February 21, 2018 § 17 Comments
By Patrice Gopo
Last month, I returned my essay collection’s approved edits to my publisher. I hit the “send” button and sat for a moment awash in that momentary burst of triumph.
Then threads of worry began to creep into my celebratory mood—threads of worry I tried to banish with the purchase of a book, a necklace, and a donut too. Back in September when I’d first turned in my manuscript, I believed I’d written the best essay collection I could possibly write. Several months later, while reviewing the suggested edits, I spotted adjectives I needed to cut and several paragraphs I found excessive. I rewrote a metaphor and changed the word choice in more than a handful of places.
Now there will be no more revisions. There will be no more changes. The words I returned will be nearly the same words I will see later this year printed in the pages of my book. In the interim, however, I will continue to write and read and study the craft of writing. As a result, the writer I will be when I open my book will not be the same writer I am today. The writer I become in the future will have a greater ability to see the flaws in my work. And this fact scares me.
The rush of triumph—and the celebratory donut—doesn’t negate the worry that one day I may find my work wanting.
Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in a writing residency at the Collegeville Institute, a week of quiet, peace, and solitude on a college campus in rural Minnesota. I woke early each morning and took a walk beside a lake, sharing the new day with several deer and a couple of storks. The sun rose above the water, streaks of pink and orange staining the horizon and radiating with what I considered to be writing inspiration.
One afternoon I took a break from working on my essay collection and visited a nearby pottery studio. The manager invited me on a tour. As he spoke about the history of the studio, I stared at a row of rounded vessels almost—but not quite—identical in shape and style, the damp clay still dark grey in color. Full, leafy branches twisted around the curve of each vessel—except for the last one. Here I saw what the other pots would become, the branches soon removed, revealing a delicate pattern imprinted into the clay.
“We have a 300-year supply of clay,” the manager said. He talked of generations in the future when other artists would use the same source of clay the studio uses now. He mentioned how the presence of the clay reminds everyone that the studio is not one artist. Rather, the studio arises from the collected work of many.
I was taken with this idea of enough clay to last 300 years. Long after we are all gone, a potter none of us would ever know would throw pots made of the same material. Immediately I thought of a verse fragment from my Christian faith. “…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” A great cloud of participants in a long creative tradition.
A 300-year supply of clay. I return to this idea now in the aftermath of approving my edits. I try to conceive of the vast number of objects artists will create over the lifetime of a 300-year supply. But I also remember those branches with full leaves pressed into the bodies of a row of vessels similar in shape and form. I recall the one vessel with the visible imprint.
Is it possible to feel both small and significant in a single moment? Because I do. The medium I throw on the blank page is not part of a lengthy—but finite—supply of clay. Instead, a supply of words without end. A reality that scoops my work up in the ongoing legacy of writers before me and writers not yet born.
Perhaps what is true is that when we look back on work we wrote four months ago or four years ago or eventually four decades ago, our contributions may seem flawed and inadequate if considered in isolation. Perhaps some degree of all we create will at some point fail to reflect the writer we become—even with our greatest triumphs. That one vessel with the leafy imprint offered a fleeting beauty that pales in significance to all the work that will ultimately originate from not just that potter but—more importantly—also from that supply of clay. But the thought of that vessel alongside hundreds of years of created pottery made me gasp.
Maybe we find the freedom to let go of worry about how we will perceive our words in the future through the act of seeing our creation as one artifact that is part of a greater whole. A contribution to both the words written before and the words that will come after. It is not perfection that defines the worth of my contribution. Rather, it is the willingness to offer to this ongoing creative tradition the best work I can as the writer I am at a particular moment in time.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging will release this summer. Please visit her website to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.
Simple Strategies for Getting Through the Hellish Landscape and Existential Loneliness of Memoir Writing
January 31, 2018 § 18 Comments
By Kelly Sundberg
In November of 2015, I placed my memoir proposal for Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival with an editor at HarperCollins, and in July of 2017, the final manuscript was accepted. Getting that email back from my editor—the acknowledgment that I was done — was one of the most validating experiences of my life, but can I tell you a secret?
It starts with this—almost exactly, a year prior, in July of 2016, my favorite writer had kindly offered to let me live and write in her beautiful San Francisco home for two weeks. I was stalled in my book writing at the time, and I thought that being in this writer’s home would be just what I needed. Her writing is so sharp, so insightful, and so beautiful. Surely, some of that magic would rub off on me? I sat at her dining room table with my laptop, and I did feel the magic. I wrote some of the most beautiful sentences of my book while surrounded by this writer’s energy.
At the same time though, my abusive ex-husband (about whom this book was written) was remarrying. One day, I walked to a nearby coffee shop and set up residency at a table. I started writing a chapter titled “I Love You” that was about my complicated relationship with the words “I love you.” I wrote about all of the times when men had told me they loved me, but the love hadn’t lasted. I wrote about feeling that my ex-husband’s love would last. And I wrote about the birth of my son and the love that grew from that. As I wrote about the birth, and about my husband holding my hand and telling me that he loved me, it suddenly hit me that the baby my then-husband had put into my arms was—at that moment—at his father’s house preparing for the new family that they would have. And right there, in that coffee shop, I burst into tears.
A young man was mopping the floor near me, and he stopped, looked at me hesitantly. I wiped the tears from my face. “Thank you” I said, then packed up my stuff and rushed out.
And that’s where my secret comes in—I rushed back to the generous writer’s house, and then instead of writing, I climbed into bed, and spent the next two days watching the entire first season of Grace and Frankie on my laptop.
At one point, I changed from my pajamas into cleaner pajamas (I only wish that I was kidding about that).
But, finally, on the day of my ex-husband’s wedding, a writer I had never met in person, a poet, Donna de la Perrière, asked me to come to Oakland so that she could take me out to dinner. I didn’t want to go, and messaged her that I was feeling too down. She gently messaged me back that she thought I should just do it, that it would be good for me. Since I’m not good at saying no, I agreed. I got out of bed, took a shower, put on some clothes, and took the BART to Oakland. She took me to a restaurant, bought me two fancy cocktails and a delicious dinner, and we ended up having a great discussion. After dinner, we walked around Lake Merritt, and she said, “I have something I want to show you.” She carefully selected a stone. She said, “This stones represents your regrets. I want you to think of those regrets, then throw the stone into the Lake. Watch it sink and let go.”
I stood there with that stone, and I thought of my regrets. I had so many. I threw it into the lake and watched it slide under the smooth, dark, water.
I went back to the house that night, and I stayed up writing this. The next day, I was back to book writing. A year later, the book was complete.
So, recently, when a friend reached out to me to ask if I had some advice for her as to how to get through the process of writing her second memoir without sinking into too much despair, I had some strategies for her. They’re not guarantees, and they might not work for everyone, but these were some strategies that got me through the hellish landscape of existential loneliness of memoir writing.
- I changed up my writing routine quite a bit–went on writer’s residencies, wrote in coffee shops, wrote at night in my loft office, wrote in airports. Changing the routine kept me from associating any one place with the pain of reliving the experiences I was describing.
- When I knew that I was going to be writing material that might make me cry, I wrote it at night. Something about writing at night made it easier for me to let myself lean into the pain, and I had to do that in order to write the scenes honestly.
- I gave myself permission to take lots of naps. I’m not a good sleeper anyway, and I tend to retreat from my feelings by napping, so I would let myself nap, but I set a timer. I couldn’t nap all afternoon, but I could nap for an hour and a half. That gave me the chance to get through a full REM cycle of sleep, but didn’t leave me groggy.
- I planned lots and lots of lunch dates and dinners with my friends, so that I had regular escapes.
- I did aerobic exercise almost every, single day. Getting my heart-rate going seems to be the most effective thing I can do for managing my PTSD.
- I created rituals that rewarded me, so for example, if I wrote during the day, then I would make myself a delicious meal in the evening and watch Nashville because that’s something I really love to do.
- I planned vacations with friends, so that I always had something to look forward to.
- If I stagnated and wasn’t producing, then I gave myself permission to take a break from the writing. Those were good periods for reading.
- If something from the material triggered me into a breakdown, I let myself break down.
- I reached out a lot–to my friends, my family, my therapist, my agent. When I was feeling overwhelmed, or anxious, or sad, I reached out. Writing is a necessarily solitary act, but that doesn’t mean that we need to do it alone.
Here I am now: I’m fifteen pounds lighter from all of that PTSD exercise. I’ve watched the entire run of Nashville. I still haven’t finished Season 2 of Grace and Frankie. I’m a better cook. I have more friends than ever because I learned how to really reach out when I needed it. My book is coming out in June, and I’m still alive.
If I survived it, so can you.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, Slice Magazine, and others. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the same series. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and she has been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and The National Endowment for the Arts. Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival is forthcoming from HarperCollins on June 5, 2018. She is, we are proud to say, a former managing Editor of Brevity.
January 26, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Alea Eve Hall
During the past year of political upheaval, I became crippled by the pressure I felt building up behind the words that needed to find their way to the page. But I had to face the facts. I had writer’s block. So, I took to my couch. In fact, I laid on it for so long that there’s still an outline of my butt, forever imprinted like a lingering effigy of my politically-depressive state.
As the New Year approached, I eventually realized that I didn’t actually have writers block, I had the opposite problem. I had too much to write about, and the experience of having so much to unravel on the page overwhelmed me; I simply had no narrative distance from my experiences. I lacked the perspective to begin seeing the painful connections and truths that had come to make up my existence over the past year. I have to wonder how many writers think they’re experiencing writer’s block, when in fact they’re facing this conundrum: too much to write about and the task of unpacking everything that needs to be written is just too overwhelming.
So I went back to the drawing board, but each time I attempted to type words on the page I only found myself engaging in a brutal critique of turgid prose, because suddenly, mere words didn’t seem like enough to excavate the meaning behind the past year. Around that time, I was learning about imitation in an Experimental Creative Nonfiction class. At first, the idea of closely emulating another writer’s work seemed wrong. In class, we would create imitation exercises for our classmates, who would then fill out select words and phrases from a selection of a chosen text. As I played with nouns, adjectives, and verbs, I kept sentence structures intact, the effect was fascinating and I began to think about the exercise as a kind of Mad Libs for adults. The exercise captivated me and I found myself playing with words and language again, but in a new way, and suddenly, imitating another writer’s work seemed so right.
In my Experiments class, I was introduced Barry Lopez’s “The Raven.” He was one of the first writers I had learned to imitate, and I connected with his essay on the behaviors of crows and ravens, a metaphorical critique of societal social structures. Here is an excerpt from Lopez’s “The Raven.”
The original passage:
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. What appear to be crows are ravens. You must examine the crow, however, before you can understand the raven. To forget the crow completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to understand the one who stayed without talking to the one who left. It is important to make note of who has left the desert.”
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no [straw men] in the [wild]. What appear to be [straw men] are [real men] You must examine the [straw man], however, before you can [burn] [all men].To forget the [straw man] completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to [burn] the one who was [inflammable] without talking to the one who was [on fire]. It is important to make note of who is [burning] and who is [untouched].”
Even though I closely adhered to Lopez’ original sentence structure, I still began moving things around to fit with the narrative I was creating. The exercise became more and more useful, as did my understanding of the importance of sentence structure. Although these experiments in and of themselves didn’t lend themselves to publishable prose, they did become a level up for me, and ultimately led to one of my biggest breakthroughs in writing that semester.
Honestly, the results of my Mad Libs haven’t always been profound works of art, and I often leave carnage in the wake of my creative desperation, but eventually, using another author’s sentences relieves just enough pressure for me to write without my internal critic incapacitating my creativity.
