On Essaying the Violence Against “Women These Days”

May 21, 2018 § 2 Comments

authorphoto-4Amy Butcher’s essayWomen These Days,” in the Brevity issue launched last week, was constructed from a series of Google news story searches using the keyword “women” combined with various common verbs ( “dating,” “walking,” “running,” “shopping,” “cooking”) We asked the author to reveal more about the origins of the powerful, difficult essay that resulted:

For years, I’ve taught Torrey Peters’ heartbreaking found essay, “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay,” which first appeared in Brevity‘s May 2015 issue, and recently I’ve begun to teach it alongside her “On ‘Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay’” which appeared in Wave-Form: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women. That initial essay is so profound and deeply moving and unflinching in its approach, but I understand, too, the hesitation and uncertainty she felt which led to the addendum.

As an essayist, I believe very deeply in the value of complication, and in essays that are provocative in their approach. I think, in many ways, this is the most effective way we have as essayists to shake readers into being perhaps a little less accepting of any number of current situations—the state of violence against women in this country being only one of them. I understand Peters’ conflict intimately, as my first book is one for which I often feel very conflicting truths. I think of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” a rumination on writing his memoir Firebird, and how he ends the essay with a moving back-and-forth interior monologue about whether or not he’d make the same artistic decisions if he could make them all over again. The best essays I’ve ever read occupy this space.

For me, writing “Women These Days” was deeply cathartic, and unlike Peters’ essay, which is uncomfortably (and brilliantly) objective, I allowed myself to become present in the piece because so much of what these deaths represent—beyond their abhorrent and inherent horror—is an ongoing and daily threat against my person and half the people around me. Why do we not care more? I’m working now on a book about women and fear and danger, and one of the hardest parts of writing it is grappling with the fact that male intimate partners—husbands, boyfriends, fiancés, lovers—take the lives of three American women on average daily. That’s more than death by car accident, death by suicide, death by cancer. We think of war and imagine combat in desert places, suicide vests, IEDS. But while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw the deaths of 6,488 American troops between 2001 and 2012, those same eleven years yielded the death of 11,766 American women, murdered by current or former male partners in their backyards and their bedrooms, their living rooms and cars. The risks are greater if you’re a woman of color, greater if you are gay, greater still if you’re transgender. Why does it not unsettle us more? These deaths exceed the causalities of 9/11 every three years, and yet no one dares declare war on this uniquely particular, domestic terror, not foreign or distant at all but in the very same spaces where we throw birthday parties, flip pancakes, string Christmas lights, grill ballpark franks. I’m grateful this essay has had the reception it has, and I’m grateful to Brevity for publishing it.

Amy Butcher is an essayist with recent work in Granta Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Times, Lit Hub, and others. Her first book, Visiting Hours, earned starred reviews and praise from The New York Times Sunday Review of Books, NPR, The Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and others. She teaches writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and annually for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

May 11, 2018 § 6 Comments

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do stop short of labeling all as such: For me, anything can be research, but not everything is.  To be clear: everything is fair game.  All the notebooks, lived experiences, dialogue.  But I choose not to call everything research because I fear confusing it with awake-ness, with just learning the plant names to learn them, and to better notice and articulate to a friend the delight of the pawpaws.  Instead, I use the term “research” when I need that little kick to get going.  When I know I want to do something or go somewhere, but for whatever reason, I’m holding myself back.  Research becomes, for me, a license to be the most curious version of myself.

“I’m arguing for a rambling path,” Joni Tevis said in our panel, The Dividing Line: Blending Research in Personal Narratives at the 2018 Annual Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.  Is the rambling path different than the rabbit hole? I’m not sure.  One of the riddles that arose in our conversation was, how do you know when it’s enough? In the midst of researching, it can be hard to recognize if the deep dive is avoidance of writing and/or if it’s productive. (Sometimes it’s “yes and.”) This is when Joni’s advocacy comes in handy – granting permission, even encouraging the rambling path.  I’d add, too, that learning to discern between seeking distraction and seeking information involves knowing oneself: how does the mind feel when it’s longing for interruption? Is that the sensation I’m chasing right now, as I open yet another tab on my browser? Put another way: am I combing through microfiche or scouring YouTube because I’m avoiding listening to the rhythm of a sentence?  If the answer is yes, then perhaps it’s time for a gentle redirection back to the page.  If the answer is yes and (I need to know), it’s harder to say. But practicing asking the question has felt helpful to me over the years of writing.

