The Treachery of Words

May 19, 2023 § 7 Comments

after René Magritte

By Kristina R. Gaddy

This is not truth.

It is my version of events.

It is how I remember it happened.

It is how they remembered how it happened.

It is an oral history.

It is what someone dares say on the record.

It is the story of someone who wants to be on the record.

It is what the person asking the questions wants to hear.

It is the version of events that can be found in the historical record.

It is the story the police chose to write down.

It is the diary that someone saved.

It is the letter that someone didn’t burn.

It is an account from someone who had access to pen and paper.

It is an account from someone who knows how to write.

It is what I have.

It is not the truth.

It is not the emotional truth.

It is not the memory that has been suppressed.

It is not the story they could never tell.

It is not the story she didn’t think was important enough to share.

It is not the interview he was never able to give.

It is not all of the evidence.

It is not the story of the so-called perpetrator.

It is not the diary that ended up in the bottom of the river.

It is not the letter that was burned.

It is not the story of a woman who was never allowed to write her own story.

It is not the history no one was there to record.

It is not made up.

These are the pieces I choose to share with you.

It is the connection I want you to draw.

This is a truth.
__

Kristina R. Gaddy is the author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History (W.W. Norton 2022) and Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis (Dutton 2020)

What Stephen King Taught My Husband About Writing 

May 16, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Marie F. Cahalane

I looked busy—piano, interior design projects, laundry, Candy Crush Saga—but the swirl of activity I generated belied a larger issue.

I couldn’t fool my husband, Tim. He noted my lack of engagement in revising my memoir, or in any writing task, but fortunately for him, he stayed quiet. 

Until he didn’t.

Tim’s no writer but he reads—a lot, and as much as I love to read, we differ stylistically in how we attack a good book. Tim reads like he consumes a pasta dinner—with voracious gusto. He reads for enrichment, not technique.

I read to enhance my craft, examining word usage while appreciating the storytelling and meaning making in each scene. While I question my husband’s level of retention, considering his reading speed, his ability to engage me in cogent, topical, book-related conversation always amazes me. His nightly reading habit brings him to the dinner table ready to share interesting tidbits, and I always enjoy his off-handed observations and spontaneous reviews.

One evening, Tim picked up my copy of Stephen King’s On Writing from a pile of books in the living room. He hunkered down to read until dinner was ready.

A while later, Tim strutted into the kitchen and announced, “You need to write every day.”

His unexpected, out-of-character mandate surprised me. As a temporarily inert writer, it was a horrific turn of events. Every writing instructor I have ever known has touted the importance of a daily writing habit, and now, under King’s literary tutelage, Tim apparently fancied himself an expert. His directive failed to inspire me, even if it did come straight from the prolific Stephen King via a most unexpected mouthpiece. 

A few nights later, I braced myself as Tim sat down at the dinner table.

“You know, it’s as important for a writer to read as much as it is to write,” he said with authority.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “You see me read.”

He looked at me quizzically, clearly doubtful. I stared back blankly, hoping to disarm any further advice. I admit his channeling of King got under my skin, and not in a good way. He hoped to motivate me; instead, his prodding shredded any remnant of desire I had to write. 

It wasn’t long before Tim assumed his King-inspired coaching persona in one last attempt to break the back of my writing malaise and get my butt into the chair.

“Don’t worry about grammar and spelling when you are writing a draft,” he said, as he sat down to his chicken cacciatore and penne. “Just get the words on paper.”

My dear husband meant well but I began to draw parallels between him and Annie Wilkes, the sadistic antagonist from King’s thriller, Misery. Annie resorts to torture to coax her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, to write, while professing to be Paul’s “number one fan.” Tim’s no Annie (I had no fears I’d get a foot, or a thumb, chopped off) but he is my most fervent supporter. He thought he could help me by sharing what he had learned from reading King, and in a way, he did.

He had irritated me enough to exorcize my writing demons. Thanks to Tim and his “encouragement,” I managed to write this essay. 

Thankfully, Tim has finished reading On Writing and I am writing on a more consistent schedule. In the meantime, to preserve my sanity, I’ll stash the rest of my craft books where they are less readily accessible.

___

Marie F. Cahalane is a writer based in the greater Boston area. Her work has been published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Grand Magazine, Herstry, and her blog, Mami Knows Everything. She is a graduate of both the Memoir Generator and the Memoir Incubator at Boston’s prestigious GrubStreet writing center. When she’s not writing, Marie works with college-bound students as an independent college advisor. Find Marie at her website.

Books are Compasses

May 15, 2023 § 8 Comments

By Shawna Kenney

My first trip outside of the United States was a month-long backpacking trip in Europe. I’d saved money from many jobs for two years so I could treat myself after graduating from college, heading out with a friend, a Eurail Pass, and the Lonely Planet’s Shoestring Guide. This was the mid-90s, so we depended on the hostel phone numbers, the suggested itineraries, the historical snippets, and the occasional tip-off to vegetarian-friendly establishments.

