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.

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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 brevitymag.contest@gmail.com 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.

 

Solitude and Solidarity: Creative Artists Need ’Em Both

March 23, 2016 § 8 Comments

Jari Chevalier

Jari Chevalier

By Jari Chevalier

Henry James once told the journalist Morton Fullerton that the “essential loneliness” of his life constituted his “deepest” aspect.

If you are a creative artist, everything you do and experience is invested into vision, meaning, and insight. Successful creation is a distillation of many hours of time alone just sponging things in and then processing them in solitude, a word that comes from the Latin “solus,” akin to the Greek word “holos,” signifying whole, entire. An artist comes to wholeness in and through work done in solitude; and in this, there cannot be a separation between self, work, and life.

You’d be hard pressed to find an artist who isn’t poignantly aware of her existential aloneness, and yet, like anyone else, she lives in relationship. Sometimes, instead of social relationships, the artist may rely upon deep, abiding relationships with the ineffable intimations of her gift. There’s a sense of partnership with the unseen—the muse, the unconscious, the universe—to get work done and to feel good.

When you are creating, the feeling arises that you are doing what you are meant to do and it is sustained by the experience of being touched by something larger—a communion experience that one simply cannot explain, but instead must honor and serve.

In this sense the artist working in solitude is not really “alone.” She is having intense affairs with aspects of self and with the numinous. The quality of relationship with one’s own inner dynamics, which are nurtured in solitude, provide the essential conditions for creation.

But there is a big difference between solitude and isolation. To balance long stretches of unbroken solitude, an artist, especially a developing one, needs like-minded others, people who understand the passion and process of a creative person and who support his efforts, who welcome him when he finally does come out from behind the closed door. It helps to have a peer group or, at the very least, one trusted fellow artist with whom to share both the work and one’s life.

Solidarity means unity among people, a shared sense of purpose and understanding of what matters—the values, feelings, sensitivity to beauty, to meaning, to the deeper qualities of mind and life.

Solidarity is every bit as crucial to the health, balance, and survival of the artist as is solitude.

Some artists choose to, or must, find their solidarity without real-time contact with peer artists, but instead, through engagement with the works of more distant artists. In the words of painter and art teacher Robert Henri, “If the artist is alive in you, you may meet Greco nearer than many people, also Plato, Shakespeare, the Greeks. In certain books—some way in the first few paragraphs you know that you have met a brother.”

T.S. Eliot states something similar about our solidarity: “A common inheritance and a common cause unite artists consciously or unconsciously: it must be admitted that the union is mostly unconscious. Between the true artists of any time there is, I believe, an unconscious community.”

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Jari Chevalier is a multi-genre writer and visual artist, and a teacher of creativity workshops and retreats. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Barrow Street, Beloit Poetry Journal, Boulevard, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Gulf Coast Online, The Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, and other literary journals. She has conducted over forty interviews with leading-edge thinkers, authors, researchers and activists. Jari has received support for her work as an artist and journalist from numerous private and government grantmakers. She earned her Master’s in creative writing from City College of New York and graduated with honors in writing and literature from Columbia University.

The Essay as a Room with Taffy Walls: Or Why at Age Sixteen I Finally Finished a Book

March 21, 2016 § 7 Comments

Heather Kirn Lanier

Heather Kirn Lanier

By Heather Kirn Lanier

At sixteen, while other high school juniors were learning to drive, I was learning to read and write essays. That wasn’t what I expected when I signed up for Mr. Gearty’s Advanced Placement English course. I was not what you’d call “a reader.” I did not tend to finish books. But Advanced Placement courses required summer homework, so the July I turned sixteen, I found myself hunched over a desk with my task: read and take notes on a hardbound book. It looked like a hymnal, with its maroon cover and embossed title, which name escapes me today.

What I remember is my surprise. For the first time in my self-absorbed sixteen years, I was engrossed in reading a book. And not because I wanted to know what happened next and next and next. There were no fictional characters; there was no thick unfolding plot. There were only voices, embarking on whatever willy-nilly topics so moved them. Helen Keller wondered what she would do if she had three days to see. Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed (in a didactic tone I couldn’t help but heed) the awesomeness of one’s quirky individual truth.

