Shut Up and Listen: A Recent MFA Grad’s Thesis Journey

August 15, 2018 § 5 Comments

AIRushBy Amanda Irene Rush

In my journals from twenty years ago I have found entries of what I can only see now as early drafts of my thesis. Bitter passages about my alcoholic father and his inappropriate confessions, laments about my mentally ill mother and how I felt her a ghost, an early account of a cherished family relic and what it symbolized. My thesis had been in the making for a very long time.

Yet, when I entered the Ashland University MFA in Creative Writing program in 2016, it was not a family memoir I had in mind. What I had was a revision of a manuscript I had begun in 2009 about my first four years as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The first 125 pages covered the span of 12 weeks. I recently did the math: at that plodding pace I was on my way to over 2,000 pages.

The problems with the manuscript became clear during my first residency. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and realized I had a situation but no story. I had never considered the difference. Steve Harvey drove the point home with his gentle but relentless focus on theme — what, he asked, is my narrator’s comment on life?

Steve also taught me about kronos and kairos — those two ways of experiencing time on the page — and what a crucial thing pacing is. My pages were steeped in scenes. Everything got equal time, so even if I had a theme, it was diluted with my overpour of words.

From Bonnie Rough, I learned the difference between the character self and the narrator self. I had been relying on my fiction training: I was showing a lot through my character self, but telling little. Until I read Phillip Lopate, I didn’t know you could — and should — do both in creative nonfiction.

I left that first residency with a plan: go back to the manuscript; focus on one chapter; eliminate any unnecessary scenes; add exposition; shrink or expand time as needed; locate my narrator self and get her on the page; identify my themes. Easy peasy, I thought. It would be like those paint-by-numbers I used to do as a kid. I didn’t have to know what to draw; just follow instructions.

It didn’t work. The revised version — though I had followed all instructions carefully — was even worse. The words seemed dead on the page. I felt that the harder I tried to cram the manuscript into my box of a plan, the less control I had over it. I knew I had to find a better way.

zz PhiloNotesI have been a doodler since college. I call them “doodles” because they are born from my subconscious, not my imagination. I don’t render them into existence, so much as they seem to choose to be expressed. Whenever I try to draw something on purpose the image is crude and uninspired. But, when I let the pen or pencil or crayon do its thing, what comes out is usually the beginning of something surprising and engaging which I can then enhance.

I wondered: could I do this with writing? I started with a prompt (a picture, a doodle, a memory, a journal entry, an object) and I free-typed with as little preconceived notion as I could muster. I could feel the difference immediately. The words started to take on a shape and texture like never before. I started a new folder in Google Docs called “Raw Doodles,” each file a piece that may or may not fit later into a larger whole. I shelved my expectations and just kept doodling. When each packet came due, I scrapped chronology and arranged the “doodles” into associative patterns, trusting that eventually my themes and my story would emerge — this time not by my pulling and prodding, but by me listening to what the material was trying to tell me and letting it guide me to where it wanted to go.

It worked. It was my “in.” And what I learned was that the story of becoming a nurse practitioner — the story of finding myself in a position that I felt I simultaneously did not belong and was made for — was not the actual story; it was merely the situation. The real story was deeper and more complex. A story about how we break and search for wholeness, how we struggle to make sense of our experience, how we ask questions that are mostly unanswerable, how we go on anyway — asking more. Ultimately, it’s a story of me looking at where I came from to understand who I have become.

This was all well and good.

But how to structure it all in a way that was both cohesive and aesthetically pleasing? Over winter break, before my final, thesis, semester, I tried many ways to intuit the structure the manuscript wanted to take. I spread the pages out, cut sections and taped them elsewhere, shuffled and sorted and sweated over the sheets and sheets before me. I was hoping for a pattern to arise; none did.

For my first draft submission to Kate Hopper I patched it together best I could, actively avoiding any kind of chronology for fear I’d fall into the same rut as before. I had worked with Kate in the past; I trusted her instincts. But when she came back and suggested a chronological arrangement — to eliminate confusion for the reader, to avoid unnecessary repetition, to enhance the sense of urgency — well, let’s just say I was not in agreement. But, as I said, I trusted Kate, so, after a few weeks of kicking-and-screaming contemplation, I started to arrange things chronologically.

And it worked. The structure emerged of parallel narratives. The “now” of the story beginning with a scene in my therapist’s office in 2008 when I am on the cusp of becoming a nurse practitioner, wondering how I got there and why I hurt. The “then” of the story, reaching back before I was born, and moving forward in time with brief intervals between sections wherein I return to my therapist’s office. Within each section, the material is still largely associative, but the underlying chronology gives the manuscript much needed solid footing.

The manuscript is far from finished. I know that. What I also know — perhaps the most important thing I will take from this program — is that each writer must find her own way, must do the work herself. There is no prescriptive way of doing things. No paint-by-number shortcuts. At least, not for me. Through this thesis process, I felt more a channeler than a writer. My story was there all along; I just had to shut up and listen.

Amanda Irene Rush is a writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner living in central Ohio. Her work has appeared in Vanderbilt Press’ 2008 anthology The Way We Work and the Bellevue Literary Review. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University.

On Searching for a Book’s Structure

July 30, 2018 § 15 Comments

rae_pBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ve been trying to find a structure for my book. You know, the book that doesn’t exist. The one I haven’t written yet.

It’s like building a house when you don’t have any furniture yet. Wait, no – that’s a totally normal thing to do. Nobody builds a house based on what furniture they have. What a crappy metaphor.

Okay – trying to build a structure for a book you haven’t written yet is like opening a restaurant before you have any recipes. Or plates. Or silverware. Or money. I think that works. Does that work?


I have a folder in my Google Drive where I collect all the new things I’m writing. Not the long, meandering documents where I braindump about how I’m talentless and unmotivated and will never achieve the literary greatness I know I am destined for. No, I just put in the essay starts. The intriguing sentences. The snippets of dialogue. The scenes I can’t stop replaying in my head. The stuff that will probably turn into something.

Some of them turn into flash pieces, brief and bursting with detail and images. Some of them are long, drawn-out stories with background and context and reflection. Some are about the central narrative in my life – my relationship with my father. Some are totally unrelated – stories about my first love, jobs I’ve had, minor disasters. (Although – are they unrelated? That’s a different conversation.)

When I look at them all together, mismatched shreds of stories clashing, I wonder – how can I somehow create a cohesive thing, in which all of these pieces make sense?


A mosaic is defined as “a combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole.” Also, as a verb – “to combine distinct or disparate elements to form a picture or pattern.” Disparate. Diverse. Distinct. Coming together to create a pattern. More or less. Maybe that could work as an extended metaphor. I like that.*


Sometimes I feel like I can’t write another thing until I know what my structure is. Am I writing super-short essays with an overarching metaphor connecting them, like Beth Ann Fennelly did in Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs? Am I creating a braided narrative with four or five (or ten) distinct story lines, all with their own themes and recurring images, like Maggie Nelson did in Bluets? Am I manipulating an established form to illustrate my story through content and context like Joan Wickersham did with The Suicide Index? Or am I writing in-depth, longer essays that seamlessly merge research, personal narrative, and cultural context like Meghan Daum did in The Unspeakable? Maybe I’m meditating deeply on one core idea and creating surprising connections through a wide variety of stories from my life like Megan Stielstra did in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.


Sometimes I feel like I’ll never know what structure will work for me unless I keep writing, keep telling stories, keep getting it all out of me and working on it and manipulating it and rewriting it and rewriting it again. The stories will tell me what kind of house they want to live in, maybe. Are they in charge? Or am I? Who is our real estate agent? Do we want a condo or a split level?

This metaphor is not working.


I envy writers who can see the skeleton of their story before they’ve written it. A colleague of mine is teaching a class next semester on planning and outlining your novel. That stuns me. Is it possible for nonfiction writers to do the same thing with their essay collections and memoirs? Yes, it is. Just not for me.