Of course, sometimes the information proved to be outdated, like the day we hiked up a long, steep street in Lausanne, Switzerland, to the promise of a vegan restaurant, only to find a sign on the door saying they were under renovation and “closed for 3 months.” We found a nice Italian restaurant instead—and accidentally stumbled into a “blue movie” theater, something we joke about to this day.

Two weeks into the trip, my friend chided me on the train through Italy, “Get your nose out of the book! You’re missing everything.” It was true—but I couldn’t help myself. I have always read everything I could get my eyes on. As we moved on to each new city, I lightened my load by tearing away sections of the heavy tome and throwing them away.  

My second trip to Europe was seven years later on a book tour promoting the UK edition of my memoir. This was an entirely different experience—staying in Bloomsbury, imagining Virginia Woolf walking those streets; staring in reverence at the earliest printing of Rikki Tikki Tavi in the British Library; studying cuneiform texts on 7th Century clay tablets in the British Museum. My travel buddy—now husband—and I were whisked around by a publicist from bookstore to bookstore, where I shared my own work and signed stock, giddy and grateful for the opportunity.

When we toured the publisher’s warehouse, they invited us to take a copy of any forthcoming book. My husband chose 1421: The Year China Discovered America. It not only put our existence and experience into context, but I teased him that it weighed more than the original Shoestring Guide.

I still have a penchant for reading stories set in the places I’m traveling. It’s a heady mix of movement and mind. This transcends genre, perhaps because growing up in a household full of non-readers in a small rural town often referred to as the “middle of nowhere,” trips to the library meant books—my lifeline, my portal to the rest of the world and worlds that existed only in our minds. A good story is a good story.

Now, reading about places I’ve been or plan to visit is like a literary score for lived experience. I devoured Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War just after visiting Nicaragua. Before flying home to Los Angeles from Sweden years ago, a friend handed me the first English translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I knew nothing of the author, plot or genre but inhaled all 500+ pages by the time the plane landed, easily imagining Lisbeth Salander running around Stockholm and Mikhail Blomquist’s snow-sprinkled waterfront flat.

Books create associations with locales, if not help define them. Deanne Stillman’s Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, followed by the audio version of Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, accompanied me on my drive through the Black Hills of South Dakota. I read Babette’s Feast in Denmark for the first time. While others were taking the Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis or J.R. R. Tolkien walking tours in Oxford recently, a friend and I did the basic Bodleian Library tour, where I gleefully recognized The Bodleian Oath I’d just read in The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (and yes—I bought a tea towel conveying the covenant). And once, while driving through Louisiana, I actually said out loud “this is werewolf country” while pointing to a sign for Shreveport, thanks to Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels.

I couldn’t help but see the Los Angeles of Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler or Charles Bukowski everywhere I turned over 20 years of living there, while preferring the poems of Wanda Coleman to show me “from L.A. to El Dorado” and the entire canon of Michelle Serros showing me her beloved Oxnard.

I have done a little travel writing myself through the lens of food, pop culture and outdoor activities, which has given me even greater respect for writers who can make place a character so well. I hope my words have guided someone to the places their hearts desire.

Now, whenever traveling, I trek to the local bookstore, quick to ask for a recommendation of a book set in or about the region. I ponder what I will write of my new home in southeastern North Carolina, if this setting chooses to appear in my work. Otherwise, I will just keeping looking for it in someone else’s.

___

Shawna Kenney is the author of four books, most recently Live at the Safari Club: A History of Hardcore Punk in the Nation’s Capital (Rare Bird Books). Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The New York Times, Playboy, Narratively, the Brevity Blog and more.

Finding Heart Through American Idol

May 3, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto

I am watching American Idol intently this season. My heart has been captured by one of the contestants, Iam Tongi, a Hawaiian teenager living in Seattle because his family was “priced out of paradise.” His showstopper rendition of “The Sound of Silence” moved me to tears and silenced the audience.

How does he do it?

“To connect with the audience, sing from the heart,” the American Idol judges offer as advice to contestants. 

The first version of my memoir about a ten-day trip to Cuba I took with my Cuban-born mother, read more like a travelogue than a heartfelt coming-of-age mother/daughter story. I captured details of the Cuban flag flying over the land it represented. Of the soldiers standing on the tarmac with semi-automatic rifles. Of what my mother and I said to each other and why our relationship was complicated.

This early draft of my memoir read like I was the Margaret Mead of my life. A scientific observer jotting down the facts of what I saw without emotion but some interpretation. 

With two degrees in science, I was taught to avoid humanity in my research findings—with the result that during my first MFA program residency, my instructor told me my work lacked vulnerability. She implored us as memoirists to be vulnerable on the page. I had no idea what she meant. She once asked us to free-write about an experience that made us angry. I listed things that triggered anger. 1. Ignoring me, 2. Cigarette butts on the beach, 3. Anything my mother says… I then wrote what sounded like a scientific analysis of why those things made me angry.

