Speak Your Writing to Life

January 20, 2021 § Leave a comment

By David Perez

What might happen if you read your memoir aloud as if talking to a therapist, or your personal essay as if jogging on a treadmill? What might an unexpected whisper or pause bring to your novel or poem?

….

Reading aloud engages the senses, makes us think of rhythm, narrative flow, and stillness; connects us with how our words truly sound. Reading aloud slows us down. When we read in our minds we tend to zoom along, the brain processing much faster than the mouth can speak.

Reading aloud allows us to slow down and pay attention, which makes the practice a powerful proofreading tool. We find common grammatical errors, omitted words, sections that don’t quite say what we intended or that just don’t feel right.

Read David Perez’s full craft essay in the newest issue of Brevity

Asking the Question I Can’t Answer

January 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Rae Pagliarulo 

As the Associate Editor of an online nonfiction magazine, I manage the incoming flow of submissions, and work with a team of 12 smart, capable, and opinionated people to determine which pieces we should publish in the magazine. As we read submissions and try to make thoughtful choices, we come up against a seemingly simple question over and over again – why? When we’re reading submissions from the slush pile, we’re always thinking about the intersection of two critical factors – how skillfully a story is told, and how meaningful that story is, both to the narrator and the reader. Why, we wonder as we read submission after submission, was it important for the writer to tell this story? And why, we yearn to understand, will this matter to our readers? 

The factor of skill has been debated and quantified for years, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve got dozens of books on your shelf that painstakingly outline precisely how to do this well. There are a million ways to go about it, but we can look at our favorite writing – at the online essay that stole our attention last week, at the anthology of flash we return to over and over again – and see these ways at work. We pay money for workshops and degrees that will help us answer this question. We talk about it over email, in writing groups, at conferences. 

But that second critical success factor – the work of taking the story of what happened and making meaning of it – or said differently, making the reader understand not just what you are saying, but why you are saying it, is so elusive. It’s personal. It’s deeply intimate. And I’m not sure it can be taught, or explained, or diagrammed. 

I’m also fairly certain that in everything I’ve written recently, I haven’t been able to do it. 

What does that mean for me as an editor? According to the publishing power dynamics that be, I am in a position to decide what gets accepted by the magazine. I have a team of very thoughtful and diverse individuals who share their amazing insights with me on every single piece that gets submitted, but even with their voices in the mix, the act of choosing what stays and what goes is inherently subjective, and therefore, inherently imperfect. It’s the question I’m sure many editors ask themselves – Who am I to pass judgment? But I’ll add this qualifier – Who am I to pass judgment, especially when I have trouble doing the exact thing that I expect the writers I publish in the magazine to do well? 

Perhaps this conundrum is proof (and comforting proof, I hope) that the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends, and that the work of seeing, understanding, and recognizing a thing may not be inextricably connected to one’s ability to produce it. In this moment, am I struggling to write things I’m proud of, things that are worthy of a home in online magazines like the one I dedicate my time and effort to? Yes, I am. 

But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that i’m incapable of recognizing the elusive, personal, hard to illustrate why in the writing of others. I see it every single day in the slush pile, and I’m reminded that not only is the why attainable, it’s abundant. Meaning is everywhere, if you know where to look for it. And so many writers, whether by sheer universal accident or dogged practice, prove time and time again that they do. 

The slush pile is a place that reminds me that in so many cases, experience + distance = meaning.  We cannot report on the storm from inside of it, and perhaps that’s what’s at play as I struggle to make meaning in my own work. The year 2020 was its own unique struggle (though I am deeply fortunate to have been less affected than so many others), but inside of that flaming container, I’ve had personal difficulties and demons to grapple with. Grief, heartbreak, depression, anxiety. Things I yearn to make meaning of, but things that ultimately color and influence my ability to do so. They shorten my vision, cutting off the big picture and only allowing me to see the next few steps. They numb my creative fire, tamping it down into an ember that barely keeps me warm. 

The truth is, my work as an editor keeps that ember alive. It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there. Every single day, we get more and more distance between us and the moments and incidents we long to talk about. Regardless of how my own writing continues to develop, I remain romanced, driven, and enchanted by the why, and my team and I make it our mission to elevate the voices of writers who answer it brilliantly.

