October 20, 2020 § 15 Comments
It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?
Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.
What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?
Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:
Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.
Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.
The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:
By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.
There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.
Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.
Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:
The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.
The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.
You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:
[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”
Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.
Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?
Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?
The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.
October 19, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Trish Cantillon
‘Writing the Personal Essay’ was the first formal writing class I’d taken since college. It was also the first nonfiction writing I’d done outside my diary. At the end of the first session, in an effort to provide inspiration for future essays, the instructor gave us ten minutes to write about anything we wanted. No prompt, just a free-write to see what developed.
Without much thought, I jotted down broad strokes of a personal story. It wasn’t anything that had been burning inside me to tell, it just appeared, and I let it out. When the timer went off, he asked who wanted to share. Many hands shot up, including mine. I had shared my fiction writing in workshops over the years and I liked reading my work aloud. I was excited to introduce myself in this way to my fellow writers. The instructor signaled for me to begin. “I was twelve when I had electrodes strapped to my arm to administer shock as part of the Schick weight loss program my parents signed me up for.”
I could see the words I was reading on the paper I’d torn from my notebook. I could hear myself reading them. But all I could feel was the swell of heat moving up my body and the shaking that had taken hold of my hands. This wasn’t some dark, closely held secret I’d finally set free. This story was just another part of a long, complicated diet resume that stretched from childhood to young adulthood. It bore no more significance to me than The Beverly Hills Diet or The Scarsdale Diet, so my physical reaction to recounting it puzzled me.
When I finished reading, a flutter of “Whoa’s” and “Oh my God’s” rose from the class. These reactions surprised me. I thought I was telling a story about what it was like to be a fat twelve-year-old in ten minutes or less, completely comfortable with my identity in that story as the one with the problem. What I revealed was a pitiful episode foisted upon a young girl by her well-meaning parents and her willingness to accept it as a normal response to her being overweight. I had been eager to share what I’d written; to share what I felt were my talents as a writer but wound up exposing the pain beneath a seemingly benign personal anecdote.
A mixture of pride and embarrassment flushed my cheeks. My fellow writers didn’t know how that moment felt for me; a strange mix of pride and sadness. I was glad that I had impressed them and my instructor with my work, but I felt a bitter sting with their sincere pity. I smiled as we shuffled out of the classroom, quickly averting their eyes so as not to invite conversation. I didn’t know what I should say.
For my entire life, including and up until that point, I carried the mantle of the fat girl. It was the part of my personal story I most identified with. It was my problem that I struggled with. That, at times, I triumphed over and, at others, was beaten down by, but all the while it was the thing that defined me. It was who I was even as I grew into a young adult and finally did find freedom from its grip. But in ten minutes that had all been upended. I experienced my story through others’ eyes and instead of it being shameful or sorrowful, I saw that I was no longer the villain. My compulsive overeating, my ill-fitting clothes, the rolls on my stomach were no longer the bad guys. But if that was really true then who was I? Who could I be?
The woman who had sat next to me in class followed me out, she was dressed in a stylish pant suit and high heels. “You’re so brave to tell that story. Ugh. Why are parents so stupid sometimes?” she said as she shook her head and passed me on her way to the elevator. I smiled back and shrugged, resisting the urge to elaborate and tell her that my parents were just trying to help. That I was desperate and so were they. That they meant well. All of that was true, of course, but I knew that it wasn’t the point anymore.
I had never thought of myself as brave or my writing as brave. For most of my life writing was just a thing I knew I liked to do. Aside from assignments in school, it was something I kept to myself; secrets stowed away in my diaries, short stories written in the late nights of summer vacation, or an occasional workshop. Until ‘Writing the Personal Essay’ I had never really considered how my writing made other people feel; or how their feelings could influence mine.
As I walked back to my car, I realized that I wasn’t just telling a story about myself. I had invited people in, and in they came with their thoughts and opinions about me and diets and parenting. It was uncomfortable and awkward to have unwittingly exposed myself that way. I didn’t like thinking about my classmates pitying me. But then my feelings of vulnerability gave way to excitement. I felt surprisingly empowered. There’s a new me that I suddenly discovered because someone else saw it. And it was time to tell her story.
Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Manifest Station, The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review. She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults.
October 16, 2020 § 30 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Five years ago, I created a folder on my computer titled COLORbook. My intention was to complete a series of essays about my personal and cultural understanding of color. The idea had been stirring in my head for a long time. I had written about orange ten years before. It is the color of a dying ancient cedar tree my friend Ann mourns. And old word tracing its lineage from fourteenth century English, back to Old French or perhaps Spanish through the Arabic naranj, the Persian narang, and eventually to the Sanskrit naranga, meaning orange tree, a word that might derive from an even earlier term meaning fragrant. Our word for the color orange and the fruit have an ancient co-existence, but the citrus fruit came first.
I had completed several chapters—blue sky and hot pink, color blindness and little black dresses—and had begun thinking about sending them out when I learned of the book On Color by David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing. It is a handsome book and makes me cross because I wish I’d written it.
It’s probably for that reason that I am arguing with it. There are marvelous lines like “The sensation of color is physical; the perception of color is cultural.” The book does a nice job of explaining color as wound into perception and culture. Homer’s “wine dark sea” seems to trouble a lot of people including these authors who desperately want Homer to have said the sea was blue. Maybe saying the sea was blue seemed entirely unnecessary?
I look at the ocean every day, for hours at a time. Perhaps the wine reference refers not to hue, but purely to darkness, richness. The ocean’s surface is various, it glisters and gleams, lies flat and dull, is blue or green or gray or purple. I have seen the water’s surface appear both dark and the color of wine.
But then another sort of confusion: “Not many things are orange” the book states by way of explaining why there was no word for the color “orange” in English until the fruit arrived in England. It was unnecessary, they suggest. Chaucer refers to a color “betwixe yelow and reed.” The author knew how to mix colors.
The skill is not so obvious as the authors claim. I have taught small children and older ones how to combine yellow and red to make orange—most do not immediately know. But the authors make a gigantic leap in claiming there was no need for the color name because “Not many things are orange . . .” Only autumn leaves, chickens and foxes, sunrise and sunset, rust and hair we call “red.” Fire. Apparently the word was necessary in India for millennia before it reached the British isles.
Fewer things are purple, but that word is very old in English, from the Old English word purpul, from Latin purpura, from the Greek porphura, the name of the Tyrian purple dye made from a Mediterranean shellfish. Homer mentions fabrics dyed purple but not orange sunsets.
Perhaps that is because so many things are orange?
Most afternoons I have watched the sky change color, the darkening sky blue overhead and shifting to orange on the horizon without passing either purple or green. Amazing. “How we are named and what we are called” is a phrase that runs around my head. The paradox of naming and valuing what we name, of naming and of un-naming as Ursula K. Le Guin imagines in her story “She Unnames Them” where Woman lifts the burden that names place upon living creatures.
We might be mistaken in what we assume about color—that white is the color of wedding dresses rather than of mourning, that “flesh” is a Crayola crayon, that what we trouble to name is the same now as then.
On the September morning that I write this, the sky is yellow, the sun blood-red, the sea a peculiar mix of gray and sooty orange. Not wine dark, but burnt toast. The West is ablaze and America seems to be the only people in the world who refuse to name climate change. I do not have all the names for this fire.
Orange is one of the oldest because so many things are orange.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she shelters in place in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, writes, weaves, walks, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.
October 12, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Sonja Larsen
Here is a thing you should know about me. Sooner or later it will all come back to dogs. I don’t mean that I am dog crazy, that I have a special breed, that I wear t-shirts with puppies on them. I simply mean that every important story in my life had a dog in it. I mean that how I remember myself during those stories, if I am shamed or proud, will be captured in a moment of how I behaved towards a dog. Did I scream at them for pulling me too hard, loving me too much? Did I humbly stoop over to pick up after them on a hungover Sunday morning, grateful for the way their presence had given me an excuse to come home at all? I have to get home to my dog. I mean that all the terrible and wonderful things I know about myself I learned by how I behaved towards a dog.
In 2010 my husband and I got a small rescue dog, our first dog as a couple, our first small dog. We took a dog training class, and learned what is often called clicker training. What I discovered about using behavioural conditioning and positive reinforcement not only helped me be a more thoughtful and engaged dog owner, but a better human, and a better writer. Because, as BF Skinner himself said: “What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.”
The first thing I learned was that our brains are a kind of evolutionary hodgepodge, starting with that lizard brain and moving up into the more ‘evolved’ functions. Learning takes place across all these aspects of the brain, but it all starts with that fight flight freeze fear response. It’s hard to learn to make good choices when you’re scared. A calm learner, a trusting learner, is an engaged learner. On our walks I learn to walk wide of other dogs so my dog doesn’t have to bark in panic each time. I learn to stop being mad at him for being afraid. I accept where he’s at, not where I think he should be. In turn he learns to trust me. I reward him for all his good choices, his calmness, his attention.
In my creative life I learned to stop and recognize the berating voice who yelled about the quality or slow pace of my writing, or all the things I should and should not be afraid of. I’d spent a lifetime trying to bully my creativity, make it sit, make it do tricks, or just make it shut up. What if I instead I asked it what it wanted? What it needed? What if success didn’t look like a body cowed in submission, but rather a creature that was perked up, excited, ready for what came next? If my art was a dog, how would I treat it?
Lesson two was to start a little hungry. For years I had dabbled between writing and craft but when I decided to write a book I gave up nearly all of my other creative projects. In the same way that my little dog didn’t find the learning game as fun on a full stomach, I didn’t have the same urgency for my writing if I’d spent the day playing with a glue gun. I had to recognize that, like my little dog, I had limited attention and I needed to use it wisely.
“How did you ever train him how to do that?” My friends ask when my dog jumps through my arms, or turns on a light with his paw. “I just showed him the YouTube video!” I joke, but really, each of these was the result of many small sessions.
The third lesson was to break it down. In dog training, you learn to work one skill at a time, sometimes one movement at a time. What is my one ask for this moment? The first ask, the basic skill I wanted to teach myself was writing at consistent times each week. For the first little while, being there was all that really mattered. Reward the behaviour you want, ignore the behaviour you don’t. My other asks since then have varied between word counts, submissions, a project goal. I like short bursts of time writing for retreats or where stretches of unstructured time feels a bit scary or I’m really trying to brainstorm. I have an accountability group where we talk about things like goals, how our commitments to ourselves can be honoured and measured. The bonus is when you break it down, there’s lots of chances to earn cookies.
My little dog Ralphie still does not love big dogs and there are still days when writing creative nonfiction is hard emotional work. But when I hear that old choke-collar voice of shame or judgment, I remind myself that if my art was a dog, I would be gentler. I would be more analytical, trying to understand what parts of the brain and body are reacting in this moment. And I would remember to love it not only for the tricks it can do, but because of the companionship it brings me. Because sometimes your dog is a good dog just because it’s yours.
It took a ten pound mutt to show me the importance of taking tiny steps, rewarding the behavior I want, measuring progress, guiding without punishment or anger. And all of these insights have been a big help in all areas of my life, but perhaps my writing most of all. In learning a kinder way to train my dog, my own creative animal learned how to respond more joyfully, more consistently, when called.
Sonja Larsen is the award-winning author of Red Star Tattoo: My Life As A Girl Revolutionary (Random House Canada) Her work has also appeared in literary publications in the US, Canada, and the UK. She lives in Vancouver British Columbia and when she is not playing with her dog Ralphie she is working on a book about her experiences running a computer lab in an inner-city community centre.
September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
September 9, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
I think creating a strong piece of short nonfiction—be it a lyric essay, a collage, flash, micro, whatever—is like knowing exactly how to use the zoom lens on a camera. You can keep the lens fully retracted and create a picture that includes many elements, several focal points—or you can zoom in and train your eye on one person, one moment, a limited canvas that somehow tells a bigger story. You have to decide what belongs in the frame, and crop out what doesn’t. Easier said than done.
Lately, I’ve been writing (or trying to write) about my dad. Since he died 15 months ago, I’ve barely been able to pen a grocery list, let alone an essay. Now, after much grieving and healing (which is, for what it’s worth, nowhere near complete), I feel small, hopeful sparks of creativity returning. But when I start to tell a story about him, my zoom lens pulls back and suddenly I’m going on about explanations and history, about our family, his childhood, my childhood. I can’t stop. It all feels completely essential. I find myself believing that the picture I’ve chosen to illustrate won’t make any sense unless I include the entire background. Unsurprisingly, the feedback I get from my writing partners echoes this—“Too much explaining—what’s the real story here? Focus on the moment.”
In the next draft or piece, I take those notes to heart and push the zoom lens forward until all the extraneous background has been cropped out. All the tiny details of the moment come into extreme focus. I self-edit for sparseness, for the brevity that feels so elusive. I try to let single conversations do the work of pages and pages of explanation. Then, my writing partners pry into the carefully framed shot—“I want to know more about why he’s like this, why this moment matters. Give me a little background.”
It occurs to me that while the viewfinder of my camera seems to work just fine, the zoom lens is all screwed up. I can’t seem to find the middle ground, the place where the moment is the main focus, but there’s just enough setting that the moment makes sense. I know it can be done. I’ve read what feels like millions of flash essays that have done it so well. And long ago, before the grief and the healing, before the loss, I even wrote a couple of them myself.
Looking for inspiration for my messy essay drafts, I comb through my email history for messages between me and my dad. Links to lighting fixtures for the house we renovated together. Christmas lists fired off the day after Halloween. But more than any of that—photographs from his many shooting trips to area parks and historical sites. Restorations of old family snapshots that age almost ruined. Perfectly framed photos he spent hours capturing, and then hours more perfecting in Photoshop.
At the bottom of each email was his name and a quote I’d seen a million times—“f/8… and be there.” He had been ending emails that way for years, but I’d never given the quote a second thought. I dug around, and found countless mentions of it on photography websites and blogs. Coined by noted spot news photographer Arthur Fellig, it essentially means, forget about the fancy technique and theatrics. Just go to the most basic setting (f/8) and be present and ready for whatever comes. It’s the photographer’s “keep it simple, stupid.”
In typical dad fashion, he may have buried the lede, but he gave me exactly what I needed at precisely the right moment. I realize that, now that I’m writing with purpose and direction again, I’ve been futzing with the camera settings and contorting my body so I could find just the right angle. I’ve been screwing with the zoom, toggling from portrait to landscape, muting the flash or burning it too bright. No wonder I haven’t been able to create the picture I want. No wonder everything I do feels like too much, or too little.
So now, I’m returning to my drafts with that quote at the front of my mind. What does it look like to keep my internal camera on its most basic setting? How do I stop looking for the perfect shot, and simply be present for whatever moments await me? Will I ever figure out what truly belongs in the frame, and what I can afford to crop out? Like any good photographer—like my dad—I’m going to keep hitting the shutter and have faith that sooner or later, I’ll figure it out.
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
August 27, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Kailyn McCord
I grew up in what I’d call a traditional workshop. Non-genre specific, usually involving between six and twelve people, this model will be familiar to any in the capital-C capital-W Creative Writing world. In it, the writer under critique listens, verboten from speaking, while peers and professor discuss their work. The conversation usually begins with strengths, then progresses to problems. The function of the writer’s silence is two-fold: first as mechanism so that they might listen more thoroughly, and second, so that the group might elucidate the work before them without clues as to the intentions behind it. Silence bears enlightenment; via their role as witness, the writer comes to see, somewhat miraculously, the true meaning of their own work.
My experiences with this model (years in an MFA, a smattering of conferences) weren’t bad, but they did breed a familiar pattern. When in the hot seat, critique would leave me in one of two places. If the group mostly liked the piece, I was often more or less exactly where I started: alone with my work, unsure of what next steps to take. If the group didn’t like the piece – if they employed the kind of cutting-down to which I’d become accustomed – I was still alone, but this time tasked with parsing individual criticisms into a cohesive plan. Knowing myself to be ever the idiot when it came to what my essays were “actually doing,” the group had handed down its meaning, and now my job was to bring it forth.
