June 27, 2017 § 9 Comments
Beginning in mid-2015, I broke a nearly-three-year run of rejections with a steady sequence of acceptances. When a writer friend helped me create a web page, I joked that I’d never again get an essay published. That was eight months ago, not that I’m counting. I have one “active” essay on Submittable, but at least six more in my files that are almost finished. Allison K. Williams’ “The Value of Getting Sh*t Done”–and common sense– tell me that one essay in my queue is not the way to change the situation. So, why can’t I finish?
I’m retired from a job in academic support at Oberlin College, where I worked with many students who had writer’s block. What advice would I have given them?
Step away from your draft
Do some free writing
Make a list or a word cloud or a sketch
Just do something, and see where it leads.
So I cleared my desk. I wrote the title of each essay on its own 3×5 card, and made notes about why I hadn’t finished it. Turns out I had perfectly valid reasons, even if only I could understand them. An essay about my dad’s last job, the one that may have caused his death (and my complicity therein) isn’t done because I’m waiting for an “e-mail with tech info about job from A.M.” Trust me, it’s essential. I’ve tabled another because I’m not sure I’ve adequately dealt with race issues. And one just sounded “trite.” Maybe the one I haven’t submitted because I’m waiting for a “sign from the universe” is harder to defend, but the essay in question is much more about someone else’s story than it is mine, so I need to get it right.
At any rate, as soon as I’d finished filling out those 3×5 cards, I began working on one of the essays. The next day I finished it, and submitted it to “Modern Love” at the New York Times. They responded within 24 hours, and my essay will run next week.
That last paragraph is fiction. What I really did was toss the cards to the side, check Facebook, make some tea, and read a couple of chapters in a novel.
I haven’t yet finished any of those essays.
This is the way it goes. I am reminded, again and again, that nothing about writing (at least for me) is straightforward. It never turns out the way I expect it to, but I keep returning to my desk, telling myself that something will eventually happen. Sometimes I manage to believe it.
Instead of finishing one of my essays, I wrote this post. OK, I drafted it and it sat on my desktop for a couple of weeks. Two days ago, I worked on it during a timed writing session with the friend who helped me with my website. She said, as she sometimes does when I read a draft to her, “I love it. I can’t think of a thing you should change. Submit it now.” But I didn’t. I’ve been tinkering with it, trying to find a snappy ending.
“Three writers go into a bar” seems too obvious.
I can’t even type, “The secret of writing is…” without laughing.
But there’s another possibility: If you’re reading this now, it means I finally finished a piece. Maybe that’s my snappy ending.
Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before deciding higher education might be a good idea. Her essays appear in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel and other publications. She just got the email about her dad’s job…ass in chair time.
March 16, 2017 § 9 Comments
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Today, March 16, Amazon will donate 5% (10 times the usual donation rate) of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to Brevity Magazine.
Buy something massive: a car, a boat, a computer? Or really, anything at all.
Here is the link: at smile.amazon.com/ch/45-2439814
Dinty W. Moore
For the Editors
January 2, 2017 § 27 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
“Write from your guts,” I told my creative nonfiction students on the last day of class. “Don’t ignore the pain. Don’t act like it isn’t there and try tiptoeing around it. You have to write your way through your own dark woods.”
I recalled the excruciating experience of back labor when giving birth to my son. His head was positioned against my lower spine as opposed to the normal, on-top-of-the-cervix way, so whenever a contraction came, instead of him pounding down to open said cervix, his head struck my spinal cord, igniting the nerve center in a ripple of unmitigated agony. After twelve hours of useless back labor, I accepted a drug. “Yes-fucking-please.”
My cervix went into overdrive and, in one hellish, body-wracking hour, blew open to the requisite ten centimeters, which meant it was time to push the baby out.
But instead of pushing, I stopped. I resisted. I clenched at every contraction, stealing myself against the pain that felt like a reckless trucker was driving his semi through my uterus.
“Push into the pain,” the British midwife urged in a high, clipped I know best voice that left no room for compromise. “When it feels the worst, Sandra, that’s when you must push the hardest.” She had Birkenstocks and long gray hair that would have loved a little Miss Clairol. She was kind, smart, and sensible; I wanted to kick her in the face.
“I don’t know what that even means,” I cried between gasps. “How do I push into the pain?” I actually thought that if I argued enough, I could altogether avoid having the baby.
“It means,” she explained, “that when the contraction is at its worst then you must push the hardest. Don’t shirk from the pain.”
I’ll shirk you! I thought as I felt the onset of a killer contraction and longed to rail against it. How to do this? How do you leave your fingers on the burning stove, or step more deeply onto the tack? How does a person embrace her worst fears and invite more? How does she choose a life of writing pain?
“Now!” the midwife, urged. “Push now!”
I shut my eyes and swallowed back my resistance. With my jaw locked, I pushed my hardest—or so I thought—screaming until tears streaked my face. I did that five more times through five more contractions, the pain so unrelenting that I feared I might die. I pushed as if my life depended on it.
When the baby still didn’t come, the midwife, her face betraying alarm as she watched the monitor, reached for a pair of surgical scissors. “We have to get the baby out now!” she announced. No time to numb me, just the sharp snip of raw flesh like an electric shock on my perineum. My child was in danger. His heart rate had plummeted, and, at that point, only I could save him.
And then, my boy.
Write into the pain, I tell my students. Just when you want to write around the Catholic pretense that hides the abuse, or the sight of your mother in a pink bathrobe dead on her bedroom floor, and how that day, for the first time ever, you touched her cheek and forgave everything; just when you want to ignore the acrid taste of blood, the colorless gray of loss, or the married lover whose forbidden lips, if for only a few minutes in the back of his beat-up Honda Civic, answered every prayer you ever whispered from your lonely bed; just when you want to skip a part because it’s too shameful to remember, then you absolutely have to remember it. You have to feel it wracking your body like a baby that will die if you don’t push now. Sit with each scene until it spins through every pain receptor and is ready to pull you down and drag you back and forth through your longest night, again and again and again.
Because I promise you this: if it doesn’t hurt at least a little, you will never birth your best writing.
Sandra Miller‘s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film called “Wait” based on one of her personal essays. Kerry Washington starred.
November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
From our Friends at Slag Glass City:
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 24, 2016 § 4 Comments
Dear Brevity Readers:
In many ways, memoir is like a turkey. The plumage more beautiful than we thought, the majestic strut that says I am here, the delicious meat beneath the feathers, the usefulness and goodness down to the very bones.
And that, to get to that goodness, there has to be an axe. Or a cleaver. That there is a brutal execution, a dismemberment, and a great deal of dressing involved in presenting the important parts for consumption. The right garnishes. Attractive china. All so your friends can gasp with admiration and admire your ambition, and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Uncle Harry.
Writing is so often seen as solitary, and yet one must, even tangentially, become part of and benefit from a community. Emerge from the word-kitchen and present the fruits of our labors, or invite a select few in to taste and make suggestions in the process.
We’re glad you’re our community.
Thank you for sticking with us, for passing links to your favorite posts to your friends, for re-blogging, for putting your thoughts in our comments and on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on writing, and agreeing with (and contradicting!) ours.
Thank you for submitting your work to our magazine, and sending in guest posts for this blog.
Thank you for publishing essays we can link to.
Thank you for contributing to our funds and our mission with your money, your talent and your time.
And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. You are our dearest literary citizens, and the authors of our fondest memories.
November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
As we move toward the reality of Donald Trump’s pending presidency, many artists are responding, and Rock & Sling wants to produce a cross-section of that work, to be released at AWP in D.C., two weeks after the Inauguration.
We are looking for any kind of artistic reaction to the election and the weeks that have followed. Photo-documentary, essay, allegory, graphic shorts, fiction, satire, poems, visual art: we want it. What are your fears or frustrations? Your hopes or hesitations? We want to hear from the whole spectrum, all of the kinds of reactions we see. We want to hear from undocumented artists and from Christians, from Muslims and artists of color, and from conscientious conservatives.
Rock & Sling is a journal of witness. We believe that the power of witness, of truth-telling, is a good human act and a good human outcome, enabling the reader to enter the life of another self and thus to grow in empathy, compassion, and understanding.
Submissions information can be found here: