June 19, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Amelia Morand
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
The night before I move to Montana, an online forum tells me that the trailer I’ve rented will void my car insurance and possibly kill my engine. The next morning, I buy a discount rooftop cargo box and consolidate my life into sixteen cubic feet. I leave behind: the King bed and dining room table I got in the breakup, my Crock-Pot and large and small food processors, half of my shoes, and most of my books. I bring: four pairs of SmartWool socks, three forks, rain boots I will never wear, and two drugged dogs.
The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller
Reading the very first round of submissions, I realize that we were all the star writers in our undergraduate workshops. Our teacher tells us that if we let it, the jealousy will consume us, and we write this down, desperate for his approval. Each week our cramped classroom will hold our egos and impostor complexes, shifting rivalries and alliances, layers of flannel and down, the smell of spoiled milk growing more urgent and distinctive as the weather gets colder.
Just As Long As We’re Together, Judy Blume
Early on, one of my new friends tells her partner, “I’ve found my tribe.” We nickname our program The Bubble, and our old lives feel far away. It’s too hard to explain to everyone back home what we’re doing here. The three of us often end the night holding hands above the console as the engine idles for an hour, gossiping about the cohort, complaining about our students, laughing again and again over the same stupid joke. I always forget to turn off my headlights, and we watch deer making their way across the lawns.
When You are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
I spend my first term failing to do the following: teach my students how to write a strong thesis statement; understand or even finish Ulysses; talk to a human every day; write a story I’m proud of.
Capital Volume I, Karl Marx
I’m lucky enough to receive a tuition waiver and a stipend, which puts me a little more than six thousand dollars below the poverty line. At first I feel guilty for applying for SNAP, for using my EBT to buy organic chicken, for using it to buy ice cream. I majored in economics as an undergrad, as I make sure to tell everyone, but my Marxism is theoretical, not personal. The choice to study creative writing instead of inequality seems so stupid, so selfish, I feel I don’t deserve any assistance, let alone the public’s. Still, after a few months, I will go just about anywhere if the food is free.
Blue Nights, Joan Didion
I think that the world will probably end soon, and also that I never had any talent to begin with, and I’m not sure which depresses me more, and this ambiguity is another reason I lie awake and anxious from two to five, sleep until nine or ten, spend the day groggy and ashamed. The third time I tell my doctor I want to go back on Wellbutrin she gets it, and while this doesn’t change how I feel about climate or my writing, I now feel able to teach, and read, and walk my dogs. Some days I even write.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish
I don’t register the rejections most of the time, though sometimes they’re a little nicer, and I feel optimistic, and sometimes they all come the same week, and I think I’ll quit. The schools all started hiring months ago, and the restaurant in Santa Fe would be glad to have me back. My friend asks if I’ll be home for her wedding in September. “It’s complicated,” I say.
And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
The theses were read last weekend, a thousand pictures taken by parents and partners (none mine). I skipped the last two parties and with them several goodbyes, and I’ve spent most of this cold and sunny day staring out the window, slowly revising my final few assignments. In fact, I did not bring this book to Missoula, but when it shows up on a syllabus in my final term, I remember exactly which box it’s in beneath the framing table, wedged between half-empty journals and my high school yearbooks, taking up space, she reminds me, in my mother’s garage.
Originally from Santa Fe, Amelia Morand now lives in Missoula, where she serves as a Fiction editor for CutBank and has just finished her MFA. Her writing is featured or forthcoming with apt, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, and Lunch Ticket.
June 10, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Anita Gill
Recently Brevity’s Blog published “How Can Writers Confront Privilege? Read (and Write and Teach) About It” by LaRue Cook. In this article, Cook decided to tackle a question many white writers struggle with in this current literary landscape: “Should I be writing at all, or just reading and listening? How do white people write about privilege if their very words hold that privilege?”
I admire Cook’s honesty in positing that question; however, as I read the article, I grew concerned. There was some stylistic rhetoric I noticed in his article that—left unchecked—can prove problematic for the ongoing conversation about diversity in literature.
Cook tells the story of a recent book signing where his editor encouraged a young woman of color to his table, but she refused, stating that she doesn’t “buy books by white men.”
Cook relays this book signing incident to other writers, and mentions how some roll their eyes and scoff. Cook adds that he doesn’t have the same reaction. Perhaps Cook wishes to show that he welcomes spaces of criticism. But I worry that the moment comes off as the writer showing he lacks the internal racial bias others have. It runs the risk of setting up a hierarchy where one person is better for having less biased tendencies than others.