As I sift through my old imitations, I’ve began writing new ones. I’ve imitated Didion, Lopez, Boully, Harrison, and Sue William Silverman…all the greats, and all became the bridge between my voice and the words lost within me, and together we move forward.
Alea Eve Hall was awarded the 2017 Wardle-Spire-Lane English Department fellowship in recognition for outstanding graduate work, as well as runner-up for the 2017 John J. McKenna Graduate fellowship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Alea is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University Nebraska at Omaha where she enthusiastically teaches Composition I and II. She is currently working on her thesis, which is a thematic exploration of the mythologies of sexual abuse.
January 24, 2018 § 6 Comments
By Rachel Hoge
Sometimes I have trouble knowing which came first: my writing or my speech disability. I began stuttering early in life, around four or five years old. Around this time, I wrote my first poem—one short stanza about ducks, but don’t judge, I was learning. One thing I never learned, though, was how to stop stuttering. Like 1% of the American population, stuttering was the neurological and genetic hand I had been dealt. I continued to write, mostly because it was a form of communication and self-expression that was inaccessible to me verbally. I never stopped writing and I never stopped stuttering, and both became significant and lifelong conditions.
In the beginning, I wrote poetry and fiction exclusively, but in my early 20s, once I began to write about my speech disability, I naturally gravitated towards creative nonfiction. I found creative nonfiction could best accentuate the complexity of being disabled: in this genre, I could be both candid and literary, perceptive and forthright. When it came to writing about disability, the personal essay proved to be a perfect fit.
I’ve written at least forty personal essays about my stutter, and have published about half of them. I’ve found there are three craft elements in creative nonfiction that are essential to the disability essay. Without them, I wrote many flawed and unfinished essays.
The first element is scene writing. The use of scene is common in creative nonfiction, but is especially effective in the disability essay. Catherine Kudlick, for example, opens her essay, “The Price of ‘Disability Denial,’” with an immediate scene: the year is 1989, and Kudlick has a visual impairment called nystagmus; as a result, she avoids speaking to large audiences. Then a colleague suddenly reveals to her in-scene that her job security hinges around giving a lecture to 100 students. The reader is instantly panicked, and because this revelation is explored in-scene, the conflict of Kudlick’s disability becomes much more accessible.
Scenes are used to transport the able-bodied reader into an experience they’ve never previously felt or imagined. And because scenes differ from summary—reliving one specific moment in time —the singularity of such a scene allows the reader to fully inhabit an unknown circumstance. Readers can imagine themselves in place of the narrator, or at the very least, can sympathize and comprehend the situation better than before. Scene writing in the disability genre permits the narrator to reveal the uncommon nature of living with their condition. Through scenes, the able-bodied reader begins to understand how everyday activities or common interactions can become difficult or frightening when experienced through disability.
Next, we have research. The integration of facts in disability writing is natural and necessary. It is, after all, writers of disability who must challenge misconceptions and social stigmas surrounding their very identities…while simultaneously crafting scenes, characterization, and assembling a narrative arc. If the disabled writer’s objective is to provide more than a surface-level understanding of disability—for example, if they wish to expand a reader’s understanding, or prevent the spread of misinformation—then the use of research becomes an essential tool in disability writing. Research can also be used to highlight an experience that able-bodied readers are unaware of, like Britney Wilson’s essay “On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect, and Human Dignity,” which examines Access-a-Ride, New York City’s paratransit service that—as a native New Yorker with Cerebral Palsy—Wilson has used for decades.
It should also be mentioned that research provides disability writing with layers it desperately requires, such as context and credibility. Without an understanding of what disability is and how it’s perceived by others, the emotional arc laid out by the narrator would lose significant impact. It’s an unfortunate truth, but one worth relaying: a writer’s first-hand account of disability will always be challenged, but a first-hand account supported by evidence won’t be as easily silenced. Personal experience isn’t enough for most abled-bodied readers because they have their own unconscious portrait of disability—often inspirational or destitute, with no room for complexity or nuance—and that stereotyping needs dismantling. The inclusion of research allows writers of disability to develop a platform of authority, and once on that platform—they can finally share their story.