So, I keep searching, questioning – and yes, essaying – towards a form, while trying to be comfortable with the journey. I know that, based on the way I work, and the discovery that occurs while I am working through an essay, I won’t be able to frame out the house before I’ve bought the furniture. I’ll have to keep collecting chaises and end tables, filing away scraps of vivid wallpaper and lush fabric, and I’ll have to believe that the pieces I’m compiling will eventually tell the story of a three-story townhouse near the water, with a screened-in back deck and bay windows in the front. I’ll have to keep the faith, as the dining chairs and throw pillows continue to pile up, that once I find that townhouse and fill it with all my treasures, the lot of it will make sense. Not just a house, but a home.

Huh. I guess the metaphor works after all.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.


Author and editor Steven Church also tackles finding a structure for a book of essays in his 2015 Brevity Blog post “How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book.


Verlyn Klinkenborg and Creative Destruction

July 25, 2018 § 8 Comments

zz_amosBy Peter Amos

I tried to read David Foster Wallace again. I also have a college friend who listens to Paganini for pleasure, a cousin who likes fried egg on his bacon cheeseburger, and a coworker who swears by the ‘cronut.’ Wallace mania is similar. I have nothing against him. It’s just a little much for me. I’m more the type for Palestrina, red onion and swiss, or sesame with butter (coffee light and sweet).

My favorite writers rotate daily, but Joan Didion and George Orwell border on obsession. I want to write like they do. I love plain language. Simple sentences sparkle with magic, no matter the complexity of the idea. Orwell never uses two words when one will do. Miles Davis moves blocks of silence around. Brevity is, in point of fact, a byproduct of vigor. The obvious problem is that I’m long-winded. The deeper problem is that I’m bad at editing.

My dad is an English teacher and suggested I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing. It’s a bizarre little book, alternately cryptic and remarkably direct. To Klinkenborg, the sentence is foundational. Creative vocabulary languishes in a shoddy sentence. Tricks of the trade bend and buckle when the glue is weak. He suggests writing only sentences; not grouping them in paragraphs, but treating each separately. He forms them mentally, editing in real time and revising out of order and context. If a sentence stumbles without its neighbor, it has no business on the page.

I’ve tried my hand at burning dinner, juggling a soccer ball, and separating the roots of baby tomato plants. The secret to getting better is often learning to enjoy the task. Enjoying it often requires getting better. It’s circular, but generally true. If I enjoy what I do, I’ll improve a bit and enjoy it more. If I grit my teeth and get better, I’ll have fun and the improvement accelerates.

I got a bit better at editing and it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I delete the painfully clever sentence that doesn’t quite fit and I never look back. As I strip out the dust and refuse, the thing changes meaning. It’s like carving the form of a bird’s nest from a block of wood and sanding it into the shape of a mockingjay. In general, it’s no surprise that a bird hides in a nest but it feels like sorcery.

Of course editing is a thing you do, and work evolves. But I’ve always thought that adding words changed meaning and removing them clarified what was already there. Maybe there’s no difference. Some critics argue that art is what it is; words are words and color is color. Klinkenborg puts it differently. Meaning can’t be separated from the words. A bird is a bird regardless of the metal that makes the cage. But writers don’t capture an idea under a crosshatch of letters and spaces. Not just any word will do. The words are the idea and when I change them, even slightly, the meaning changes too. A verbal uncertainty principle. I can’t paraphrase an idea without changing it.

It sounds like voodoo until a draft lies in scraps on the parquet floor. I pluck a word from a sentence, trade a weak clause for something compact, and shrug. Three times, five times, ten times, a hundred and I’m staring at an idea I never noticed rattling around in my head. What remains is unfamiliar.

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia.  The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.

Lately, There Have Been No Essays

July 23, 2018 § 8 Comments

Brame BW 300dpiBy Chelsey Clammer

Lately, I’ve been writing sentences that begin or end with “lately.” (Now with both, apparently.) Perhaps it’s my way of welcoming the reader to my words, to my present-day life, like I’m giving her a status update. Though the number of people who have read these “lately” essays is roughly zero because I have yet to finish any of them.

