November 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Alison Ernst
I did not think having a child was an option for me, mainly because of fear: pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. All of it scared me. I loved children, especially the preschool ages, though the vulnerability of newborn infants terrified me. Someone I knew in college couldn’t wait to get pregnant and have a bunch of kids; eventually, she hoped to become a midwife. I couldn’t relate at all. The out-of controlness, the potential pain of the whole endeavor seemed like something I could never handle. The concept of parenthood was particular fraught. My brother and I figured out early, we were on our own; our parents’ alcoholism and whatever trauma they’d experienced in their childhoods left them unable to refrain from passing on damage. I held an honest distrust of the institutions of Family, and the Cult of Motherhood. I’d even studied developmental psychology in college hoping to learn what a healthy childhood looked like, which mine had indeed not been. Though I grasped elements of how a parent might nurture a beloved offspring, I had no confidence in my own ability.
The preface of Carla Rachel Sameth’s book, One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays, concludes with her weeping in a lifeboat bobbing on the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night, fleeing a burning ferry. She writes, “I was not ready to die without having a baby.” Her yearning for motherhood reaches clarity during the chaotic emergency evacuation, setting the stage for much of the book’s focus. Sameth documents her fierce desire to get pregnant after several well-considered abortions, miscarriages, and frustrated infertility treatments, including artificial insemination, even after a successful pregnancy and birth of a son.
Sameth writes about the challenges of being a Jewish lesbian parent of a brown son whose father is African-American. The essays explore the inner workings of abusive marriages, futile attempts to craft a happy blended family with a dysfunctional wife, and the parental nightmare of an adolescent son with substance abuse.
The memoir derives its name from an essay about a graphic incident of police brutality. Sameth was erroneously suspected of boarding a train at a Pasadena metro station without a ticket, and for this perceived violation was slammed into a subway pillar by a sheriff’s deputy who handcuffed her. Sameth crumpled on the filthy floor—nose broken, teeth chipped, and bleeding—while passersby turned their heads and uniformed perpetrators stood around appearing bored, waiting for their supervisor to document the injuries. This terrifying incident took place the same year as the events inspiring an award-winning film, Fruitvale Station, in which Oscar Grant, a young black man, was killed by a police officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform.
The eponymous episode appears about halfway through the book, following a lighthearted chapter titled, “The Year of Eating Banana Splits,” with subheadings such as “Gestational Diabetes, Beets, and Baskin Robbins” as well as “Ice Cream and Hot Tub for Mother’s Day.” Sameth swings from humorous to serious, even within an essay. Early in the book, “A House Is Not a Home,” a poignant piece about the hope and promise of a new relationship and the destructive impact of its disintegration, Sameth quips, “So I stopped shopping around for sperm and began searching dating sites for a girlfriend.”
Sameth’s voice varies throughout, at turns funny, frenetic, and despairing. Sameth appears in several developmental stages, from childhood identity as scrappy Sammy Boy, an insecure college-aged young woman working on a back-country trail crew, through shifting sexual identities, marriages, and motherhood, and losing one’s shit with an adolescent child in a treatment center for drug abuse.
The traumas I survived in childhood and adolescence led me to think I would be incapable of bearing and raising a child of my own. Despite my fears of the emotional and physical trauma, I had the good fortune to eventually go through the whole rigmarole of having and parenting a child who has survived to adulthood. Sameth was determined to have her baby by any means necessary and, as he grew, strove to create a nurturing family. The traumas inherent in her efforts, as well as her fierce maternal love, is the grist of One Day on the Gold Line.
Alison Adams Ernst is a librarian by profession and writer by compulsion. She’s a frequent participant at Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers Conference. Though her MFA is in Writing for Children from Simmons University, she’s currently working on a decidedly adult memoir.
November 5, 2019 § 16 Comments
I’m taking an Instagram course. Which is the sort of ridiculous thing that exists these days—you paid real money to learn about Instagram? From who, some kind of Instagram guru? Wait, don’t you already teach about Instagram?