But perhaps the most powerful craft element of disability writing is reflection. Creative nonfiction writers must have a clear perspective in order to impart a tangible concept, meaning, or epiphany, to the readers. This is even more vital in the disability essay, as a narrator’s introspection on their condition must resonate beyond their own observations. Without commentary from an insightful narrator, the piece becomes a compilation of memory that offers little to no meaning. The retrospective thinking of the disabled narrator must include a larger context for the essay to maintain relevance, like a push against societal norms or expectations, an exploration of body image, or an internal search for self-acceptance.
To explain it another way: an incomplete essay simply reveals the life of a disabled person; a complete essay reveals the life of a disabled person, while offering a new viewpoint or meaningful context. Reflection can provide a more intricate understanding of disability, informing readers and offering wisdom through the narrator’s contemplations. Reflection can overt, like in Meredith Bland’s “All Bodies Count” where she writes about her complicated relationship with her disabled body. Reflection can also be subtle and reserved, like Rebecca Swanson’s contemplation of Tourette’s syndrome in “The Fine Lines of Twitching.” Both approaches show the private perceptions of people with disabilities, and how these perceptions challenge readers to consider a perspective unlike their own.
Still, you might ask: are these the only craft elements significant to the disability essay? Of course not. I encourage writers of disability to embrace the personal essay in whatever way they can. If a disability essay lacks scene writing, research, or reflection, does that mean it’s unaccomplished? Not necessarily.
But do keep in mind: without craft, readers will impose their own understanding of disability onto the essay, and that understanding may be incorrect. And even with craft, readers may misinterpret your meaning. But the danger of not applying—at least some—craft elements to the disability essay, is that society’s depiction of disability will likely go unaltered. Providing the reader with an authentic understanding of disability, and pushing beyond flat portrayals to deliver a more complicated portrait, allows those of us with disabilities to shed light on the misinterpretations of our identities.
To me, there’s nothing more important.
Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer, essayist, and recent MFA graduate from the Arkansas Writers Program. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, the Rumpus, and many more. Lately, she’s been hard at work on her debut essay collection about the intersection of disability and gender. You can follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel or view her full creative portfolio at https://www.rachelbhoge.com.
January 17, 2018 § 14 Comments
In our new issue, Felicia Rose Chavez takes a deep look at the “invisible managerial responsibilities” that ensure her family and home runs smoothly, how this impacts her as a writer, and how her gender responsibilities lead her to thoughts and worries such as:
“I’m a writer, but not the real kind, not like my playwright husband, who works every day even if our son is crying or the refrigerator is empty or the throw blanket is askew. He can jam out pages at the kitchen table as though he were staffing an executive desk, unaffected by the sapping need all around him, the everyday-ness that wanes my woman’s mind into a slip of something remembered, another item on tomorrow’s to-do list.”
“I’m always choosing. Which mental load is it today? Man the kitchen table and forgo the rest, knowing that if I choose writing over housework, I’ll suffer the physical manifestation of my to-do list, evidence that I’m a bad wife, a bad mother, a bad Chicana? Or else forgo the writing and suffer the heat-hot psychological cargo of golden stories burning bright?”
Chavez has learned that she has to fight to allow herself space on the page.
How does it play out for you? Let us know in the comments below.
January 10, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Jacob Little
Recently I have been translating a book of poetry by the inimitable Antonio Gamoneda. I was nervous when I began, having never attempted any kind of literary translation before. During, I am enveloped in the engaging challenges, the uncommon nuances, the wordplay. And after? I am obsessed with each small failure. I can’t stop thinking about my choices:
Was I right to lean towards meaning over rhythm? I don’t think I got the diction right. I never did get all the connotations of “mosto” in there. Was it okay to translate “ácido prúsico” as “DDT”? Or “Una mentira luminosa” as “a neon lie”? Am I erasing the culture of the original? I kept Spanish in my translation—Will an English reader know that “madre” means “mother”? Will they be able to translate “dulzura” from context as a term of endearment?