It was Cook’s editor that had initiated a conversation with the young woman of color. Even after a few readings, I struggled to understand why Cook found it necessary to include that his editor is from Trinidad. Did he mention this detail to set up why the young woman considered approaching the table? Did she mistakenly assume the editor was the author? There is another possible interpretation: By providing the editor’s nationality, it exonerates the writer from having racial blind spots. Since Cook’s intention is not substantially clear here, I believe this section could have used more revision.
While Cook does point out the majority of gatekeepers for literature are by and large white men, he wonders if the young woman who snubbed him only bought books published by Simon & Schuster, a publishing house run by a woman. Cook also mentions that the publisher is a white woman. Indeed, Cook makes a valid observation about the racial homogeneity in the publishing world, but the writing here hints at dismantling the young woman’s personal decision to not buy books by white men. Since this article is more about how that moment impacted Cook, commenting on the possibly flawed logic of the woman’s reading habits feels beyond the point.
In that vein, I believe the title is misleading. I wonder if it would have been better to title this something about the moment a white writer learned to check his privilege. The current title made me assume I would read more of a “how to” on using one’s privilege in a positive manner. Since I went in with this assumption, I felt dissatisfied that the article ended with simply buying two books written by writers of color.
Brevity’s Blog has continually been a source of insightful articles about writing and being literary citizens in the world. Writing about race, especially when coming from a place of privilege, is hard to do. I applaud Cook for crafting an article on this topic. Nonetheless I would be remiss if I didn’t point out how the structural perspectives can reinforce the racial divide. My hope in writing this article is to help readers and writers think deeply about the ideologies in place in their logic, especially when writing about the privilege stemming from one’s race.
Anita Gill is a teacher and a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Hair,” was the winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, selected by Kiese Laymon. Gill’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She will be a Fulbright Fellow to Spain for 2019-2020.
June 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Ellison
I met Reema Zaman at the 2018 Hippocamp Conference when she presented “The Art of Radical Vulnerability: Using Writing to Turn Wounds into Wisdom.” Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow as she revealed the insights she’d gained while writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Reema’s message was received with the powerful silence deserving of profound truths. Follow-up questions focused on one theme: writing about trauma.
Six years ago, I worked as a trauma therapist, helping clients understand and revise the stories they tell about painful experiences. Now, I teach classes in memoir. Trauma is a frequent guest at our workshop tables. Sometimes it’s an uncontained beast that threatens to derail projects. As an instructor, I constantly seek tools students can use to safely house their suffering and mold chaotic experiences into something ordered. A favorite is the Soham meditation—a Sanskrit mantra that roughly translates as I am that. It serves as both repository for errant thoughts and reminder that our essential nature is powerful and good.
Like this meditation, I Am Yours creates a haven for trauma narratives—one that simultaneously records and reauthors the writer’s deepest challenges. Structured as a love letter to her highest self, Reema’s memoir encapsulates her experiences with misogyny, sexual assaults and rape, intimate partner violence, and the racially-charged subjugation she faced as a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States.
Letters like Reema’s serve as apt vessels for traumatic experiences. Her greeting, “Dear Love,” invokes the ultimate loving witness for her vulnerable stories. In her letter’s body, she processes her story, and through the closing, we are invited to let go of past harms and embrace radical self-love.
Reema’s letter has a meditative quality she sustains through a variation on Soham. Each episode begins with “I am” and her age. “I am 3. I am 5. I am 11.” This “I Am” invites the reader into her painful experiences—ones she renders with stark clarity and poetic finesse. On being raped, she writes: “He grabs me. I steel my body against his…. The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.” When her abusive husband insisted she downplay her looks and intellect, she writes “I blot my cheeks, lips, eyelids, dimming myself.”
Her memoir opens with her early life. As the oldest daughter to parents of an arranged marriage, she tries to fulfill the preset roles of a toxic patriarchy. To cope with the challenges of living in a world that silences women, she develops anorexia—an illness that shrinks both body and spirit—and pursues beauty as she strives to become a voice for the voiceless. This leads to careers in modeling and acting. But external changes don’t result in internal metamorphosis. Eventually, she realizes, “being raised by a bully, I married a bully, and through my choices, I become my biggest bully.” Each page contains similar epiphanies that frequently read like prayers.