Who else was in that hardbound book? I don’t remember today, but I recall a host of pieces titled “Of this” and “On that,” so most likely I read some Montaigne and Francis Bacon and William Hazlitt. I studied syntax as convoluted as a fun house. I, the usually resistant reader, was determined to get into and out of maze-like sentences because the end-result was worth it. Juicy as a story, each essay’s intrigue was made, not by plot, but by the switchbacks of the author’s mind, like a convertible hugging the rocky California coast. I didn’t know where the road would take me: toward a hailstorm, a snake, a hitchhiker, hell, maybe a prophetic burning bush. I kept turning the page.

What were these things? They weren’t stories. They weren’t the essays I had learned to write thus far in school—five paragraph things that had their three points. They were, I now know, real essays.

Come fall, once the AP English students of Warminster, Pennsylvania actually landed in a classroom, we wrote essays. Fast and furious, sometimes three a week, always in forty-five-minute limits during class. Once assigned our prompt, we scattered around the room or we went into the hallway, lay belly-down on the blue industrial carpet, and we wrote. We wrote conformities. We wrote clichés. We wrote things our teachers had always told us to say. We wrote things we believed we ought to say. We wrote bad essays. We wrote them so hard our hands hurt.

Eventually we wrote so many essays that we started writing tangents. We started writing analogies. We started writing connections and curiosities and contradictions. We started writing things that nobody had told us to write.

We started writing real essays.

And we learned this, or at least I did: an essay is a room with taffy walls. The more I punched it, poked it, stretched it, the more interesting the thing it could house.

It’s been twenty-two years since Mr. Gearty’s AP English class. The longer I write essays, the more I see that my high school hunch is true: essays are rooms with taffy walls. They are nearly limitless in their possibility, though they must eventually contain. They can be amorphous a while, although they will eventually morph. A good essayist, a real essayist punches at those taffy walls, makes new shapes to house things never before housed, and in so doing, reinvents what it means to essay. Stephen Dunn prefers equine metaphors over taffy ones: “We build the corral as we reinvent the horse,” he says in “Little Essay on Form.” His is the littlest essay about essays, the teensiest corral for a bucking, millimeter-sized horse.

I have just finished a second book of nonfiction. I find myself bracing for the impending creative lull. What will come next? Gradually, I’ve found myself returning to the lessons from 1994. Each morning, like my sixteen-year-old self on the blue industrial carpet, I get myself a pen and a notebook, and I write by hand. I write myself into curiosities. I write myself into confusions. I write myself into intrigue and questions and discovery. I let myself create the taffy I might someday shape into another essay.

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Heather Kirn Lanier is the author of the nonfiction book, Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for Americaas well as two award-winning poetry chapbooks, The Story You Tell Yourself, and Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima. She teaches at Southern Vermont College and blogs about parenting a child with disabilities at starinhereye.wordpress.com.

 

 

Slow Down: Interrogating the Past Takes Time

March 16, 2016 § 27 Comments

Julie Riddle

Julie Riddle

By Julie Riddle

In spring 2009 I completed the final year of a low-residency MFA program. I had just turned thirty-nine years old, had no publishing credits to my name, and years of work lay ahead of me, developing my creative-nonfiction thesis into a book-length memoir that, I hoped, someone might one-day want to publish.

One May afternoon an email appeared in my in-box. A faculty member from my graduate program had invited me to contribute an essay from my thesis to an anthology on domestic violence in the West that would be used in college and university classrooms. The essay, “Frontier Girl,” explored my fraught relationship with a boy I had dated for two years in high school. A respected university press had expressed interest in publishing the anthology. I was thrilled!

Over the next six weeks I revised the essay for the anthology, pleased to be concurrently polishing it as a chapter for my manuscript. After submitting the completed essay to the faculty member I began working on other elements of my memoir and daydreamed about seeing my essay in print. Months passed. Half a year, at least. And then one day I received an email bearing the news that the anthology project had been scrapped. My disappointment verged on despair. Here I was, hurtling toward forty and mired in the early, opaque mess of a book manuscript, with little likelihood that I’d publish anything anytime soon, if ever.

A few years into working on the manuscript I dusted off “Frontier Girl” to assess what sprucing up it needed, if any, to pull its weight in the memoir. As I read the essay and mulled it over during the next few days, unease sprouted in my gut. I realized that I hadn’t been fully honest with myself – or with my hoped-for readers – in a section of the essay. In the following excerpt from the original version of “Frontier Girl,” I recount my by-then ex-boyfriend’s dogged pursuit after I had graduated from high school and moved away from my hometown of Troy, Montana:

“He would follow me through college: one below-zero New Year’s Eve night when I was home for Christmas break, he would creep up my parents’ driveway and throw ice shards at my bedroom window in a vain attempt to wake me and draw me outside to talk. He moved to Spokane and rented an apartment with my brother, and would knock on my dorm door unexpectedly one evening, my roommate saying I was on campus somewhere, studying. He would call my dorm room—my brother had given him my number—and invite me to a movie; he would offer to give me a ride to Troy for spring break. He would appear at my college graduation, a surprise guest of my brother, and stand beside me and smile as my parents snapped photos. He would materialize that autumn at my apartment, again with my brother, to help install carpet on my patio. Throughout Brad’s unexpected visitations I was polite, gracious, even; just held my breath and waited for the minutes to pass, the moment to end. The final end came six months later, when I took a teaching job in Japan and Brad married some other Troy girl instead of me.”

I remember how, back in grad school, this passage had been pleasing to write. My memories of the events surfaced and spilled in swift, tidy order, the cadence and easy detail lulling me into a sense of satisfaction that I had captured the past and excavated its meaning. But, in my later, more clear-eyed reading, I realized that I had omitted three telling details. I had forgotten about them, or I had scooched right over them, dismissing them with the excuse that the information would needlessly muddle the narrative.

What the omissions boiled down to is that I hadn’t allowed enough time in my thinking and writing to let important details present themselves and demand an accounting. Details that would point me to a deeper explication and understanding of the past and my culpability.

Confession: I had said yes to Brad’s invitation to the movie and I said yes to his offer to give me a ride home for spring break. As I sat with these uncomfortable facts, the inevitable question arose: Why? Why did I put myself back in the path of someone who had been abusive in high school and who, as he pursued me through college, I found repellent?

The revised and final version of that section now includes the following: “I accepted both invitations, in a bid to exert power and to make Brad suffer—allowing him to draw near, close enough to touch, but maintaining a rigid distance, denying his want and then walking away.”

Ahsolacea. Power. So that’s what this essay is about.

And when I allowed myself to admit that I had accepted his invitation to drive me to Troy, a forgotten memory surfaced: “During the long ride to Montana Brad stammered regret for how he had treated me in high school, and I, still, could not locate courage or words.”

Brad had expressed recognition of and remorse for how he had treated me when we dated. He wasn’t a one-dimensional bully in my essay, or in reality, after all. And I, nearing twenty back then, still had a long way to go in finding my voice and speaking up.

In my daily writing practice during the early years of working on the manuscript that would eventually become The Solace of Stones, revising existing chapters and writing new material, I had come to learn what it takes to craft a fully realized essay, one that matters beyond my own story, one that explores and questions the human condition and taps into universal truths.

The excavated details that I incorporated into “Frontier Girl” provided an entryway for me to transform the essay from a recounting of my personal struggles in an abusive relationship to an exploration of how and why my classmates and I, living in an isolated, economically depressed mountain community, sought to define and assert ourselves through grasping whatever power we could:

“Children often inherited their parents’ lot. Education and expectations were low, drinking was heavy, the speed limit high, and opportunities few. Winter hit early, pinning the valley in its bitter grip, the long months dark, cold, and hard. We turned to each other for companionship and comfort and to carve for ourselves some sense of worth and control. And when the precarious balance of power tipped—into manipulation, perversion, violence—we coped as best we could on our own.”

Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, has stated that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is submitting their work too soon. “If you are truly serious about doing distinctive work that will make its mark,” he said, “slow down” (Poets & Writers, May/June 2008).

I am grateful now that the original version of “Frontier Girl” didn’t see daylight and my publishing opportunities were delayed. I needed time – those months and years of writing nearly every day, drafting and revising chapters for a book – to learn and gain more experience, to exhume and interrogate uncomfortable pieces of my past, to acquire objectivity, and to develop the mental and emotional strength required to be honest with myself and on the page.

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Julie Riddle is the author of the new memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press/American Lives Series). Her essay, “Shadow Animals,” which later became a chapter in her memoir, was published in The Georgia Review; the essay received a Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize anthology and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. She is the craft-essay editor for Brevity and the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling, published out of Whitworth University, where she works as senior writer for marketing

Doors Behind Doors: The Craft of Perspective

March 13, 2016 § 14 Comments

Judith Hannan

Judith Hannan

By Judith Hannan

The prompt at the first writing workshop I ever took was, “My mother never told me …”   “My mother never told me that I could help her,” I began. The story that evolved was one I repeated for the next thirteen years. I had been kept out of my mother’s life, was never one of the inner circle privy to her secrets—the ones about the marriage she entered into at age 18, the nervous breakdown she suffered and overcame; or those of what it was like to become a college student for the first time at age forty, her first days of work as a psychiatric social worker; or those behind my father’s leaving her, his return when she found the lump in her breast, her death. The story always ended with my not being invited to ring the bed the day she died, of learning, as I dressed for the funeral, that I was the only one who didn’t know she was going to be cremated.

“Poor me,” I told myself that first year and the years after.

The fourteenth time I told the story was for part of a larger work, my book, Motherhood Exaggerated, which is a chronicle of my own evolution as a mother during my younger daughter’s treatment for, and survival from, cancer. My mother’s story would be key to understanding the kind of mother I was.

I was unprepared for my publisher’s response. “Poor you?” she said, “I don’t feel sorry for you. I’m not sure I even like you here.” The idea of gaining a sympathetic ear as opposed to sympathy was a new concept for me. I had a great deal to learn about perspective.

In those early workshops, we were told to just write for ourselves. This made sense. It encouraged expansive, non-censored thought. But expecting to excavate the full gold of a story without hearing it through another’s ears is like going to therapy without the therapist.

To alter the story I had been telling, though, required that I draw upon new tools. The metaphor of music, my first language for creative expression honed over many years of playing the flute, became the lens through which I could view my mother with compassion. I wrote her life as if it were a symphony, one written by different composers, in different keys, and with fluctuating tonalities. Early sounds of waves and carnival rides from my mother’s home in  Revere Beach were transposed to a minor key when my mother turned six and her mother suffered a stroke that left her alive but unable to mother. Silence followed. I returned to a major key when my mother got married and had children, but marriage and children added to a hollow self is like multiplying a number by zero. My mother’s life had become a warped version of Handel’s Water Music. Immersed in metaphor I saw my mother as the unmothered person she was. But she ultimately climbed out of her depression assuming the strident tones of Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring.

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings ended my symphony. From the high shimmering notes that mark the peak of this haunting elegy, I could see my mother’s grief. How had I never seen that she was in mourning too?

My lens didn’t only have to be compassionate, it had to be wider. When I first wrote about my daughter’s cancer I wasn’t telling a story about people but about IV’s, scans, chemo drugs, and scars. I created a cloistered world of just me and Nadia where no one learned or evolved. So I stepped back. I described the doctors, observed the different ways my daughter and I interacted with them and, therefore, found an opportunity to explore our dynamic with each other. I took the time to examine our friendship with a Hasidic family whose daughter was also ill, which allowed me to delve into my own relationship with Judaism; despite my lack of faith, my religion could still offer me wisdom and the comfort of ritual. When I zoomed out and saw myself against the backdrop of the larger world, I emerged transformed as a mother, wife, and friend.

Unfettered writing, for our ears alone, can open doors, but to get to the doors behind the doors we can’t be Narcissus staring at his own reflection. We need other faces looking back at us, we need craft, and we need to connect our story to a world beyond our small pond.

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Judith Hannan  is the author of two books. Motherhood Exaggerated chronicles her transformation as a mother during her daughter’s treatment for, and survival from, cancer. The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness is a guide for those who want to write their own stories of mental or physical illness. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Cognoscenti, The Forward, The Healing Muse, Huffington Post, Opera News, and ZYZZYVA, among others. Ms. Hannan is a lecturer at Yale University where she is working on a pilot study to examine the power of writing to heal. As a teacher, she works with homeless mothers, at-risk teens, and medical students, as well as past and current patients, caregivers, and family members. Ms. Hannan is the recipient of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s 2015 Humanism-in-Medicine Award and is a judge of the Foundation’s annual essay contest for medical students.

 

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