August 7, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Jennifer Ochstein
At a writing conference I recently attended, a panelist fielded a question from an attendee about what makes a good memoir. I’m intimately fascinated by this question since I devour memoirs and am writing my own. The panelist told this story: a creative writing professor he knows was asked by a student why she received a B rather than an A on the piece she submitted. The professor told the girl that her experiences just weren’t that interesting. While the panelist said he’d never tell a student such a thing, he believed that was the crux of it: some people just have more interesting experiences than others.
While I understand the impulse to say such a thing, I bristled, particularly since I’d just finished reading Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor for the second time. In my mind, the oxymoronic nature of Sinor’s title alone demolishes that misconception.
On a deeper level, juxtapositions and structure, metaphors and language prime readers. What the writer does with the experiences, how she crafts and renders them, causes the particularity of a lived life to universally reverberate with readers, making them feel as if the memoir helps them make sense of their own experiences. At least, that’s how Sinor’s memoir resonates with me. For Sinor, trauma becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it defines the life of her family, but how she renders those traumas makes her memoir. Sometimes the ordinary is the most heart-rending.
Sinor’s father seems to know and accept this so he trains his daughter, Jennifer, to act accordingly. He instructs Jennifer to never let her emotions get in the way of acting rational. Beneath the surface of his lesson is a personal edict he seems to live by: bury trauma. Her father, a career Navy man and maritime law expert, gives her practical advice on how to do this:
When something bad happens to you, Jennifer … you simply think of your mind like a dresser … A dresser full of drawers. And you take the bad thing, the memory, the loss, whatever it is, and you put it in the drawer of the dresser. Envision yourself doing this, like you were packing clothes in there. Then you shut the drawer and lock it. You lock it. Do you hear me?
Jennifer falls in line, lockstep.
Sinor sets Ordinary Trauma against the backdrop of the early 1970s and 1980s Cold War to illustrate the unacknowledged tensions and traumas that submerge families in their own cold wars, taking them to the brink of destruction. On top of that, she juxtaposes incidents that reveal how her family’s cold war escalates and how she consistently must lock away her feelings in order to keep those escalations from erupting and blowing her to smithereens. She does this by creating an internal order, fixating on counting pennies, for example, or listening to a Christmas song over and over. Later she develops anorexia. Fixating keeps her from emotionally marking the traumatic experiences, including her own near-death as an infant, sexual abuse, the scalding of her newborn younger brother, and later accidents that nearly caused his death. All of it is neatly tucked away so that she can hardly figure a way to deal with her own emotive reactions when they arise unexpectedly. She writes, “I cannot sort them, cannot label them, cannot explain my actions.”
Survival over pain and loss becomes a kind of liturgy that her father also teaches her. Just as she fixates on counting pennies, he teaches her how to count ocean waves during one of the family’s stints living in Hawaii. He wants her to master them rather than fear them, to dive beneath them rather than be drowned:
Waves arrive in sets of seven, he explains, and within each set of seven the waves increase in size, the next always bigger than the last. In addition, each set of waves also increases through seven sets of seven, the forty-ninth wave, then, being the largest of the series … The rules of the sea. At the seventh wave, like magic, the waves subside, a tiny ripple wandering up the sand.
It’s as if by mastering the rules, she’ll somehow never be pummeled and dragged out to sea. What she needs to watch out for is the rogue wave, the kahuna, “the one that will take you down,” her father tells her.
It’s the juxtaposition of her father’s advice to lock away her hurts and his lessons in diving deeply beneath the ocean’s waves that reveals the real oxymoron and packs the most powerful punch. She learns well from his lessons. On the one hand, because she locks away that which hurts her the most, she can hardly understand her own actions and emotions, but when she’s confronted with a kahuna, a life circumstance she suspects will surely drown her, she realizes the gift her father gave her: “the strength to do the hard thing” and the ability to “save herself.”
Sinor not only schools us in the art of the memoir, but also in the art of survival.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.
August 3, 2017 § 2 Comments
From our friends at Rose Metal Press:
AUGUST OPEN READING PERIOD
From August 1 through August 31, we will be having an open reading period for full-length hybrid and cross-genre manuscripts. We are interested in short short, flash, and micro-fiction; prose poetry; novels-in-verse or book-length linked narrative poems; flash nonfiction or book-length memoirs-in-shorts; fragmentary works and book-length lyric essays; image and text collaborations and other collaborative work; and other literary works that move beyond traditional genres to find new forms of expression. The best way to see what we mean by hybrid is to take a look at our catalog. We welcome submissions in all styles and on all subjects, and encourage a broad and expansive interpretation of hybridity. Surprise us with your innovation! Manuscripts selected from this reading period will be published by Rose Metal Press in 2019 and beyond.
Manuscripts should be 48 pages or longer. Submissions will be accepted through our Submittable site only. There is a $15 reading fee.
Check out all the reading period details and guidelines here.
Please spread the word to other hybrid genre writers you know!
Submit now through Submittable.
July 5, 2017 § 9 Comments
By Mary Laura Philpott
You will poach this egg.
OK, yes — you’ve ruined eight eggs this morning already. But this is it. You can do it. You poached an egg last weekend. You weren’t even trying that hard — you just followed the instructions from the first Google result for “how to poach egg” and it worked. A perfectly shiny little white blob, like a newborn albino jellyfish or a still-wet cloud on a painting. It sat right on that English muffin, pretty as you please. It was so good, you ate it in three bites. You didn’t even photograph it because you figured, “Well if I did it once, I’ll do it again; I’ll take pictures next time.”
And now you’re having trouble repeating your poached glory, even though you’re swirling the water in circles. You’re adding the spoonful of vinegar. You’re keeping the water just below a boil. You’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, and there is no reason these eggs aren’t poaching. Or there is a reason, and you can’t fathom it. The secret of the egg eludes you. You’re trying to think like an egg, but you’re too self-conscious — you’re just thinking like a person who’s trying to think like an egg would think. You have to loosen up and get into the egg mindset. Get into the flow.
Don’t think about the eight eggs you slipped into the water, one after another, saying a prayer and watching as each one spun out into soggy little egg-rags, shreds of a sail washed up after a storm, no sign of the ship. Thinking about that is why you’re paralyzed — staring into the almost-boiling water, holding another egg, unable to make yourself do it. The stakes feel higher somehow, like there are only so many eggs a person can dash to watery ruination before the right to try again is revoked. That’s a valid feeling, but it’s not true. You’re no more likely to screw up this time than any time before. Don’t listen to that feeling.
This poaching process is not an extended metaphor for your life. Extended metaphors never work anyway, you know that. This egg is not your career. It’s not the article everyone’s waiting for you to write after your last article went viral. It’s not proof that you can’t make lightning strike twice. It’s only an egg. Just a goddamned egg.
You might be thinking, “Maybe I should just make some avocado toast instead. I could post a picture of my toast and pretend that’s all I was trying to do all along. And if everyone thinks toast is all I was after, it will look like I got what I wanted, and everyone will congratulate me, and I’ll feel great.”
Except you’ll know you never poached the egg.
It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just an egg.
And you will poach it. Crack the fucking egg.
June 27, 2017 § 21 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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If you value Brevity, or use it in your teaching, can you help us out a bit with an Amazon order? (Support your local bookstore, of course, but Amazon sells so many other items.)
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 § 29 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: