Attaining Brevity

October 10, 2017 § 30 Comments

I’m all about brevity, and not just for Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. Line by line, chopping words and phrases:

Driving in a car

That night I fell asleep in my bed and dreamed

He got out of his car, walked across the lot, and through the front door of the apartment building, where he pressed the elevator button for the tenth floor.

Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition. But usually, cutting every possible extraneous word benefits an essay or a book. Sharpens the focus. Keeps the reader on what matters instead of losing them in a thicket of less-important language.

The subject of vigorous trimming came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching. I advised a group of memoirists to print their current draft, edit it on paper as much as possible, including scissoring pages apart and moving scenes or paragraphs if needed. Then retype the entire draft into a new document, “Not cutting and pasting, and not adding the edits into the previous document. Retyping.”

I hadn’t realized this was, shall we say, unusual until I caught the looks of horror. Retype an entire manuscript? Every word? When there’s a perfectly good Save As New File option?

But retyping lights up a new part of the brain. Reading words on a paper page and copying them is different than agonizing in one’s head and putting the results on screen. Physically snipping a manuscript into scenes points out repetition in a way that encountering the same scenes while scrolling doesn’t. Retype the entire thing and you’ll know what words to leave out because you won’t want to type them. If you feel resistance at the keyboard to a paragraph or a moment, ask if the book really needs it. Retyping instead of copy-pasting also re-immerses the writer in the flow of the story–sometimes new memories or scenes show up as you go. And it doesn’t take nearly as long as writing the story the first time. For me, the wordcount-per-hour is about four times faster, and a solid two hours of retyping feels like an honest day’s work.

A student asked, “When did you start doing that?”

At first, I didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t vicious trimming part of everyone’s process? (Nope.) I thought back to seventh grade. When I first started exploring the themes of being misunderstood by parents and peers and the loneliness of the true artist writing terrible middle-school poetry. My grandmother gave me a pretty hardback journal, dark blue with a unicorn–of course it was a unicorn!–stamped in silver. I didn’t want to waste a page. Only final drafts belonged in this book, because only finished pieces deserved a hard cover, thought tween-me. Every poem was first written on looseleaf paper, kept in a manila folder in my Trapper Keeper, because manila felt more grown-up than snapping them into the three-ring section. Every poem was rewritten five, six, ten times, each time removing any word that could be left out. I don’t know why I thought stripping away the excess made better poems, but I was sure it did.

Seventh-grade me was right. Strip away the excess to reveal the heart of the work. Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice, and even then ask of every word, do you belong here? Are you doing a job no other word can do? Are you earning your place in this line?

Physically rewriting is just enough effort to truly question every line. To find the brevity in your natural voice. When you’re ready, print your draft. Mark it up. Cut it apart. And then retype–your fingers will tell you what belongs.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her latest webinar, Write Better With Social Media, is available through her website.

Writing as Laborious Play

October 6, 2017 § 7 Comments

zz3 copy(2)By Mary Volmer

The obsessions of writers and athletes begin the same way, as play.  In his memoir, Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman explains that his basketball obsession began, “as messing around…throw a ball through a hoop, a fun silly kind of trick at first, until you decide you want to do it better.” He might as well have been speaking about storytelling and writing.

Writing starts as novelty, as messing around, until you decide you want to do it better, and become willing, as Wideman says, to “learn the game’s ABC’s.  Learn what it costs to play.” What follows is a period of joyful mimicry. Not yet aware of the limits of your ability, you are burdened only by your own evolving expectations.  Try and fail and try again, until the ball begins to fall through the hoop with regularity–until the writing, once derivative, takes on its own life, and you become capable of original expression.

Because ultimately, expression is what athletes and authors crave. They live for those moments when body, soul, and mind operate in perfect unity, a kind of spiritual transcendence. Sports psychologists have named this transcendent experience “the Zone,” or, “The Zone of Optimal Performance.” Their perspective alters, so that nothing of consequence exists outside of the immediate action. Awareness expands to fill the moment. The game seems to slow, the goal grows wider and the body responds with uncalculated inventiveness to each unpredictable event.

Writers share similar experiences of altered time and heightened awareness. They, too, understand that discipline precedes transcendence. They, too, must be willing to show up and endure discomfort and labor every day, even on bad days. They, too, must find satisfaction in small daily victories, adapt to setbacks as the season or story progresses, and maintain faith in their purpose even when they have cause to doubt their abilities.

Writers and athletes recognize their pursuits to be, as Chad Hubbach writes so elegantly, an “apparently pointless affair…which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

Although at times marred by ego and that false god, glory, the desire to observe beauty and to have a hand in its creation, remains the noble center of both pursuits.

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Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Mutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.

Teaching Brevity: Nicole Walker’s “Fish”

October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

hcBy Heidi Czerwiec

Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop.  In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.

“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave.  A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long.  The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete.  Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast.  I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated….  It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”

“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar.  But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic?  Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for.  Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain.  While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois.  Strain through cheese cloth.  Strain one more time for good measure.”  Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning.  And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay.  How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?

As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt.  Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics.  What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images.  As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.

After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc.  Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item.  Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item.  For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay.  As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements.  This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.

reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

Season of Forgiveness

September 30, 2017 § 24 Comments

Irene Hoge Smith for AWP copyBy Irene Hoge Smith

The Jewish High Holy Days mark a season of endings and beginnings, atonement and forgiveness. Alongside my Jewish husband and with our interfaith community, I am able to partake in this precious opportunity for contemplation. One of my endings (and perhaps a new beginning) is that, after more than five years, I seem finally to have finished writing about my mother. This month I sent Snaggletooth’s Daughter: A Memoir out to find its way in the world.  (I’d thought it finished this time last year, but in the way of these things it needed one more rewrite to be the best I could make it.)

The book is about my lost-and-found mother. She was a poet, my father an engineer, and their marriage was chaotic and destructive. When they finally split up, my father got custody of me and my three sisters (aged six to sixteen) and my mother moved to California, where she picked up the life of poetry she’d set aside for the decade and a half she was with us. She became Charles Bukowski’s Snaggletooth, mother of his only child, and francEyE, a respected poet in her own right.

From fourteen to thirty, I did my best to pretend I’d never had a mother. When that coping strategy inevitably outlived its usefulness, I took up the task of trying to form some kind of relationship with the woman who had been, but no longer was, my mother. She was a writer, and I respected that, but was still shocked when I discovered she’d left out of her own memoir anything about me and my sisters or her marriage to our father. When I received an invitation to her book launch party, I wrote what became my first published essay, instead of an RSVP. Then I decided to make another visit, to ask her directly to talk about the years she’d been our mother, and begin to understand more completely what her life had been. By the time she died, I was able to speak at her funeral, filling in the missing parts of her life story in words that were, I hoped, not untrue and not unkind.

Yet when a fellow writer asks me after a group reading—well-meaning, insistent, and in obvious distress—if I have forgiven my mother, I feel put on the spot. I want to say, “Forgive her? Interesting question. You know, she never asked!”  Or, since tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner, I might point out that I’ve spent most of a decade (or my whole life) on the work of understanding my mother. My defensiveness makes me wonder if there’s something I’ve neglected. Have I not forgiven her?

I think my friend, pained by the sad litany of loss, hoped that “forgiveness” would be the thing that could wrap the story up with a happy bow, so that I could stop writing about the things that happened and their long-lasting effects. Maybe the problem is that I’d so much love to be able to do something like that—to say the magic word “forgive,” and thus bring into being a sweet, uncomplicated, mother-daughter love, and make everything all okay. I wish I could do that, but that’s not what forgiveness is.

In order to forgive, we must give up the desire for revenge, any claim to get something back in compensation for having been hurt, and in that regard I feel on solid ground. I don’t recall ever trying to make my mother suffer, or even wishing that she would. I wanted to tell my own story, but I didn’t do it to hurt her or anyone else.

Forgiveness also requires that we acknowledge the humanity of the person who has caused hurt. I might easily have written my mother as a caricature—a foolish, self-involved woman, more attached to her writing and political beliefs than to her children, whose abandonment of those children defined her. I knew from the perspective of writing, emotional health, and maybe even the good of my soul, whatever that might be, how important it was not to fall into that trap.

Finally, to forgive someone we have to be able to wish them well despite our own pain.   My mother’s gone now, but I’m glad she got to publish her poems, (even if there are still a few I don’t get) and that she felt loved by the one daughter she was able to mother. I’m sad that I was not a beneficiary of that late-developed capacity, but if it were up to me I’d want that relationship to have existed rather than not. I’m glad she died free of pain and fear, and that she was not wracked by guilt. I hope that, if she is somewhere now, she is at peace.

For our own sake, and perhaps for the sake of the world, we are enjoined to give up thoughts of revenge, relinquish enduring resentment, grant to the person who has hurt us their own essential humanity, and practice compassion to them and to ourselves.

We are not required to write a book about them. I did that for myself.

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Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in New Directions JournalAmsterdam Quarterly,  Prick of the Spindle, and Vine Leaves Literary Review, and she was a 2016 AWP Writer-to Writer Mentee. (One of the founding mothers of IFFP, she is observing Yom Kippur today with her interfaith community.)

 

Teaching Brevity: Reading Short, Writing Short

September 29, 2017 § 12 Comments

kkf.jpgBy Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

I confess that I first turned to flash nonfiction because I needed a way to organize twenty undergraduate students, and I needed it in a week.

Based on the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction,  and supplemental readings from Brevity, I devised this repeating course schedule: 1) Mondays and Wednesdays would consist of a combination of reading discussion, prompts, and craft lecture, while 2) Fridays would be for small group workshops of four, where I rotated through the groups.

Here was my thinking:

Short reading assignments would mean students actually read. Short essays for workshop eliminated the need for distributing work ahead of time. That everyone was up for workshop every week eliminated the need for a rotating schedule. Grading would be based on participation, which took care of attendance issues. So many logistical problems, solved!

This course structure helped me successfully navigate the usual undergraduate workshop obstacles, such as grandmother genocide, wayward printers, dastardly roommates, and even the dreaded “Thirsty Thursday.”  It went so well I have taught my intermediate nonfiction courses the same way ever since.  And while practical considerations are not to be minimized, given time to reflect, I’ve uncovered legitimate pedagogical benefits:

  1. Students establish the habit of reader and writer.
  2. Rapid turnaround means lower stakes. Students are freer to risk, and I am freer to risk different prompts.
  3. Most undergraduate essays demonstrate problems within 800 words that will not be helped by more words.
  4. Flash forces students to eliminate throat-clearing passages, pushes them to reach the point. (I generally notice a turn about the third or fourth essay in.)
  5. Over the semester, students get to experience a depth and breadth of creative nonfiction.
  6. By the end students have a stack of essays, which feels good.

Because I’m a Libra, I have also considered the negatives of this class structure:

  1. Lack of opportunity to write longer essays that include more preparation and/or in-depth reporting.
  2. A bias towards lyric writing over narrative (maybe).
  3. Inability to formulate workshop comments ahead of time.

To balance these negatives, I use the last two weeks of class for conferencing, geared towards revision strategies for the final portfolio. Students might realize that their flash essay is really a longer essay, or maybe they find a theme—pieces they could string together to create a narrative sequence. Maybe their flash piece needs to be cut even further. Maybe they’ve really written a poem or a short story. This is their chance to look back, reflect, to consider what they’ve created and where they would like to go from here.

A few publishable gems are a great find. A ream of hot mess—also fine. Either way, what I’m really hoping, is that after the course is completed, students have made a regular writing practice part of who they are, and if they are not writing, they have this weird feeling that something is wrong.
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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 46.
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Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself (Press 53). Her other work has previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, mental_floss magazine, and other publications. After moving from Southern Louisiana to Southern Ohio back to Southern Louisiana on to Southern Utah, she has settled into red rock country, where she teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.

 

 

The 750 Project: WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide (Revisited)

September 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

750(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Ann Claycomb cut about 250 words from 2009 essay, “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by Ann’s reflections on the process.)

By Ann Claycomb

6:40 a.m. Sesame Street

Your son pads in, pats you on the head.  His hand is sticky, his patting gentle and inexorable.

You finally fell deeply asleep only after your third trip to the bathroom, at 5:00 a.m.  When you do not immediately get up, your son crawls into bed.  He smells like pee, enough to make your eyes water.

Sesame Street has been brought to today you by the number 8 and the letter P.  Your son turns over, managing to kick you and elbow you in one movement.

“Mommy,” he whispers, “pee starts with P.”

11:30 a.m. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

You watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you were little.  When he said you should “just be you,” you would guiltily slip off your Snow White costume.

This morning you have been The Joker, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, and a lost kitty’s mommy.  You have been mean and turned nice, been nice and turned mean, died and come back to life.  You eat cereal while you make your children’s lunch, scooping up spoonfuls between slicing cucumbers and pouring juice.  Your daughter wants to eat her cucumbers on the sofa. She rearranges the skirts of her best church dress, pushes her tiara higher on her head.

