Flash Lyric Essay About a Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence in Student Writing at Which Professors Become Dejected and Lament the State of the World
January 12, 2023 § 6 Comments
By Yelizaveta P. Renfro
The history professor yells “Shit!” when he sees an AI-generated sentence, and “Show us the devil!” when the presenters offer to share a whole AI-written essay, and finally, “I’m going to retire!” The medievalist retorts, “I can’t retire for twenty-three years,” and then talks about the terrifying prospect of grading essays written by machines. Then someone else quips that with machine scoring of essays, one machine might be writing and another machine might be grading—lonely robot talking to lonely robot. “Writing is supposed to be one mind communicating to another mind,” laments the communications professor, who is also close to retirement. But what is a mind, anyway? And what is writing, except capturing and rearranging words? Isn’t all of expression mimicry?
The presenters tell us to test a writing assignment in one of the free AI playgrounds, so I type flash lyric essay about a faculty meeting on artificial intelligence in student writing at which professors become dejected and lament the state of the world, and within seconds, AI has written a five-paragraph essay titled Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence: A Flash Lyric Essay, except it isn’t a lyric essay at all. From the time of Aristotle, philosophers have been worried about how humans compare to machines, AI tells me. The government is investing billions into AI research to benefit national security.
At another AI playground, I get a more disquieting result. What have we become? Has technology created its own monster? Where is the humanity? These are a few questions that I think are asked every day. They are asked by our students. They are asked by our leaders. They are asked by ourselves. The students are the most innocent ones of all. I am not afraid to admit that I am among them. To be quite frank I have even been one of them. But I don’t think the problem lies with students. I think it lies with us.
Who is this first-person narrator? In the next paragraph, he tells me:
I am a faculty member of a liberal arts college. Recently I was asked to write a poem about the subject of artificial intelligence and this is what I wrote.
Artificial Intelligence: The Machine in the Sky
By Joseph M. Martin, Professor of English
In every way, it’s bigger than me
It’s far superior to me
I am just a man
It’s greater than me
It’s superior to me
I am just a
The text cuts off, but clicking the “more” button produces additional lines:
I am just a man
It’s bigger than me
It’s far superior to me
It has much more going for it
It has a great deal more going for it
Much more, much more than me
It’s bigger than
Clicking “more” generates more poem—the same inane lines, with slight variations. AI is savvy enough to create a professor persona, to capture something of the tenor of lyric nonfiction, and yet—poor Professor Martin has hit a wall, reaching the outermost edges of what he knows to say. Still, I keep clicking “more,” until finally, he can only repeat the same line over and over, hundreds of times, like a monomaniac. I scroll for what seems like miles.
It’s far superior to me
It’s far superior to me
It’s far superior to me
It’s far superior to me
The presenters have follow-up questions. How effective is the writing that was generated? Would I be able to tell it was written by AI? How would I grade it? I suddenly imagine Professor Martin enrolling in my introductory creative writing class, a tweed-coated mannequin with a pull-string on his back. I am just a man, he says, when I pull the string. It’s far superior to me. It’s far superior to me. And then I try to coax new, original thoughts out of poor Professor Martin, but he is a Chatty Kathy with only half a dozen pre-recorded phrases.
The medievalist is somewhat relieved to discover the assignment she fed her robot did not produce a particularly coherent essay. The conversation moves on to writing as process—prewriting, brainstorming, mindmapping, outlining, workshopping, conferencing, revising—all the weapons we have against robots that can generate an essay in six seconds. But I am distracted now, because Professor Martin has taken up residence in a corner of my mind, where he sits, dejected, still trying to write his poem, hitting his head against the wall.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.
December 19, 2022 § 11 Comments
Jeannine Ouellette, author of the memoir The Part That Burns, offers a generous abundance of clear advice in her recent Substack essay “11 Urgent & Possibly Helpful Things I Have Learned From Reading Thousands of Manuscripts.”
Her advice comes from “more than twenty years of editorial experience, including a decade of magazine editing, developmental editing, and book coaching” she explains, before distilling that experience quite brilliantly.
For instance, on attention to language in our nonfiction, Ouellette writes:
We must love the words for their own sake—for their shapes and sounds, their strangeness and quirks. And we must test those same words over and over again to see if they are the absolute best fit for the job. We must reject overly easy, overly familiar images and phrases and push ourselves instead for the slight adjustment that can make a world of difference. Take Larry Levis’s poem, Winter Stars, in which the speaker stares not through dark or bare or wide branches of an oak, but wet branches. And in which he gives us not bright or twinkling or sparkling stars, but a “thin haze of them, persisting.” This is what it means to defamiliarize language enough to let it hold truth. If the language is so familiar it washes over us, any truth it contains will be lost.
Ouellette also offers thoughts on language, beginnings and endings, knowing your subject, time control, and this, on the need to pay true attention:
Too much of the writing submitted to me relies on abstractions and internal reflection without earning its proclamations with clear-eyed, truthful observations of the world we all share. I need precise, concrete renderings—of the world, this world, the one you and I both live in, the one I recognize—for work to come fully alive.
If you are wondering, “is my essay done and ready to submit,” you might use her “11 Urgent & Possibly Helpful Things ” as a yardstick to measure your own work.
To do so, you can access her entire essay here.
December 14, 2022 § 61 Comments
By Eileen Vorbach Collins
Finally, after a year spent fretting over the difference between a synopsis and an overview, what to include in a proposal, which comp titles are actually comparable, and submitting my manuscript to more than 20 small presses I had three offers for publication.
The first was contingent on my changing the structure, because “essay collections don’t sell.” I’d need to rewrite the book in a more traditional memoir format. Excited to have an offer, I considered it; even spent some time working on the rewrite. But it went against my vision for the book. I want it to be read in the bite sized pieces a bereaved person can manage.
We bereaved can’t focus. Our attention spans are gnats, buzzing around our heads for seconds at a time. By the time we’ve read one chapter we’ve lost our place, can’t remember how we got here. Where are my keys? Did I feed the cat? What month is it? Do I even care?
The second offer came from a small press with some good titles and interesting cover designs, though after a call with an editor, that one didn’t feel right either. It’s hard to explain. The edges were jagged. There was a vague unsettledness and I felt myself holding back, my enthusiasm waning. But who am I to be picky? Shouldn’t I grab the first offer I get? Alliteration notwithstanding, what fun I would have withdrawing all those submissions. “I’ve accepted an offer of publication. Thank you for your consideration.”
Sure, we all dream of a traditional publisher, not necessarily one of the big five, but a press with some heft. A well-known name. An editor who shares our vision. A robust social media presence. Some gorgeous cover designs. But the universe opened her arms to me through the little press that accepted my manuscript. To paraphrase the well-known song from the musical Hair, for once “Jupiter aligned with Mars.”
The offer came from Apprentice House, a small university press in Baltimore, my hometown. Loyola University is my alma mater. It’s where I first started writing about my daughter’s suicide for what became my master’s thesis.
As I looked at the books Apprentice House had published, I noticed one by Michael Olesker, a former syndicated columnist for The Baltimore Sun newspaper. His wife was one of two midwives at the Baltimore Birth Center where my daughter entered the world. Although not present for the delivery, she came to our home the following day for a postpartum visit. Seeing her name brought me back, full circle, to the time of my daughter’s beginning.
When I started thinking about requesting blurbs, one of the first people I thought of was an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins whom I’d met because of a serendipitous flyer posted in an elevator when I worked as an RN at the hospital. He taught a popular course in bereavement in the Pastoral Care program at Loyola. I contacted him and he asked me to send the manuscript.
Whether I’ll get that blurb remains to be seen, though I marvel at how everything is finally coming together. I’ve seen it happen so often now, for writer friends. I still grapple with feeling happy about it. How can I be happy to be publishing a book that I wish I could not have written? Writing the essays in this collection was sometimes excruciating. Why couldn’t I put it behind me? Why couldn’t I move on?
To write about grief, especially the suicide of a child, feels risky. The stigma is real. Will readers judge me? After all, what the hell kind of mother could I be? My child took her life and I’m capitalizing on it, seeking attention by writing a book. Even including some humor. What the hell is wrong with me?
I can only tell you that when newly bereaved, I wanted nothing more than to read authentic stories by real people who had survived the most terrible loss imaginable. Stories that would show me it was possible to find a place of bearable sorrow. I hope my stories will do that for someone else.
Eileen‘s work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives,” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. “How to be the Mother of a Dead Girl” was a finalist in the Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Contest. Eileen’s forthcoming essay collection received a Gold Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association and was chosen 1st runner-up unpublished book of the year.
December 9, 2022 § 14 Comments
By Camilla Sanderson
Thinking about the first workshop I took as a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, I feel compassion for my fellow writers. I didn’t know what I was doing, was all opinion and ego, and wasn’t even sure what ‘craft’ was exactly. It wasn’t so much that I suffered with bad feedback from others—I had the audacity back then to simply dismiss whatever didn’t resonate. But what I truly regret is not knowing how to give better feedback to my fellow writers.