“If you cry while you write, your readers will cry too,” she said. 

Maybe that is why I cry when I hear Iam Tongi sing on American Idol. His heart broke when his father died recently, and each time he sings, he is reminded of his loss. His emotions are translated into his singing. He sings with vulnerability. 

Meanwhile, feedback on my subsequent chapters during my MFA would say, “How did the daughter feel?” Another would say, “Linger here, build the characters’ relationship.” The best one read, “Description feels removed, impersonal.”

I wasn’t used to sharing my feelings as they were happening. I am more the type that analyzes my feelings first, then shares my findings. In high school, I would sit with my best friend over cappuccinos and we’d discuss our feelings stoically, not through tears. Was my German heritage to blame? Did I inherit my father’s stoicism? 

“Write from the heart,” my instructor said.

The summer after my MFA, I participated in a manuscript boot camp. “Your story sounds like you are at the front of a ballroom giving a presentation,” the instructor said. “Write like you are having an intimate conversation with a friend in a dark corner of a café.” My analytical brain struggled to connect with the concept of writing from the heart. 

After two more revisions, I pitched my memoir to several agents. When the rejections came in, I thought it was because I hadn’t written with vulnerability. I placed my memoir on the proverbial shelf.

I couldn’t write like Iam Tongi sang. 

Now, a year later, after attending the AWP Writing Conference and watching a few American Idol episodes, I am inspired to revisit my manuscript. To get into the mood, I queued up an album of Cuban music. When the piano intro of the title song “Cuba Linda” began to play, I was entranced. The singer, with his raspy voice sang lyrics that yearned for the country he hasn’t seen in a long time. Tears welled in my eyes. I was at a funeral singing, Beautiful Cuba, I will always remember you.

Where did this emotion come from? The singer was singing from his heart to mine. He tapped into a deep part of my psyche—where emotions flow freely, unconstrained by the rules of scientific writing and German stoicism. Where I relive my Cuban family’s loss at being forced to leave their island home. Where I replay the complications of my mother-daughter trip to Cuba.

Emotions I hadn’t translated to the page of my memoir.

That day, I opened up my memoir manuscript for the first time in a year. My new tool in my writing toolbox is to begin revisions by listening to music that opens my heart. I hope future feedback says, “I can really feel your heart on the page.”

___

Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto is working on a revision of her memoir, Finding the Girl from Guantanamo. She received an MFA in creative writing from the low-residency MFA program of the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe NM. She has a BA in Biology and an MS in Marine Science. She is a November 2019 alum of the Vermont Studio Center. Her nonfiction writing has been published in Raven Chronicles, Teatime magazine, Scotland magazine and Insider. She resides in Seattle WA with her husband and their cat, Esperanza. Find her at her website.

It’s Going to Have All the Right Stuff

April 27, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

I’ll write the best damn piece of shit that I can write today.

I’ll bare my soul, not keep anything back, not be afraid to reveal my inner being to the world, you know, I’ll get real. Truth will explode from the prose.

I’ll hybrid, genre bend and mix, braid and twist, and be lyrical in all the right places, in just the right measure.

It will have a hero’s-journey, three-act-play, save-the-cat plot all rolled up into one.

The tragic will be seasoned with a dash of humor—the ironic, wry kind that only the best of readers will get.

Backstory will be pertinent, inciteful, limiting, expanding, and perfectly placed.

You’ll know what all my characters want, and who doesn’t want them to have it. And perhaps, in a warped turn of events, they will sabotage their own desires.

You’ll immediately recognize the validity of my characters and the veracity of their words. Even the unreliable narrators will speak a form of truth.

The characters will be so dimensional that they’ll stand up on the page, illuminated holograms of themselves. You’ll declare, This character is just like my arthritic uncle Joe, my first love in third grade, my obnoxious roommate in college, the butcher who smelled of booze at the meat market.

My badass characters will be loveable in a dark, mysterious way. You’ll want to sleep with them, and you might, but if you do, it’ll be a one-night stand. Because they’re just a little too badass. But you’ll remember them, wishing you could’ve reformed them just enough.

My goody two-shoes characters will be flawed in a light, bubbling, tickle-your-nose-with-champagne way. You’ll want to sleep with them, and you probably will, but if you do, it’ll be a short-term fling. Because you’ll both move on to other stories. In your golden years, you’ll recall them as the ones that got away.

My villainous characters will harbor all your darkest fears, will be unredeemable and keep you up at night. Unreformed, they will haunt your quiet corners.

Dialogue will be snappy, understated, overstated, implicit, explicit, and like two ships passing in the night, talking about different icebergs they’re trying not to hit.

Taste and smell and sound and sight and touch will pulsate in every passage. You’ll taste the sunsets; smell the tunes little chickadees sing; hear the moonbeams bounce off the earth; touch the air, feeling its atoms; and see the odors of wet dogs lying on the floor.