Lately, I’ve had a hard time final-drafting my essays. I got close to finishing “June Bugs” (opening line: “I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”), but then I ran into the problem of elocution. Within “June Bugs” is an entire narrative thread that discusses my relationship with my ex-husband by using the word “elocution” to define how we can’t resist one another, even post-divorce. But as I worked on what I thought was a close-to-final draft, I found out that I had the definition of “elocution” all wrong. This, of course, relocated my essay’s meaning from the land of This Is Brilliant to the wasteland of FML This No Longer Makes Sense.

I first came across “elocution” when it was’s word of the day—a nifty notification I receive on my phone through the company’s app. This ensures that I learn a new word every morning, 8 am. When I first read elocution’s definition, I thought it was a term that meant being able to speak in a controlled and elegant way—something that doesn’t happen when I’m around my ex-husband/current boyfriend. (Yes, we’re dating because that’s just how we roll. Also, interesting side note: the morning after our first sex-rendezvous, that day’s word of the day was elocution). So I wrote a whole essay about love and how when I feel the rush of a crush brewing into something more, that mutual desire sizzling into something else, I lose my sense of elocution. That is, there isn’t anything controlled or elegant about the ways in which I love. Elocution’s actual definition, though, is that it’s simply the way in which a person controls/delivers her own speaking patterns—elegance isn’t necessarily a part of this.

Lately, especially during that last paragraph, I’ve been wondering if this essay is interesting to people who aren’t me.

I’ve also been wondering that if I were to actually finish this essay, would the reader make it to its last sentence. This is about interest. About how I’m still interested in dating my ex-husband, regardless.

I have come to realize that finishing these essays has been difficult for me because I’m writing stories I haven’t yet finished living. That is, I start essays about my narcissistic ex-husband and how terrible he was and how invisible, disrespected, and abandoned I felt in our marriage and then, during mid-essay-revisions, he and I hook up in real life and I lose my sense of elocution around him and so then my essay no longer feels totally true or fair because I guess I have my own zest of narcissism (I am, after all, an essayist), so of course I have to do revisions and explore how our marriage always felt like a battle, like we were forever competing for the top position on the priorities totem pole, and how we were both victims of disrespect. Revisions then begin to feel overwhelming, like a solid run-on sentence.

Though lately, my ex-husband has been pissing me off because he’s a self-involved ass-hat who said he has better things to do than listen to me bitch about frustrating things like roundabouts and essays that are based off of incorrect definitions. Also, when I tell him that I can tell that he’s not listening to me, he then mocks me because that’s helpful, and I’m back into that invisible space, and back to revising the essay I just revised because my ex-husband is a narcissist and terrible, and I, of course, have nothing to do with that.

Lately, things keep changing.

Or maybe things aren’t changing but I’m just questioning the true definitions and descriptions of my life’s main relationship.

Though I do have a few lines stuck in my head that stand true, regardless:

“I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”

“I lose my sense of elocution when I’m around him.”

“_________, regardless.”

Re: “_________, regardless.”

How I’ve been ending sentences with the word “regardless” because to me it sounds like that one word holds a lot of complex narrative power, regardless. Like how our love for one another is powerful and super-complex, regardless.

How I begin sentences with “lately” and am now starting to end them with “regardless.” How these are my writing patterns. How I also begin sentences with “how” if “lately” is not already in that sentence’s lead-off position. How I’ve witnessed other writers begin their sentences with “How.” How I don’t know if this irritates me or not.

Lately, as I’ve been writing this essay, I have been considering the structure of my sentences and therefore wondering about redundancy. Time and again, same thing over and over. Like all of those “lately”s. Like all those attempts to date my ex-husband.

Though I guess repetitive sentence structure is better than no sentence structure because lately I have had a hard time with not only finishing essays, but with getting past that first sentence, too. It has something to do with performance anxiety or maybe just the innate knowledge that I’ll never finish writing the essay because I won’t be done living the story for a while. Things change. Flux. Ex-husbands become boyfriends. That said, I did get myself to begin this current essay. I think it’s all about that first “lately.” How my repetitive sentence structure is my fallback when I don’t know what else to write and maybe that’s okay, like how we always return to love, regardless. At least right now I’m writing, which is perhaps only because I know that my relationship with my ex-husband can’t mess up this essay because I am now writing an essay that knows how to exist without him.