These, to me, aren’t just empty obsessions. I am trying to carry the meaning to a new audience across a long distance. I am making trips back and forth, each time with a bit of water in my hands, and almost all the water keeps slipping through my fingers. My failure matters not just because I owe it to Gamoneda to get his words right. It also matters because I want to give the reader the same experience I had when I read his poems for the first time.
Of course, translating my experience for a new reader is equally impossible. But I want readers to experience what I have, to truly understand something about me, in the same way that I strive to know others. But, if I go by this high standard, then I must admit—I have never even begun to tell such a truth in an essay.
I’m not talking about lying. I’m not even talking about the inevitable hiccups of memory, or the limited space on the page, or the purposeful selection and ignoring of sensory details, people, or motivations. I’m talking about translating experience into words, life into story. I’m talking about trying to write an accurate representation of the nuances of who I was, what I was thinking about, what I believed in, what I experienced, and everything else about me, my life, and my situation that bled into the moment I’m writing about. I’m talking about inexplicable differences in biology, experiences, and environments, how language can never account for these things.
After all, I can never explain my behavior, what I ever wanted or believed. Words can only be shadowy placeholders for my real-life experience. Like when I tried to translate mosto from Spanish into English—so much gets lost in translation. Attempting to explain the nuances of what this single word means (not just in Spanish, but also what it means to me, what it meant to the author) to anyone else would eat up this whole page and still fail. Each word we put down gets somewhere near the mark, but never exactly hits it. And each little failure adds up and up and up until we are left with a final product where our failures tower over us. Where we finally start to realize the depth and breadth of what we have not accomplished, what we never will.
It’s like when I go hiking and camping in Colorado each summer. I take pictures of all the spots I love most. Places that shake through me like a thunder clap. But when I get home and look at the pictures, they’re almost unbearably two dimensional—they can’t possibly recreate that place. Even when using a wide-angle lens, or using a 360-degree feature that shows in precise detail exactly what is around me, I simply can’t make that mountain appear on the screen. No one will ever see the mountain I saw.
The picture can’t make the sky big enough, can’t make it arc over my head into infinity like the sky did for me. The picture can’t recreate the deep brown of the earth, the sharp sting of the white in my eyes. It can’t give you that inconceivable depth of silence or that smell of a hard winter melting. If you went to that exact same spot yourself, you couldn’t see it. I wouldn’t be able to see it if I went back—it would be a different mountain.
And more than that: the picture can’t tell you about my long, desperate, 18-hour drive to get to the foot of that mountain. The endless, lonely hours behind the wheel with only a vague destination. The questions running through my mind; what are you doing? Why don’t you pull over and sleep? Why isn’t anyone in the passenger seat? And a million other questions there aren’t words for. Neither the picture nor this description can hope to explain why I went there, what I was looking for, whether I found anything when I arrived. (And that’s only partially because I don’t understand it myself.)
A picture can’t reconstruct the awe I felt upon arrival. The immense gratitude, the overwhelming grief. It doesn’t show what I was experiencing behind the camera, where I was both wrecked and renewed, shattered and remade.
Instead of that recreation, that incredible, enormous truth, all I can do is produce more and more words that don’t do any of it justice.
Perhaps this is something most writers know instinctually. I might know it, too, but I have tried and tried and tried to narrow the gap. To find words that got me just a little bit closer to what it was like. But the constant collapse used to plague me. I think that this obsession might be madness, though. I think I must learn to embrace the gap. After all, as Christopher McCandless wrote in what were likely his last words, “happiness is only real when shared.” And I’m starting to think that maybe the happiness he was talking about wasn’t just about sharing company or common experience. I think that it might come from the imperfection of that sharing; our inability to ever have any common experiences; our happiness comes from our brave and continuous attempts to relate—to understand—in the face of inevitable and enormous inadequacy. I think that maybe a profound happiness is the result of our eternal failure in communicating or truly sharing our experience, even if we are all looking in the same direction.