Twists and turns of plot will give you a thrilling ride. Sitting in your roller coaster car, you’ll see those twists and turns yet not see them, and when you ride over the sentences and paragraphs and pages, you’ll zip along, screaming, “I didn’t see this coming, but I bloody well should’ve.”

I’ll start in the middle of the action, so you’ll be in the middle of the proverbial car chase/love affair/homicide/dysfunctional family that will lead to a bad accident/broken heart/dead body/estrangement, denting up more cars/hearts/bodies/egos than you can find in a junkyard/pickup bar/morgue/family reunion. And dismembered limbs/vases/bullets/insults will be flying everywhere. And you’ll turn the page and keep reading because you’ll want to know how it all comes out. You’ll want to know: Who started this? Who made it worse? And who in the hell is going to stop it? And in the end, squad cars and ambulances will come. Fire trucks will douse flames. Traffic will be redirected. Counselors and therapists will arrive. Characters will be hauled away. Messes will be cleaned up. And everyone will be changed, damn it.

Just as I started the story late, I’ll leave early, before you know all the answers. Overt is passé, implied is chic. You’ll need to figure out what it all means in the grand scheme of the universe. Form a book club to discuss its deepness, its symbolism, its thematic reverberations. I’ll include discussion questions at the end.

Maybe my best damn piece of shit won’t turn out to be the finest. But I’ll write anyway because I love to.

It’s much better than doing dishes.

___

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short fiction and essays, with varying results. She was inspired to write “It’s Going to Have All the Right Stuff” after reading Charles Baxter’s essay “All the Dark Nights—a Letter” from his book Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. In his essay Baxter recounts his early days as a writer and his ups and downs. Because it was late at night, and because she was overly tired, and because Baxter’s words struck a cord with her, Smith was laughing out loud by the time she finished his essay. Instead of going to bed she grabbed her laptop and started to write. Read more at Writing Near the Lake.

True Flash

April 11, 2023 § 13 Comments

Is there a recipe for writing successful flash?

By Heather Sellers

I love reading flash essays—true stories that fit on a page or two, the shorter the better. I love how they often work as double-duty shapeshifters, serving as both stand-alone pieces and  parts of an arc in larger narratives. I’m thinking here of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling, A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. It’s like having a pile of gorgeous photographs, wonderful in their own right, that also spring to life as a film.

These small, honed pieces are delicious to read. Something about their brevity seems to make them not only inviting to fall into, but extra memorable.

But writing flash essays and micro memoir is maddeningly, shockingly difficult. One needs to have the skills of a talented, experienced poet—a gift for compression, metaphor, language, syntax, and powerful voltas—along with the story-telling chops of a gifted prose writer.  I’ve watched myself and my students struggle to figure out the secret sauce: Why do some flash pieces sing, while others seem flat, lifeless, both too much and not enough?

Can we develop a taxonomy or recipe for writing successful flash? Or is this kind of work like photography—you simply have to take 100 or 1000 shots to get one great image?

Pitfalls abound, and most of them are familiar as things that plague all of our writing.

  1. If the piece is about what it’s about, it’s probably game over.
  2. If something isn’t happening off the page, the reader will probably not engage deeply enough.
  3. If there’s not a turn of some kind–a twist, a surprise, a reversal, an insight, something that happens—the piece remains an anecdote, not a story.  If there’s no flash, it’s not flash.

Many wonderful micro memoirs are created by collage, or from lists, or pure dialogue. This is a wily form.  It all comes down to the flash—an event you make happen in your reader’s brain as they read your piece. It’s an aha, a realization, a knowing that was, until we read the piece, secret in us, and now it’s illuminated, awake, and we have it.  And it’s quick.  There’s not a paragraph of processing, a long passage of reflection, or any kind of explanation.  The flash is an experience created by words, but it doesn’t live in the words. I think that’s why these pieces are so popular. It’s all about the reader, and the writer’s work, like the magician’s, is completely invisible, unseen by the viewer. 

There are techniques we can practice to conjure flash. In my experience, practicing writing these kinds of pieces in a sequence produces the best results; I usually have to write ten of them to get one that has some kind of spark, some potential combustion.  And, I have to focus, deeply, on what is just out of view. It’s not about writing what you know, it’s more a leaning into vulnerability and tiny details, and seeing what comes forward.

Here are some of the techniques I use to generate flash essays. 

Work within strict limits: one page, or exactly 250 words. One-word titles, right justified margins.  Set up your rules so you have a nice tight boundary to work within. Stick to the rules ruthlessly.

Write in a series. My previous collection, Field Notes from the Flood Zone, began as a series of micros, each one drawn from the observations in my daybook, what I see and overhear and do in each day. Writing during the pandemic, most of my days were spent staring out my window at the street and walking around in my garden.  The isolation I experienced in 2020 powerfully amplified my hunger for company and heightened my powers of observation—I have never watched plant and animal life so closely, ever. I created a piece every day for many months. I’ve created series based on a single word, and another series prompted by skirts I’ve owned, for example. Letting go of the pressure of the one-off allows you to delve into your subject matter, and to simply practice capturing what’s ineffable in a moment.

Cut and cut again. In my experience, flash is an analog form. I draft my pieces by hand. I type them up, print them out, and then cut the piece in half, and then often in half again. Print, rinse, and repeat. I have to see the words on the physical page and be able to move them around. It’s not so much a writing project, creating flash, as it is sleight of hand, a taking-away.

Read aloud. I’m trying to get things on the page that will make things happen off the page. This requires a superpower: bilocation. You have to be in the piece and in the reader’s head at the same time. When my ear takes it in, my brain has a better sense of what the reader is going to absorb. My ear is my best editor: most of what I write does not need to be on the page. Thank you, Ear!

Find your process for setting out these lines, creating these little beauty traps, and allowing the reader to assemble the project mentally in their own space. It’s the coolest thing. Ever.

I would love to hear your tricks and techniques for composing successful flash.

__________________

Heather Sellers directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of South Florida. Her most recent book is Field Notes from the Flood Zone. Writing flash, or want to? Join Heather for her webinar, Write Tight: Creating Compelling Flash Fiction and Micro Memoir April 19th at 2PM Eastern time (replay will be available).

A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making

April 7, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

Exactly a decade ago, only two months into my MFA, I attended my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I knew little to nothing about this yearly literary gathering and what it was all about, but I’d been urged by people in my program to attend, and, since it was in Boston, only forty-five minutes from my house, I went. I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to join for three days the swarm of 13,000 writers filling the Hynes Convention Center. What it would be like to sit in the audience as writers I’d long admired delivered keynote addresses. To attend a myriad of panel presentations on topics ranging from craft elements to genre-specific themes to advice on landing an agent. To walk up and down the aisles of the massive book fair and cautiously approach the exhibitors’ tables that showcased commodities from publishers, literary journals, and writing programs. I didn’t know that being in that space would drape over me a daunting (and heavy) awareness that I was only at the start of this writing life. That I had so far to go with the painful story I’d just begun to find words for. That, more than once, I’d have to resist collapsing to the floor in an incoherent heap of uncertainty, doubt, and exhaustion. That perhaps I didn’t belong there at all.

But then, on the afternoon of the second day, I slipped into a panel presentation about writing paralyzing stories of loss, and I listened to poet and author Kim Stafford read an essay called, “How a Book Can Set You Free” that told what it was like to get in the mail the galley of his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Memoir, about his brother’s death by suicide. He read about reaching that place on the long road to bringing what had felt like an “impossible story” to the finished page. “I had set down a difficult and awkward burden and could step forth along a new path. There was an opening ahead.” As I listened, my eyes burned and tears gathered at my lash line. I want to be able to write an essay, like that, I thought. I want to arrive at that opening and step on that new path. I reached for Stafford’s words, gathered them in my hands, and clutched them to my chest like a promise. A tiny spark ignited. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for my own impossible story yet.

Fast-forward ten years.

I’m nestled against the arm of a leather couch near the entrance of the Seattle Convention Center at AWP 2023. It’s late in the afternoon, and most of the day’s panels have just finished. Voices hum from conversations around me, and people stream by as they head toward the escalators or out to the street. I smile up at some familiar faces in the crowd.

It’s been a busy few days. I’ve connected with friends from my MFA days and other writers I encountered in the process of writing and publishing my first book. I’ve chatted face-to-face with acquaintances who, until now, I’ve only known on social media. An hour earlier, I had a drink with a lovely poet I’d met when we shared an Uber from the airport. This morning, I spoke on a panel called “Building an Author Platform Based on Tragedy Without Sounding Perpetually Tragic” with four other writers who are putting stunning writing out into the world. Afterwards, a young woman came up to thank me for voicing some of the fears she’s been having as she tackles her own hard story on the page. As she shared her uncertainty and doubt, I heard echoes of my own.    

Beside me on this couch sits Kim Stafford. He’s showing me some photos of his 100-year-old mother-in-law on his phone and describing the tender family gathering that took place around her deathbed two weeks earlier. He tells me about some of his recent work—notably a commissioned poem for the Pediatric Intensive Care Waiting Room, at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, in Portland, Oregon, where he lives. I describe the narrative medicine program I began in the fall and the ways it’s informing my work, particularly as I prepare to launch my memoir in September.

“Do you know,” I say softly, touching his arm, “that it has been exactly ten years since that first time I met you in Boston?”

He considers this. Stafford has some sense of the impact his part in that panel had on me that day. I wrote about it at length in the introduction to my first book in which I interviewed him and seventeen other memoirists about their journeys to write and publish their stories. We’ve stayed in touch, and I make a point to try to see him when AWP brings us to the same place at the same time. I hadn’t made it to the conference since before the Covid pandemic, though, so it had been a while. As it was an “anniversary” of sorts, this reunion felt particularly meaningful.

There’s a tremble in Stafford’s voice and his eyes are wet when he finally says, “When you write or read something, you never can know exactly the way your words might affect someone else. But here you are. And look at everything that’s happened for you since then!”