It wasn’t until years later when I heard Suzanne Kingsbury, the founder of the Gateless Writing Academy say, “Writers need craft, not opinion,” that I had an epiphany. When feedback is opinion, I’ve noticed the tendency for inexperienced writers (women in particular) to change writing to please others. This is our cultural conditioning: to please others. But one of the most liberating aspects of writing is to speak one’s own truth. Conversely, when feedback focuses on craft, instead of opinion, we receive information that helps us to do exactly that: express our own truth while simultaneously strengthening and deepening the craft of our writing.
While immersed in writing and revising a first draft of a memoir in the VCFA MFA program, maybe I was just too inexperienced and overwhelmed to gain more awareness of craft elements, but I do think every writer is well served to understand how feedback can be most useful. In the Gateless Writing Academy, I learned how to focus my feedback on craft elements such as narrative arc, character development, lyrical sentences, conflict in story, scene and chapter construction, setting a reader in time and place, beginnings and desire, structure and scaffolding, description and details, juxtaposition, rhythm, etc.
In a Harvard Business Review article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall elucidate many myths surrounding the feedback process. “Research,” they say, “shows that people can’t reliably rate the performance of others. More than 50% of your rating of someone reflects your characteristics, not hers.” My own experience backed this up: in several MFA writing workshops, when a writer gave feedback––because it was so often opinion––it reflected more about the writer giving the feedback than about the writing being workshopped. Focusing on craft eliminates that kind of opinion.
Not being able to “reliably rate the performance of others” also points towards how the most effective feedback is not about judging something as good or bad, which is a binary tendency we’ve all be conditioned into simply from growing up in the West.
Effective feedback involves shining the light on what is working. This is what opens the door to learning, and research in brain science backs this up: “Neuroscience shows that we grow most when people focus on our strengths.” In the HBR article they write, “focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” In other words, “getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.”
These findings are opposite to the dominant patriarchal paradigm, which focuses on “what needs fixing,” resulting in a damaging kind of perfectionism that blocks our enjoyment of the writing process and feeds the pernicious Inner Critic.
Perhaps one of my most important learnings on the writer’s path has been about the Inner Critic. Maybe interfaith seminary first planted the seed: I am not my thoughts; I am the observing awareness behind my thoughts. This helps me to cultivate space and distance from my Inner Critic and not be the effect of it. It’s evident that the Gateless Writing Academy also recognizes how much the Inner Critic effects writers, as they dedicate the entire first month of seminars to learning what it is and how to cultivate space around it.
I find it fascinating though, that a part of me is addicted to wanting to know where other writers may find my writing lacking. It feels impossible to give up the desire: “Tell me where it needs fixing.” But perhaps this points more towards a desire for mastery and the difference between feedback from fellow writers versus an editor’s expertise—the latter being a completely different skillset.
I want my writing to get to the place where it feels like its singing. I’ve had that happen with cooking, where friends have told me the food is singing. But that is never a result of prior meals being critiqued or being told where they think I could do better. It happens when I trust my knowledge of the basic elements of cooking—perhaps akin to elements of craft in the practice of writing—and when I’ve achieved a level of mastery from many, many hours of practice.
Perhaps there’s also simply a mystical aspect to both writing and cooking—that “je ne sais quoi.” Maybe it’s a kind of alchemical energy, a kind of magic. And when we’re aligned with the force of that creative mystery, maybe that’s also when the writing will sing.
Camilla Sanderson is the author of The Mini Book of Mindfulness (Hachette, 2016). You are invited to subscribe to her Substack newsletter where you may also read the first six serialized chapters of her forthcoming book, The Rising of the Divine Feminine and the Buddhist Monks Across the Road: A Memoir. Camilla also loves to laugh—particularly at her own ego, which she holds like a beloved pet, and by laughing at it when it wants to run the show—which it often does—she is endlessly amused.
November 21, 2022 § 13 Comments
By Kresha Richman Warnock
In Mary Oliver’s “Music Lessons,” the piano teacher exchanges places with the student. As her fingers hit the keys, “Sound became music, and music a white / scarp for the listener to climb / alone.”
My own piano teacher is a young woman less than half my age. She is gifted and trained and apologizes for correcting me, which I try to tell her is what she’s paid for. On the days when I miss note after note, I would be happy if she would sit at the piano and play for me. Her favorite is Tchaikovsky.
I asked my husband for piano lessons for Christmas and here it is the next fall, and I’m still with it. I will never bless a saloon, a church sanctuary, and certainly not a concert hall with my plunking, but I am moved to watch music coming out of my fingers as I go through the daily rituals of practicing scales and melodies. It turns out that when you start piano as an adult, you get to skip “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and plunge into lyrical music. I have almost mastered a lovely arrangement of “Danny Boy.”
My brain is not as flexible as it once was. It’s not the timing or even the right notes that I struggle with; I’m musical enough to hear how the songs should sound. It’s the physical, muscle memory—which finger should be on which key for each note. I don’t have a schema for that, and it is taking time and practice to build the brain synapses so I can consistently get the music right.