As critic, I did as had been done to me, offering my classmates a gentle barrage at best, a borderline combative litany of their failings at worst. Certainly, my criticism was craft-based; certainly, I wasn’t mean. But in my mind, I was supposed to return a favor, to show my peers where they’d gone wrong, and what they might do to right themselves. A strange sort of esteem began to build, a conflation of my critiquing abilities and my image of myself as a Good Writer. So that I might display genius (and reassure myself of its existence), there need be problems in the work of my peers, faults on which to proffer my cutthroat analyses. It amounted to a fragile success, contingent on the failures of my classmates, as were theirs on mine.
Until a month ago, I thought this was just the way of things.
A few weeks prior to my participation in a recent conference, I received an email from my workshop leader. Amidst various specific instructions was a bold-faced paragraph informing us that she did not run silent workshops, that of course the writer should aim to stay out the driver’s seat, but that should they think it necessary, were more than welcome to speak. Perhaps more shocking than this invitation, the bolded paragraph instructed us that, when critiquing, we should explicitly challenge any assumed authority over the work in front of us. Constructive criticism was encouraged, but we were to operate by the maxim that the writer knew more about their work than we did.
I balked. Surely, I thought, this model was designed for pandering, to coddle weak-minded writers who couldn’t stomach the true stuff of critique. Surely, a writer invited to speak would become mean, petty, defensive, provoking battles between intention and observation, writer and peer critic. Surely, I would walk away from this workshop with word documents full of saccharine compliments, or shyly hedged notes. When imagining my own feedback, I dreaded what I’d offer, sure I’d couch my every ‘real’ thought in fluffy, soft-handed language.
To say that I was off base would be an understatement. I was in the outfield. I was in the stands. I was the guy selling cotton candy in the parking lot.
First of all, we fought no battles. Instead, if a writer spoke, they were usually brief re-directs, and helpful for us in avoiding red herrings. Conversations that, in the old model, would have harped on (for example) inconsistent POV instead turned to how the POV was working, and what effect it rendered. Real critique still materialized (that the POV was confusing), but because we’d assumed their expertise, the writer got to see reactions to choices they’d already made, rather than our theories about ones they should have made, and hadn’t yet. This lens – one that takes a barely fledged idea and parses it out as if already complete and purposeful – is golden stuff, a rare longview, and to my experience, the very most difficult perspective to come by when drafting. There it was, in easy reach, born of the new model we found ourselves in.
I’m terrible at large-scale structure. I’ll sit in a line all day, or work the acceleration of a paragraph until it sings, but ask me about plot, and I’m lost. In this workshop, there was one writer’s piece in particular I’d had trouble with; the line-level wasn’t where it should be, I thought, even for a workshop setting. I explained patiently in my comments about showing and telling. I was sure the author was inexperienced. But come workshop time, I found them sharp, wise, and committed to every piece we addressed. I was blown away. How could someone who said those things write something like that? After the workshop, I read the piece again. I watched the beats move. I tracked character motivation and exposition. Yes, the line level wasn’t to my taste, but this writer’s command of pacing was exceptional.
Had I read this piece in the old model, I would have hung my hat on its flaws and considered my job finished. In the new model, because I was reading for intentionality, I wasn’t only seeing what the writer was doing, I was learning from it.
Comments on my own work proved honest, straightforward, and devoid of dismissiveness. Their aim wasn’t to correct, but rather to bolster what vision I’d offered. Rather than finding myself swamped by a sea of contradictory commentary, I felt empowered to take or leave what I thought was best for my work. It was surprisingly easy, in part because I knew what the group was rooting for: not their vision, and not an instructor’s edict, but my own intentions.
My favorite aspect of the new model is what I can only call genuine community. Not only is this basically nice, but it serves as real balance for moments where the ego falters. The longer I write, the surer I am that doubt will always return, dark and gnarly, a seemingly unconquerable force. What better antidote than a group of smart, dedicated people who not only believes what in moments of doubt I cannot, but who are willing to help me find my way again? What better gratitude to offer them in return than the pledge that I will do the same?
