Blackbird Habits: A Letter to Virginia Woolf

April 20, 2016 § 4 Comments

By Emily K. Michael

Emily K. Michael

Emily K. Michael

Dear Mrs. Woolf,

I hope you will not mind bending time to receive my letter. I have wanted to write to you since the day I closed A Room of One’s Own and realized that you could be talking to me.  You published that book in 1929, and I read it in 2005. I was seventeen then, turning the pages of a cheap paperback and underlining in smeary purple ink. I filled my own notebooks with stories and poems, thought essays belonged to academia.

I want to tell you about a ritual I invoke every semester.

First, you must know that I teach writing to young college students, and our discipline has wandered away from literature. These early level classes concern rhetoric, and I must tuck poems and stories into the slight half-spaces between research articles. My students are often crushed into ambivalence by the density of mandatory course texts.

Each semester, I rearrange the course schedule to place your essay, “Women and Fiction.” Will I nestle it between scholarly articles on discourse and academic convention—or slide it into the section that questions the value of writing rules? The essay has lived in several places on the syllabus.

But when we read the essay is much less important than how we handle it. My students arrive to class having read the piece and answered some basic questions about it. They expect a conventional discussion of content and style. They watch  me arrive, deposit my bag, and arrange papers on my desk.

To begin, I divide the class in half, making them count off so that the grouping is arbitrary. I tell them to gather at opposite sides of the room. Then I announce that we are traveling back to Victorian England—the era just before your work. We will explore the conventions that shaped your essay, the criticism of women’s writing that prompted your response.

But we won’t travel as ourselves. I designate one side of the room as husbands, and the other side as wives. Regardless of gender, each husband must find a wife. Any extra wives can join existing couples as sisters (or spinsters). At this point, there is a lot of giggling as women on the husband side stride manfully across the room to claim their partners.

The real fun begins when I unveil the rules of the exercise. In Victorian fashion, each wife’s opinions must be filtered through her husband. The husband may translate correctly or creatively—or censor his wife’s comments.


Virginia Woolf

Once we know which voices will fill the next hour, we investigate how attitudes become stereotypes, how binary genders often lead to strict opposites. We track the influences of war and peace on aspects of masculinity—bravery, duty, physical strength. We disavow makeup, corsets, and high-heels as  exclusively feminine resources—citing their use in Georgian England and at Versailles. In short, we watch the evolution of gender through a social and historical lens: the model you provided in “Women and Fiction.”

Your essay responded to the criticism of female writers. Male critics said women weren’t suited to writing—and they used the sparse shelves as evidence. A handful of novels written by women, that’s all they had: if women could write better stuff, they would have done so.

You disagreed.

You said that a woman’s pen was stalled by the cries of children, the mounting chores. Her time was given to the managing of a household, and her experiences were limited to that domestic space. Unlike her male contemporaries, a woman couldn’t be a sailor, a soldier, a rover. Society prescribed spaces for her. So she wrote novels—which could be set aside when the family needed her—or she didn’t write. Critics should not measure the quality and potential by the number of women writers on the shelf.

You demystified the process of writing, Mrs. Woolf. You said what I strive to teach to every writing student—the self-assured expert and the shaky novice. You cast out the myth of talent, what we in contemporary education call “inner-directed teaching.”

If a woman wants to write, she needs money, leisure, and a room of her own.

When my students work several jobs, live in crowded spaces, don’t have time to sit under a tree and read for pleasure, your words ring in my ears. I know what they need, what all writers need.

You addressed women called to write and women living by their pen: “In the past, the virtue of women’s writing often lay in its divine spontaneity, like that of the blackbird’s song or the thrush’s. It was untaught; it was from the heart. But it was also, and much more often, chattering and garrulous—mere talk spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots. In future, granted time and books and a little space in the house for herself, literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied. Women’s gift will be trained and strengthened.”

I wonder whether the blackbird and thrush work at their songs, what they need to make them. When we call their work “divine spontaneity,” we speak from a place of privilege and vision. What looks and sounds to us like magic must still be created, even in a method unknown to us.