Just as notes swirl out of the piano keys to make melody, words flow from computer keys to make story. When I took my first creative writing class a couple of years ago, I did it out of curiosity. Reading a million books and writing my share of grants, lectures and newsletter articles didn’t completely prepare me to be the wordsmith I thought I might want to be, to tell stories in a way that was moving and compelling, though it did give my brain a framework of how to set meaning on paper. How do you take a love of words, of great writing, of story, of seeing inside other peoples’ lives, and turn it into your own meaningful personal essay?
In the middle of the pandemic, I logged into my first Zoom writing session—Creative Nonfiction 101. There we were, enlarged heads and necks, reading interesting essays by the famous, following prompts, sharing our work with other novices, gaining wisdom from a teacher who was a real writer!
The first essay I composed for that class was about my daughter’s struggle with a chronic illness. The draft told a story, even contained some wit…and was sloppy and confusing. I pretentiously titled it with a quote from a famous essay, opened a Submittable account and sent it out for publication. Several rejections later, it’s been retitled, rewritten and reviewed by astute writer friends. I’ve tried to make each word, each sentence tingle. I’ve even replaced double spaces after periods with singles to demonstrate I’m not still in the manual typewriter clique. Maybe no one will publish the essay, but at least now when it’s rejected, I can tell myself it just hasn’t found the right literary home. I’ve put the work in, and certainly practice makes better, if not perfect.
Each time I sit at the keyboard, I notice how it relates to my experience of playing the piano. I do ten or fifteen minutes of scales daily, and I develop a little more muscle and brain memory. Right now, I play scraps, holy scraps, but scraps of beautiful music. Who knows how far my piano playing will go?
The writing is harder to evaluate. It is often not clear what is the best word or how the damn thing all fits together. I hear the words of the great teachers: Just get your butt in the chair. Write for ten minutes without taking your pen off the page. Bird by bird. Avoid adverbs. Show don’t tell. Make sure to reflect. Read! I gobble up their advice. I take classes from amazing teachers. I share with and learn from writing friends.
And I do the work. I “practice” my writing each day. It is thrilling to be a student again, of both piano and writing, and I am amazed to see the muscles strengthening, sinews lengthening, and neuropathways developing. Although I promise not to perform publicly on the piano, I do want to share my words. I have some accumulated wisdom and poetry in me. Maybe someday that’s the white scarp I can create for someone else.
Kresha Richman Warnock lives with her husband, Jim, in the Pacific Northwest, where she has spent her days since the pandemic taking writing classes and writing her memoir. Her essays have been published in Eat, Darling, Eat, Devil’s Party Press, and Jewish Women of Words, and in the anthologies American Writers Review 2022 and Pure Slush.
November 10, 2022 § 27 Comments
How simple changes propelled my writing productivity beyond my imagination
By Bethany Jarmul
I’ve loved writing since I was a child, but I haven’t always made it a priority. Last year, I published two pieces of writing. I was thrilled with those publications, but when it was time to make my 2022 New Year’s resolution, I decided to go all-in: to give it my best effort for one year and see what would happen.
This year, I’ve had 33 pieces accepted for publication in literary magazines. Here are the changes I made to make this kind of productivity possible.
- I got serious about taking care of my mental health. My anxiety and depression were preventing me from writing. (I started therapy and medication.)
- I set a tiered goal for myself to publish a certain number of pieces. Even if I couldn’t achieve the top goal, I could achieve one of the smaller ones. I celebrated every time I reached a goal. (I’ve now surpassed my top goal of 25 publications!)
- I joined Twitter and found the #WritingCommunity. The support, encouragement, and inspiration I discovered there have been invaluable.
- I participated in writing classes and workshops to brush up on my skills and to force myself to meet deadlines.
- I joined one writing group and started a second one, building community and accountability for my writing life.
- I gave up activities that were filling my free time—mainly watching TV and mindless Instagram scrolling.
- I decided to follow my passions, to write whatever I wanted, to experiment, to dabble, to follow my whimsy, to write whatever gave me the most joy in that moment, not worrying about where it would get published or about staying in a particular genre.
- I decided to focus on writing and getting published instead of trying to make money or trying to get into the most prestigious mags—writing and sharing being the two things that brought me the most joy. I reframed writing as my super fun hobby.
- As a mom to two young kids, I decided to write in whatever small pockets of time I have, and to write in messy, loud spaces (because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all). No more excuses about not having the time or the space. Having limited time became motivation to get words down. (I wrote another Brevity Blog post about how I do this here.)
- I submit a lot. Each piece of writing, I submit to a minimum of five places, sometimes up to 12 to 15 places at once in a wide array of lit mags. The more I submit, the less the rejections hurt and the more chances I have to get published.
- When in doubt, I submit anyway. If the piece might fit the submissions call, if there’s even a tiny chance the editors could choose my work, I submit. I don’t self-reject.
- I very rarely abandon work. I just keep editing and transforming it until it’s something better, or I pull pieces from one piece to use for something else.
- I don’t write every day, but I do think about writing every day. I brainstorm ideas and try to be aware of my surroundings, always searching for interesting people, facts, places, ideas in whatever is happening around me.
- If I’m too tired to write, I read. If I’m too tired to read, I sleep. I’ve learned to respect my body and mind when they tell me to rest. Pushing through exhaustion doesn’t lead to good writing. Getting rest and exercise in my life helps my writing.
- I befriended other writers, and the few friends that I already had who wrote I brought into my writing groups and spaces. Now my personal life includes other people who also are passionate about writing.
- I gave myself permission to fail, to try new things, to get rejected—again and again and again. Because if it was easy, that would take away some of the fun.
- I also gave myself permission to learn from others, to see myself as a student again. I’m not afraid to ask questions or reach out to others for ideas or help when I need it.
I originally published these tips on Twitter, and I’ve been blown away by the number of other writers who found them helpful. I’m grateful that I could offer something valuable to the writing community that has bolstered me many days when I needed the encouragement.
Whether you are a seasoned writer or brand new to writing, I’d love to connect with you on Twitter.
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, editor, and artist. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been nominated for Best of the Net. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. Bethany enjoys chai lattes, nature walks, and memoirs. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Connect with her on her website or on Twitter.
November 7, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Heidi Croot
Photojournalist Greta Rybus’s New York Times story, “Cold-Plunging With Maine’s Ice Mermaids,” tells of six women who meet on a cold January day for a frigid plunge in a Maine pond. They axe a rectangular hole in the ice and wearing bathing suits and boots, ease themselves in, smiling as they grasp the thick, broken edge with mittened hands.
After the blue-lip dip, the “ice mermaids” hightail it to the sauna, “cobbled together from a former fish house and an old stove,” to bask in the heat. Then it’s back to the water.
They repeat the cycle three times.
What is it about this bone-rattling practice that catches me?
It’s got to be more than my love of annual after-dark dives into a frigid Ontario lake at Thanksgiving. More even than the gasping pleasure of finishing every hot shower with a 30-second blast of ice-cold well water.
Ida Lennestål, an ice mermaid featured in Rybus’s article, says that whether she’s in the water or the “hot box,” it’s a way “to get out of my head and into my body.” Once submerged, her body “doesn’t worry about the future or the past, how it looks or whether it is loved. The body just is.”
And that’s when I get it.
The mermaids have found something writers want: an efficient method for shutting down distractions and ushering themselves into the zone.
In our case, the elusive writers’ zone.
As writers, we arrive on the shore of a frozen landscape and survey the vast expanse of possibility for our next project. We heed the call of inspiration pointing us to a likely point of entry—some distance out but within earshot of the raucous blue jays darting through the red pines. We hoist the axe and with strength of purpose chop a portal into a deep, black, unknown world. At once hopeful and vulnerable, we ease in.
“After the initial hurdle of getting into the water, everything slows down—the breath, the heart, the buzz of the brain,” Ida says. “The bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.”
And with that, I picture myself alone on a frozen lake, gazing at the rectangular black outline on the white page of ice.
I imagine dropping in limb by limb, a slow-drip entry requiring far more courage than a head-first dive. I hang there, mouth an O. The urgency of ice water burns down my thoughts to bright coals. With no place to hide, my subconscious, that shy apprentice, delivers story crystals, bridge formations, solar chariots.
Ideas take shape, words follow.
But in time, the spell breaks, as it must. My body calls enough. Pain replaces pleasure, and I can no longer hear my thoughts. Forced into self-consciousness, I lift up and out of the solitude. I must seek shelter, someplace warm where I can assess the jumble ice, drifts, and piles.
I long for the community of sauna.
In my dream, I lean into the scent of hot, damp cedar and the clean sweat of warming bodies, my fellow writers and I seated on planks before the stove, my wet, fledgling story shapeshifting in the scorching steam like a mirage.
“You’ve done a fine thing here,” my gentle writer-friends whisper, “but have you considered this other thing?”
Soon, communal effort submits to a rising need to withdraw. The sauna feels limiting. I crave release from this hot, salty soup. New ideas have formed in the exhalation, and I need to be alone with them.
Consider the fundamental property of the cold plunge: its ability to detach the mind from its obsessions, allowing the supremely wise subconscious to enter the void, to breathe, to flex—its power brief as a wave that rushes in to sculpt before receding.
We know it as the zone. As being in flow. That emotional state where creativity claims us and the outside world kneels.
But what if a frozen pond isn’t readily accessible? How else might writers clear their heads to make space for stories?
If you live an interior life, an audacious prompt might be your portal. If your endorphins light up at the prospect of exercise, your way in may be a run, cycle or swim. Those with a reverence for nature might thrust their hands into the garden. If you’re in an emotional time, you might sing or weep in the shower, yell into a well or pillow, send up prayers to an ancestor. If music is your balm, you could give yourself over to an hour of Bach, Ella or Elton.
But here’s the thing. The process of cold plunging, Rybus notes, is “its own distinct experience, with its own intention and power.”
So, whichever mind-sweeping activity you choose to subdue distractions, make it as distinct and intentional as a cold plunge in a fresh-cut pond. Carve out the time and know what you’re there to do and why. Give your subconscious the space to deliver.
And keep your pen or keyboard ready.
Heidi Croot is an award-winning corporate writer and a newly inducted editor into the Brevity Blog team. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity Blog, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Ontario’s Northumberland County and is gathering courage to query her memoir. You can reach her on Twitter.
November 3, 2022 § 27 Comments
By Regina Landor
A new magazine recently accepted one of my pieces for publication. It had been a long time since I had any of my work published and my first thought was, Really? That piece? It’s a story I wrote during the pandemic about an argument my husband and I had which resulted in our sleeping in separate bedrooms. Was I really ready to invite my friends and family and possibly multiple strangers into my bedroom at the very same time? I must have been.
It was only after I received a congratulatory email that I gave the story a closer look. I closed my computer before I rounded the end. I groaned. I couldn’t read it. A paragraph stood out that was all wrong. Not only did I feel I sounded arrogant, I felt that some of the tone in that paragraph may have been hurtful to my husband. I had to get a hold of the editor. Publication was in three days.
I attempted to reach him on four separate social media platforms. I asked him if I could send him a rewrite of the paragraph which began, “During a dinner-time conversation….” on page six. He didn’t reply. I finally made a decision: it was more important to me to get that paragraph right than it was for me to be published. If I can’t change it, I’d like to withdraw the essay, I wrote in another email. I said I was sorry.
To my great relief, he responded, apologizing for the delay and very kindly telling me to send the updated version. He said he would read both versions and then they’d make their decision.
Within the hour he wrote back. He preferred the original. It built “a vibrant and immersive scene…” The second version of the paragraph “weakens the strength of the scene.”
He offered a compromise. If I were willing to keep the original opening of the paragraph on page six, he’d be fine with the other changes I wanted to make. I was relieved. But I was surprised that he saw something in my original draft that I didn’t see. I condensed the paragraph and thought I was making it better. But he thought my first draft was better. I agreed to the compromise—we would keep the original opening words of the paragraph on page six, but I would change how the paragraph ended—and that was that. The story came out the next day.
The exchange confirmed something for me about my own writing. Often, my first drafts are better. I know we’re encouraged to write multiple drafts. Anne Lamott lays that out—after who knows how many drafts—in Bird by Bird. But I’m often blind to what works and what doesn’t work in my own writing. It helps to be in a writing group. But sometimes what comes out of my fingertips the very first time just works.
Last month I sat in an airport terminal and typed on my phone—with my thumbs!—a Facebook post about having just deposited my first-born son off at college. I’d written the piece in my mind already, while lying in bed the night before, and while walking that long distance through the airport and away from my son, my body numb with letting him go. I only needed to type it out. Sitting in my seat in the airplane, I did a quick check for punctuation, then managed to hit “post” before losing connectivity as the plane roared to life down the runway. I needed to hear from my friends and loved ones when I landed on the other end. My need for love and support was urgent. Grown men cried. From that first draft, I tapped into an emotion that so many could relate to. Somehow, I managed to hit it out of the park.
It is possible for sparks to fly with our spontaneous acts of writing first drafts.
Once, as a teacher, I sat in the audience of my school’s guest speaker, the children’s author Linda Sue Park. She spoke to the elementary school children about the variety of writers. I remember her saying that there’s not one, single way to be a writer. Even though she addressed a group of children, her words stayed with me. There may be as many methods of writing as there are writers, she said. I hope I wasn’t the only one in the audience who took in her words.
A long time ago I read an op-ed piece—I’ve forgotten the writer’s name and the paper—about rewriting one’s work. She wasn’t a fan. At least, she was making the point that not everything needs multiple drafts. She was so convinced of her theory, she told her readers that the very piece we were currently reading was a first draft and she wasn’t planning on rewriting it.
That’s pretty much how I feel about this piece. Sure, I’ll go back and reread what I’ve written. I’ll change a word here and there and reorganize a few sentences. But it’s a first draft and I’m probably not going to write a second. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to write this morning.
Regina Landor, preschool teacher, lives in Maryland. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas, in Serbia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. She wrote a book called Forever Traveling Home about life in the Foreign Service and moving overseas with toddlers. Her second book, Marry Me Stop, is about her mother’s life and lapse into dementia, and how she lived with Regina and her family in Bangladesh. Regina likes Maryland, but misses the monkeys in Dhaka.
October 28, 2022 § 19 Comments
By Jessica Gigot
When I told my mother about my new book project, a departure from poetry, her first response was, “Aren’t you too young to be writing a memoir?” The question was jarring. I was in my late thirties at the time and had been writing and publishing poetry for several years. Prior to that I had been a researcher, penning scientific articles for journals like The American Journal of Potato Science and The International Journal of Fruit Science. I was, by all accounts, ready to write a book.
My initial response to my mother, who I don’t think intended any harm, was to point out that this was memoir and not autobiography, a genre that generally contains the entirety of one’s life, follows chronology, and is usually written by a famous person or established personality. Although writing A Little Bit of Land wasn’t a conscious decision—a few poems that never felt right morphed into personal essays that eventually became a memoir—I felt emboldened to branch out into this new genre. I told her that I was not trying to capture the entirety of my young life, just telling a specific story. The process of winnowing out all the details and sticking to a central question—how and why I had an insatiable longing to learn about farming—was the hardest part. I felt a deep sorrow every time I cut out a relationship or event that didn’t resonate with the thru-line.
While my mother’s question continues to echo in my head, I can’t help but think about age, time, and memoir. How much experience is needed to create a good story? How much daylight do we need between life and writing before we can craft an honest and true story unadulterated by revenge or deep grief? As humans, we are growing and evolving all the time which sometimes makes it hard to find a solid and resolute ending.
Carolyn Forché’s engrossing and successful memoir, What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, focuses on her traumatic and transformational time in El Salvador in the late 70’s and early 80’s. While her poetry reflected this experience (“The Colonel” from 1981 being one of her most well-known poems), it took Forché a long time (almost fifteen years) to write the memoir. In an interview with Commonweal Magazine, Forché recalls why she didn’t consider writing this memoir until 2003. “It took me that long to mature and to process my experience.” Forché’s book, a finalist for the National Book Award, was worth the wait.
Some books, like Michelle Obama’s Becoming blur the lines of memoir and autobiography while several authors and poets have written multiple, stand-alone memoirs about various parts of their lives, such as Mary Karr, Joy Harjo, Vivian Gornick, Claire Dederer, and Elissa Altman. Contemplation of the many faces of one’s life, finding meaning in the decisions we make and the unpredictable events that happen to us, like illness and infidelity, is the tough work of the memoirist at any age. The quotidian, as well, can be a wellspring making this genre complex and unique.
Memoir is evolving, thanks in part to new and creative structures that place the focus less on the speaker’s accomplishments and more on the depths of their interiority. E. J. Koh’s masterpiece The Magical Language of Others, which uses old letters as a lens, or the delicately layered Yellow House by Sarah Broom, teach us what there is to learn if we look closely at a key aspect of our history over time, like a relationships or structure. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Natasha Trethewey, is the difficult story of her own mother’s murder. In an interview with Southern Books Review she recalled, “In hindsight, I can see how much I tried to resist writing this book and writing certain parts in particular. I sold the proposal in 2012 and didn’t turn it in until 2017.” Part poetry, part case files, Trethewey’s compelling book is less about plot and more about the social context of her mother’s life, grief, and their relationship.
Zibby Owen’s Bookends, which came out in July, documents her journey from young adulthood to motherhood on the upper eastside of Manhattan to her newfound fame as a book mogul. All along she alludes to her desire to be a writer and the redemptive role of literature in her life, especially during periods of grief. One of the more piercing parts of this book is the death of close friend in the 9/11 attacks. Writing about and reflecting on her friend’s tragic passing has taken time and Owen confessed in the book that this story had many previous iterations. Coming to memoir was the shift she needed. “I wanted the chance to tell my own story from the beginning and not have to hide the truth behind a novel.”
While age and time might be irrelevant, creating a good memoir requires ample room to process, to see our past selves apart for our current one. Who was I then and who did I become? What happened and what did I learn? As the poet Mary Oliver writes, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” The readiness of the memoir largely hinges on the readiness of the writer to finish the book objectively and with an editor’s eye.