So, I’m officially ditching the hard road. Writing is hard enough, and the traditional model, for me, isn’t worth the price of asking. Instead, I’m choosing community, voice, and a new path toward the next draft. I dare you to set down your ego, and join me.
Kailyn McCord writes fiction and nonfiction in Oakland, California, her hometown by way of Oregon, Alaska, and New Orleans. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Brevity, The Believer, The Cincinnati Review, The Master’s Review, and The Rumpus, among others. She holds a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she was the editor of Bayou Magazine. Kailyn has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, Montana’s Open AIR, and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. When not writing, Kailyn likes a good camping trip.
August 20, 2020 § 8 Comments
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August 12, 2020 § 13 Comments
By Joanne Nelson
“Have you asked them?” A friend inquired after noticing I was using my kids’ real names in essays. Actually, I hadn’t. And then it seemed wrong that I hadn’t. I used pseudonyms for parents, neighbors, and childhood friends, assuming they deserved some modicum of invisibility from my faulty memory. Hmm, and the kids and spouse and my brother didn’t?
Years ago, I made a chart of names and aliases, deciding on the perfect alter ego for everyone I wrote about. The list took me several afternoons of overthinking and unfortunately, has been misplaced. I’ve memorized the key players’ pen names though, and now think of them as family members. My spouse, in fact, goes by “Bruce” in most of my work. I like thinking of him as a Bruce—especially as the change honors Bruce Springsteen. Truth be told, I like thinking about Bruce Springsteen in all kinds of ways.
I don’t recall why I switched back to using given names after relying on the chart for so long. Maybe I’d gotten serious about publishing and decided it was what bona fide writers did. Maybe because those liable to be upset by my work had all died. And with their deaths, somehow betrayal and honoring became reversed. Maybe that’s a load of crap and I simply forgot to switch the names one day and the new pattern stuck. Maybe I shouted out “Bruce” at an inconvenient time.
But when I was nearing publication of my memoir, I began rethinking this choice. After all, the kids were now adults and might have thoughtful opinions about the issue.
I secured my brother’s consent easily. He said he didn’t care, “he had nothing to hide.” His role in my work is primarily supportive, so I wondered about his comment. Did he have something to hide? Why would he say such a thing if he didn’t? Was there enough hidden material for a new book? “Great,” I said, and filed his response away for another day.
Getting my spouse’s permission proved equally effortless. Although he at least asked, “What happened to Bruce?” And acknowledged the loss with some sadness.
That left the girls. Also simple yeses I’d assumed. Or perhaps a double checking re anything embarrassing being shared (Nothing to worry about. Well, not in my mind anyway).
I spoke with my youngest on the phone. “Hey,” I said, “Do You care if I use your real name in my book?” She knows she’s gone by Lizzy in the past—a shout out to her childhood desire to have been named Elizabeth.
“I don’t know. How many times am I in there?”
An interesting question, which hadn’t occurred to me, and so, with great innocence, I pulled up the manuscript and hit the find function.
I rambled as I looked and initially couldn’t find her name. I said this.
“Oh. How many times is Polly in it?”
I began to sense I’d made a mistake.
“Here you are, I searched under the wrong spelling. Seventeen.”
I paused. Searched. Calculated.
“It’s not important.” I replied.
“We always wondered who you liked better, I guess we know now.”
I bumbled along, describing her placement in the narrative, the number of unnamed references that referred to her. She had none of it. The count was all that mattered.
Despite her self-described devastating drop in status, my youngest soon visited overnight. Her friend, Pete, spent most of the evening with us. Lizzy quickly, loudly, emotionally, described our phone call, and Pete, good friend that he is, made a point of referencing the situation as much as possible during our long, long evening together. When I tried to make light of the topic by saying Pete scored 22 mentions, she almost had a coronary. Pete ignored me when I confessed he wasn’t in the memoir at all, and worked his nonexistent numbers into every relevant and irrelevant subject for the rest of the evening.
