November 30, 2016 § 4 Comments
People think I’m joking when I tell them I was once a zookeeper, but I was, for one glorious summer, moving from the big cats to the zebras and gnus to the ape exhibits to the children’s zoo to the polar bears, in two-week intervals, filling in for the real zookeepers as they left for summer vacation. I loved it: every moment.
Understandably then, my enthusiasm for Creative Nonfiction‘s new venture, True Story, was barely containable when I received the second installment, Steven Church’s essay “Trip to the Zoo.”
Church’s startling piece focuses on David Villalobos, a man who leaped into a tiger cage at the Bronx zoo and lived to tell about it. “Much of this True Story, selection focuses on my trip to New York City in 2014 to try and retrace David’s trip to the zoo (or at least most of his trip), and my ultimately failed efforts to get people to talk with me; but it also contains an imagined ‘outtake’ that didn’t make the editorial cut for the final book. So while it’s an excerpt it is also its own unique piece that you can’t get anywhere else,” Church explains.
The book Church refers to, One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals is out just this month.
True Story, edited by Hattie Fletcher, will come out every month. “The True Story format lets us publish some longer pieces than we would usually be able to accept for Creative Nonfiction—and, I suspect, might have some trouble finding a home elsewhere,” Fletcher explained,”if only because there aren’t too many outlets (especially print outlets) for literary longform. And I think it’s great for readers; some of the most consistent feedback we get on reader surveys is to publish more frequently, and we hope this is sort of a hearty snack in between issues of the bigger magazine. Editorially, it’s been a lot of fun so far … though the turnaround between issues feels really fast, compared to the quarterly!”
You can read more about True Story and subscribe for yourself at the CNF site. Might make a nice holiday gift, come to think of it.
Editor Hattie Fletcher, by coincidence, worked at the Cleveland Zoo when she was in high school, so there is some sort of convergence happening. Maybe.
In any case, to reward those of you who have read this far down, here is a picture of a much younger Brevity editor and a giraffe named Gladys. She was lovely. And ate Vidalia onions whole.
Dinty W. Moore founded Brevity in 1997. He once was best friends with an elephant named Bubbles.
November 28, 2016 § 1 Comment
Gila Lyons reports from BinderCon:
The third annual BinderCon took place October 28 – 30 when it seemed like Hilary Clinton’s win for the presidency would be imminent. The conference energy was high and celebratory as over 550 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for a conference whose mission is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.” The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of tens of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Now that Trump is our president elect, one of the panels, BODY POLITICS: WRITING REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS AND JUSTICE DURING THE WAR ON WOMEN, is more crucial than ever.
Panelists Irin Carmon, Britni de la Cretaz, Steph Herold, and Gloria Malone moderated by, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee, discussed how to write about abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, queer and gender non-conforming identity, and other stigmatized and divisive sexual and reproductive issues, in a political and social landscape that is often hostile to women and marginalized people. They covered the ins and outs of working with editors, protecting oneself when writing personally about such hot-button topics for both online and print publications, and how to convince mainstream editors that they need to cover reproductive and sexual-health issues, and how.