And perhaps that’s the best way to deactivate the self doubt that has been plaguing me, the frustration I feel at not being able to answer the very question I ask of every submission I read. Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well. Why not? 
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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.

Fixing Bad Writing in Creative Nonfiction is Not Politically Correct, it’s Essential

January 4, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Kristin Gallagher

I recently completed a memoir writing workshop with a well-known urban writing center. During our multi-week class, we did the things writers do—we provided feedback on one another’s work and discussed the craft of writing.

As with people in real life, the characters that appeared in our drafts were complicated. They made mistakes. They failed at some endeavors and excelled at others. Some committed crimes, told lies, broke bonds with loved ones. They said terrible things. This is the raw material that makes for great stories.

How readers imagine the characters in a piece of writing is dependent on the writer’s portrayal and there is no writer who can separate completely his/her/their experience from the writing itself. How we as writers experience the world seeps into our work at the granular level. Sometimes, this means repeating messages that have been absorbed and internalized that are not healthy or accurate, including stereotypes based on race, sexuality, and gender. These are the overdone tropes that often appear in popular culture and mass media. Oftentimes, privilege prevents us from even realizing our level of participation in perpetuating these messages.

So what happens when we see our fellow writers falling back on these racist and sexist depictions to describe people in their works? We must provide the constructive critiques necessary, not because we believe it to be the politically correct thing to do, but because it is our responsibility to prompt one another to become better writers, not writers who rely on tired and lazy tropes when attempting to bring characters to life on the page.

In this workshop, we had discussions about the use of a pejorative to describe a person with an intellectual disability, how equating Blackness to evil is racist, and how to write about characters’ sexuality in ways that are not exploitative. On these occasions, it was not the character’s actions or words that were in question—many great works of nonfiction contain terrible characters who are based off of terrible people-—but rather, the focus was on the writer’s inability to write past blind spots to develop the characters. This type of feedback is important work that all writers in workshop must engage in so that we can all grow as storytellers by digging deeper and creating authentic characters that go beyond stereotypes.

After the class finished, the student receiving this feedback used the writing center’s email list to defend her language choices, most curiously by sending a photo of a person she wrote about, presumably to wave about like a flag to proclaim her innocence. We’ve all seen this by now: “I am excused from all racist language because I once ate dinner with a Black person.” “I am not homophobic because I have a gay cousin.” “I am not ableist even though I will continue to call people retarded when they make mistakes.” The student also let it be known that it was a pleasure working with some of us. Presumably excluded from that list were the people who pointed out the shortcomings in her writing.

The silence of the instructor implicitly legitimized this student’s actions. The inaction of the writing center-—a center that does not even have community guidelines to deal with this type of situation and that lacks diversity in its leadership and instructors—is a failure to the entire student body. Students who provide valid critiques that challenge their peers to become better writers must be protected from retaliation for such critiques. Otherwise, we have all failed.

It may feel that we are being asked to do more during a time when many of us do not feel we have more to give, but we are really only being called upon to do what writers in workshop have always been asked to do: to provide feedback to make the writing better. This includes having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.

On the business end, slapping a Black Lives Matter page up on a business website is not enough. Writing centers must exhibit a real commitment to eliminating the structural barriers that traditionally have excluded marginalized voices and must have clear community guidelines that are enforced and that do not tolerate bullies who attempt to silence those in the writing community who are doing the necessary work to stop this form of bad writing.
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Kristin Gallagher is a Miami-based writer and the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream. Her personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qu, The Real Story, and Anti-Heroin Chic.

Powerfully Editing Your Next Draft

December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments

Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!

But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?

First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.

Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.

Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.

I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.

1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.

2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.

3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?

4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.

5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.

6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.

7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?

8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.

Next, my favorite editing technique of all:

9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.

When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.

This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”

If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).

Your Mother is a Real Character

December 2, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

It is easy in memoir – too easy – to just insert the word ‘mother’ and imagine your readers know exactly what you mean. You, the writer, have such a vivid set of associations with those six letters – m-o-t-h-e-r – that as you write, and as you revise, the woman who raised you (and perhaps vexed you) is alive and breathing, walking across the page.

For you.

But not for us. 

If you are going to write about Mom, you need to treat her like a character, present her in all of her complexity. You need to paint us a picture of your mother vivid enough that she will intrigue us throughout, just as a novelist would when creating a person out of pure imagination. Though the people we write about in our memoirs are very real, they still must function as characters on the page, because we – your readers – have never met these people.  

And by picture, I don’t mean a static description: hair, clothes, weight, age.

To better understand, think of what transpires when you meet someone, in real life. You may form an instant impression, based on clothing, physical characteristics, maybe even a “gut reaction,” but what you do next is watch and wait. “Let’s see how they act,” you think to yourself. “Give it a little while and we’ll see what sort of person they really are.”

This basic human instinct to form conclusions based on “what you see with your own eyes,” on your judgement of a person’s character, functions no differently in writing. When a reader encounters a new person on the page – and this is true whether this character is fictional or a real person captured in nonfiction – the reader (perhaps unconsciously) thinks. “Let’s see how this person acts. Then I’ll make up my mind what kind of person she is.”

Even your mother. Just because you love her, or are irked at her, or understand her, or find her endlessly puzzling, you can’t assume we as readers feel any of this. And you can’t just tell us what to feel or think about her. We’ll hear you, but we won’t be convinced.

You need to show us how she walks, how she talks, how her eyes squinch when she is confused, what she says, what she fails to say, how she folds and unfolds a tea towel when she is upset, and most importantly, how she treats others around her.

Then we will believe.

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I’ll be teaching a webinar – They Walk! They Talk! Secrets to Writing Engaging Characters and Vivid Dialogue – next week for Creative Nonfiction, using examples from Cheryl Strayed, Kiese Laymon, and Kathryn Harrison, to further examine the nuts and bolts craft elements that allow “real people” to become living, breathing characters in a memoir or essay.

We will also explore the importance of compassion when writing about others, especially family members who may not always have acted well.

Finally, we’ll examine dialogue as a tool for creating lively and believable characters, and consider the challenges of capturing how “real people” talk.

This webinar is for writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process. Prompts and brief writing exercises will be included.

Here are the facts:

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020 / 2 pm – 3:15 pm ET

$15 / Advance registration required.

Hope to see you there.

The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

This week, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction begins shipping from warehouses across the country (and becomes available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing.) We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who pre-ordered, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.

We also have two launch events this week, our West Coast Launch in Los Angeles and our East Coast Launch on the Three Rivers Coastline of Pittsburgh. We hope you will join us to celebrate!

Here are the particulars:

SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, Wednesday Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm PST (9:30 pm EST)

Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be joined by authors Daisy Hernández, Nicole Walker, and Ira Sukrungruang. Following a reading of three brief (of course) essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. You can pre-register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-best-of-brevity/register

WHITE WHALE BOOKSTORE, Pittsburgh, Thursday Nov. 19th at 7 pm EST

At this East Coast event, Zoë and Dinty will be joined by authors Julie Hakim Azzam, Lori Jakiela, and Deesha Philyaw. Following a reading of their three brief essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. Preregister for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/east-coast-launch-for-the-best-of-brevity-registration-127005140795

And here’s more on the book:

Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites from the journal, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.

With contributions from Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more. 
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“The Best of Brevity feels like the condensed energy of a coiled spring. A vibrant collection, dynamic in its exploration and celebration of the flash form.”

                         -Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers    
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Reading: A Non-Linear Journey

October 28, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Ali Solomon

One of the reasons I love holding an actual, printed book is so that I can read it in any fashion I choose. At any given moment, my fingers are bookmarking multiple pages, I’m re-reading favorite passages, skipping to the ending, then flipping backwards to see how the author got there. It’s unconventional, but satisfying (and frequently scoffed at by friends who prefer their literature straightforward and spoiler-free).

See what I mean:

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Ali Solomon is a teacher and cartoonist from NYC whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, WIRED, and The Believer, among other places. Her first book, I am ‘Why Do I Need Venmo’ Years Old, is forthcoming from Running Press in July 2021. Find more of her cartoons on Instagram @alisolomain

Looking Backward

October 20, 2020 § 16 Comments

So what?

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?

Reflection.

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.

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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.

 

When You See Who I Am: On Writing Personal Essays

October 19, 2020 § 12 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.
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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.

The Names of Flame

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.
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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.

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