Lesson learned, I approached my eldest with more caution, more skill, when she came to visit. We were chatting over dinner when I wove my question into the conversation. She asked what the permission could be traded for.
My goodness, my sweet girls are filled with surprises.
I laughed, considering the reply an almost clear “yes.” But she continued. She mentioned a horror movie she’d recently watched. How frightening it was. How she’d like to see it again. Her eyes lit up.
“Sure,” she said. “If you watch the movie with me.”
The thing to understand is that even hearing about the plot of a scary flick can keep me up at night. I tried distraction, I tried humor, I tried guilt: “If that’s what you need, knowing how upset I’d be, then fine.” She just smiled.
Eventually, with a lot of crafty topic changing work on my part, the subject faded. We cleaned the kitchen, spent the night relaxing, and moved onto other things. The next day Polly (not her real name) left for home and I got back to my rewrites.
Joanne Nelson is the author of the memoir, This Is How We Leave available from Vine Leaves Press. Her writing appears in anthologies and literary journals such as Brevity, the Citron Review, the museum of americana, Consequence, and Redivider. In addition, she is a contributor to “Lake Effect” on WUWM—Milwaukee’s NPR station. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin, where she develops and leads community programs, maintains a psychotherapy practice, and adjuncts. More information is at wakeupthewriterwithin.com
August 3, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Morgan Baker
Imagine a head piece like a crown encircling your head, with a plastic shield attached with Velcro hanging down covering your face – the kind healthcare providers wear to protect themselves from COVID-19 when they’re working with sick patients. The patients are in beds, spewing, breathing and coughing droplets that are potentially contagious and can contaminate the people caring for them.
Imagine a mask – the kind you have been wearing to protect yourself and others from the virus as you walk and shop, and sometimes visit with friends and family. Some of these masks are homemade cotton with ties and elastics. You have used yards of material for your loved ones. The fabrics have been selected with each wearer in mind. Cheery, multi colored dog fabric for the dog lover, darker checked fabric for the men in the family; fabric with airplanes for the man who worked in aviation for 15 years; sheep for the daughter who likes animals; and orange for the son-in-law who loves that color.
Now imagine a classroom full of students. There are 16 of them. Once upon a time, they were in a small, intimate seminar room, sitting shoulder to shoulder, in a circle discussing their ideas for writing projects, and then sharing their work so their peers and you could mark up photocopies with suggestions on how to improve the work. Maybe the work needed more quotes, or better transitions. Maybe the story’s opening wasn’t catchy enough. Maybe the theme didn’t carry through. Students passed the papers along one after the other until there was a pile in front of each person ready to critique. In the small classroom, you and the students got to know and trust each other. You cracked jokes and laughed with the students as they gained more and more confidence in their work.
Take that classroom and stretch it. Now you will be teaching the same number of students but in a much larger space. Perhaps an auditorium or a performing arts space. The 16 students are spaced apart, six feet between each of them, all facing front – some won’t be able to see others. They are all masked. Some are wearing custom made masks; others are wearing paper masks ordered online. The one thing that is consistent – you can only see their eyes. You have no idea what their faces look like, except from the little out-of-focus pictures you get on the registration page on your computer.
You stand in front of this group, with your mask and shield on. Perhaps the school has given you a microphone to help project your voice across the auditorium you are unaccustomed to teaching in. If you don’t have a mic, you’re one of the lucky ones, you have a loud voice, you’ve been told by family and friends, so it should carry. Either way, your voice bounces off the walls of the mostly empty room, and you feel self-conscious with this new technology and garbed in protective gear.
Imagine critiquing the students’ papers in class. No more paper to pass along. No more pens. Only computers, behind which each masked face disappears as they read the work for the day and mark up their peers work online. To comment, students raise their hands to talk. You call on each of them, hoping you get their names right as it’s hard to distinguish them from their eyes. Do they know each other? The students share their thoughts, pushing their words through the masks covering their mouths. There is less room for spontaneity and joy. You are there to get a job done.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket (thebucket.com). Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.