We can map the songs of blackbirds, but we can’t map their divine spontaneity. If they knew English, I believe they could give us a hint. Perhaps it’s better that they don’t.

I offer students your work because they need your blackbird habits—kernels of passion carefully measured. They need to understand, as you wrote, that the extraordinary depends on the ordinary. Even in a class of silence or sullenness, I cannot forego these discussions. Perhaps some stray phrase will act like a snatch of thrush’s song—speaking to a listener in a voice they don’t yet understand.


Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering; Artemis Journal; Compose Journal; Disability Rhetoric; Breath & Shadow; Bridge Eight; Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics; and I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners, and participates in local writing festivals – offering workshops on the grammar of poetry. She has essays in the forthcoming volumes Barriers and Belonging: Autoethnographies of Disability and Mosaics 2: A Collection of Independent Women. Read more of her work at her blog On the Blink.


A Note on Brevity Response Times

April 12, 2016 § 26 Comments

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

From Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg:

Last Friday, just after tucking my ten-year-old son into bed, I made myself a cup of tea, then went to my loft office to try to catch up on my Brevity queue. Currently, the queue haunts my waking hours. If you have submitted this year, you might have noticed that the response time is slower than usual, and I have an explanation for why that is.

I am behind.

That’s all there is to it. I wish I had a better explanation, but I don’t.

I am still reading submissions. I am still responding to submissions. I am still considering submissions. It is just taking me a bit longer to do this than usual.

But back to last Friday—I settled into my desk, put my headphones in, and brought up Submittable. Suddenly, my little dog Teddy—a Beagle mix—flew down the stairs. He whimpered at the door. I assumed that there was a bunny outside. I live in what those of us in rural Appalachia call a “holler.” My house is surrounded by woods and not much else. At night, the acreage around me fills with bunnies—adorable little jackrabbits. Sometimes, on a given weekend, I will see more bunnies than people.

But this time, Teddy wasn’t trying to get out to chase a bunny. There was someone at the door—knocking loudly. It was 10 pm on a Friday, and this was unusual. I didn’t know want to answer the door. I mean, who would want to answer that door? This is the beginning of every horror movie, right?

Still, I remembered when I used to live in Boise, Idaho. There was a big, black house known as the “murder house.” Urban legend had it that the man who inhabited that house had murdered his entire family. The wife escaped and ran around to all of the neighbor’s houses. She pounded on all of the doors, but no one answered. The next morning, when the police arrived, they found her bloody handprints on the neighbor’s doors.

I thought of this as I stared at my door. The knocking increased. I didn’t want to be the person with bloody handprints on the door, so I answered. When I opened the door, a man was on the porch. He had a chainsaw in his arms. The first thing he said was, “Is your old man around?”

I don’t have an old man.

Not even close, but this story is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up here. My point is that I did not get back to my Brevity queue that night.

Sometimes, a man with a chainsaw on my front porch is why I don’t get to my queue.

Other times, I am just busy.

Here are some notes on my response times:

1. There is a high probability that you will receive a response from me after nine o clock p.m. (Eastern) because nine is when my son goes to bed.

2. I am not likely to respond on Monday or Wednesday evenings because that is when I prepare for the creative nonfiction workshop that I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I reserve my reading energy for my students at those times.

3. If I have chapters due to my own editor, I will complete those before reading Brevity submissions.

4. If you receive a response on Tuesday or Thursday, then it was probably sent from the bakery where I like to work in the afternoons, which is just across the street from Dinty’s house. Sometimes, I see Dinty working in his garden and feel kind of creepy.

5. If you receive a response before eight o clock a.m., then please contact the authorities because that response did not come from me. Let me be clear when I say that I do nothing before eight o clock a.m. but sleep.

6. Our response letter currently states that we reply within 45 to 60 days, but my current average is closer to 70. Dinty generously asked me if I wanted to change the letter (he is as kindhearted as everyone says). I said that I would catch up, and I was sincere, but I should have taken his offer.

