature.  I join her when she begins to build a home within herself from what memoirist Mary Karr calls “a passion for the watery element of memory.” Understanding this passion is how I am able to take the leaps of imagination with little knowledge of the storytelling traditions in Pleska’s Appalachian culture.

Last week, I caught up with Cat Pleska at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington DC. At this writer’s conference, we were invited to open our perspectives on storytelling by “braiding subgenres into a coherent whole” and “experiencing broad ranges of cultural and artistic events.” I asked Pleska to share with us some of her perspectives on language and story and culture.

Jeanette: When you wrote your memoir, what were you hoping for?

z cat.jpgCat: I wanted to bring forward the language of story from my culture. In my memoir, the glue that held a rambunctious, challenging family together was our stories and our habit of gathering on a hot summer night as we watched fireflies light up the ground and trees to mirror the millions of stars in the night sky. We told stories all night long.

Jeanette: Language of story from your culture?

Cat: In my family storytelling tradition, we bring you to the edge of the moment, forgoing the traditional setting of backstory, so the lesson, the meaning, is embedded in the listener’s psyche sooner, without giving away the surprise at the end. We deliver the scene quickly so the listener may “see” the setting for the lesson and “feel” what’s about to happen. Embedded in this approach to story is the cultural understanding of our way of learning from each other. Today we often call this type of storytelling memoir.

Jeanette: What is memoir to you?

Cat: Memoir is asking yourself the right question that helps both the writer and reader connect at the level of the heart. Asking the right question allows you to explore the experience in a curious way, that may bring to light the deeper meaning of it.

Jeanette: What was one of your underlying questions?

Cat: One of the most pressing questions I faced was how to express navigating my relationship with fear.

Jeanette: Like in your story “Devil’s Seat” where you challenge yourself as an eight-year-old to climb out on a rock formation?

Cat: Yes, I climbed out, facing a perilous drop below the rock outcropping, but when I scooted back from the edge, I saw my father’s and my grandfather’s initials carved in the rock surface. Every child who undertook that challenge of fear took a small rock and carved their initials into the surface. I carved mine larger than theirs.

Jeanette: Is there a connection between the larger initials you carved in the rocks and your interest in evolving the stories in your culture?

Cat: The men in my culture embraced the unexpected and were therefore seen as brave and courageous. The women were the keepers of stories on how we survived. In my memoir, I am integrating both of these types of stories. As I wrote, I felt that I had no choice. I was driven to combine the courage one needed to face the unexpected with the courage needed for survival. That is to say, a larger story than the one told by men alone or by women alone.

Jeanette: Your comments remind me of what Edwidge Danticat said: “When you have no choice, when it haunts you…that’s the time to tell your story.”

Cat: For us, storytelling was all entertainment and connection and shared knowledge and a bonding with relatives so that when daylight dawned, the family remained together. The way in which we wove our stories was unique to our, one could say, mini-culture within the larger Appalachian culture. The way we told stories developed into a style that denoted our methods, our techniques which involved an almost unconscious word selection and syntax development, that to this day I rarely hear from any other culture. That weaving of particular language and style further helped me bring together my stories of the men and women I write about.  

Jeanette: We enter another culture’s stories in a variety of ways. For me, I may begin by sensing the writer’s connection to nature. For others, they may appreciate the use of humor. And still for others there is this deep recognition of Pleska’s instinct to explore the use of language of story in her culture. Whatever our way into stories that are different from our own, we can enlarge our sense for living in our beloved communities on this precious planet and transcend what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

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Cat Pleska, MFA, is an educator, author, editor, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and is a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, and her first book, Riding on Comets: A Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015 and short-listed for the 2015 book of the year in the memoir category by Foreword Magazine. Cat is the 2016 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for Support of the Arts. Her cookbook One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce: Recipes you’ll Relish was just published by Mountain State Press. She teaches in the humanities program for Marshall University and is a full time instructor for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.

Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. Eberhardy serves as Program Director, 1st Year Writing and Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin, Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S.  Eberhardy is the recipient of the 2016 MassArt Faculty Fellowship Grant for her project: Global Meaningful Work. She publishes on the craft of writing and she is currently working on the book Why I Write. Why I Create: Global art students show how they express themselves. Eberhardy can be reached at WivInc.com.

The Didion Fan

July 14, 2016 § 9 Comments

Kim Steutermann Rogers author photo

Kim S. Rogers

A guest post from Kim Steutermann Rogers:

Today, I tell myself, I will not scroll Facebook as if I were cram-reading War and Peace. I will not say yes when the wildlife volunteer coordinator asks if I’ll go to the beach to check on a cute new seal born just that morning. I will not slip out when a text alerts me that the Laysan albatross chick I’ve been watching since it hatched five months ago is standing on bluff above the sea, flapping its wings, about to fly off over the horizon, not to be seen again for three to five years. Today, I tell myself, I will get some writing done. Yes, I will.

As I write this by hand in my notebook, a cheap DECOMPOSITION BOOK with line drawings of safari animals on the cover, I look up. Staring at me from across the room is the free-floating head of Joan Didion printed on an oval piece of cardboard that is glued to a flat tongue-depressor-like stick. A hand fan. I picked it up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles this past April after a particularly heated session—the room, not the conversation—because, well, I am a woman of a certain age.

AWP: Think 15,000 academics and creative types crammed into the Los Convention Center. Think tweed jackets with suede elbow patches. And yoga pants. Think purple hair and tattoos, ripped tights, and Chuck Taylor Converse throwback basketball shoes. Think apple-cheeked children with crispy clean MFAs. And puffy-eyed, word veterans in need of coffee and, later in the afternoon, beer—or something stronger—from the beverage vendor at the south end of the book fair. Think best-selling authors, award-winning poets, and top journalists from around the country. Think the rest of us—with stories and books and essays and poems and clouds in our eyes and on the tips of our tongues, eager to share with anyone who will listen. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I fall in the last category.

zz didionJoan Didion is staring at me from across the room where I stuck her in a coffee-mug-cum-pencil-holder after a vigorous use of fanning one spring day when spring winds stalled in their tracks, replaced by summer’s stagnant-dog’s-breath-hot-air. A few degrees change in temperature does not go unnoticed, because you know, I am that age, that effing age.

Joan Didion’s visage sits just to the left of my computer screen. When I am sitting at my desk, presumably writing, I can see the Grande Dame of Literary Journalism out of the corner of my eye, her mouth set in a line and her makeup-free eyes narrowed on me. Damn. It’s the eyes.

Dame Didion is the toast of nonfiction writers across the United States. She was required reading during my MFA studies. She’s one of the first to be named when calls go out for lists of great essayists. Hardly an AWP—if any—goes by without her name prominent in a panel title.

I first read Didion as I was trying to craft my own writerly voice, and I fell hard. Major writer crush. Here was a wordsmith with whom I felt a kinship. A journalist. But not. A memoirist. But not. A personal essayist. But not.

In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”

I have more than a few notebooks lined up across my desk, packed in plastic boxes in my closet, all to be thrown away upon my death, as I’ve made my best friend take a blood sister pact with me.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Amen, Dame Didion.

I mainlined every essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Then, The White Album.

“What I most appreciate about Didion’s writing is that she witnesses her world. Her writing may be about her, but it is anything but confessional,” I wrote in an essay after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

But, now, some years later, the truth is I’m tired of Dame Didion. Oh, not her writing but of we writers who would bow on bended knee and kiss her writing ring, if her hand were ever proffered and if such a thing as a writing ring existed.

Wait. Does it?

I’m sick of the Didion worship that goes on in literary and MFA circles. Because I want her for myself. Because it seemed once my bright-eyed love for her blossomed, she went all Baader-Meinhof on me, and every other student of nonfiction writing adored her, as well. My secret, favorite writing mentor was mine no longer.

Joan Didion levels her steady gaze at me from across the room. She could have taken a pair of scissors to her hair and gave herself that haircut, I think, wispy bangs, and blunt, chin-length hair.

But here’s the thing about Didion: She got it done. Something like five novels, a dozen books of nonfiction, half-dozen screenplays, and a play. The woman wrote. She sat down and wrote. I can see it in her makeup-free eyes. The determination. The discipline. She’s a reminder to tap into my own determination and discipline. It’s there. Somewhere. I know it is.

Mentors. Muses. Inspiration. We tend to think it’s their words that help us. But at this time, apparently, it’s not the words but the face of Joan Didion I need. The bad haircut, thin set mouth, and those examining eyes remind me to just do it. Sit down, and write.

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Freelance journalist, Kim Steutermann Rogers moved to Hawaii with her husband, two dogs, and twelve boxes of belongings in 1999. “We’ll stay for one year,” she told her family and friends. That was 17 years ago. Now, Kim shadows scientists into rain forests, volcanic craters, and throughout the uninhabited atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to learn more about Hawaii’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But, most days, she sits on her bum and attempts to churn out words appropriate to the science and place and people of it all—and tells herself she should exercise more. Kim holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is at work on a book about Mark Twain’s Hawaii and the psychological concept of place attachment. You can read clips of her work and her blog at http://www.kimsrogers.com and follow her on Twitter at @kimsrogers.

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