I’ve been using the word “finally” as its own sentence lately because I need to convince myself that one day, when I write an essay about my ex-husband, that last “finally” will remain fact. How our relationship will have to eventually come to a conclusion, for better or for worse, together or apart. Either way, there will be a “finally.”

Lately, I have stopped wondering about why I begin my sentences with “lately,” and have instead been wondering about how things will end. How it is that I know I’ll eventually have to reach that final “finally” in both word and meaning, regardless.

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome, and won the Inaugural Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing.


Peonies and Picnic Ants: Returning to Concrete Nouns

July 2, 2018 § 9 Comments

BC profile picBy Brittany R. Collins

Four years ago, I performed a poem in the back room of a bar for a patchwork audience drinking beer from plastic cups. At the end of the evening, an older man in a grey fedora pulled me aside to say: “There are some things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand.”

“Children, animals, and poets.” I hear him in my mind when I read, even now. I reach a clause or the white space after a period—for it is never the period itself that catches me, that bobber in the water, but the placid, smooth stream of the in-between. It is there that he is waiting, wading, whispering this line about audience.


Today, I am reading Annie Dillard by the peony garden when thunder rumbles. Ants scurry into the folds of the flower petals, tucking themselves into each crevice (each crevice a magenta duvet, a tortoise shell, a home) and I imagine them screeching tiny screams, sensing the atmospheric shift in their bellies.

They are always there, these ants, and sometimes a nuisance. When I clip the flower stems with sharp orange scissors, intending to bring the outer in, their bodies—glistening and black—remind me that the outer will always evade. They cling and grasp, immovable.

Watching their determination, I remember my clean kitchen counters, the aroma of Lemon Pledge, and I drop my scissors. I lay the blades down in the depths of my picnic basket and recede. You’re right, I think, watching the ants rush, frantic and frenetic (with glee? with fear? how similar the two feel, embodied). You’re right. This is where you belong.

There will always be unity and schism between the earth and me.


Sometimes the ants are welcome company. I whisper hello to them as I tread the tender earth, and they scurry. I have never seen a still ant. An ant of stasis. I relate to their urgency, their exigency. “Busy” is a guise for brimming—with glee, with fear. With both.

The ant-filled peony in the flower garden stands in contrast to the curated, cinched bouquet on the shelf. Both are beautiful and necessary. There is a time and place for them. Just as the worn arrangement at the supermarket serves its neon purpose, so does the untouched flower bush embody a sense of intent.


The Dillard book is The Writing Life.  The writing life is also brimming, is also a confluence of fear and glee, doubt and surprise. It is defined by imminence and felt in the belly. The heart, head, and viscera.

Intent centers Dillard’s text, and all creative endeavors. “You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox,” she tells us. “Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”

The contents of my paintbox are rumble, rain, and soil. Sitting in my verdant corner, reading these words, I am reawakened to the meditative side of writing: not deadlines, not comma splices, no. Just me and the page as a container; a mirror; a canvas for this fleeting world. How vivid words seem when I return to this frame of mind. Surely the transcendentalists zoomed in on matters of heart and soul—interiority and cyclicality—before they fretted over fragments, and it is this attunement to the particular, the real, that grounds me when I lose the meat and purpose of my work—when I prize the scintillating (if frayed) grocery store bouquet over the messy elegance of an unweeded garden.

“A week later,” Dillard writes, “I had a visit so instructive that when it was over, and I had fully absorbed its lesson, I considered never opening my door again. This was a visit from children.” I reach this line, and there again is my audience member, wearing his grey fedora and a wise and witty grin. Playing in the sandbox, its own expansive paintbox, where creation and erasure meet at such a fluid line, the child knows something of articulation and attention. I can’t help but feel that all creativity is a seeking for return—for the restoration of this perceptual attunement to the granularity of the everyday.

So how do we capture such specificity in our work? How do we “paint” the particulars of experience as if we still carry a toy magnifying glass? I look down at my foot, feeling a small tickle, to see the picnic ants from the peonies crawling across my skin. I am Birkenstocked and sticky with humidity, the sky clotted with clouds. I smell predictive petrichor; I taste alfalfa, freshly mown. And I realize, clutching Dillard, that it will always be concrete nouns that root me—first in the world, and then in my writing.

To paint a scene on canvas, one needs color, texture, and a subject. So it is with words.

For why tell you it was moving, when I can instead show you the mountains?

Brittany R. Collins has written for English Journal and Literacy & NCTE, of the National Council of Teachers of English; Insight, of Dana Farber Cancer Institute; and The Mighty, among others. She is a Reader for the Harvard Review and New England Review and enjoys coaching other writers as a Group Manager at Write the World LLC. Her anthology, Learning from Loss: How Teachers Tackle Mortality in the Classroom, is in preparation– author-educators interested in contributing should contact her at for more information.


Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary?

June 29, 2018 § 51 Comments

zz lynette bentonBy Lynette Benton

Many writers, perhaps most, believe that publication of their books would represent a badge of accomplishment and acceptance, an event that would bring them fame, catapult their lives into new and desirable directions, or at least validate the talent, time, and energy they invested in their manuscripts. Rejections of their work by agents and publishers can have a shattering effect upon them. I point out to them that the publishing world’s misjudgments are legion; note the many rejections of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which went on to best sellerdom and box office success; Tinkers, by Paul Harding, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner, which the big publishing houses declined; the 22 rejections for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the 12 for Harry Potter. Sometimes the letters accompanying the rejections even contained snarky comments about the writer, the manuscript, or both.

Though I sympathize with their pain, it’s impossible for me to relate to it because rejections don’t upset me. Sometimes when my work is rejected I actually think it’s the publisher’s loss, not mine. Believe me, this isn’t arrogance. Like other serious writers, I generally feel my writing comes up short of my vision. I work like hell on it, and do everything I can to improve it, including carefully considering feedback from freelance editors and writer-friends. I think my writing’s good, but not as drop dead good as much that I read or as I want it to be.

But I have little interest in publishing my full-length manuscripts. I just finished a collection of essays I worked on for three years. I should be arranging them into an appealing order. I should be pulling out my list of publishers of similar collections and possible agents, and querying them, even though I know it’s difficult to get a collection of essays published. But the urge to write the essays was the propelling force behind the project, not the urge to publish them. The itch has been scratched. Anyway, plunging into the query frenzy would take away from the time, creative focus, and just plain mental fortitude I need in order to produce. To submit, I’d have to suit up for a distracting stint in the Twilight Zone.

The same holds true for the two memoirs I’ve written. One of them is long-since complete after eight years of work. When an excerpt was a finalist in a contest four years ago, an agent agreed to read the entire manuscript; I’ve yet to send it to her. My other memoir needs editing. But I suspect that after I’ve revised it, I’ll lose interest in taking any further steps. The thought of strangers reading my books, even enjoying them, gives me an unpleasant, curiously weighted feeling in my midsection. I don’t welcome the exposure and publicity—no matter how mild—of publication. Publicity, for this introvert, is noise, or perhaps like being bitten by barracudas. In any case, my memoirs aren’t going to make me famous, unless it’s through lawsuits.

And yet, writing isn’t my hobby. It’s my profession, my very identity. So I know my lack of effort to publish the memoirs seems an appalling, inexcusable waste, writing them an indulgence. It’s just that I believed those stories needed to be told, if only to myself.

For me, the writing is the reward. Nothing’s true, valid, or even comprehensible until I write it, whatever it is. It calms the chaos, salves the deepest psychological and emotional lacerations. It’s the infallible healer that makes everything all right. Recently, I was in the middle of my usual nightly routine: eat, brush, floss. Somewhere along this familiar route, a deep inexplicable sadness assailed me. It was not only terrible but mysterious for one who isn’t given to depression. Frozen, with the floss still stretched between my hands, I searched my mind for a cause. Nothing came up. I reached for my mechanical pencil, and wrote: “Sudden depression just hit. No idea why.” And just like that, I felt fine again. For me writing represents relief. The fantasy writer Jeff Goins describes a similar experience:

“The other day, I was feeling depressed and didn’t know why. My emotions were all out of whack… So I turned to the only activity that makes sense when all seems lost. Writing.”