Her memoir fulfills the satisfying arc we expect: the heroine loses her innocence, struggles, and ultimately prevails. But her unique approach makes I Am Yours distinctive. Many memoirs weave traumatic episodes into gripping tales that ascend to a triumphant crescendo, placing readers fully in the story’s present moment, desperate for resolution. In the midst of Zaman’s darkest episodes, she invokes the witness, “my love,” and reminds readers that an actualized writer (not the wounded character) controls her story. She tells her younger self, “she is kind, loved, and has value in this world,” creating an in vivo reauthoring of traumatic experiences as she recounts them. A miscarriage is “my body knowing how to take care of itself.” Of her gritty and painful marriage to a man who says she’s a wife for “greensies not for keepsies,” she writes “I entered my first marriage a girl. I leave a woman.” On her rape, she writes, “this is but one chapter and only I author my life.”
Self-soothing and reparenting the inner child are therapy terms frequently met with balled fists and pursed lips. How does one practice what one never had? Whether Zaman learned these skills or intuited them, she models self-soothing for us and reveals a new way to write memoir—one that speaks back to trauma in her revolutionary style. Time will tell whether other writers will emulate her in vivo reauthoring in their books. Regardless, I Am Yours has proved an essential guidebook for authors who wish to harness their internal witnesses and speak compassionately to themselves throughout the writing process.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. She teaches classes in memoir and creative nonfiction at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
May 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
by Grace Campbell
A well-known writer and good friend once quipped that, if I wanted to be successful, I needed to stop attending my correspondence so diligently. You give too many shits, was the short of it, a sentiment whose reduplications are not in short supply. And whose tenor I have found to be, if I am allowed to wax reductive: a rather male way of behaving. Which is neither to say I refute that notion or endorse it. Which is also to say that I am using the word ‘male’ to reflect an arbitrary but historically enforced set of behavioral modes that codify and centralize dominance: a pattern rather than a person, so calm down with your not all men refrains.
Caring less is a thumbtack ridden slope. Of course you can reframe it as prioritizing more but one doesn’t usually happen without riding tandem alongside the other. These would-be nuggets wanting to crystallize into axioms are usually not to my liking, mostly because they require another kind of gymnastics. That tiresome and culturally invisible place where I reckon with my own female conditioning in order to unleash their potential. This act itself takes up so much time. Suggestions don’t become cultural or even personally felt aphorisms without untold hours of emotional weightlifting, hours, days, months, even, fraught in guilt, shame and self doubt: a lovely cocktail that, at the least, whittles down your capacity to write effectively and at the worst, mires you in feeling very much without the drive to write at all. That we should possess the fortitude to shut off these feelings and apply well-intended but generic nuggets-o-wisdom, and further, that this kind of ability is a valuable trait I find highly suspect.
Both caring less and prioritizing more sound delicious but what I’m more interested in chewing on is a hearty conversation around the societal (and by this I mean both the outward and the internalized) dictates and norms that mark the creation and sustaining of an effective writing practice wholly different enterprises for women than men, white folk than nonwhite folk.
Another writer recently lamented, in an essay, that an experience of sexual harassment had not only made it impossible for her to focus on her writing projects in its wake, but had fomented into an impasse where she had to write about the harassment first, in order to move through it and then, hopefully, have the capacity to return to her earlier projects. This is precisely what we need made more visible. That ignored space where the fabric of marginalization creates a swallowing eddy. Where writing gets interrupted. A space we would rather believe is the product of our own failure at achieving a male-centric atrium of productivity. Whether we write about those traumas that interfere with our chosen projects is not the point; they take up a heft of space inside us either way.
If the conditioning we receive is qualitatively different along the axis of gender (male/female/nonbinary/trans) and race, then the way we come at our practice is, as well, and we need to be honest about this. We need to stop talking about the writing practice as a set of neutral principles and skills applicable to anyone in an identical fashion and within the same proximal reach, so long as we try hard enough. We need to understand that women/nonbinary/trans/nonwhite people have vastly different constructions of space and the entitlement to claim it than do cis white dudes. If we can start to have cogent discussions about what the writing life of marginalized people looks like, and what factors inform it, then we can much more succinctly and creatively address ways to make that space effective, nourishing and productive.