I’ve argued before that writers don’t need ten thousand followers for our literary community and/or platform; we need about a thousand engaged followers. People who actually want to have a conversation with us, and for whom Instagram is a free and convenient way to do that. My captions aspire to mini-essay status, and I do, in fact, have conversations with other writers. People I admire; people who (I hope) admire me right back. I’d like to have more conversations (please join me!), and I’m missing a key ingredient: better photos.
While I love and advocate for words on Instagram, there’s no escaping that it’s still primarily a visual medium. Many of the people I interact with I’ve already met in real life, at a writing conference or an event. If I want strangers to slow their scroll and interact, I need photos that pop, that say “there’s more to find out here.”
The course teacher’s photos are amazing. The visual impact is such that scrollers become readers, pausing to look at Sara Tasker’s posts and read her words, click over to her blog, maybe buy her book. One key concept she teaches is “Moments not things.” For example, a plate of beautiful cupcakes, arranged just so, pink frosting sculpted into dainty swirls. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s just a picture. Add a child’s hand reaching into the frame, one finger sneaking some icing, and now it’s a moment, the first sentence of a story, with the rest told in the caption.
This applies to people, too. What’s more precious: The photo of a kid posed stiffly in front of a photo backdrop? Or the hurried shot of “First day of school but she’s late for the bus so I’ve got her running and waving while I thrust the 7TH GRADE sign into the frame”? One is a moment. One is a thing.
As writers, this is the difference between telling and showing:
We were so poor we qualified for public assistance and had to buy the cheapest groceries. My mom was ashamed and tried to hide our broke and hungry state.
It’s not bad, but it’s still telling. An exercise I learned from Andre Dubus III was to take a series of abstract concepts and express them through a concrete situation or action.
We made dollar-store macaroni and cheese with water instead of milk.
We went through Justice, Fatherly Love, Motherly Love, Betrayal, Jealousy, Sexual Deception, Shame, Pride, Loyalty and a few more. I took the workshop two years in a row, and both times, every writer in the room had vivid, concrete experiences that could be turned into useful elements of their memoir or novel. Sometimes, pinpointing the moment led to an even larger theme:
My mom resewed her underwear for us…but we weren’t poor, it was that dad controlled the money and wouldn’t let her have it.
As I take the lessons of the course into both my writing and my photography, I’m looking at the world differently. The huge, shiny food court I see every day? Sure it’s part of my world, very “Dubai,” and different from many people’s experience, but it’s a thing. The janitor resting, head down on his arms on the plastic table before the mall opens, because he’s dropped off by a van that gets here too early? That’s a moment. If I do the research, maybe it’s also a story.
Whether you’re writing only in words, or including photos in your work, your Instagram, or your personal album, find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story. Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.
October 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Penny Guisinger
Disorder is rarely static. The word implies a certain kind of motion: erratic, unpredictable, chaotic. This is only one of the reasons that this thing we commonly call “addiction” is, perhaps, better referred to as substance use disorder. It’s a condition that keeps the afflicted in that certain kind of erratic, unpredictable, chaotic motion.
In his debut memoir, The Distance Between, Timothy J. Hillegonds captures the terrible and terrifying motion of the life of his younger self: a self trapped in a state of ricocheting between chaos and control. The book chronicles four years of the author’s life, opening when he was only 18. Hillegonds spent these first four years of adulthood diligently trying to self-destruct using whatever tools he found: drugs, alcohol, teen fatherhood, violence, toxic masculinity, and a finely-developed skill in the art of running away from, or at least deftly steering around, the smoldering ruin of the life he was creating. In constant motion, the story starts in Chicago, then whisks us off to Colorado, then comes back. The problems that get started in Chicago multiply exponentially in Colorado, then further fail to resolve once back in the Midwest.
But before all that, Hillegonds craved a healthier flavor of motion. A teen inline skater with aspirations of turning pro, he spent his days spinning, shifting, sliding and sailing over the heads of his teammates in gravity-defying acrobatics. He explored the outer rims of self-preservation, then went farther, faster. He writes with such grace about the thrill of being airborne, just off the edge of a skate ramp: “I began to flip forward just as I cleared Dan, the last person in line, and the world disappeared, but I could still feel it, the world, could still feel where I was in relation to it, and then my eyes found the blue they’d been searching for, the horizon, and my body slowly unfolded.” Hillegonds’ writing is at its best when he releases into these long, momentum-filled passages that evoke the sense of motion present throughout the book.