That concept of “enough” can feel so tricky.  What if the question about research isn’t, “when do I know I have enough?” but “When do I think I have enough to start?” Once I begin writing, I continue to discover gaps.  And so, research becomes a circular dance: write, think, go beyond the self, think, write, shape better questions, go beyond the self.  I had a professor in graduate school who had advice for seminar papers that I think extends to other realms: Start before you think you’re ready.

zz coffeltWhich brings us to fear.  In our AWP panel, I noticed a particular kind of fear laced into the Q&A: a fear of theft.  I’m scared of this, too – we’ve all heard the horror stories of plagiarism that end in public humiliation and shame.  How do you keep track? someone asked.  How do you make sure your sources, especially online sources, don’t disappear?  Jon Pineda, the panel organizer, talked about how he has his students create a blog over the course of the semester where they collect all of the articles and sources.  I like this idea because it allows you to capture multimedia in a notebook-of-sorts.  Personally, I’ve found Scrivener’s tools to be crucial as I wrote my first book – Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip Through Haiti – because I could store photos, videos, audio files, photocopies of notes, and save caches of websites (see photo to the left) lest the sites themselves hange or disappear.

Regardless of the tool, one way to approach this fear seems to be organization.  I learned this most acutely in an audio storytelling workshop: there are concrete steps to save the individual files, and then there are guiding principles for working with multiple tracks, creating banks of sound, and more.  But ultimately, you have to have everything saved and you have to know where everything is (or at least, be able to find it).  You can design a system that serves you.

One of the best systems, of course, being the library.  On our panel, Colin Rafferty shared the magic of the Federal Depository Library Program, which distributes Government Printing Office documents to every Regional Depository Library – and the GPO prints a lot of documents.  (It’s the largest publisher in the world.)  These Regional Depository Libraries include, as Colin said, “any land-grant college or university, any federal agency library, any accredited law school, and the highest appellate court in your state.  Best of all, depository libraries are open to the public, even when housed at a private institution.” What’s in depository libraries? The Catalog of US Government Publications, for one, which is chalk-full of strange facts and overlooked histories, waiting to be read.

Research is fraught – and so is writing.  They can both be a discovery process for the writer.  They’re both practices that can embolden, inform, ensnare, and uncover.  We might not always like what we find, but for me, it’s always worth the search.

Allison Coffelt lives and writes in Columbia, Missouri.  Her first book, Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip Through Haiti, explores a decade-long interest in Haiti and interrogates the line between here and there.  Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksHippocampus, the Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.  She serves as the Education & Outreach Director and podcast host for True/False, a nonfiction film festival.  You can find more about her work at allisoncoffelt.com.

Sven Birkerts: On Writing, the Distractions of Technology, and Iota

May 9, 2018 § 3 Comments

An interview conducted by Sarah Einstein,

picture-of-svenEssayist Sven Birkerts writes often and compellingly in defense of the artfulness of the essay and its ability to connect us to the sublime. He worries that we’re losing that artfulness to the pull of technologies that clamber for our attention; attention that we need if we are to create or experience art.

Nothing could better describe my own problems with writing at the moment. Even writing this, I’m pulled away by a New York Times “Breaking News Alert” that, really, isn’t particularly pressing. Just another pronouncement from Trump about the Stormy Daniels case, which I could well have waited to read until this evening and probably have gotten by with never reading at all. But everything feels so urgent right now, and so fragile, that it’s difficult to leave the constant demands of the 24-hour news cycle behind and do the quieter, more complex work of contemplation that fuels the personal essay. So I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with him about this very problem, and I’m anxious to (try) to implement his suggestions.


EinsteinI’ve been thinking about the essays in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age quite a bit lately. I first read it in 2015, when it seemed common-sensical to me that both to create and appreciate art, we must resist the temptation to let the internet train us to be gadflies. I read the essays with easy agreement, even if I sometimes checked Facebook between them.  And then, of course, the world changed and it was possible not to know the state of the nation if one looked away for more than a few hours. I’ll admit I lost a good six months of productivity to the constant pull of this disaster and that outrage, so sure at first that each one must surely be the last one. It’s only lately that I’ve been able to pull myself away from what I like to imagine was deeply engaged citizenship, but which I am sure was more political rubbernecking, at the hourly pronouncements from the press. 

I’m wondering if you think it’s less, or more, necessary now for us to unplug from the constant intrusion of technology, given that it often intrudes to tell us about some new degradation to our democracy? How do we consider carefully when it seems that what we consider is, right now, in such constant turmoil?

Birkerts: You ask the question of the hour, and it frets me daily. We can’t not tune in to crisis-time in the West, but neither can we let our already threatened inner independence get snuffed out. It seems important to distinguish between staying informed and—your good word—“rubbernecking.” Gawking at the “breaking news,” feeling full of dread but mildly titillated, too,  we not only burn up huge amounts of time, but we get more deeply implicated in the system that brings us the spectacle—a system which jumps from network news to Facebook to Twitter, and keeps us in thrall with the promise of the resolving next thing. 19th century novels were often published in serial form and structured to the logic of the cliff-hanger, as were soaps and prime-time series after them. Now it’s “breaking news” and click-bait.

The more entangled we are, the less oxygen there is for the formerly free-standing “I.”  And also the less content. If you spend much of the day free-styling between platforms, what do you have to work with in the soul-making department, and what will you use to make your art, if art is what you make?

What we need to do is regularly break the media spell. The hypnotist snaps her fingers and the guy on the stage stops acting like a duck. We break the spell not by weaning, but by suddenly stopping. Power failure—“where did you put the candles, hon?”  And we need to do this as often as our reliance warrants. Which is something only we know—how deep in we are.  By stopping we get an update on our addiction. By staying stopped for a while, we give unmediated existence—what used to be called “life”—a chance. You can’t just unplug and be reading your Knausgaard the next minute. You need some time to once again become the person who can do so.

Great advice, Sven—take it!

zz Sarah-EinsteinEinstein: In a letter to Poetry Magazine, you wrote that you’ve encountered a “withering away of a felt secular connection to something that might be called transcendent” in the culture of our time. I imagine this connection, itself, requires the sort of attention you argue for in Changing the Subject. How can we get this access to the sublime through art back, or do you think it’s lost to us for the time being? Are there writers today who you think are particularly good at fostering this connection?

Birkerts: I like Theodore Roethke’s words here. He wrote: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.”  I have to believe that for all the media saturation and distraction, that “means” is still viable. But it’s not an easy thing, is it? I will use the old word “soul” and say that our souls—our secular souls—need some saving. Art is a path of attention, of concentration, and in the process, both of making and of experiencing, we are taken out of the nervous percolation of the moment and immersed in the other time. Duration time—which is time during which we are unaware of time whirling by. Absorption. This is the natural habitat—it’s why we were allowed to be children once—and we do recognize this as soon as the immersion happens. But then we forget, need to be reminded again and again that it’s there. The hypnotist’s finger snap.

My big word for a long time now has been “attention.”  It must be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote.

Einstein: What do you wish people were paying more attention to at this moment? Is there something you wish we’d pay less attention to? 

Birkerts: The ordinary, just for starters. Life begins at home. The dust motes hanging in the light, the cat doing its yoga stretches. The thing registered is less important here than the registering itself. This kind of perception is at the same time a means of self-perception. It completes a circuit. It may not have a further end, and doesn’t need one.    What we are doing when we watch or scroll and click is something different. The attention I’m talking about fixes on the real time/space existence of the thing, whatever it is. Scroll-attention happens in a separate time/space zone and it is, given the nature of electronic media, always asking us to lean toward the next thing.

Einstein: What advice do you have for essayists who want to find their way to artfulness in these distracted times?