7. We receive thousands of submissions during our reading period, and I read each and every one of them.

8. I try very hard to respond to writers personally when something about a submission has caught our readers’ eyes. This slows me down, but I think that writing can be thankless work, and I want our submitters to know that we have read and cared about their submission.

9. If your submission goes from “Received” to “Rejected” in Submittable without switching to “In-Progress,” this does not mean that your submission has not been read. It only means that we have a small staff.

10. I am committed to treating each submission with respect, and this means reading it carefully. Please know that Dinty, our volunteer readers, and I do read and discuss your submissions carefully.

I’m sorry I’ve been responding to submissions slower than usual. I understand the anxiety and anticipation of a pending submission, and I do want to respond quicker than I currently am. Please be assured that your work is being read thoughtfully, and that you will receive a response. Thank you, dear Brevity submitters, for your patience.

Kelly Sundberg is Brevity’s Managing Editor. Her essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2013. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir inspired by that essay, Goodbye Sweet Girl, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers in 2017.

Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century

April 11, 2016 § 5 Comments

zz lit pubMilkweed Editions has just released Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, a new anthology edited by Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer. The book features a range of essays from writers, editors, digital innovators, and others in the field, including the likes of Sven Birkerts, Jessa Crispin, Richard Nash, and Jane Friedman, reflecting on the current situation of literary publishing, including the rapidly-changing digital landscape, the need for a greater diversity of voices and gatekeepers, community- and audience-building, and the overall health of literature. To mark the book’s launch this month, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore talks with Kevin Prufer about his views on where independent literary publishing stands in the current era.

MOORE: You and your co-editors do an excellent job of discussing how literary publishing has evolved from the dawn of the 21st century to the current moment, a sixteen-year span that saw incredible change, in book publishing and e-book formats, in AWP (and AWP bookfair) attendance, and in how literary magazines reach out to readers. Has the task of a writer transformed in any way, or is the writer’s mission essentially the same despite the new packaging.

Kevin Profer

Kevin Prufer

PRUFER: Well, I think the literary writer’s mission to think complexly about the world, to speak the truth, to write well about important things, to create works of social, aesthetic, and literary value–all that is unchanged. But the form that literature takes is certainly evolving dramatically even as I write, in ways we can’t know yet.

Whenever there have been major changes in the way literary work is disseminated — the evolution of writing, the invention of the printing press, the creation of even more inexpensive means of mass text reproduction, the emergence of the penny dreadful, the broadside, the paperback book, among many many examples—what we call literature changes, molding itself to new forms of production and consumption. I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that we’re living at a time of major changes to the way we reproduce, sell, and receive literary texts, involving not just the speed and convenience of e-readers, etc., but also new, more fluid ways in which literary work might perform and evolve on the screen and among mass audiences. Sure, the writer’s mission remains the same—but what literary writers produce will inevitable be profoundly influenced by these recent developments in literary publishing. That’s always been the case.

MOORE: How do these changes influence the advice you would give a writer just starting to engage the world of literary publishing?

PRUFER: I’m not sure what advice I’d give a literary writer starting out. I think I have none for her writing, except that she write as well as she can. After the writing is finished, though, I think it pays to be very aware of the complexities of literary ownership in a world where anything one writes can be reproduced infinitely and nearly without cost, to understand the implications of how new literary production models ought to be considered in, say, book contracts; and to understand that publishing a book in paper is rewarding and exciting, but is certainly not the only (or even primary) way that readers encounter the work of writers these days. There are all kinds of ways of finding an audience, and all kinds of pitfalls in those ways.

MOORE: Has your view of online publication versus traditional print publication changed, for your own poems and the poems your students write?

PRUFER: Yes, by necessity. I still love paper and always will. Like every writer my age (or older), my first encounters with literature were in actual books, often read with a flashlight under the covers when I should have been sleeping. And I still get a thrill out of seeing my work in bookstores.

