May 30, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Anna Leahy, adapted from the forthcoming anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing:
In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about reading as part of how writers learn, perhaps the most important way we learn such things as “the love of language” and “a gift of story-telling.” Of course, a writer must write, but Prose says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential.” That ability is cultivated by reading.
“I read for pleasure, first,” Prose goes on to say, “but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. […] I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made.” The ways we learn to appreciate and understand texts sticks with us.
That attentiveness to craft in the process of reading, even when it’s done for pleasure, is what I’ve long called writerly reading. Students learn and practice it in my classes but also, I hope, carry it with them beyond the end of the semester. Writers need—many of us crave—this sort of reading.
As writers reading, we practice reverse engineering in our minds and explore how and why—not the writer’s intentions, but the writer’s decisions—even more so than we analyze the what or meaning of a text. I ask my students to read in this way, too, and it’s often new and fun for them, a relief from worrying over theme. In talking with students and literature colleagues, I’ve realized that many don’t embody this trust that craft—how it’s written—creates what it means. Richard Goodman, in his book The Soul of Creative Writing, puts it this way: “Reading, for a writer, is a practical matter. How do you know what can be done unless you’ve seen it done by others?” Writing is doing; we read for what has been done.
As we were constructing the conversation essay about writerly reading in What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing, Suzanne Greenberg challenged me—all of us—to think of reading as guiding our students to fall in love with writing. Never before had I thought of matchmaking between writer and book (or individual poem, story, essay) as a fruitful way to view teaching.
Do other writers care about writing, about language, and about certain texts (though not the same texts) as much as I do? Do I care enough myself? In the collection Creative Composition, I wrote about perseverance, about grit or the ability to stick with the poem through drafts or through the writing life over the long haul. I quoted Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, and Angela Duckworth, who talk about cultivation of talent over time. Maybe I didn’t dig deeply enough, though, didn’t think beyond the intellectual to the emotional, as Greenberg asks. For underlying those arguments is the idea that, to pursue something over time, you must love what you do. A writer, then, must love something that has been written in order to love writing enough to stick with it. When I read a good essay, that’s proof that a good essay can be written, that it’s possible for me to write a good essay.
Writerly reading, then, is selfish: getting something out of a text, taking something into oneself as a writer. Fiction writer Richard Bausch suggests that writers should ingest others’ work so that it becomes part of us and should know great work by heart. He may mean that we should know work word for word from memory (as he knows many great works), but, as a writer, I like to think he means that we each love certain works.
When writers read the work of others, we are greedy, but selfish not merely out of self-interest (or at least not for very long, if we are to pursue writing on its own terms) so much as out of the need to immerse ourselves in written work. Reading greedily diminishes no one else’s experience. Books are not cake—you and I can devour the same book, and there it remains for us and others to devour all over again.
Anna Leahy‘s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and her latest chapbook, Sharp Miracles, is out from Blue Lyra Press. She has two edited collections about pedagogy and the profession from Multilingual Matters; the most recent is What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing, due out in July. Her essays and poems appear in The Southern Review, The Rumpus, Crab Orchard Review, The Pinch, Gravel, and more. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, and co-writes the Lofty Ambitions blog.
May 20, 2016 § 2 Comments
Sandra Gail Lambert, author of the Brevity essay “Sex Objects,” talks with poet and memoirist Michele Leavitt about disability and the tension and paradox between her day-to-day “nothing to see here” strategy for dodging inappropriate praise bullets and her deep work as a memoir writer.
May 18, 2016 § 15 Comments
By Sarah Einstein
The recent New Yorker article, “What Makes An Essay American” by Vinson Cunningham—in which he discusses, and generally dismisses, John D’Agata’s recent The Making of the American Essay, the final installment of D’Agata’s three part series A New History of the Essay from Greywolf—has my part of the Facebook world debating, again, the issue of veracity in genres which call themselves “nonfiction.” What follows is a statement about where I—as a writer of nonfiction who believes in the importance of work that is genuinely nonfictional—come down on the issue. I’m grateful to the others who participated in the Facebook conversation, perhaps most particularly those who vehemently disagree with me. Because that conversation wasn’t held in a public forum, I won’t cite those essayists here, but I do want to acknowledge my debt to them for their influence on the final shape of this consideration.