For those who couldn’t attend the conference, or for those who were there but want a refresher, here’s a recap:
Britni de la Cretaz, is a social worker-turned-freelance writer who writes to shatter stigma and amplify marginalized voices. “I decided I’d tackle issues no one wanted to hear about and get them on mainstream platforms,” de la Cretaz said. She writes about having herpes and being STI positive, about addiction, pregnancy, and parenting. She strives to be gender-inclusive not just in the stories she covers but in the language she uses. “We’ve done a good job including the queer community in mainstream media but not so much trans or non-binary people,” she said. “It’s not just women who are getting pregnant or accessing abortion or nursing. Words have a big power and we have to change the way people think by the way we use them.” She suggests that instead of writing “nursing women,” we write “nursing parents,” and instead of “pregnant women,” we use “pregnant people” to include trans and non-binary people. “There is a war on marginalized bodies,” she said, and posited that writers can be allies to marginalized people by using inclusive language and covering their stories. In that vein, she’s written about trans people who nurse in What It’s Like to Chestfeed for The Atlantic, What to Expect When You’re Expecting—with Herpes, for Marie Claire, What’s life like with a transgender grandmother? The Washington Post, and Inside the Misunderstood World of Adult Breastfeeding for Rolling Stone. She shared that she’s had good luck getting stories like these picked up by pegging them to new studies, books, politics, or celebrities. She also stresses the importance of asking subjects and interviewees their pronouns and fighting to get accurate pronouns used in published pieces and not to use “he” or “she” just because it’s default. “That’s sloppy and inaccurate journalism,” she said. “Work with editors to find gender non-conforming pronouns if your interviewees or subjects describe themselves that way.”
Also stressing the importance of thoughtful and accurate semantics was Gloria Malone, writer, speaker, and activist, who shared her story of becoming pregnant at fifteen years old and parenting as a teenager. Instead of “teen mom,” she uses the phrase “pregnant and parenting young person,” to speak with justice and dignity about young people’s right to make their own reproductive choices. She is the co-founder of the #NoTeenShame, a site dedicated to “shame-free LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education and equitable access to resources and support for young families.” She says that pregnant and parenting young people encounter slut shaming, depression, anxiety, and social isolation at a time when they should be especially supported by family and peers. She wants people, no matter their age, to have choices over their own reproductive autonomy. As a consultant she works with nonprofits and local governments to ensure reproductive justice, dignity and respect for non-traditional families. Malone defines reproductive justice as “deciding if, when, and how one choses to raise a child.” She continued, “Harmful narratives have been constructed about pregnant and parenting as a young person; and when you’re black or Latina, as I am, even more so.” Malone feels that every aspect of her existence has been made into a public health issue, which inspires her craft. “I’m not a public health issue,” she said, “this is my life. I write to have my people represented, especially about abortion because it’s criminalized. It’s a fundamental right for people to make decisions about their bodies.” Her writing about the intersections of race, public policy, and lived experiences of black women and girls has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, The Huffington Post, and more. Malone cited two organizations she works with that are particularly important for people to know about and support – The Women of Color Sexual Health Network and The National Network of Abortion Funds. She is also a member of Echoing Ida, a writing collective for black women and non-binary individuals.
The panel was moderated by a fellow Echoing Ida member, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee. Greenlee is an historian of the African-American experience and the law, and a senior editor at Rewire News, a site devoted to reproductive and sexual health rights and justice. She has written for American Prospect, Dissent, EBONY.com and Rolling Stone, among other publications. Greenlee laments how ahistorical journalism can be, and encourages writers to include a historical context for the stories they’re covering. “Even when covering something extremely timely,” she suggested, “look for scholarly articles on the subject and then seek out those authors to interview.”
Steph Herold, is a social scientist and activist with a background in abortion care and abortion funds. Herold is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Sea Change Program, whose mission is to “transform the culture of stigma around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive experiences.” She has served on the boards of the New York Abortion Access Fund and the ACCESS Women’s Health Justice board, and founded IAmDrTiller.com a site of stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives to making abortion safe, legal, healthy, and accessible to women and girls. Herold and her team partnered with the Berkeley Media Studies Group to look at 3000 articles in top 10 media outlets in 2014 – 2015 to investigate 1) How does abortion stigma manifest in news media, and 2) Why do journalists report on abortion and what difficulties do they encounter?