But I also suspect that at least as many people encounter my work on the screen as do on the page – and I’m not at all sophisticated about on-line self-promotion, social media, etc. That’s just the way it is – someone types up a poem and posts it somewhere (or links to it, or whatever), and suddenly many more people have seen it (though perhaps not really read it) than would have if it remained in the pages of a small print literary journal.

And of course, on-line publishing has its frustrations – the certainty that typing errors get replicated; the fact of the glaring screen, the impossibility of formatting long poetic lines on narrow iPads; the weirdness of watching my students read poems on their iPhones.

But here’s where I truly feel – and am deeply ambivalent about – the influence of on-line publishing (and I mean publishing in its broadest definition – a Facebook post, a blog entry, an on-line lit mag appearance all might be said to constitute kinds of publishing): I was discussing the work of a younger poet in a class of PhD students here at the University of Houston when one of the students said, “Well, I really like her work, but it feels very 2005 to me.” This was in, I think, 2012. “What on earth does that mean?” I asked her. “Well,” she said, “it feels like what everyone was writing that year. It feels dated.” This led to a discussion about on-line publishing and the take-away for me was that younger readers are encountering literature in ways that I never did. They are sometimes experiencing it almost simultaneously with its composition. A poet composes a poem one day, it appears on-line a week later, and it’s generated a thousand hits within another week, before perhaps sinking into the ether. The large conversation of literature, which seemed to move much more slowly when I was a student, has sped up today. Issues, sensibilities, styles, literary fashions emerge quickly, are noticed simultaneously, and vanish.

For now, this is just an observation. I’m not sure how I feel about it, except I am sure my students encounter contemporary literature in a way that is vastly different from how I encountered it in 1993, when I’d have been very hard pressed to say how a poem from 1986 was different from what I was reading that week.

MOORE: Now that you’ve completed work on the anthology, and given the discussions that ensued with the various contributors and co-editors Travis Kurowski and Wayne Miller, are you optimistic about the future, or troubled about where independent press books and small literary magazines may be headed?

PRUFER:  I’m cautiously optimistic, I suppose.  Before I began work on this project, I’d devoted much of my career (outside of my own writing) to old-fashioned publishing.  That is, I edited a stubbornly old-school print litmag called Pleiades and ran a press called Pleiades Press.  So I came to the project with a lot of knowledge about how books get printed, distributed, edited, etc. – but more limited awareness of what was happening over in that other, more up-to-date country of ebooks, ecommerce, interactive literature, etc.

And, as with every book I’ve co-edited, I hoped mostly to learn from contributors, to come out better informed.   All the voices in the clamor of Literary Publishing in the 21st Century aren’t entirely optimistic, though many are.  Many others are deeply troubled by the increasingly corporatized (and engulfing) large commercial publishing houses and the changing roles of readers, editors, agents, sellers.  I get their concern that much has been upended, that the future looks uncertain.  At the same time, the forces at work here seem so vast that enormous change is entirely inevitable, and always has been. I am left with the conclusion that literature itself is an intensely malleable thing, that it evolves and even flourishes in moments of great change and upheaval, and that it will always find ways—new ways, certainly—to reach readers eager to encounter it in all its renewing forms.


Kevin Prufer is an author and editor, with books including In a Beautiful Country (2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and listed as a 2011 Notable Book by the Academy of American Poets, and National Anthem (2008), named best poetry book of the year by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Prufer’s many honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation. He is a professor in the English Department at the University of Houston.

Sharing the AWP Love: Accumulated Wisdom Posts.

April 7, 2016 § 18 Comments

Janice Gary

Janice Gary

By Janice Gary

It’s too big, too rushed, too crazy with choices. But for a writer, there is nothing like the AWP. Every year, I look forward to attending with both excitement and dread. In the end, it’s always worth the trouble. I fill up with inspiration, writer camaraderie and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

The inspiration (and sugar high) lasts about week, maybe less. This time, to keep the AWP mojo going, I’ve decided to revisit one gem of wisdom a day from my semi-indecipherable notes. The content is telling. Memoir. Personal Narrative. Some poetry. (I did wander into a translation panel by accident and stayed long enough to be polite and catch my breath. As a panelist, I’m sensitive to flagrant bolting.)