Stafford is not assuming responsibility for the writing career that has taken shape for me in the last decade. His genuine humility would never land on that claim. But I am not shy about giving him a share of the credit and my deepest gratitude because even if he couldn’t know the effect of his words that day in 2013, I know them. The little spark of hope that I carried with me away from that panel presentation, away from that conference, and back to my writing desk was the encouragement I needed to keep going when the going got especially tough. Grabbing hold of Stafford’s insights inspired me to gather more insights from others who were doing this difficult work so I could hear similarly sustaining stories of writing past the difficult ending and finding something new on the path ahead.

The path ahead feels closer than ever, especially when I arrive home from Seattle to an email waiting in my inbox from my publisher. Attached is the electronic galley of my memoir, a book containing a story that began almost forty years ago and took me close to ten years to write. A book that has the potential to connect me to readers who could be waiting for my words to spark their own. I open the file to the title page and feel something like a weight lifting. Maybe there’s an essay here, I think.

__

Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). She teaches professional writing at Northeastern University and creative writing in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Massachusetts and creative writing at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program. Her interviews and essays have been published in Psychology Today, the HuffPostYankee Magazine, the Washington PostMs. MagazineCreative Nonfiction, and other notable publications. Her memoir, A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All, will be published in September by Vine Leaves Press. Though her Canadian roots run deep, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children (when they are home from college), and two Labs. 

Don’t Make Me Read Anything Longer Than 280 Characters

March 31, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Erin Hill

An open “Grades” tab on the computer balanced precariously on my lap. An open student reflection one tab over. Word Feud game with a friend on the iPad to my left. Indiana basketball on the TV in my sightline. Group chat on the phone to my right about our team’s poor shooting and lack of effort on defense.

And I wonder what my problem is.

I blame my atrophied focus and my mental fatigue on lots of reasonable things—my relentless schedule, my students’ needs, perimenopause, pizza for the third meal in a row. But a gnawing knowing: I’m contributing to the problem. My five-tasks-at-once lifestyle (see above) is counterproductive: I can’t concentrate on any paragraph that exceeds 280 characters. I can’t process anything other than memes. I’ve got no juice for paying attention, and paying attention is what this writing gig is all about.

I know I’m not alone. Twitter mutuals ask for novella recommendations and story collections that will reboot their attention spans. My writer friends arrive to Writing Club every week with a vacant look in their eye; one, another educator, consistently refers to herself as a “husk of a human.” We set lofty goals (write for an hour every morning at 5:30 AM!) and return with nothing accomplished.

Beyond lesson plans and email replies (MY.GOD.THE.EMAILS.), I hadn’t written a thing since fall break. This was serious.

As my father, an accountant and a deeply religious man, would say, “No more dicking around.” It was time for an intervention.

It was time for Attention Span Rehabilitation.

As an athlete, I know the power of a visible timer. Our high school coach used the overhead scoreboard clock during practice for each separate drill or set of sprints; there, I had learned I could accomplish nearly any task on a range of tolerable (3-on-3) to totally abhorrent (down and backs) if I just knew how long it required my focus. In my adult life, I have often used a timer to manage my own tendency toward toddler-like tantrums, negotiating with myself as a parent with a child.

“But I don’t want to grade these essays! I hate it!”

“You must. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes. And at the end of the fifteen minutes, you can stop if you want to.”

I rarely stopped when the timer chimed. I had started—the hardest part, of course. I had also catastrophized, but once I got down to business, the business took care of itself.

I had never considered setting a timer for things I liked to do, but I was desperate to recover my singular focus, to generate some momentum in my creative life. Reading and writing weren’t traditionally chores for me—they were usually relief!—but my ability to concentrate was shot. I needed the Big Cheese of self help. If you grew up in the 80s, you know about the Pomodoro technique, a time-management strategy for working in 30-minute segments, created by an Italian student who used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

Given my penchant for Pomodoro-adjacent foods, I figured it was worth trying. I started by setting a timer for 30 minutes of device-free reading each morning. No notifications, no distractions. The first couple weeks of winter break, I was ashamed of how quickly I checked the time—often as early as the ten-minute mark. I felt itchy. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had to re-read paragraphs. I flipped ahead to see how much of the chapter remained. I sighed, loudly.

But by mid-January, I had settled in. I felt calmer, more at ease. I could pick up right where I’d left off the previous day without much effort. I read without pause and without checking the clock. When the timer rang at the end of 30 minutes, I was often surprised at how quickly those minutes had passed, and if my schedule allowed, I kept reading, engrossed in the fictional world at hand. By the end of February, I had read six novels. I applied the 30-minute technique to my writing sessions as well, and by early March, I had four different drafts in progress. I returned to each with excitement. I focused on structure and pace. I enjoyed the process.