Where my sharing fails, where everything I write and say falls short of the kind of communion and communication I seek, I must trust that my attempt, my essaying again into failure, will result in someone picking it up and filling in the gaps in ways they too could never articulate. Not even to me—not even to the person who gave them the broken words in the first place. I must trust that someone will lovingly take my failure and turn it into something that lives and breathes and, if I’m lucky, maybe even saves them in the same way that the mountain saved me.
But that’s not quite right either. What I’m trying and failing—again—to say is something like this: I don’t think the mountain saved me after all. I think I saved it. From no one making the effort to understand any part of it or grasp a piece of its immensity. From being trapped in two-dimensional photos, in half-concealed symbols, in inept approximations. And I think it’s likely that no writing has ever saved you. That you were the one doing the saving. That the very act of saving something else is the thing that saved you; those holy moments where someone tells you about a profound experience, and you nod and say, I have experienced something like that.
Maybe that’s the real secret of memoir, of literature: it will always fall short. It needs to fall short, so that a reader can take something new and real out of the hopelessly broken words. So that they can know a mountain that I will never know. So they in turn can start to share their mountain with someone new who will see their own mountain. And on and on and on.
It needs to fail so we can stand at the foot of the mountain and tell it, “I see you.” And the mountain will know we can’t, not really. But maybe it’s the attempt that will keep on saving us.
Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD student at Ohio University. His recent nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee.
January 8, 2018 § 48 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Find the sentence where the essay turns glorious or cruel. Make that the beginning. Imagine running a race, that instant the starting gun cracks, the moment later when you reach full speed. Start your essay there, at a full sprint.
Sometimes the best line arrives at the end. Maybe start there. Maybe rearrange the furniture. Pick that powerful last paragraph up and move it to the start. You do not have to kill all your darlings. Sometimes they just need to be shifted to move us.
Find the word that says everything you mean. Mean it.
By the end, everything might be moving so fast, you fear you will fall. Take that. Fall. Collapse right into the reader.
If, at the end of your walk, you picked up a shell before turning for home, end with the shell, not the walk off the beach. Instead of ending on an idea, choose concrete. Give them the sky visible through the window of my mother’s hospital room. The way your father’s last breaths came so far apart that you looked up from rereading the same paragraph about Restoration ceilings and had to tell him it was okay to leave. The smell of wet wool. Pussy willows. The way your nose dripped until it ran into your open mouth.
Almost always what needs to be chopped from a personal essay is the abstract. The idea. What people warned us against: the telling. What you want is to plant a mote into the eye of your reader, something that will stick and nag. The iridescent nacre wafer held in your palm while the ocean clears her throat. The splinter of a scene.
Beautiful language can do that too. Metaphor wraps it up in concrete. The fact of tears is far less important than the impulse on the part of the reader to cry. Telling about emotion does not touch. What you do makes others feel. Make your reader gasp.
I like to call it “hack’n’slash.” For brevity’s sake, shorten each paragraph by a line; cut the weakest sentence in each paragraph; make a single sentence from two; annotate each paragraph & do a word search for repetition (that you can cut); cut all the abstract and focus on the concrete (yes, I said that before); cut the introduction, the conclusion, cut the weakest paragraph in your paper; cut them all.
Often the ending is mere summing up, because that is what we have learned to do in conclusion. Yes, that is correct, but also weak outside an academic essay. Since you must leave, leave readers something. The last line, the very end, should contain a sensory detail—the telling visual. As if you could rip readers’ hearts, or slap them, or kiss the corner of their mouth.
Cut all the words that do not make you bleed as a writer. Carve so close your hands shake holding the knife. Then make it shorter. Do that again. Do it. Cut.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned awards and publications, including three essays and four poems published in 2017. She always hopes to do better.