Birkerts: Hmmmmm….Find ways to keep believing that what you feel needs to be said does need to be said. This means a regular checking in with the true origins of the impulse of the project. It also means keeping company with your kindred, the writers who move you to emulation.  As you are writing ask yourself the simple question:  “Am I having fun?”  I mean this in the craft sense: “Is my sentence-making interesting and surprising to me?”  Do not fear the digression—it may be your unconscious tugging at your sleeve.

iota doty (1)Einstein: You’re one of the workshop leaders at the upcoming Iota Conference, which consists of four days spent on Campobello Island just over the Canadian border. I’ve been twice, once as a workshop leader and once as a participant, and one of the things I valued most about it was the opportunity to let go of distractions, to focus for a while on art with others of a similar bent. Can you tell us a little about what participants can expect in your workshop? 

Birkerts: Given that I’ll have two days with each group of students, I hope to use exercises and conversation to help the writers get closer to the urgency and insistence of their respective projects. I won’t say more, but that is the teaching impulse I feel these days.

Want to study with Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.

Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic,  Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir and Remnants of Passsion, and her essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Sun, Whitefish Review, and other literary journals. She is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her online course Memoir Writing for Happy People runs June 1 – August 31 at Iota Short Prose Online.

321: Teaching Writing to Teens

May 4, 2018 § 12 Comments

zz janpby Jan Priddy

Three to one is my ideal ratio of positive to negative comments to be given to teenage writers. Three blessings to each noted failing. Teenagers are fragile on the page. They feel their writing is them—that who they are and what they write are synonymous. They are afraid of revision. They think having to revise means they are stupid.

I know I should give them overwhelming affirmation compared to criticism, and though three to one is my ideal, I usually fail. The comments I make on their manuscripts are too often negative. I mark errors of syntax, verb tense, citation, and spelling. I note wordiness, sentences repeating information from a sentence immediately prior, and point out that “restating the thesis” demands different wording from what is found in the first paragraph. I flag errors of fact, fuzzy logic, and bad math. I ask for proof every time they claim “always” or “never.” I highlight their assumptions and uses of cliché that they are too young to know are cliché. I mark inaccurate margins, headings, and missing URLs. Sometimes I correct the spelling of my name in the heading. Sometimes I correct the spelling of the student’s name. I mark in any color other than red, usually purple or green.

I put checks in the margin when they make a strong point. I write “me too!” when I relate personally. I applaud beautiful structure and finely crafted sentences. “Yes!” I write in the margin. Then, when I make myself take the time, I write a short script telling them what worked in their essay. I assure them they are improving. They need this. They must learn to persist.

It’s not easy being a teenaged writer.

It will never become easy.

(Seriously, has it ever become easy for you?)

Last month I left home for three days and when I returned I found two acceptances and a request from an agent for a full manuscript. There was also a rejection waiting in my inbox, but I did not care. I was winning! Three to one. I was, everyone likes to point out, “on a roll.”

I desperately wanted everyone to be right that my future would be one publication after another, but I knew better. Rejection was just around the corner.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a day trip and I returned to three rejections and an acceptance. One of the rejections was particularly kind but included the word “quiet.” I get that all the time. My writing is “too quiet.” And I want to sit quietly in that quiet way that I have so often been told that I write and plea: I can’t write any louder.

I know most of my writing flaws because I have heard about them over and over. “What are you feeling?” I am asked when I thought that lying on the floor, eyes closed, my hand plucking at dust bunnies would be a clear indication that I am an emotional wreck. Do I need to say “I was too freaked out to function”?

Perhaps I could be clearer about my feelings.

But then, again, there was acceptance. Wasn’t there? If one in every four email notices was an acceptance, that would be spectacular. Ursula K. Le Guin once told me that she found it was initially easier to be a published poet than anything else, because journals publish more poetry than everything else put together. It was good advice and I have found it to be accurate. I know that need for praise. And who am I to feel sad about a 25% acceptance rate? It won’t last.

Today I will try to be more encouraging in response to the work of my teenaged students. They need to know what they do right so that they can do more of it. They need at least three to one positive to negative. Even in their weakness, I will tell them where they succeeded. I will emphasize writing as a process. I will discuss the essay with 32 drafts, the story with over 40. I will honor their intentions. They need to know their value.

And then I will stand up from my own metaphorical floor, spit out the dust bunnies, and get back to writing.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffinCALYXThe HumanistNorth American Review, and anthologies on running and race. Her work is forthcoming in Brevity magazine and Liminal. She earned BFAs in studio arts and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com.


It’s Not All About You: Teaching High School Essayists

May 2, 2018 § 7 Comments

fb ppicBy Signe Hordvik

At some point many writing students, especially those studying creative nonfiction, are reminded that their stories are not only about them. When I relay this fact to my high school students, they think I am tripping. Maybe next I will lick the walls and tell them that the “snozberries taste like snozberries” ─ the teacher has lost it.

Who could blame them for thinking this is “crazy talk”? Personal narrative essays in many K-12 classrooms are often flat, because of the misguided belief that it is a story only about the writer. Correcting this misconception is a bucket of ice water for the ego. I watch faces redden, like mine once had, as epiphanies begin to explode in the chairs around the room. Years of assigned composition centered around “about me stories,” “what I did on summer vacation stories,” “my favorite fill-in-the-blank stories,” etcetera were probably only interesting to their mothers, on non-busy days.

If my students were of age, I would maybe break the news over a glass of wine or something with a bit more kick, but Skittles, Starbursts, and Sour Patch Kids have helped with some of the eye-rolling and teeth gnashing. I try to convince my students that the sooner we get to acceptance, the better the writing will get. I sound like drug counselor. I should have bought more candy. Is it too late to call in a sub?

The wilting egos are quickly replaced by confusion and a touch of indignation. If I am going to stomp on fond memories of “gold-stars-past,” I owe these students an answer that provides direction, without being so formulaic that their stories disintegrate into traffic reports. This is hard because personal narratives ARE a collection of the writer’s intimate experiences, but they also must lead to some sort of larger human/universal lesson, connection or understanding, and oh yeah, the stories need to be original too. When I explain it this way, I feel like I have just asked them to yodel in Chinese. Sometimes everyone wants to stab the messenger.

I have heard several explanations of personal narratives after attending many creative nonfiction classes and conferences. Some explanations were tidier than others. Two of my favorites are from Vivian Gornick and Cheryl Strayed:

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” ~ Vivian Gornick in The Situation and The Story.

“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.” ~ Cheryl Strayed.

Each explanation encourages new writers to be scary-honest, by relinquishing control of who they think they should be on the page toward who they are when no one is looking. Perfect people are boring narrators. Likable narrators have zits, are envious of their better-looking friends, curse in traffic after church, and say the things we are sometimes too afraid to share even in prayer ─ they are us in parallel universe.

Encouragement only goes so far, especially if you are over 30 trying to explain that “being open ─ vulnerable” does not equal “beat me” to a classroom full of teenagers. Like visits to the dentist, when workshopping and sharing, someone must go first. I am grateful for the brave few that have “literary cojones” to write the ugly, uncomfortable, true things, and then share them without apology. Shockingly, no one dies after sharing; in fact, most make it past lunch, and a few make new friends. The fantastic odds of survival and the adolescent biological need to be part of the group lure more classmates to follow.

Some still cling to safer writing patterns like the five-paragraph essay; the emotional risk is too great. I want to toss them out of the nest, but anxiety trumps instinct for most high school students. Alice, my mentor teacher, (frequently) reminds me that “you can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to.” I want to plug my ears and enforce “mandatory authenticity” but being a writing dictator in a workshop-style classroom is silly; it would only lead back to the formulaic prose most began with and maybe a few eggs on my car.

Alice tries to reassure me with, “there’s always next year.” This also burns. I’d prefer now or, at the latest, tomorrow. The hope in her message says change is still possible. I guess I can accept that.
Signe Hordvik is a high school English teacher. She has a Master’s of Education and studies Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. When not grading or writing papers, she is busy being a mom to two awesome kids. You can find some of her work at www.letsspise.com.