The quotes and snatches of conversation are pale ghosts of the experience, but act like touchstones. And some are quite moving. For those who were not able to attend this year, or those who did not take notes (you know who you are), here are my notes in one overwhelming rush – just like the real thing.

AWP 2016 : Accumulated Wisdom Posts.

“Be vulnerable on the page. If we do anything as writers, it’s to make people feel less alone and visible.” Lee Stein.

“Writing is how I metabolize my own experience.” Melissa Febos

“Essay is making meaning out of raw experience through the sentence to reflect the true and beautiful.” Richard Hoffman

“Be alert to speaking and listening in writing. Listen to what you have written on the page.” Mark Doty

“Even though the unbearable is unbearable, it is not unbearable forever.” Marilyn Bosquin

“Everything I write is always a wandering.” Katharine Winograd

Writing enacts, entombs, it raises (the past) and buries it.” Tom Larson

“The impulse to let another voice in is a generous one.” Fiona McCrae

“Say one bold thing.” Maggie Nelson

“Those who condemn memoir are scared of it. They are scared of the emotionally graphic nature of memoir.” Sue William Silverman

“This habit of trying and retrying, approach and then another approach is a pattern in trauma narratives. People can bring themselves back from extinction by putting together shards of fragments.” Debra Marquart, quoting Terry Tempest Williams.

“The way to write a piece that ultimately speaks to the universal is to allow the bottom to drop out of what kind of truth you’re willing to reveal.” Cheryl Strayed

I make myself naked on the page. I show my wounds. I share my shame. That’s what I do in memoir.” Beverly Donofrio

“My story matters more than what anyone thinks of it.” Laura Bogart

“People who lack decency live among people of great decency.” Shann Ray

“Be your full self unapologetically.” Anna March

“Our job as writers is not to make people comfortable. Artists are supposed to be subversive. It’s what we do when we put words on paper.” Sue Silverman

“Inspiration is something only amateurs wait for. If my work is flat, if it’s dead, I keep going back to it until I pump it back to life.” Andre Dubus III

“It’s just that hard every time. You have to start over and over again.” Toi Derricotte


Janice Gary is a writer, teacher and lecturer of creative nonfiction in all its glorious forms. She is the author Short Leash: a Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance and is on the faculty of the Master of Liberal Studies Program at Arizona State University.








A Review of Patrice Vecchione’s Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life

April 6, 2016 § 2 Comments

vecchBy Amy Wright

Patrice Vecchione has experience prompting writers, whether university students, community members, or elementary school students. Over the years, though, she has noticed a shifting relationship among them to the imagination. Individuals who used to respond to going outside to look at the clouds with descriptions of “elephants parading, a dragon biting its own tail, a tall man singing to a crowd” now look up and are quiet. When someone finally says, “Clouds, Miss Patrice. I see the clouds,” she questions whether the part of their brain that fancies and ideates is getting enough exercise.

I ordered her latest title, Step into Nature, after hearing her interview on radio station KKUP about conserving a wildlife habitat at Ford Ord National Monument. Having overlooked the book’s subtitle, Nurturing Imagination in Spirit in Everyday Life, I was surprised by its motivational tone. I was snowed in when it arrived; otherwise, I may not have let her offer encouragement I didn’t know I needed. A child of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I have long called on nature as a source of inspiration and strength, but of late diminishing species and weather extremes have worried my relationship to the outdoors. It was helpful, then, to find her descriptions of raptors and tumbleweed paired with sentiments like “art-making itself is a refusal to be plowed under by doubt.”

From the future of the Great Barrier Reef to the endangered Lignum vitae, or tree of life, Vecchione knows few are willing to protect species and habitats until they personally recognize their value. She touches briefly on her backstory in this volume, but nature helped her recover from a painful relationship with an alcoholic mother, which she elaborates in the poetry collection The Knot Untied (Palanquin Press, 2013).