One early spring morning, I pulled the previous night’s pizza box out of the fridge for a couple of cold squares. I sat down to eat – Off a real plate! Instead of standing over the sink! —and I pondered pomodoro. An educator for 25 years and an athlete for 40, I knew about life by the bell and the buzzer. Maybe those clocks really were the key to momentum.

I popped the last piece of pizza, paused to set the timer, and began this post with nothing to distract me but the faint scent of pepperoni in the morning air.

___

Erin Hill is a writer, educator, and director of Champion City Write Now at Wittenberg University. Her work has appeared in Design Sponge, The Under Review, and The Sun. A resident of Yellow Springs, Ohio, she serves on the Little Art Theatre board, is a first reader for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and definitely wants recommendations for good local pizza near you. You can reach Erin on Twitter.

On Interpretation, Translation, and the Poetry of Deaf Signers

March 16, 2023 § 9 Comments

By Paul Hostovsky

“Are you the deaf interpreter?” the nurse asks me. I get that a lot. I’m actually the hearing interpreter. I’m a sign language interpreter and I make my living interpreting for Deaf people and for hearing people who want to communicate with Deaf people. “No,” I tell her, “I’m the hearing interpreter. The Deaf interpreter is on her way. She should be here soon.” That’s the truth but for some reason the truth is hard for hearing people to hear. She knits her brows together as if this were a conundrum, a difficult case for the doctor to untangle, the doctor who is in the examining room right now with the Deaf patient writing back and forth in his famous illegible handwriting.

Most hearing people don’t know they’re hearing. That is, they don’t know that hearing is the word for what they are. The blind call people who see sighted. The Deaf call people who hear hearing. And a person who makes his living interpreting for Deaf and hearing people is called an ASL interpreter. But hearing people often call us the deaf interpreter. I guess it makes sense to them: the interpreter for the Deaf is the deaf interpreter. But I’m not the deaf interpreter. I’m the hearing interpreter. The Deaf interpreter is on her way. And thank God for that, because the patient in the examining room, as I soon find out, is a Deaf gentleman from Russia, where they use Russian Sign Language (RSL), and his ASL is only a little better than my non-existent RSL. So I need backup. I need help.

Deaf interpreters are Deaf. They’re Deaf sign language interpreters. They often work in tandem with hearing sign language interpreters, not unlike the way a surgeon will work in tandem with another surgeon, or an architect with a civil engineer, or a pilot with a copilot. You’ve probably seen Deaf interpreters on TV, interpreting for the mayor or the governor or the FEMA director, and you didn’t realize they were Deaf. As for me, I can almost always tell the difference between a Deaf interpreter and a hearing interpreter on TV because the Deaf interpreter’s signing is always so–well–Deaf. Which is to say, virtuosic. If it’s a Deaf interpreter, there’s a hearing interpreter off-camera, across from the Deaf interpreter, “feeding” them the spoken message, which the Deaf interpreter then re-interprets in a way that is more luminous, more limpid, more elegant, more accurate, and more Deaf. The Deaf interpreters are the rock stars of the sign language interpreting profession. They do it better than we hearing interpreters because ASL belongs to them. Because they grew up with it, live it, love it, eat it, breathe it, and they own it collectively with other Deaf people.

All men are poets at heart, said Emerson, though Goethe may have said it first, in German. And Novalis may have said it before Goethe. I say all Deaf people are ASL poets in their ASL hearts, at least all the Deaf people I have ever known. And I’ve known quite a few in my lifetime. The way they’re able to play with the language, the way it lives in their faces, their bodies, the way they make it come alive before your very eyes, all Deaf signers are poets at heart. And the Deaf interpreters, who are bilingual, fluent in English and ASL, and who make a living dancing between the two, make the best interpreters when it comes to translating English into ASL. It makes perfect sense: a native speaker of the target language is almost always better versed in the nuances of that language than someone who learned it later in life. In other words, as the joke goes: “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?” Funny, yes, but seriously, that’s the kind of mangled syntax and odd phrase structure that Deaf people are often subjected to at the hands of less-than-fluent hearing sign language interpreters. If only there were enough Deaf interpreters to go around, to save the day for all involved by steering their ASL ambulances into the linguistic and cultural head-on collisions and hot messes that we hearing interpreters sometimes make of things when left to our own devices.

When the Deaf interpreter–my team for this assignment–arrives at the doctor’s office, she gives me a smile and a howdy, apologizes for being a little late, and introduces herself to the doctor and the patient. And though she doesn’t know Russian Sign Language herself, she is far more able to communicate with the Deaf consumer than I am. That’s partly because of certain language universals that all signed languages share, and because she is Deaf and he is Deaf (that they share that is just as crucial), and because she has an imaginary (and a literal) toolbox that I don’t have, which includes the ability to act things out in intuitive, gestural ways that are amazingly clear, as well as an illustrated anatomy book that she has brought with her, and paper and pens and figurines and whatever it takes to make sure she understands and is being understood by the Deaf consumer. The appointment goes off without a hitch, everyone says what they needed to say, and is understood by all, and the patient gets a diagnosis, some medication, and a follow-up appointment in a month. And the doctor is blown away by how smoothly it all went, compared to when he was trying to write back and forth with the patient, after asking him if he could lipread, which was the only sentence the Deaf patient could lipread, which was why he shook his head, No.