D’Agata’s project is, in no small part, to trouble the readers’ belief that if a work lays claim to the generic position of “nonfiction,” that means that they can assume that the author of that work is therefore only offering what she believes to be true. In an interview at Essay Daily, he states, “I understand why a reader might get upset when a text that was sold to them as ‘nonfiction’ turns out to be partially not, because while there are lots of nonfiction writers who spend their energy insisting that a nonfiction text is defined by its verifiability, there are many other writers who disagree with that characterization. Unfortunately, those of us who disagree just don’t happen to Tweet or blog or want to wade into the fever swamps of the Internet. So I think the vast majority of readers just don’t know that the very idea of ‘nonfiction’ is itself contested within the nonfiction writing community.”
First, I’d like to quibble here and say that nobody has ever, in my vast reading on the subject, suggested that all work that claims the label of nonfiction needs to be verifiable There is quite a lot of good nonfiction that is, by the very nature of its subject matter, not verifiable. I think the bar is actually set far lower, and that for most readers and many writers of nonfictions, the understanding is that the author has told the truth to the best of her ability, and not written as true anything which she knows to be, or which is demonstrably, false. The pact that is made with the reader is not that the writer has always gotten things right, only that she has tried her best to get them right, and is offering up that best attempt.
But my real beef with D’Agata’s intellectual project isn’t that I think he overstates the level of veracity expected of nonfiction, but that he acknowledges the audience’s expectation of the genre and then make it his project to defeat it by fouling the waters with works that are not, by that definition, nonfictional. (Though less in these anthologies, where the provenance of the work itself allows the reader to judge whether or not the work is nonfictional, as in his own writing.) If he succeeds, we have lost the credulous reader, who is a necessary partner in the work of any writer who is making the sincere attempt to give as true an account as she can. If the nonfictional nonfiction, and the nonfiction which is not nonfictional, can’t be differentiated, then there ceases to be any such thing as nonfiction as such. We’ve lost the value of artifact; everything must be treated as if it might be artifice.
There are also costs to writing which lays claim to the generic position of nonfiction but which in fact includes elements that the author knows to be wholly untrue, written for an audience that does not know to expect untruths and is offering the writer the gift of their credulity.
Of all the “false” memoirs ever written, Angel at the Fence–for me, and I’m only speaking here for myself–is perhaps the most understandable and forgivable. A man who (verifiably) survived a childhood in a concentration camp wrote about the experience to get himself out of serious financial trouble after he and his family were victims of an armed robbery that left his son disabled and his family in significant debt. He didn’t fabricate the awful bits, but he included a fictional love story in order to, yes, make the work more attractive to publishers, but also, according to him, to interject some joy into something that is otherwise unremittingly grim. I get it, Rosenblat. I, too, wish there had been an angel at your fence. But my research at the moment is taking me into the very dark places on the internet where the neo-Nazis dwell, and there, Angel at the Fence and the many other false holocaust memoirs are frequent fodder for Holocaust deniers. They aren’t discussing the tension between art and veracity. I’m pretty sure that most of them aren’t aware of the conversations happening at places like Essay Daily and The New Yorker. They’re just calling Rosenblat a lying word-I-will-not-type-here, and holding up the demonstrably false account–which he offered as a true on–as evidence that Shoah never happened. (And here I want to take a moment to apologize, because I realize I’m skating dangerously close to Godwin’s Law. My goal here is not to invoke Shoah in all its terrible majesty. It is just what I have on hand this morning to illustrate the point.)
Even if we accept as legitimate D’Agata’s project to train readers not to expect nonfiction to be genuinely nonfictional, I think we have to think about what happens while the audience is learning along with the art-makers not to read nonfiction with an expectation of veracity, whether or not the audience has agreed to do the work of that learning, and what possibilities might be lost if the writer can never lay claim to speaking as truthfully as she is able. Sometimes, art is about itself. Certainly, the essay or memoir that plays with truth in order to explore how the essay or memoir functions is about itself as much as it is about its subject matter. But not all art is about the creation of art. Sometimes art is about exploring social concerns, recovering histories, elevating perspectives not well represented in majority conversations, etc. And sometimes, those explorations require the artist to ask of those who receive her art to accept that that art is made only out of artifact, not artifice.
What change would be rendered, for instance, to the art project of “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” if it turned out that the suitcases were sculptures created by the artists out of what they imagined they would find instead of being what they actually found? All I’m asking is that we not tell the reader she can never expect that work which claims to be made of artifact is ever actually made of artifact; that we don’t tell her she must always assume sculpture and never see suitcases. Because I think it matters which the audience encounters, even as they know that the experience of the art made out of the suitcases is a mediated experience different from encountering the suitcases themselves in that attic.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection.
May 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
By Anthony Michael Morena
The Voyager Record: A Transmission —my lyric essay on the music, images, sounds, and greetings that were sent into space mounted on the interstellar Voyager spacecrafts in 1977 — is just over 13,000 book-length words. And the pieces inside of it are each very short fragments, some no longer than a sentence or two long.
I used extreme brevity in The Voyager Record but not because it seemed cute to tell the story of the longest journey from Earth with short pieces. It was a style that even took me by surprise, and I was the one using it. Before I began The Voyager Record, I was strictly a writer of fiction: I had sworn off poetry and had never considered writing essays of any kind. But a succession of books written in nontraditional, short length formats changed all of that. These are the books that converted me.
Postcards to Donald Evans: Takashi Hiraide
Shortness was part of The Voyager Record from the very beginning. The initial writing I did for it—which appears in the book mostly intact as the second and third fragments in this selection—was inspired by the short prose fragments of Takashi Hiraide’s Postcards to Donald Evans. Donald Evans was an artist whose life was cut tragically short when he died in a fire while living in the Netherlands. His artistic work is based on creating stamps for pastiche European nations. Hiraide becomes obsessed—at first sarcastically, but then movingly—with Evans’ stamp paintings and life. The fragments in the book were short because Hiraide wrote them on postcards; actual postcards he addressed to Evans. Hiraide’s brevity was determined by the physical space of the mail. A reader can feel the rectangular, justified text blocks reaching across from one edge of the postcard to another. To emulate Hiraide, I kept my text within the size of the picture of the Pioneer plaque I was writing about, as if it were the verso side of a postcard.
The Bricolage Novels: David Markson
After composing a dozen or so prose poem pieces, I realized that extreme brevity—the fragments that consist of only one or two sentences—could allow me to unite the loose material I had into a larger whole. These short fragments were directly influenced by David Markson’s bricolage novels Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. In what he called a “personal genre,” Markson strung together one-line factoids about notable artists, writers, and historical figures, with occasional asides by his nearly featureless author-surrogates Reader, Author, Writer, and Novelist. Markson was someone whom I had met and talked with while I worked at The Strand bookstore in New York. He complained that he was no longer able to enjoy fiction, but found himself absorbed only in reading nonfiction. Before I wrote The Voyager Record I was coming to a version of the same opinion.
Reality Hunger: David Shields
A big influence on the about-face I made between fiction and nonfiction was David Shields. I had read his “manifesto” Reality Hunger about a year before I started to write The Voyager Record. In the short, numbered, *plagiarized* passages in that book, his argument won me over. Remixing nonfiction could create a whole new literary genre. One thing that Shields demonstrated, but didn’t explicitly state, is that remix culture depends on brevity. Like in music, sampled text should sound off and then fade away in snippets. I knew that using this kind of sample technique—with attribution, because I didn’t want to get sued—I could juxtapose facts from the story about Voyager’s creation with the more speculative, and downright fictional parts of the book. My “stealing” was always small scale: a quote from here, a list of scientific specs from there. What I got most from Shields was permission.
Varieties of Disturbance: Lydia Davis
By the time I was finished writing, I had prose poem-size pieces, and line-length pieces, and tidbits I found in different sources, and (at four pages) one relatively long story—a combination that I realized was heavily influenced by Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance. She could place a single-sentence fragment next to a page-length prose block then follow it up with a short story. The text layout of The Voyager Record definitely looks like Varieties of Disturbance, but Davis’s collection also had an impact on the content of The Voyager Record. Though technically fiction (and at 24 pages, definitely not very short), her story “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders” is told in a nonfictional style: the “story” is a data-driven analysis of a grade school class’ artistic responses to an injured classmate’s stay in the hospital. The analysis in the story breaks down specific elements of the children’s letters—their penmanship, the salutations, sentence structure, word occurrence—a cold, calculated process I applied to the contents of the Voyager record.
Most importantly, the writers who I credit for influencing The Voyager Record were all exhilarating to read. By bucking conventional length and style restrictions, they taught me a way to write that felt more natural and honest than any traditional form ever had.
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor and at anthonymichaelmorena.com.
May 6, 2016 § 11 Comments
By Peter Selgin
I’m a lucky man. I paint, and I write. The two blessings seldom visit me simultaneously; usually I have to choose between them, like choosing between two lovers. One of those two lovers is of a sentimental and playful disposition, brimming with joy, light, and sweetness; the other is dark, brooding, at times even forbidding. Although she smiles from time to time, her smiles are laced with irony and often with bitterness and despair. She can never stop thinking.
Before I ever started writing I was a visual artist. I say “visual artist,” though that’s too highfalutin a term for drawing pictures of ships and skyscrapers. It seems to me that I could always draw, from the very beginning, that I never had to learn, not really. I was born (so it seems) with the ability to “see” perspective; although my father tried to explain it to me in technical terms, he didn’t have to explain to me what I could very well see with my own eyes, that the rails of the train tracks converged at the horizon, while the tops of the telegraph poles grew shorter. Where other people saw straight lines I saw angles and curves. Not long ago, a well-known author tried to explain to me how, prior to the invention of the camera obscura, the artist Van Dyke could never have “gotten” the perspective of a chandelier in one of his paintings, that such things could only be grasped by the photographically trained eye, which in turn could only exist with the invention of photography or its equivalent. To this I thought (but didn’t say) humbug: in Van Dyke’s or any other time I could have drawn that chandelier.
I don’t mean to brag. My ability to draw is nothing to brag about. It’s just something I happened to be born with, the way some people are born double-jointed, or with perfect pitch. That said, I can’t deny the great joy that drawing has always given me, how often a pen or pencil and paper have rescued me from boredom and ennui (how would I survive those monthly university department meetings without doodling on my legal pad?). When traveling, I’ve considered a sketchbook and watercolors as indispensable as my toilet kit, credit cards, and passport. Don’t leave home without them. There were times when, having set out to do a watercolor in the morning, hours later in the middle of the afternoon I’d awaken as if from a trance, my face sunburned, my back sore, having lost myself completely in my painting-in-progress. I count such hours the happiest of my life. The painter in the midst of his work is impervious to suffering. He or she is a truly happy person. I can think of no place I’d rather be than in the realm of constructive oblivion that is painting a picture.
There—in that realm bounded by four points on a single plane—I exert total, dictatorial authority; I’m in charge. I get to achieve something close to perfection, or at least to aim for it. Within that circumscribed realm no one else can tell me what to do, or whether what I’m doing is wrong or right. When it comes to painting, I consider myself above and beyond criticism. When people like my paintings, I’m pleased. On the other hand I couldn’t give a damn what the “experts” think. I already can guess that most “real” painters would find my work superficial if not entirely irrelevant, that they would dismiss my paintings as products of a technically proficient amateur, one entirely unversed in the protocols (and politics) of the academy, who doesn’t “get it.” Of course these days the very notion of an “academy” in art is frowned upon, especially by those who belong to it. Once, at a communal dinner at an artist’s colony on an otherwise deserted island in Maine, at a table full of conceptual artists (one of whom, I remember, was constructing a clock from the carcasses of dead lobsters) I dared to invoke Picasso’s name, eliciting jeers and head-shakes: did I not know that Picasso was “out”? “He’s just a painter,” one of the artists remarked disparagingly. Painting was Out; Dada was in. But they didn’t belong to any academy.
Never mind. I like to paint and I paint what I like. I paint to give and receive pleasure. When I mix tint into a gesso ground, when I size a board or a canvas, when I paint shape over shape, color next to (or into or over or around) color, when I thicken the paint to a heavy paste, or thin it so it runs and bleeds, when I add sand or ink or sawdust or chalk, when I scrape one color away to reveal traces of the color underneath, when I butt up a delicate line against a heavy form, or a heavy line against a delicate form, when I key the colors so close and low it’s as if they are whispering secrets to each other, until I add a splash from beyond their range, a high-octave red or a blazing yellow that adds a piercing scream to all those mumbles and whispers . . . all done in the spirit of play, the spirit with which children make mud pies or build sandcastles on the beach. There’s no pain in painting, not for me. None at all.
I can’t say the same for writing. Writing hurts. It distresses me. You have to think when you write. (You have to think when you paint, too, but it’s a different kind of thinking, it’s thinking without words; it’s a purely physical process void of any language other than that of colors, textures, shapes, values—closer to dancing than to what writers do).
There are days when I wonder why, given a choice between painting and writing, do I choose to write? Why would any sane person, given that choice, choose that way? What on earth compels me to forsake the joyful realm of pigments and shapes for the stilted black and white universe of words and so-called “meanings”—when deep down inside all of us know perfectly well that, assuming meaning is to be found anywhere in life, language is surely the last place to look for it.
Why, then, do I bother writing?
The only answer I can give is that I write because writing is so hard, that the challenge of drawing (I use the word advisedly) meaning from words is irresistible precisely because it’s impossible, because after all words can only express thoughts, ideas, concepts, symbols—man-made and artificial things. Whereas paint is color; shapes are shapes; lines are lines; textures are textures. They don’t stand for anything (they can stand for things, but they don’t have to). As much as we take words into our hearts and love them for themselves, for the way they look and sound, in the end they can only stand for things beyond words. They are not the ends but only a means.
But then that ‘s what makes them so achingly beautiful. Because they are so difficult, so clumsy, such an inconvenient, inefficient means toward expressing feelings and creating beauty, like trying to build the Taj Mahal out of chewing gum and toothpicks. Pigments and grounds were given to us; we dug them out of the ground. Words we had to invent from scratch. As clumsy, inefficient, and inelegant as they are, for better or worse, words are the only medium we can truly claim as our own.
That makes them irresistible.
Peter Selgin’s essays have earned a dozen Best Notable Essay citations as well as two inclusions in the Best American series (Best American Essay 2006; Best American Travel Writing 2014). He is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His work has been published in Colorado Review, Missouri Review, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and other reviews, and has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, and many Pushcart Prize nominations. An essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was published by University of Iowa press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Selgin’s second novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize. Of his first memoir, The Inventors, published in April, 2016, the Library Journal said, “It is book destined to become a modern classic.” He teaches at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
May 5, 2016 § 19 Comments
By Allison Green
In fall 2008, as the economy was crashing, I got up every morning at five and wrote for an hour in our attic dormer. Writing sometimes feels like fiddling while Rome burns and that was especially true that fall. How bad would it get? Bread lines and dust bowls? But writing has always kept me grounded, so I continued.
I was writing about Richard Brautigan, an iconic writer of the 1960s and 1970s whose work had inspired me as an adolescent. The question driving my writing was more about that adolescent girl than about Brautigan: Who had I been and who was I now? In September, my partner and I had retraced the 1961 trip Brautigan took through Idaho that informed his famous novel Trout Fishing in America, and like all good travel, it was a journey through memory and identity, history and ancestry.
Every morning, I read one of the short chapters in Trout Fishing in America and used it as a prompt for freewriting. I found myself writing about my Idaho-born grandparents, my father’s scholarship on death and dying, my experience growing up during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, and other unexpected topics. When the new year came and the world was bruised but still recognizable, I had more than forty short pieces. Now I had to decide what to do with them.
Until that fall, my focus had been fiction. I studied short story and novel writing for my 1991 M.F.A. In 2000, St. Martin’s published my novel. But my editor didn’t want the next novel; no one did. A third novel disintegrated during revisions. And my enthusiasm for writing flagged. After our trip through Idaho, I decided to stop trying to produce a follow-up novel and to write only for myself. No one else would ever care about my adolescent crush on Brautigan, but I cared. Those autumn mornings in the attic dormer, I followed the sentences where they took me: into memories, images, sense impressions. It was the same feeling I’d had as an adolescent writing poetry; the writing revealed myself to me, and it was deeply satisfying.
Over subsequent years, I began to shape the pieces into a book. I still had doubts that anyone else would be interested, but my writing group encouraged me and the project kept me engaged. I took pieces and expanded them into essays. Several were published in literary journals.
And I found that creative nonfiction was the home I didn’t know I needed. It provided structure and focus. Now I liken it to form poetry; the truth as I remember it constrains the writing in the same way the sonnet form constrains writing. Unexpectedly, that constraint fosters innovation and surprise. It frees rather than limits.
In 2010, I took my opening chapters to the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, and signed up for a workshop with Dinty W. Moore. His advice on how to begin was an important piece in the revision puzzle. He said my task was to immediately convince the reader to spend time with adult me, adolescent me, and Brautigan. That’s what the first three chapters now do.
Last year, Ooligan Press at Portland State University published The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: A Literary Pilgrimage through Brautigan’s America. At readings in Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, and elsewhere, I had conversations with readers about how their eras had shaped them. They wanted to tell me about the writers they had loved, the literary pilgrimages they had taken, and the public events that had profoundly affected their private lives.
I am midway through another creative nonfiction project. I think of it, as I eventually did the Brautigan book, as a two-hundred-page essay. It explores my family’s experiences living in the Virgin Islands in the late 1960s; a stranger broke into our house and fractured my skull. The essay genre allows me to meander through images and scenes, circling my themes, while remaining grounded by those constraints of fact and truth.
Rome burns; Seattle had its hottest ever April day this year. But I am still writing. Still asking: Who was I then and who am I now? I have to trust that my explorations will take me somewhere worthwhile.
Allison Green is the author of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, a memoir, and Half-Moon Scar, a novel. Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, The Rumpus, Calyx, and other publications. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.
May 2, 2016 § 27 Comments
By Laura Vrcek
I recently read an essay by Tom Spanbauer titled “Dangerous Writing” in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers. In it, he mentions that occasionally a beginning writer will submit a horror story or screenplay in his Dangerous Writing Workshop. The misunderstanding is honest at best but what Spanbauer wants is considerably scarier. He writes, “To write dangerous is to go to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore…” The kind of writing that challenges the personas we publish on social media and defend when they’re wrong.
It was timely when I read it, just after AWP’s 2016 conference in Los Angeles. My goal this go around was to find enough panels to attend so that I could sponge and then justify writing about my mother’s bipolar disorder despite the fact that it makes her unhappy. On a panel called “The Ethics of the Artist: Writing About Family in Essay and Memoir,” four female memoirists (Honor Moore, Alice Eve Cohen, Julie Metz, Aspen Matis) discussed the ethics of writing about loved ones, how to navigate those relationships after publishing, and whether or not you really need permission at all.
I’ve asked a lot of friends about this too, some writers, some not. They suggest that I share my stories not out of angst or in an effort to hurt my mother’s feelings but because her (and my) stories can help others.
I so want to believe them. I want to believe I wrote about the time my mother told me I was ungrateful after I flew to Dallas to help her recover from surgery so that other children of parents with mental illnesses feel less alone. I want to believe that there’s a noble reason behind sharing that my mother once told me if I were to get a tattoo of a seahorse, people would think I’m a whore because “seahorse” sounds like “whore.” But it’s just not true. Loud, for the world to know: I’m still angry. And when I write about what it’s like to have what feels like a broken mother, part of me leaks steam.
When I come into contact with confident, women writers in their 50s or 60s, I tend to baby-bird them. I see in them the strong-female figure I wish I’d had growing up. The idolization is accompanied by incessant guilt. Guilt for not wanting to fly to see my mother more. Guilt over what she’d do if she found out I felt this way.
Spanbauer is right. When you write, you have the constant option to be dangerous. When you and your pen walk right up to the edge of a cliff and glare over, you always risk an inevitable drop.
Laura Vrcek‘s poetry and nonfiction work have appeared in The Red Clay Review, Apple Valley Review, The Orange Dot, and on KQED’s storytelling segment, Perspectives. She lives in Oakland, California and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University.