So, Mom, I know I am not Eleanor Roosevelt. However, I am a writer who observes and learns from my life. And there are more stories to tell. Memoir might not always feel like the right container, but I am grateful for the clarity and inspiration this genre continues to offer.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and writing coach. She lives on a little sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour, was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Her writing and reviews appear in several publications such as Orion, Ecotone, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and Poetry Northwest. Her first memoir A Little Bit of Land was published by Oregon State University Press in 2022.
October 24, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Serena Jayne
A dear friend once shared a concerning problem. She was dealing with squirrels in her attic. While the said squirrels weren’t a euphemism, I couldn’t help but consider my own issues with creativity as a “rodents in the rafters” type of problem. Festering story holes, failing to finish pieces I’d started, the inability to focus on one project at a time, to name a few, could easily be attributed to a plethora of squirrels scuttling about my mental attic.
After reading On Writing, I came to envy Stephen King and his “boys in the basement,” the diligent workers endlessly toiling away in King’s idea factory to make manuscript magic. Instead of mega-productive boys in the basement, however, I was saddled with those damn squirrels which invoked a bit of madness and an itch to engage an exterminator. Little did I know then that the key wasn’t to rid myself of my squirrels, but rather to transform and relocate them.
In the summer of 2018, horror and crime author Paul Tremblay gave the keynote address at the In Your Write Mind conference at Seton Hill University. Tremblay advised the audience to treat their subconscious like a pet. I’ve taken liberties with Tremblay’s sage advice by creating a three-step process to transform one’s subconscious from frustrating foe to furry friend.
Step One: Pick Your Pet. Choose anything from a Komodo dragon to a chimera or something more traditional like a rottweiler or a rabbit. If you like, you can name your pet or imagine them dressed in cute costume or adorned with a fancy collar. Choose your pet wisely. A pet rock or a teacup full of sea monkeys might not be active enough, and a Black Mamba or a T-Rex may be terribly hard to tame. As a feline aficionado, my pet is, of course, a cat.
Step Two: Praise Your Pet. Tremblay specifically mentioned rewarding the pet by spending a little time with whatever idea the pet brings—even if on the surface the idea doesn’t seem viable. My cats have brought me a ponytail holder I’d misplaced and surprised me with a catnip-filled toy in my shoe. But not every gift from your new pet will be a shiny, beautiful idea nugget. Sometimes it’s a critter corpse or a horrible hairball. Hairballs are often a nasty business, but once one of my cats couldn’t bring one up. For hours she tried, wracking her little body and depositing foamy puddles of bile all over the house. Luckily, right before our emergency veterinarian appointment, the kitty succeeded in expelling the terrible trichobezoar. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate hairballs.
As Ms. Manners would say, it’s the thought that counts. And the fastest way to stop getting gifts is to avoid showing appreciation. So, give each gift a little consideration and attention. Thank your pet and tell them they are a good boy or a good girl, and maybe the next gift will be just the thing to plug a plot hole or make your story into something special.
Remember these gifts are fragile and easily lost. Be on the lookout for gifts in dreams or ones that materialize while performing automatic activities like showering or driving or folding laundry. Consider placing a notebook by your bed or near the shower or in the glove box of your car. The notes app on your phone is also a great place to capture ideas. Give the gift attention as soon as possible to preserve it and keep its connections intact.
Step Three: Pamper Your Pet. Fill your brain with all sorts of stimuli. Go to a museum or peruse art on the internet. Listen to music. May I suggest “Pets” by Porno for Pyros? Watch great movies and television series. Read widely and in multiple genres. Consume content by creators from experiences and cultures different from your own. Explore using experimental forms, different perspectives, types of characters, settings, etcetera in your own work. Look for ways to make art from found objects. Consider creating a sculpture out of one of the hairballs your pet brought. Instead of focusing on the result, enjoy the process of play.
Relocating your pet from the attic to the basement happens naturally. The positive reinforcement your subconscious receives helps it to settle into a place closer to your heart than your head. Imagine your pet curled up by the heater in the darkness instead of being trapped in a stuffy, too bright, cobweb-filled attic.
Your pet may never be trained to produce on demand such as salivating at the sound of a bell like Pavlov’s dog or be as prolific as King’s boys in the basement. However, pets who feel picked, praised, and pampered often provide quality gifts. A kind of serenity can be found cuddled up with the bob-tailed cat in my basement—a serenity that wasn’t possible when I was plagued by squirrels in my attic.
Born under the sun sign of Leo, Serena Jayne is naturally a cat person. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, Ghost Parachute, Gone Lawn, Lost Balloon, Shotgun Honey, and other publications. Her short story collection, Necessary Evils, was published by Unnerving Books. She tweets @SJ_Writer.