I don’t fear failure or rejection when it comes to writing, never have. My feelings of writing success are independent of others’ opinions. If I’m pleased with what I write, I don’t care what an agent or publisher or audience thinks. Writing is the one area of my life that’s all mine to judge.

And yet, I’m hoping Brevity will accept this essay for the blog. Why? For one thing, I have no problem submitting my short works for publication. Over the years I’ve had a fair number of them published—at least 20—not without my share of rejections. But the rejections didn’t undermine me. As long as I’ve said what I wanted to say, as best I could I’m satisfied, even if no publisher is interested in it.

If the folks at Brevity say “no,” I’ll be okay. I own my self-worth—at least in my writing life. No publisher or agent can to take that away. As Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’ve done the work and, right now, for me, that’s enough.

Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families.  Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton.

Back in the Woodshed: Practice and Seclusion in Words and Music

June 25, 2018 § 10 Comments

zz_amosBy Peter Amos

I’m not a writer. At least I’ve never thought of myself that way. I put letters into peculiar order, shuffle them, share them with – anyone – but “writer” is the sort of word that belongs in a one-sentence bio and never feels right to say aloud.

Calling oneself “a writer” implies a certain creative force and authority that it probably shouldn’t. It suggests a vulnerability or artistic sensibility, vaguely defined and rarely claimed. I would be uncomfortable with the label for precisely those reasons, if not for one more fundamental.

I’m a musician.  I know the same insecurities.  I was deep into a music major before I even begrudgingly accepted when people called me a “musician.”  I still recoil slightly at the implication.

“Oh!  You’re a musician?”

“You play the guitar?”

“So you’re into jazz?”

And my answer never varies.

“On a good day.”

But I write, now, more than I play.  I blog more than I busk.  I read more than I listen.  I write for my tiny hometown paper more than I play in tiny New York bars.

Even “on a good day” I ground the music out. Pried it loose and yanked the gears into motion. It lived in my conscious, critical mind. It was often contrived and rarely immersive. Difficult music came slowly. I sat on stages, suddenly anxious of the shape of my finger nails, the buzz of the electric lights, precisely where the guitar tugged at my black slacks.

But I could practice.

I learned Bach in reverse and played etudes, picking rudiments, and endless arpeggios in permutation. Some skill with a wrench made up for poor design.

A great deal about writing feels familiar, but more feels different. When I write, words spill from a pen I barely control. Two hours go by and two thousand words appear, arrayed haphazardly on the paper.  Coarse, tangled, and of little use to anyone. But when I sit down and the pen doesn’t scribble of its own accord, I don’t know how to make it start. What is a writer’s etude or an author’s metronome? What is a verbal arpeggio or interval or harmony?

The first place I encountered a writer discussing practice was in Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. Writers often discuss process or philosophy or work habits, but rarely practice. The dissolution of things into component parts.  The isolation of the small and perfectable within the grand and artistic. I always heard that young Miles Davis did such work in solitude, relegated with his trumpet to the shed out back. True or not, jazz musicians refer to the seclusion of practice as “The Woodshed.”

Oliver compelled me to seclusion in the window of the coffee shop down the block from work. Demanded I stare at the bike chained to the No Parking sign and jot down jagged assemblages of uninterrupted alliteration. Implored me to squint at the FedEx truck on the corner and describe it (clumsily) in iambic tetrameter. Pushed me to scratch a diary onto the page and end as many words as possible in mutes.

Even after a decade, the guitar was complex and daunting, something to be mastered. Under musty tube lights in the music building I relished the challenge of my tendons and muscles, the struggle for command of my faculties. Each motion a piston or spring. Each dissonance a disruption of mechanics.

Words were something to be tamed. They stampeded downhill; charged ahead but, once on the page, became inert. When they flowed I lost control and when they wouldn’t come, I didn’t know where to look.

Now I sift the city for meter, describe the towers on Vernon Boulevard in rhyme, chain verbs together on the morning M-train. This minutia may not be as helpful as in conservatory practice rooms, but I’m rediscovering The Woodshed. I forgot it during years of screwdriver and clipboard music; lost track of it in a tangled thicket of overgrown sentences.

It’s good to be back.

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia.  The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.

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