His journey to Colorado was meant to start his new life as a snowboarder. Instead, he jumped into a toxic relationship with a woman with whom he drank, drugged, fought, and had a child. Then they drank, drugged, and fought some more. Enraged by the phantom pains of a father who walked out on him, Hillegonds tries to fill that empty space with stuff that could not do the job: substances, violence, arrests, jail time. He is guilty, twice, of violence toward his girlfriend. He breaks a lot of things. He enacts a lot of pain onto others and himself. Not surprisingly, nothing about this turns out well.
Except that to someone with substance use disorder, it actually can be confounding when nothing works out. The illogical, flawed thinking is one of the many things that makes it a disorder. I read this book as I achieved 2.5 years of my own sobriety, and I thought so many times about one of the first things my therapist said to me in treatment, “This disorder makes you do things that are against your own values.” It’s one of the truest things I’ve heard in recovery, and it’s writ large in Hillegonds’ memoir. He didn’t want to be an angry, violent man, just as I never wanted to be a risk-taking, irresponsible woman, but there we were anyway, in spite of our own moral codes. If addiction is a bowling ball, a good moral code is a perfectly-placed set of pins.
When Hillegonds writes about the most shocking, violent events of his past, his prose takes on the frenetic energy of those moments, as in this passage in which he’s kicking in someone’s door: “I was kicking at the door, black scuff marks that looked like exclamation points, my voice rising, getting louder, and I was screaming and pounding, and the door was groaning, the space next to the doorjamb widening each time I kicked it, and it seemed that it might break under the pressure. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and I turned, and it was Austin. He was saying something to me, his mouth opening and closing, but I couldn’t hear him, could only hear myself, my breathing fast and hard and violent.” Interestingly, the violence reads with an effusiveness that comes close to the joy expressed during the passages about stunt skating. The prose takes flight.
How easy it would have been for Hillegonds to present this as a self-congratulatory study in overcoming a glorified, misspent early adulthood, but he resists. Instead, he presents this as a study in toxic masculinity and he writes with great awareness that it was his whiteness, and possibly only his whiteness, that afforded him second and third and fourth chances that eventually got him back to Chicago and into residential treatment. It would have been similarly easy for him to blame circumstances around him – his girlfriend, his absent father, the high school that expelled him, his mother and stepfather, his dead-end job as a waiter, the dealers who sold to him, the friends who used with him even though they saw he was in trouble – but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he unflinchingly keeps us focused on the things he did and can’t undo, the pain he rained down on everyone around him. He doesn’t understand his own rage, but he doesn’t let that lack of understanding free him from responsibility.
Those of us in recovery live in a delicate balance. We have to be accountable for the doors we kicked in and the people we scarred, while also understanding that our inability to quit using, or even to moderate our behavior while we’re using, is the result of a disorder. We have to take a long, painful look at the chaos we created while simultaneously learning how to forgive ourselves. It’s not easy. I feel like the title of this book – The Distance Between – captures, not only the miles travelled and the motion created in the story it tells, but as the ending of the book asks us to look forward, the title also conveys something about that space between who we used to be and the people we can become. The afflicted, after crossing that distance, can find stillness.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the memoir Postcards from Here. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is a former Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She is blogging about sobriety at: mycrankyrecovery.com. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
October 1, 2019 § 4 Comments
Submissions are now being accepted for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. You can submit your flash essays here.
For this issue, we invite brief nonfiction submissions (750 words or fewer) that consider all aspects of illness and disability: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of disability is changing. We want essays that explore how disability is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of disability shapes the way we experience ourselves and others. We are looking for flash essays that explore the lived experience of illness and disability, as well as encounters with ableism, and that show readers a new way to understand the familiar or give voice to underrepresented experiences.
The “Experiences of Disability” issue will be guest edited by Sonya Huber, Keah Brown, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery (shown above). Huber is the author of five books, including the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Brown is a journalist and author of the essay collection The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture & Other Reasons To Fall In Love With Me. Montgomery is the author of the recent memoir Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir.
Our anchor author, Esmé Weijun Wang, is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018.
Submissions will be accepted through Brevity’s Submittable page until March 1, 2020. Those for whom Submittable is not accessible or for whom the reading fee of $3 would be prohibitive can email their submissions to email@example.com with the subject formatted as SUBMISSION: (Title) by (Name).
Editors gladly accept donations on the GoFundMe for the Experiences of Disability issue, which has a $1,800 goal for the special Brevity issue. This will pay authors and provide honoraria for anchor authors. Any additional money above this amount will be contributed to Brevity, to help with web-hosting fees and other ongoing expenses.
September 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
Have you had a chance to visit Brevity’s September 2019 issue, posted yesterday morning?
Among the brilliant essays featured in our newest issue is Jill Talbot’s poignant rumination on how her history of going away and coming back tangles up her past and present. Here is an excerpt from Talbot’s essay:
Night after night, I sit on the end of a faded futon while he sleeps in the next room. I drink until the wine takes me down the back roads of bad choices, where I retrace missed exits, check my rearview for deleted messages and unanswered knocks on the door of my last apartment in Lubbock. In the dark, I stare at the snow-burdened trees outside our windows. Glass after glass after glass.
You can, of course, read the entire essay in our new issue.
August 30, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
As I read JoeAnn Hart’s page-turning memoir/crime story, Stamford ’76: A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s, I traveled back some forty years to a more hopeful, idealistic time—the late sixties/early seventies. As Hart writes, “we closed our eyes and divined a future, a utopian world with pleasure and possibility.” That vision included an end to war, and an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and equality of all people, regardless of their faith, gender, ethnicity, and lifestyle.
As a teenager, I embraced the counter-counter’s mantras: Make love not war. Love the one you’re with. Give peace a chance. Flower power. At a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert, packed with teenagers passing around cigar-sized joints, the crowd fell under the spell of the singers’ close harmonies and dreamy lyrics of love and peace. As they belted out, “We can change the world…yes, we can,” the 50,000 or so young people stood up and applauded. Yes, we can do this.
Yet, it’s one thing, as Hart points out, to sit in the glow of a warm and fuzzy hippie concert. It’s another to live the reality of day-to-day life in 1976. Hart characterizes herself back then as an idealist, seeking a higher moral ground in Stamford, Connecticut. But the town proved to be rather conservative—not all that accepting of interracial couples. Further, her boyfriend, Joe, didn’t always live up to her idealistic view:
I had entered my relationship with Joe with expectations I didn’t know I carried. On some unarticulated level, I was drawn to the idea of me and Joe as some manifestation of equality, both gender and racial. There we were after all, black and white, man and woman, side by side. The racial self-evident—but gender? Logic has never been idealism’s strong suit. Every time I’d pointed out some inequity in our relationship to Joe, something base as who had first dibs on the car, he said, “What are you going to do? Call NOW?” as he drove away, laughing. He thought the National Organization of Women was a joke, and feminism itself hysterically funny.
It wasn’t funny. It was nothing less than self-determination. It’s what, in the end, we were all after. Me, Margo, Howie, Joe. We wanted equality. We wanted justice. We wanted not to be controlled by the world as it was.
As Hart mentions, she and her boyfriend became good friends with another interracial couple, Howie Carter and Margo Olson—bohemians who smoked dope, dealt drugs, and did odd jobs to pay the bills. She writes, “For every man who climbs a mountain, there’s a woman who sleeps with a man her parents would not approve of…. Conscious or unconscious forces drew her to a man [Carter] who, by the time I met him, was downright creepy… the type of dangers that can sometimes feel like love.”
Yet, Hart didn’t expect Olson to be murdered. A high school teacher, doing research on the grave markers in Stamford’s old potter’s field, discovered her decomposing body. An autopsy showed she had been shot twice in the heart with arrows. Her boyfriend, Carter—a bow hunter—was the prime suspect. Making the case against him even worse, he’d joked at a poker game, that if he ever had to murder someone, he’d do it with a bow and arrow.