Not long ago, I was the victim of a stalker. The experience ripped the entire seam-work of my identity into disaster-shaped scraps that upended every single facet of my life. I wanted to write about it as a kind of self-preservational documentation, and as an exposition on what being stalked does to a woman. To close friends I confided my fear that if I wrote about it openly, my stalker would kill me. This permanently stained my reaction to the normal Facebook flood of craft essays extolling the virtues of write what you know, and its other manifold iterations, like the fondly dismissive if people wanted you to say nice things about them, they should have treated you better or even the self-help-soaked write your truth. The fact that I could have resorted to writing about my trauma under a pseudonym rested at my center like a partially softened anvil: I felt it critical to have my own name attached to my own, lived experience. I could not right myself, despite the feed of one-size-fits-all advice, into any position that would not end in something awful. I have not written about it in its entirety because the men and women involved in it are abusers who can damage my career and/or much more to the point, leave my children motherless. Yet if scraping clean the need to write about it is my only solution, I find myself at the threshold of that same act I have been trying to excommunicate from my gendered conditioning, and there I am again, inside the destructive choreography of erasure.
My experience germinates along a vast trajectory that encompasses all the anxieties that prevent marginalized people from writing about what we know. And those which prevent or complicate our capacity to write anything, at all. Maybe it is because we want so badly to believe in a meritocracy of time and space that we doggedly adhere to generic, self-help sounding slogans. But the more we impress their raceless, classless, genderless intaglios onto marginalized bodies, the more we erase the contexts by which these bodies arrive at and experience the space of writing. This is not to say that we need to throw all our extant craft suggestions into a burn pile. It is, rather, incumbent on us to cease gliding along a pull-up-your-boot-straps ethos, one that is conveniently and invisibly cis white-dude-ish, and to, in turn, interrogate how these long-held truths about writing enforce modalities of erasure.
If we value the writing of the non-dominant among us, we must first acknowledge that the discussion of writing practice has atrophied along its adherence to so-called universal aphorisms of discipline and productivity. Without engaging in this long overdue discourse, we are merely co-signing a legacy that continues to ignore the current of emotional weight-bearing as nothing other than a mere distraction. We are insisting on pretending that all writers occupy a falsely equal space. We must de-colonize our rhetoric. We are, in our discomfort, conveniently ignoring the realities that complicate the act of sitting down, willing everything away and making the words happen. Certainly I would like to live in such a world. But more than this, I would like to tell you what my world actually looks like.
Grace Campbell is the founding editor and head writer at Black River Press. She is the fiction editor at 5×5 Magazine. Her work has been included in Best Small Fictions 2019 and has appeared widely, in such journals as New Flash Fiction Review, Gravel, Joyland, Big Other and elsewhere.
May 24, 2019 § 19 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe,” wrote Nikola Tesla, “think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
Tesla was talking about physics. But because I believe that energy, frequency, and vibration are integral to the writing process as well, doesn’t it follow that writing can help us get closer to understanding the secrets of the universe?
It may not look like it when we’re sitting in a café, laptop or notepad on the table, coffee mug in hand, and our mind lost in thought, but writing is a physical activity. Energy is harnessed from our head through our heart and into our hands and into letters placed on a keyboard or page. The tap-tapping of fingertips or scratch-scratching of lead or ink across paper is the frequency, no matter how regular or irregular the rhythm. And a mix of concentrated thought with repeated contact of fingertips to a keyboard or page can make the writer’s whole body vibrate, literally or metaphorically.
A visual will help. Take a look at this 3-minute video of salt responding to changes in energy, frequency and vibration. Salt is randomly shaken onto a flat, black metal surface and subjected to different vibrations. The salt shape-shifts into distinct, beautiful patterns. When the frequency and vibration are increased, the salt rearranges into even more intricate designs that boggle the mind and dazzle the eye.
After I saw the video, I thought, yes! Scientific proof that chaos wants to be art. If we define chaos as something that throws us out of whack, forcing us to face big questions – loss, illness, pain, accident, healing, joy or mystery – natural laws can rouse its expression. And that expression has the potential to be magnificently beautiful. Resonant. Memorable. That’s what so many of us who read, write, edit and teach personal narrative look for in an essay or memoir.
Writing shakes the salt loose inside of us. Sometimes that salt finds its way into old wounds. It activates our memory and we feel it again, which sets the art making in motion. That writers choose to go back and feel old pain – on purpose – reflects our deep curiosity (or neurosis, but I speak for myself.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos and art lately as I have been writing a memoir about the aftermath of a car-and-truck collision I experienced as a young girl. I’ve been working on it for so long now that it feels like I’ve given myself an endless, writing prompt. There’s so much material to draw from, so many directions I can go. But when I return to the page, I discover some new facet of the story. Gain some new insight. Sometimes there’s even some healing. I’ve tried to stop writing it more than once. But I find myself compelled to continue, as if the chaos itself yearns to become art. To make meaning from its experience.