On our way out, the doctor asks me, “How long did it take you to learn that?” Of course, what he means is how long did it take to learn sign language. But what he’s really asking is: How long does it take to learn how to effectively interpret a medical appointment for a Deaf patient (from another country) and his doctor, while working in tandem with a Deaf interpreter? And because the Deaf interpreter is standing right beside me, I sim-com (talk and sign at the same time) in order  to include her in the conversation. And I say to the doctor, “It takes about as long as it took you to learn that. What, four years for medical school, three for residency, and more if you want to specialize? Actually, it takes longer than that. It takes a lifetime,” I tell him. “I’m still learning. I never stop learning,”

“Hear, hear!” says the Deaf interpreter, and gives me a fist-bump. Then she turns to the doctor, who looks a little lost, so she gives him a fist-bump, too.
__

Paul Hostovsky has won a Pushcart Prize and two Best of the Net Awards. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and can be found at paulhostovsky.com

Developmental Editors: For Manuscripts and Life

March 10, 2023 § 10 Comments

By Joanne Nelson

This is about prostate cancer, my daughter’s floors, and developmental editors. One I want removed from my spouse, one I’m curious about, one I’d like to shadow me for the rest of my life.

Developmental Editor. Someone who fixes the big picture in a narrative, perhaps even finds the big picture. Someone who catches those digressions. Or, as defined at ziprecruiter.com, someone who “works with an author to define and improve the structure and content of a manuscript.” 

I have a developmental editor for a book of essays, poems and vignettes coming out this summer. If only I could keep one on my shoulder as I write. Not the good angel and bad angel of metaphor, but someone who would seventy percent of the time tell me I’m on my way while gently guiding: how about putting this over here instead; the timing is confusing; or, ending the paragraph/conversation with this material leaves the reader with a stronger impression.

Don’t we all wish to end with a stronger impression?

I’d like her to tell me yes, she understands what my book is all about. Because despite the angst of recollection (staring at photos, playing music to spur memory, massaging my temples), hours of background reading, accretion of drafts, and careful curation of contents by theme, I’m not always sure. I often suspect a secret message about my innermost being—obvious to everyone except me—lies beneath the details and sensory imagery. 

My writing group begins critiques with the sentence starter, This is about…. I hate starting with this phrase—too often I name the obvious (this is about when the author’s grandpa died), miss what everyone else recognized (this is about how the author came to terms with the passing of her youth and her recognition of parsnips in generational continuity) and yet long for the group’s comments on what my own piece is telling the world.

I enjoy saying I have a developmental editor. Someone to take care of the pages and paragraphs of my book. Or do I mean someone to take care of me? This developmental editor would help me sort through the what if cancerous drumbeats currently looping through my brain and highlight the melodic distraction of flooring colors over surgery or radiation choices. She’d know how to stop sneaky negatives from taking over the narrative of my daily existence. She’d let me know I overuse certain phrases such as, I didn’t sleep well, or just a smidge more coffee, please. She’d confirm the number of times I’d like a little more red wine or a nice chocolate stout are just fine. She’d tell me my worries about dust buildup or even money are redundant and I should take more walks. She’d remind me to get my butt in the chair. Perhaps I hope for too much.

My book’s developmental editor said wonderful things about how my phrases mesh well with the themes in the book and that the narrative had “great continuity.” There were also suggestions about rearranging a few of the stories, changing up line breaks for more power, and the occasional need for more concise language. 

Her comments make me yearn for someone to edit my narratives both written and lived. I want my vignettes to reflect a continuity of themes across my years. I’m willing to reassess the meaning I’ve assigned to a few of my life’s stories and consider how changing the line breaks could affect the future. 

My developmental editor and I could sit down together at the end of each day. Just have a little chat about the big picture pieces. She’d stay away from things the copy editor could sweep up later: the useless word picked for wordle, the overcooked rice, the yellow lights I speed through. Maybe she’d comment on the yellow lights.

My developmental editor would know the right amount to worry about my husband’s upcoming surgery and she’d be able to pronounce radical prostatectomy with lymph node dissection without any hesitancy. She’d know my daughter’s floors need a light oak stain to offset the seafoam green of her walls. My developmental editor would know what all this is really about.

___

Joanne Nelson is the author of the forthcoming My Neglected Gods and the memoir, This Is How We Leave. Her writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She won the Hal Prize in nonfiction, as well as other literary awards, and has contributed to Lake Effect on Milwaukee’s NPR station. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin, where she teaches at the university level and leads community programs. She gives presentations on mindfulness and writing, creativity, and the second half of life. Nelson holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, an MSSW from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a certified meditation instructor. You can contact her at wakeupthewriterwithin.com.

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