Vecchione’s initial reluctance as a nature-goer, who began in her in her thirties to find woods and parks as invigorating as museums, fosters associations for others. She lays the groundwork for adult wonder when a flicker “with her loud, single-note kreer call” sounds like laughter above.  She bridges the intimacy of her solitary walks with passages from writers like Federico García Lorca, Gary Soto, and Anaïs Nin.

Although novice or out-of-practice nature-goers are the better audience, there are passages for experienced nature lovers too. Many times I have cupped my ears to distinguish the trill of wrens from warblers, but I had never discerned, as naturalist Paul McFarland has, the distinct notes that sound from the hemlocks or firs that house them. The “longer the needle, the lower pitch the song,” he says in a passage Vecchione cites about wind song. In another section, hail breaks so cleanly from its cloud it stings one side of the trail she is on while leaving the other side untouched, reminding those accustomed to venturing outside of the constant potential for surprise.

An advocate for the trails she walks, Vecchione values her privilege to live within ten minutes of a large protected open space. She wanders farther afield from Jacks Peak Park to prickly-pear cactus and redwood canyons, but this recreation area grounds her insights into the artistic process. The author of Writing and the Spiritual Life and two poetry books, she directs much of the book toward writers afflicted with self-doubt. “Art is optimistic,” Vecchione says. Encouraging others to listen to the quiet of those cochlea-like fiddleheads as well as the “silence before a thunderstorm,” she points out. “Not only can people be silenced by others; sadly, we can do it to ourselves as well.”

A force for greater self-acceptance, she calls attention to art that, like nature, incorporates imperfection. Japanese ceramicists, for example, mend broken pots with seams of gold in celebration of wabi sabi, or “a sensibility that an artist brings to her work that accepts loneliness and invisibility, as well as imperfection and transcendence, and allows them to manifest like shards of lightning.”

Peppered with writing prompts and questions, this book best leads readers to close it and head outside. To open it though is to awaken an urge. Whether one has grown, as she was in her twenties, “numb to the craving,” for a relationship with the earth, or if one has never wandered it, as Henry David Thoreau prized, Vecchione calls readers to tend this crucial freedom to the creative process while spaces remain preserved for it.


Amy Wright is the author of Everything in the Universe and Cracker Sonnets, both forthcoming in 2016. She is also the nonfiction editor of Zone 3 Press, coordinator of creative writing and associate professor at Austin Peay State University, and author of four poetry chapbooks. Her first prose chapbook, Wherever the Land Is, is scheduled for release this spring.

Brevity Contest for Graduate & Undergraduate Writers

March 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

brevitylogoxxBrevity is excited to announce a contest for writing students in tandem with our special issue focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism. We are looking for flash essays  (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences.  (Full guidelines and instructions for submitting outside of this student contest can be found here.)

For this first-ever student writing contest, we ask that writing program directors encourage students enrolled in their creative writing program to address our special issue theme and we invite each program to choose the best work (or two best entries if you have both undergraduate and graduate students) from among those submitted. The one or two finalists should be forwarded by the program director directly to by May 15, 2016.

The winner, who will receive $200 and publication in Brevity, will be announced in September 2016.

Thank you,
Sarah Einstein
Special Projects Editor
Brevity Magazine

On Writing: Go for the Long Vision

March 25, 2016 § 7 Comments

Patrice Gopo

Patrice Gopo

In early March, I send a note to one of my writing teachers. “I’ve been frozen with my writing since I finished [that] essay… I have a low-grade thought in my mind that I’m done, I’m finished. I’m not going to be able to produce another essay I like that much.”

I think of the pages of nonsense mounting in my composition notebook. I focus on the feelings of dissatisfaction that ripple through me after a writing session. And I remember the excitement I woke to weeks before when I knew I had a viable project forming, taking shape, and moving toward completion.

What happens when something reaches the end and the next thing refuses to emerge? What happens when everything new I write embarrasses me and makes me wonder how I could be the same writer who wrote and submitted that finished piece? Have you ever been in this place, I write my teacher. What do you do?


In 1997 I crowd into a basement lecture hall with five or six dozen other college freshman. We climb stairs in the arena style room, fold our bodies into slightly cushioned seats, and pull fresh notebooks from our bags. Below us stands a professor with tufts of white hair sprouting above both his ears. We are bright-eyed students. This is Introduction to Chemical Engineering. The major we wrote about in our college applications. Our essays sang of our desires to pursue careers in this field—a vague degree the adults in our lives pushed in our direction when they saw our knack for balancing chemical equations and integrating polynomials.

“Welcome,” the professor says from far below, standing in front of the green chalkboard. A wide grin takes over his face, and he clasps his palms together. We uncap our pens and scrawl the date across the top of an empty page, ready to take notes.


My teacher responds, “Keep drafting. Go for a long vision. It’s okay if you don’t have another essay for a good while. Keep putting those… embarrassing ideas down on the page.”

So I grab a pen and write line after line in my notebook. A paragraph of reflection. A page that might transform into a scene. I try—better some days than others—to allow words to unfurl and sentences to fall from my thoughts before they slide from my memory. I ignore my lack of sensory detail, my over use of personification, the seemingly pointless ramblings and mundane descriptions, the way even though I know I shouldn’t, I compare these disjointed beginnings to the final version of past work.

Still my pen continues scratching across the page. Sometimes slow and methodical. A measured thought, a well-placed word. But more often speedy scribbles that even I can barely decipher.


Earlier this year my daughter tells an acquaintance of mine, “My mommy is a chemical engineer.” The woman raises her eyes in my direction. She’s always known me as a writer.

“In college,” I say. “My bachelor’s degree is in chemical engineering. I didn’t really like it.” A few words to explain poor career fits and the motivation for reinvention of self.

“Ah, a chemical engineer in paper only.” She smiles. I smile back even as I flinch.

A week later while cleaning out storage containers, I find a composition notebook with a black and white cover much like the ones I use these days to tuck away notes for essays and ideas I must remember. I open the cover and run my index finger over the indentations of my cursive letters. The yellowing book holds a faint crisp smell of many unused pages. The year reads 1997. The title says, Why I Decided to Become an Engineer. A remnant found from an engineering seminar I took the summer before freshman year. Almost 20 years ago, I wrote that I wanted to become an engineer so I could examine, “[R]eal world situations and learn ways to solve the problems.’’

I wanted to find solutions. In the end, a career as a chemical engineer didn’t present the types of problems I wanted to solve. It occurs to me, though, that my engineering studies have circled back to me. I carry with me a mindset gained, a honed ability to make sense of problems, a stamina for exploring scenarios and uncovering unique possibilities. And without remorse I have forgotten how to use steam tables, size a distillation column, or determine the mass balance in a batch process.

But I am an engineer. Not just in paper. Not a slip of my life that has now disappeared.


My teacher tells me that I’m aiming for a long vision. Now I feel myself stumbling through words I’m uncertain will become anything. I see essays in my head that refuse to manifest themselves in my notebook. And I remind myself how I am an engineer beyond the words on a diploma. I engineer phrases and sentences. I identify problems with structure and find solutions. I try and try again to fit parts together and sometimes witness the formation of a glorious whole. In those moments the divide between my chemical engineering days and my writing days shrinks to very little.

Years after that basement lecture hall and the smiling professor with the tufts of white hair, my past informs my present. Because of this truth I can have a long vision for my writing in the aftermath of a season when the right words flowed, the ideas wove together, and I engineered solutions that made an essay soar. Hidden in the paragraphs of new writing that embarrasses me are ideas, reflections, and direction that may very well inform my future work.


Patrice Gopo’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications including Gulf CoastFull Grown People, and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina, and she is at work on a collection of essays.


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