Be Willing to Write Badly

April 30, 2018 § 46 Comments

zz janpby Jan Priddy

Karen Karbo spends twenty minutes each morning ranting on yellow pads of paper before she begins her real writing for the day. William Stafford famously began his days by writing an aphorism and then the draft of a poem. In his book of writing advice, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, erasing a mark, and that we should use lined paper with green lines. He also writes that he hopes he doesn’t teach others to write, “but how to teach yourself to write.”

My first creative writing teacher, Sandra Dorr, described being stranded in Europe and completely blocked from writing by her interior nay-saying voice. We all hear that voice. It tells us that our writing is hopeless, clunky, too specific or too general, without purpose or meaning even to ourselves. Personify the critical voice the way Jamaica Kincaid does briefly in “Girl” and allow it to have its say, and that nay-sayer will shut every one of us down.

We should not let that happen.

Freewriting, the deliberate writing of whatever pops into our heads, is one way to shut down the nay-saying voice. There is no editor allowed in freewriting. Words spill onto the page without judgement. Accident and mess are welcomed onto our pages. Random, weird, confused, repetitive—sometimes it is the only way to sneak past our critical sentinel who consistently, insistently demands that we write better than we are able to write.

We speak about 125 words per minute, but we think words at least four times this pace. Our observations of visual images and sound and touch and taste are vastly more complex. All of this happens much faster than we can write about it.

When I write as fast as I can, even with a word processor, my thinking obviously outstrips my word recording. In order to stay on my topic on the page or screen, I notice inconsequential details. I see and hear and think about the words I type in order to prevent my mind from wandering off the page. I once hand-wrote the word “oatmeal” a dozen times in a freewrite until I found the word “cookies” and could advance to “chocolate chips.” I hear my own voice saying each word I type. I do not allow the naysayer to have any voice at all.

When we are afraid of doing a bad job, we can hardly get started.

When I was trying and failing to write about my father after his death, I finally set the timer on my watch for thirty minutes, sat before my computer, and typed for all I was worth. Most of what I typed was trash, but about a third of the way into my time, I began to remember and describe the visuals and sounds and smells of my father’s tobacco pipes, his expansive answers to my questions, and the salmon-colored 3×5 cards he kept in his breast pocket and his fountain pen always filled with blue-black ink. The drawings of a medieval boat and of a nineteenth century clipper. The pink shell he stole from a hermit crab in Fortuna Bay. The terrible distortion of his fingers from arthritis.

In a half hour, I did not have a draft, but I had a start.

Karen Karbo says she does not reread her yellow pads, but keeps them just the same. William Stafford did not publish 365 poems a year, but writing that many drafts gave him material for what he did during the remainder of his day: revision.

Everything that is to become must first find a start. I do not believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in fear of bad writing. William Stafford didn’t believe in writer’s block either. He insisted the only way to keep going when the ideas did not seem “good enough” was to “just lower your standards and keep going.”

Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, and that we should use lined paper with green lines.

I like green ink and I never use lined pages. I usually write with a fountain pen on the plain square pages of a journal. Most of what I write is drivel. The greatest skill of any good writer is a willingness to write badly.

Jan Priddy’s work has earned fellowships, awards, and publication. Aside from nonfiction, her last project is a novel about recovery from grief, and her current work is science fiction short stories. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, She lives and teaches writing in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com.

The Third Lamb: My Quest for the Truth

April 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

z LRWBy Lisa Witz

In Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose says to, “put every word on trial for its life.”

Writers of nonfiction have an obligation to tell the truth; this includes the facts, of course, but also the spirit of the story. Our job is to not just to make sure the craft is tightly strung, but to also make sure that the words, once threaded together like pearls on a string, hold up to the challenge of readers, especially those who are characters in or witnesses of the story. This is delicate, because everyone’s memories of a single incident differ slightly. No one remembers the same. Yet there’s some line, some place of substantial truth that can’t be questioned, and as a memoirist it’s a basic requisite for me to delineate where this line is.

I treaded near that line recently. I wrote a story called “Cutting Tails” about a typical farming chore my father asked me to do as a kid; that day my friend Julie was over at my house, so she accompanied me and shows up in the story. In a nutshell, my Dad asked us to load up some lambs in the back of the pale blue pickup and take them to the butcher. I shared the story with my writing group and they gave me all sorts of comments and constructive ideas on how to tighten the story, to craft a more polished piece. But they had no reason to question my facts, or my recollection of how the events unfolded that day. They did ask, however, about the friend, and if I am still in touch with her, and how she is doing today.

My heart started beating right there at the table in writing class. I know, as soon as someone suggested it, I knew I needed to run the story by her.  Julie is a dear friend of mine; she’s read other writing of mine before, and she’s an ardent supporter. She is one of the few people that knows a substantial history of my life. I’ve known her longer than I’ve known my husband. Her family knew my family before we knew each other. That’s how it is in small towns; and both of us got out, but the memories of our childhood haunt us equally. And this story, this small snippet that I wrote, is a place where our histories intersect.

So, I should have felt safe sending off a piece of writing to her. Yet because I put words to the page about this day, something shifted. I became author of a shared memory in our lives, and not just friend; I became a tiny bit more responsible because it was my version of the truth that took to the page. I crafted an email and attached the essay, and pressed send.

I waited, in anticipation, for her response.

A week passed before her reply. And it was gut-wrenching waiting because instead of sharing writing that was mine, this writing had her as a character in the story. I was on pins and needles worried with how she would feel about how I characterized her.  As soon as her response landed in my inbox I could tell she took time to craft her reaction. She diplomatically and poetically explained her experience, revisiting this moment, this day that affected her deeply.  She awakened me to the fact that we are still living the story, still engaged in a relationship where our actions may influence/enlighten/hurt/ one another. She is a college English professor, and she’s excellent at communicating the bare truth even when it is a difficult truth to share. Sharing this story with her was complicated, on many levels.

It turns out I had several facts wrong. I remembered us being in high school, but she correctly pointed out that we were in college, because she left my farm that day, after seeing two lambs shot to their death at the butchers, to her waitressing job where she carried steak oozing with its red, thick juice to patrons in the restaurant. She was repulsed. She also pointed out that when we drove the lambs to the butcher, as my dad asked me to do, and as happened frequently on the sheep and cattle farm where I grew up, we carried three lambs in the back of the pickup. Not two. The butcher, as Julie recalls, had room for only two so he quickly and decisively terminated the lives of those two and spared one. Julie told me that a lamb was missing from my story, one whose life was spared, for no apparent reason, and how “seemingly random” (her words) it was that it witnessed the horror and then went on to live.

Her words propelled me deeper into the story, deeper into the memory, to a place where my heart pounded not only more quickly but much more profoundly. Why did I place this story in high school, when we were in in college? Is it because I had often driven to the butchers, and the memories of going there become jumbled? Or was I remembering a more innocent girl, a younger version of myself who couldn’t be responsible for turning her friend vegetarian?

I had to put the essay aside for several weeks. Julie’s response frightened me. It made me want to write fiction because my own truth feels more far-fetched than fiction, at times, and because I started to doubt my memories. They are difficult to open and examine; they are difficult, at times, to remember.

Julie thanked me for writing about that day; “It’s all kind of strangely haunting and beautiful all at the same time.”  She went on to say, “It turned out to be one of the most defining moments of my life, and in many ways altered the entire course of my life.”

At times I feel like my memory is on trial for life. Is my version of the truth true? If it isn’t, or if it misses some facts, why did I leave them out? The eyes of the lamb who was saved, the one who drove back to the farm in the pickup truck with me, the one who witnessed the silence between Julie and I that shifted our relationship, that lamb haunts me. Why did I forget the third lamb when I wrote the original story?

Lisa Witz grew up the youngest of nine children on a sprawling cattle and sheep farm north of San Francisco. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, living in Japan, Spain and the Pacific Northwest. She now lives near San Diego with her husband and three children, and they often visit the farm to hike the trails of her childhood. Visit http://www.lisareginawitz.com/ for more of her writing.

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