Like Tesla, Carl Jung also thought about chaos. But he wasn’t talking about physics when he wrote, “In all chaos, there is a cosmos. In all disorder, a secret order. ” Jung was talking about chaos as a way to encounter one’s own soul. The descent is perilous, he wrote, but it yielded great rewards. “If one opens up chaos,” wrote Jung, “magic also arises.”
We may feel as if we are using every ounce of force – our own as well as what we can grab – to shake chaos loose enough from our psyches, spirit, body and mind to transform it into words onto the screen or page. But what magic when the words land and they are just right! When the words open a window or a door and for a moment, we may feel as if we have, indeed, come to understand some small secret of the universe.
Beyond the beautifully strung together words we leave on the page, we also leave behind concrete proof that we survived. Those lines, curves, dots and squiggles in the letters and punctuation that make up our sentences are the visible marks of chaos’s imprint on us.
Ellen Blum Barish is editor and publisher of Thread and Stitch. Her essays have been published in The Chicago Tribune, Literary Mama, Tablet, Full Grown People, Brevity Blog and have aired on WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and StoryStudio Chicago and privately. Ellen is author of the essay collection, Views from the Home Office Window and is completing a memoir. She blogs at EBB&FLOW.
May 21, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Rebecca Gummere
It goes like this. In December, seeing a miraculous remnant of green nestled beside your house, you rescue the tiny idea of a plant and bring it inside, placing it among the thirsty coleus and trailing tradescantia and the shy pink geranium. You tend it all through the winter, uncertain of what it will become. You think you know, though, what manner of vine it is, already excited for how the leaves will unfurl and the tendrils will trail around your living room, all grace and beauty and color and light.
Then one day as it is taking shape you see the thing, really see it, and you realize it is not what you believed it to be at all. It is not the elegant vine you thought, with smooth leaves of many shades of green. But, okay, you make a deal. You recognize it now as a fragrant wild-growing herb many consider a weed. You adjust your expectations. In the summer it will offer tiny yellow flowers, and you can put a sprig of it in your iced tea.
Some weeks later you look more closely. The leaves, now covered with hair-like spikes, give off no aroma at all when crushed. Not the wild herb, then? What the hell? And now comes a sense of betrayal, the effort you’ve put into caring for this thing, bringing water, freshening with rich soil, moving it from window to window to chase the sunlight, and all of it coming to naught. It is as if you fell madly in love, only to waken one morning next to an ogre.
You should toss the whole mess into the weeds, let it go back to the earth. And yet…this living thing, and your investment of time and hope while cold winds howled, does that count for nothing?
You grudgingly decide to keep it, see what happens next. After all, the days are lengthening, the snow has melted, and your sudden better mood has stirred a dormant curiosity. Winter ends, you move all the plants out onto the front porch, and when you water them, you eye with mingled suspicion and wonder the messy tangle in the small clay pot set apart from the others.
One morning, while examining the plant, a bruised leaf gives off the familiar scent, and you realize, it is the wild herb after all! And now you begin to see, you think you get it – in its infant state, not yet fully developed, the plant could not look, or seem, or feel, or smell like what it would become. Patience, you remind yourself, is a virtue. You repot the plant in a larger container with fresh new soil, and set it beside the other growing things, ready, even eager to see what the next phase of development will bring.
The plant is teaching you that you are only partly in charge of its final form. You are moving toward acceptance of the mysteries surrounding the development of living matter, most of which happens while you are not looking, most of which happens in dimming and darkness.
All of this is to say: Writers, do not give up. (I say this as one who recently did but found I could not fully take to it.)
The propagation of living, growing things, which our stories most surely are, often means a lot will happen without our permission. Keep going anyway. Just because you don’t yet know exactly what the work will become does not mean its future is not already woven into its secret architecture, which you will uncover through your faithful tending. (Is this not the very definition of organic?)
I have come to believe there are no wasted efforts in gardening or writing. All is useful, even if only for the momentary peace that comes with turning over good soil or unearthing a hidden bone of your own story. And keep in mind, cuttings that seem unsuccessful on their own can be trimmed, rooted, repotted, grafted.
Keep writing, using the tools of your craft – rake, hoe, trowel, tiller, fertilizer, pruner – and trust you can go from idealized version to unexpected wildness to mystery and revelation.
Just don’t quit.
Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, the Masters Review Anthology, Vol. VII, and other publications. She is currently working on a memoir about a recent nine-month solo cross-country journey, Chasing Light. She blogs at www.rebeccagummere.com.
May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?
Here’s an excerpt:
During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”
In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.
So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.
Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.