Some of their findings:
- 36% of news articles contained quotes that frame abortion as murder and immoral
- 21% of news articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion as harmful to women, either physically or emotionally
- 15% of articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion providers as greedy, profiteering, and unscrupulous
- 6% reported on the safety of abortion
- 3% cited statistics about public support of abortion
- 3% statistics related to the prevalence of abortion
- 8% included a personal experience of abortion from a named or unnamed person
- 4% mentioned the fact that most women who have abortions are mothers
- 4% mentioned the historical presence of abortion in society
This study will be released in more detail in January 2017 at seachangeprogram.org
Herold urged, “Anti-abortion talking points are a problem…but our lack of affirming abortion and connecting it to American values in our own talking points is a bigger problem.” She argues that we need to “embrace opportunities to talk about abortion as public health experience, and to bring voices of people who’ve had abortions to the forefront.” Some barriers she acknowledged to placing these types of pieces are institutional (getting editors to assign and champion the stories), related to journalist harassment (writers covering the issue have been trolled and threatened by anti-abortion advocates), and monotony of the issue (how to talk about abortion and related issues in a new way). But she reminded the audience of how important it is to keep trying. “News shapes public policy,” she wrote in her power point, “who is quoted in the news and what they say has an impact on how abortion is viewed and regulated.”
Irin Carmon is the co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and MSNBC digital and TV reporter on gender, politics, and the law, with a special emphasis on reproductive rights and the Supreme Court. Carmon described the importance of transparency, integrity and fairness as a journalist and sticking assiduously to reporting the facts and peoples’ first hand accounts. She showcased a recent project with MSNBC, Shuttered: The End of Abortion Access in Red America, which is a feat of interactive long-form journalism with written narrative, photography, sound recordings, video, and charts and graphs.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, Fusion, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons
November 25, 2016 § 7 Comments
By Calihan Price:
“What are you studying?”
“English! With a concentration in Creative Nonfiction.”
“Oh. So you want to teach English then?”
“No. I want to write.”
After this exchange, I spend the next five minutes trying to justify my major to someone who probably doesn’t care in the first place. But why? Why do I, as a writer, feel so compelled to prove my passion to be something worthwhile?
Do nursing majors have to explain why they chose to go to nursing school? No. Do education majors have to defend reasons for wanting to teach? Nope. Do Veterinary Science majors have to validate their decision to save animals? Absolutely not.
I shouldn’t have to, either. Instead, I want to tell people what a privilege it is to turn my own personal experiences into a universal piece of literature that other people can connect with on an intimate level.
I want to tell them about the four-cheese penne pasta I had for dinner and how it was dripping with fresh tomato sauce and that the basil speckled my plate with bursts of forest green that reminded me of the changing leaves that line the streets in Autumn. I want to tell them about the time my best friend broke my heart and how I had to spend an entire year piecing it back together. I want to show them my childhood, narrated by my grandmother’s sweet voice and strung together with pictures of thunderstorms and aging dogs and matching Easter dresses.
Every ordinary moment can be made colorful with words. They have the power to change a rainy day into a gray storm of frustrated clouds and rainbow dusted pavement. They can turn a dying flower into a wilting poppy whose color has since returned to paint the sunset. They transform a hand into an aged piece of art, lined with years of wisdom and scarred from memories long forgotten.
I sometimes find myself thinking in beautiful words. Before I ever realize what I’m doing, sentences of imagery float about my consciousness, stringing themselves together in abstract forms until they find their proper place, aligning with one another to “show and not tell.”
Choosing a possible career path is something to be proud of; it takes some people years to decide what they want to do. It’s important to never feel ashamed or belittled by your ambitions, but instead embrace them and feel confident and respectable when relaying them to someone else.
As someone who is still learning and growing in my abilities as a writer, I hope to carry that confidence with me wherever I go. No matter the judgments of practicality I may or may not endure, I can always rest assured in knowing that my ordinary moments will be made extraordinary when replayed years later on paper.
Calihan Price is a full-time student, part-time nanny, and all-of-the-time dreamer. She grew up in a small town outside of Omaha, NE, and is currently studying creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
November 21, 2016 § 12 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
The lobster mushroom, contrary to its common name, is not a mushroom but the result of a parasitic fungus having infested a host mushroom in a peculiar symbiosis. The fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, typically attacks milk-caps and brittlegills, absorbing them completely and imparting the bright reddish-orange color and seafood-like flavor of a cooked lobster.
Creative nonfiction, too, is a symbiosis of fact infecting art. Or art infecting fact. You become infected by an idea, a topic – open adoptions, fracking, the history of perfume – that absorbs you, imparting its own qualities, until the you’re transformed, not the same person as before.
Or, you may play the part of parasite – cloak your work, make it take the appearance of another form: an essay disguised as a list, a letter, an index, a diary. A hermit-crab essay. A lobster mushroom.
Or, you may think you’re writing one essay, but another essay takes it over, makes it its own. Think you’re writing about hiking? Nope, it’s about your ex-. A piece about the band Morphine and The Matrix’ Morpheus and the Sandman comics? Nope, your ex-. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lobster mushrooms are much more valuable than the mushrooms they infect – about $25 a pound fresh, or $50 dried, at last check.
You should remember that both creative nonfiction and lobster mushrooms, like all fungus, feed off of dead matter, are in turn fed off of. You don’t always get there first. Sometimes appalling creatures have nested inside it – sometimes stuff you knew was there, sometimes stuff you forgot was there, sometimes unexpected stuff you uncover. You might be cutting through a mushroom when a centipede or earwig or worm crawls out of the hole it’s burrowed into the flesh. “Fuck!” you might yell, dropping the mushroom. Now you have to decide what to do next:
a. Sweep the mushroom into the trash. Burn trash. Burn house. No mushroom, no matter how valuable it might have seemed, is worth this toxic invasion.
b.Pick up the mushroom and examine the damage – how deep does it go? Has the nastiness laid eggs? Are there others? You may feel hesitant to give up on the mushroom, but sometimes you have to negotiate the value of the mushroom against how compromised it’s become. If there’s too much damage, go back to a); otherwise, continue to c). Remind yourself of two things:
1.If you can’t deal with the mushroom now, it will come back. It will always come back, popping up whether you want it to or no, because it’s part of a larger system, mycelia feeding on what’s rotten, what lurks, always, beneath the surface. If you decide in the future you’re ready to pluck it and make something of it, it will be there, mushrooming.
2. You don’t have to reveal the source of your mushrooms. Few enthusiasts do, going to great lengths to conceal their sites by lying, covering their tracks. But most are happy to share the fruits of their labors, the fruited mushroom, the finished product, however fraught. You can share, without sharing everything.
c. Decide you have worked too hard for this mushroom. It is too valuable to let go. THIS IS YOUR FUCKING MUSHROOM. Find a way to deal with the damage:
1. Cut it out completely;
2. Work around it. Convince yourself it will be altered in the shaping/cooking of it anyways. Keep what isn’t too bad, what you can still use, what’s of value. If you can deal with it, so can everyone else.
3. Take a deep breath and swallow it whole, bugs and all.
But here’s the thing. The lobster mushroom, the parasitic fungus, has a super power: it infests mushrooms, matter that is otherwise inedible, possibly toxic, and makes it safe for consumption. Palatable. Even delicious.
Is this a craft essay infected by a lyric essay, or a lyric essay infected by a craft essay?
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis.
November 18, 2016 § 8 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
After officiating at over two hundred-fifty funeral, memorial, and graveside services, I’ve asked the local funeral director to remove my name from his Rolodex. It’s time to let go of one of my favorite pastoral privileges: meeting with families of the deceased and writing eulogies based on the information and memories they’ve shared. I now intend to reflect on and write about my own life experiences.
You can’t conduct end-of-life services without being exquisitely aware of your own mortality. When I was newly married, I regularly updated my husband Ed on how I wished to be buried. I wasn’t concerned about homicide, suicide, or accidental death. As pastor of two small, rural churches, I was noticing how people were laid to rest, and I wanted to make my final wishes clear.
I’d tell him, “Honey, don’t let anyone put anything inside my casket.” I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and it’d taken me years to understand and maintain healthy personal boundaries. I was uncomfortable imagining people filing past my body, tucking items next to me, as I’d witnessed at the funeral home. I’d have a no-fly zone over my casket, if I could. Anything to keep out what I’ve seen land there: a John Deere tractor, Confederate flag, baseball cap, soap opera guide, or fishing rod.
“No fancy casket,” I’d say. “A simple pine will do.” How will my body decay if it’s encased in hardwood, semi-precious metals, or rust resistant stainless steel? What purpose will an embroidered tribute panel or pull-out memento drawer serve? Once I’m buried, I won’t be able to see in the dark.
I haven’t said anything to Ed about airbrushed vault covers, one of the newer innovations of the funeral industry. I worry, though, that in his grief he might be persuaded to consider a full-color collage of our three beloved dogs.
Ed is patient and kind, but the day I told him I didn’t want a gold-foil “Sweetheart” attached to the flowers he sent, I must have pushed it too far. “Honey,” he said, looking me in the eye. “You’re taking all the fun out of it.”
My advice to writers? Engage your imagination in the planning of your funeral. Write what you want your family members to know. Save them, in the throes of their grief, from interfamilial tugs-of-war over cremation vs. burial, funeral vs. memorial, green vs. cemetery plot. You might even consider writing your own obituary, which will put you in touch not only with the blessing of being alive, but also with what’s been most important to you throughout your life. The answers might surprise you.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a photographer, writer, and ordained minister who lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three dogs.
October 19, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Samantha Tucker
Lately, my only urge is to rant. It may take a decade of psychic distance from this election to accurately essay, to try and understand each experience: the saturated realities of Facebook feeds, the talking heads and the buttons on lapels, the chalk messages on campus. I’m not experiencing this time with any nuance; my emotions roll like sea surges, rising, abrupt, cruel, from miles away, crashing down, unfurling shock and horror though I stayed and waited, long observed the tide gathering strength. It is not so unlike the moments after the news of a loved-one’s death, this build, this unavoidable torrent. You stand through it, or you do not, and hopefully after it resides you can be found on the ground, mostly intact.
I’ll be voting in Ohio this year because I’m currently a student and instructor at The Ohio State University. I’ve kept “The” at the beginning of the school name because 1. I am a creative nonfiction writer and teacher, thus I relish insignificant truths, and 2. It’s not insignificant. That capital “The” is not only an official word in the school name, it also signifies an essential Ohioan-ness, a common, endearing exceptionalism. This is a state full of corn-fed, routine-Americans turned Astronauts; Buckeye Beloveds become National Leaders; everyday voters predicting the future of a nation.
We’ve been discussing essays vs. events in the Intermediate Nonfiction class I teach, though I failed my students as I was mistaken: the phrase is actually essays vs. experiences. I learned this from Stephanie G’Schwind, a dear mentor and friend of mine, the commander-in-chief of Colorado Review. In an article with Essay Daily, Stephanie wrote, “I see this frequently in submissions to Colorado Review: truly interesting things—sometimes amazing things—happening to people, that don’t translate into very interesting essays. As many of us nonfiction editors have said, writers sometimes confuse experience with essay, rather than finding the essay in the experience.” But I’m even farther away, confusing event with experience, and so how far am I from the point of essay? It is not enough to capture, vividly, the moments essential to our lives. We must push farther—how do these moments resonate? In time, place, history? How do experiences add up to self? To community? And can you convince your reader your version must be recorded? I watch the first debate in an indie Columbus theatre with too many people who agree with me. We boo and hiss at the big screen. We cover our eyes with our hands, our shirts, our foaming glasses of beer. It may be difficult to know which one you’re writing, experience or essay, without a certain amount of distance, I tell my students. I call my parents after the debate, and my stepdad is weary, my mother resigned, exhausted. She has been since 30APRIL2008. What denotes an experience? I ask my students. I walk home after the debates, sob in the dark, clutching my phone like a buoy. How do we move from event to experience to essay?
If I gave into lack of nuance and time and distance, I’d stop every passerby and whisper: My brother was killed in Iraq in 2008. His name is Ronnie. I’d put my arm around their shoulder and treat them like an old friend. This experience is not precisely related to your right to vote, I’d tell them, though my mother may promise it is. Don’t you feel sorry for us now? Aren’t you interested in how I’m voting? Shouldn’t my opinion hold more sway than your blowhard uncle using memes incorrectly? Shouldn’t my rage push you farther than your Socialist undergrad roomie from Northwestern, shouting “LIVE BERN OR DIE”? I’d grip them tighter, or pull them face to face, beg their attention rather than their retreating back. Do you know someone looking to publish my tangential Op-Ed? It’s about a series of personal experiences loosely if undeniably linked to current experiences. My brother is dead, I’d remind them. Someone hear my voice.
My students are brilliant. They are intuitive, absurdly-gifted. They speak of the “I” and the “Eye” in essay, they beg for scene when it’s needed, and seek narrative interiority, the writer at the desk, when the detailed showing is weak or inadequate. They dutifully read Tell it Slant and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Eula Biss and Rachel Toliver. They are generous with each other in workshop, in peer feedback, in class discussion. This, above all else: they are generous. I am grateful for these inspiring Ohioans. Generosity is relative to hope. Hope is just the promise of more time.
In June, I went to Kansas City. I scored hundreds of AP exams with several thousand other composition instructors for eight hours a day in a concrete-floored event center. A man sat by me at breakfast. He wore a ball cap and snapped the New York Times. He was a retired prof from a small, private university in California. “You say you’re an essayist?” He seemed astonished. “Well, can you tell me what essay means?” I set down my banana and said, “Yes, I can. Because, as I said, I’m an essayist. It means to try.” This retired prof from a small, private university in California was truly delighted. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, or that’s what I want, right now, to say he did—exclaimed, oh my’d. “No one’s ever known that before! Wonderful! Enjoy your test scoring!” As he sauntered away, all pep in his step, I muse at how many people have experienced his low-key interrogations.
A student of mine keeps deleting her work. She feels embarrassed, like she overshared in one instance, or as if she has nothing important to say. Our nonfiction class is voice-focused, both in considering word choice and cadence and craft-related causalities, but also in “What does one have to offer? How does your perspective inform the world?” I tell my students the personal is political. I tell them the personal, at its best rendered, is universal. They take this to heart; they are desperately generous. I ask my student to stop deleting her work. I ask her to set, what she is unsure of, aside. I ask her to wait. Wait it out, I say. Distance is trying.
Samantha Tucker is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for Guernica, The Toast, Bust Magazine, and has work forthcoming with Ecotone. Tucker’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher.
October 14, 2016 § 21 Comments
By Rebecca Gummere
To clarify, I am not making an existential argument here. I am talking about the very survival of your darlings – those stories you pour yourself out for, at the keyboard or the typewriter. The ones you spill onto blue-lined notebook paper. You know, your heart on the page.
If your writing goes anything like mine, sometimes you create something that, no matter what you do, insists on lying there pale and wan, devoid of life. You dash water on its face, exhale powerfully into what you hope is its mouth, apply pressure to its heart, and still the danged thing refuses to thrive.
Case in point: I worked and worked for several months on an essay that read as sooooo boringggggg and flat, and it absolutely shouldn’t have, because it was about the amazing pilgrimage I made to Geneva to tour CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where the God Particle (or Higgs boson) was discovered; where one hundred meters below ground particles hurtle toward each other at 99.999% of the speed of light, colliding and disintegrating into “generations” of other particles that thousands of scientists around the world track and study and then spin into ever more exotic theories about the universe and everything in it.
Really big stuff was happening! Why, then, was my writing so tepid?
I looked at the essay every way I knew, but I could not figure out what I was missing. I cut the pages into sections and taped the whole thing back together in several different forms. I wrote key sections on index cards, then shuffled and dealt them out onto the floor like a round of poker, trying to see if re-visioning the structure could give me a winning hand. I taped the entire essay up on my wall and used highlighters to color code scenes, characters, themes, taking careful notes as if I were a detective at the scene of a crime.
In desperation, I even broke up with it – “That’s it, you ass, we’re done” – only to come crawling back, lovesick and penitent.
But still the essay remained dull and lifeless and did not want to go anywhere. Apparently it just wanted to sit at home in its ratty underwear and never make anything of itself at all.
I finally had to admit, the essay was a bust. All writers know, hard as it is, sometimes you just have to let a thing go.
Then one day, after a long spell of “It’s not me, it’s you” distance, I picked up the piece again, began reading, and noticed something new, namely the embarrassing glut of “to be” verb forms on just the first page. The following pages revealed more of the same. How had I missed that?
Red-faced, I decided to sit down and make a list of every verb in the essay.
A total of 558, to be exact, out of ten pages of nearly 4,300 words. And of those 558 verbs, 112 were some form of “to be.” That means that for around 20% of the action I opted for a static verb that doesn’t really say anything more than something “is.”
I also noticed a number of verbs in the passive voice, a sure action killer, as well as several distancing phrases like “seem to” and “try to” and “began to,” words that elongate the action and invite one’s attention to wander elsewhere (like maybe I should make tacos for dinner, and also I can’t wait to get back to watching the last few episodes of Stranger Things).
Curious to see if the verbs would show the bare bones of the narrative, I read the list of them straight through, out loud, as if I were reading a completed story. I hoped to get a feel for the action, its rise and fall, the intensity and the ebb, where energy surged and where it pulled back. The pulse, if you will.
And guess what? To my surprise, in this big story I was trying to tell, of a trip I had wanted to make for years, that I had felt profound butterflies-in-the-stomach anticipation about, nothing actually happened. Instead I had indulged in a lot of interior pondering, which is really not much help to a reader hungering to be told about the next interesting thing and the important thing after that and the really earthshaking thing that follows, and how the story ends, and how the way it ends makes the reader’s life just a tad more bearable or puts the reader back in touch with necessary feelings long buried, or causes the reader’s heart to leap with a thing very much like delight.
That is when I had to acknowledge the story I had been holding at arm’s length that is about so much more than a trip to a world-class particle physics laboratory where world-changing experiments take place. The story about the big questions I had brought with me, the ones I take everywhere – about meaning and despair, about loss and deep grief, about the pain that lives in my marrow. I had to confess my overuse of the “to be” verb forms as my way of freezing the action, of not going deeper, of avoiding my own struggles with Death – that of my sister, my son, my father, my mother – and Life – my profound loneliness as a sixty-something single woman and my complex emotions with regard to my aging body – and Spirit – the hard, embarrassing truth that I’m a formerly ordained pastor who’s utterly lost her faith but still hungers for evidence of Something or Someone.
I took the easy way, the path of least resistance, and sidestepped the real story that took place so many layers down, where the wounds of loss are still raw and seeping, and where too many doubts rattle their chains in the dark.
I’ve since gone back – not to CERN but to the memory of my journey there – and am now letting the full saga unfold, telling the truth about what collided and what collapsed, and about what hope looks like now. In revision I’ve taken those verbs and pushed the throttle to maximum power. Moving from static to fully accelerated, a brand new thing now churns, boils, sparks, and leaps off the page.
Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Gettysburg Review, Alimentum, Crack the Spine, The Rumpus, and the New South Journal. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently at work on a book-length essay collection.