Mr. Rogers is visiting a cereal plant.  He dons a hard-hat, looks with amazement into a huge whirling vat of corn flakes.

Your son asks for cereal.  You tell him you don’t have the kind that Mr. Rogers has.  He suggests you go to the store and buy some.  You wonder if the trolley on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood still goes to the Land of Make-Believe.  That was always your favorite part.

5:00 p.m. The Joy of Painting

Your son wants you to sit with him on the floor to watch a man paint a picture of pine trees around a lake at sunset.  From your daughter’s room come the sounds of despair as she throws herself at the door.

“You’re bad!” she shrieked as you hauled her back there.

Your son took your hand, pulled you down the hall.  “I don’t think you’re bad, Mommy.”

You can achieve a gorgeous wash of pink across the canvas by applying the paint in a thin layer then sweeping a wet brush over it.  Your son wants to know if that man is a real painter.  You tell him yes, but not a good one.  The spaghetti water boils over, hissing, on the stove.

You go to your daughter’s room, push open the door she has wedged shut with stuffed animals.  She holds out her arms to be picked up.  You carry her to the sofa and adjust her on your lap so she is not pressing against your belly.  You rest your hand there instead.

“I want the baby to come soon,” your daughter says.

You kiss her head, careful of the tiara. On the t.v., the camera zooms in on a brush conjuring a dark green tree out of white space.  Your daughter thinks the man must be a very good painter, but your son turns around to assure her that he is not.

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CLAYCOMB0127 XXAnn Claycomb’s Thoughts:

The first hundred words went easily.  The baby who is pressing on the narrator’s bladder in the opening of “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” is now nearly eight years old.  Making that first pass over the essay felt like putting a hand in my son’s drawer and unearthing a tangle of mismatched toddler socks, the kind with the raised letters on the bottoms that act as scuffs under little feet.  There is nothing sentimental about that discovery, just exasperation—“what are these still doing in here?”—before they go into the trash.  So out went the explicit expressions of how the narrator felt at moments throughout the essay (“You are so tired.”  “You are exhausted.”)  Of course she is tired.  The readers don’t need her to tell them that.  And out went words big and small that had felt important eight years ago but now just—aren’t.  Singleton socks, every one of them, and too small to fit any feet in this house.

Then it got harder.  The initial version of the essay was clearly invested in repetition—men with scraggily beards, one in the morning, one at night—and in near-repetition.  But did we need both Wonder Woman and Supergirl?  And those bearded men didn’t matter so much as I’d thought they did.  Certainly their beards didn’t, not anymore.  In fact, the longer I looked at the word scraggily the more I hated it.  Yet still my finger hesitated over the “delete” key.  The repetition had felt clever.  Now it felt like a bad habit I had to quit.  It wasn’t until the man and his music and the dream of him were all gone from the opening section that the spell was broken.  (And isn’t that the way it is with all of the New Yorker articles taking up space in my head?)

But once the early morning was stripped of the narrator’s regrets about the night before, it felt too thin.  Rearranging and rewriting accomplished what more cutting wouldn’t have done.  Now, as in the original version, in each present-tense section the immediate past peers through (“You finally fell asleep,” “You have been the Joker,” “you hauled her back there.”)  The intrusions keep immediacy from winning out.  This day isn’t just these three moments, after all, any more than any day can be distilled into an hour-long t.v. show or a year into a day.  The past tells us how we got to where we are, here and now.

Neither the past nor the present, of course, tells us where we are headed, any more than this piece could have predicted what life would be like with three children in the house, how my daughter would fall madly in love with the baby, how her twin would grow sinewy and fierce inside his new roles: big brother, older son.  But then, programming guides only work when you consult them, which these days in our house, we rarely do.

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Ann Claycomb believes in the power of fairy tales, chocolate, and a good workout, in no particular order.  Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is the author of numerous pieces of published short fiction and creative nonfiction.  Her first novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, came out this year.  She lives with her husband, three children, and two cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.

The 750 Project: Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland

September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

750(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )

By Emily Franklin

1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).

2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.

8329-for web and email

I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.

Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.

3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.

Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.

4) What am I searching for  – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?

And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?

5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.

And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.

When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?

The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.

6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.

Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
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Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.  She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.

 

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