Even so, this is not a slam-dunk case. Hart spends the next thirty years wondering why Carter (though creepy) would commit such a heinous act. What could have been his motive? These questions nag at her until finally she digs into old police reports and files.
Unfortunately, Carter was involved in a robbery immediately after Olson’s murder and was shot and killed by a police officer. Thus, he was never able to tell his side to this story.
Hart does a remarkable job fitting together this odd puzzle and arriving at several plausible solutions as to “why” and “how” Olson was murdered. By framing this story not just in this specific era, but also in this specific community (one that perpetuated, at this time, racism, gender stereotyping, and police corruption), Hart arrives at some eye-opening and rather disturbing theories about what potentially happened to this interracial couple.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and in various anthologies.
August 15, 2019 § 1 Comment
by Stefanie Norlin
On the same day I found out Donald Trump had been elected president, my husband and I also discovered we were pregnant with our daughter. I’d gone to the polls the day before and, already suspecting I might be pregnant, had run my fingers over my abdomen as I filled in the last selection on the ballot for Hillary Clinton.
For you, baby, I thought. I’m casting this vote to show you that you can be anything you want to be.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I’d lost that optimism, and in the months that followed, I grew distant from friends and family members who became increasingly strident in their support of the current president’s policies—policies so contrary to our shared value system as Christians that I still struggle to reconcile it all.
It’s a common enough story, one that writer Lyz Lenz knows well. Lenz opens her new book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America in the middle of her own divorce: a personal break, she writes, that mirrored the national one. She’d voted for Hillary Clinton, while her husband had supported Donald Trump—it was the final fracture in a long series of differences.
Part reportage and part lyrical memoir, Lenz writes to understand the divide she experienced in her marriage and her faith life, as much as to interrogate why churches across America are shuttering closed. As a resident of the Midwest, Lenz sees the landscape as representative of American values and consequently, a bellwether of the larger nation’s feelings about politics and religion. Throughout the book, I sensed Lenz’s desire to understand how a familiar childhood faith had turned into one largely influenced by capitalism, regionalism, and politics—and more than that, to figure out how to reclaim a Christianity that now felt so foreign.
Nowhere is this estrangement clearer than in her chapter “The Pew and the Pulpit.” Lenz writes, “I’m hurt and angry at a Christian ethic that is so tangled in the politics of the Right that voting any other way means I am seen by my family and friends as going against the very will of God.” By working to understand this historical partnering of evangelicalism and conservative ideology, Lenz is gradually able to find solace while still bearing witness to her pain.
Each chapter of God Land is part of a gorgeous literary road trip through cornfields and manufacturing towns as Lenz seeks out people like modern-day circuit riding pastors, megachurch congregants, and a new generation of farmers to talk about the status of faith in Middle America. She often weaves personal commentary alongside these reported conversations, educating the reader about things like epigenetics and trauma, how survival instincts impact the rural mentality, and the embedded masculine nature of Christianity. Some of Lenz’s most lyrical and compelling writing occurs when describing this land or the people in it, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear these people are as much the guides of this story as Lenz is.
Together, they introduce us to a small pioneer church on Bluff Road to help us interrogate the commingling of colonization and the Church; a University of Iowa football stadium to show us how viewing God through a strictly male lens can be problematic; an Asian American reformed church in Bigelow, Minnesota, to reimagine what supporting immigrant communities looks like; and a dim churchyard on Holy Saturday to show us that it’s ok to embrace darkness from time to time.
“Faith in America is dying,” Lenz writes in her final chapter. “Populations are changing. Churches are closing. Small towns and schools consolidating…. The forces of faith, economics, politics, immigration, the internet, technology, racism, and homophobia can be so devastatingly felt. But it’s also wrong to say that this is the end. Maybe the answer is to just sit with death, to hold it in our hands, to examine it, watch it, and realize that it’s not death at all.”
Death doesn’t have to have the last word, at least not for Christians.
Stefanie Norlin is a Detroit-based writer, book lover, and French fry connoisseur. Her words have appeared in Christianity Today, Essay Daily, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her writing at stefanienorlin.com or find her on twitter at @stefanienorlin.