Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life

May 17, 2022 § 59 Comments

By Carole Duff

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.  -Anatole France

Western culture divides life into three stages: birth/student, work/family, and retirement/death. My husband and I, moving into our retirement years and building a new house, borrowed the Hindu concept of four stages, adding a time of spiritual growth and reconnection between retirement and death.

The third stage of life, Vanaprastha, the name we chose for our mountain home, means retreat to the forest. Not retirement but time to learn, reflect, and grow. Time to take the internal journey and heal past wounds from loss, rejection, and inexplicable disruptions. Time to explore, discover, seek meaning, share wisdom, and serve others. Time to become our truer selves.

As it turned out, I became a writer.

While overseeing the construction of our mountain retreat, I read the books I’d promised myself I’d get to but never had time, walked the dog, and tried new recipes. I wrote about my husband’s daughter, lost to suicide at age twenty-four, a girl I’d never met and wanted to know about as part of my husband’s past. But while reading her journals, hearing her father’s stories, and writing, I found my story bleeding through the pages into hers, because of connections I never expected. Disruptions from when we were five: her parents’ divorce and a home-invader assaulting my mother; mental illness episodes starting at sixteen; troubles in college; rejection in love—stories begging to be written, hiding in our closets. After the house was built, I signed up for writing classes.

Being a novice was humbling after a long and successful career, teaching, designing curriculum, and publishing technical articles. I was no longer a sage on the stage or guide on the side. My teachers were often the same age as my students—my recent students. More to the point, my wants and path-to-purpose had changed. After years of forward motion, raising children, earning money to pay the bills, pursuing success and honors, I looked back and moved toward asking, Who am I?

Third-stage-of-life writers often employ creative nonfiction in memoir and personal essays. They are less interested in earning a living as a writer and more interested in the internal search on the page. This journey for self-knowledge is heroic in the Joseph Campbell sense, fraught with external and internal obstacles and resistance. We all have wounds in our past and tend to evade them at all cost. I was appalled to discover the extent of my evasions, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness, my need for approval, to be right and in control. The “clever” stories I’d told myself and others over the years were often self-serving and sometimes outright lies. My husband’s daughter took the same journey, until her mental illness exacted its toll. To become the master of my story, I had to portray myself as both protagonist and antagonist, to turn victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able; to find a third way to manage fear, other than flight or fight. Only then could I find peace and offer what I’d learned to others.

The nuts and bolts of writing can be daunting. Pitches, proposals, publishing, platform. The bottom line of becoming a writer in the third chapter is growth, both personal and professional. Write, write, write. Take classes to grow your craft, read craft books and recommended models, join writing groups, attend conferences, create communities. Open yourself to criticism; be honest and generous in return. Study, learn something new, sing, garden, volunteer. Do all those things and more—and have a grand time!
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Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, serious flutist, avid naturalist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine, The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor, and other publications. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, writer K.A. Kenny, and two, large overly-friendly dogs. She will present a session on “Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life” at HippoCamp 2022 in August.

A Beach Blanket Brainstorm (for Writers)

April 25, 2022 § 8 Comments

by Abby Alten Schwartz

How I turned Billie Eilish’s BAD GUY to a BEACH BOYS song … in Hawaii surrounded by roosters.

I stumbled across this tweet by Ali Spagnola two months ago and naturally had to click on her video. I was captivated watching Ali transform the edgy “Bad Guy into a sunny, Beach Blanket Bingoesque song, complete with music video of the final cut. It was hilariously entertaining and, days later, I was still thinking about it.

I’m fascinated by the creative process—not only of my fellow writers, but filmmakers, songwriters, choreographers, photographers, painters…the list goes on. I Googled Ali and learned she is a visual artist, musician (vocals, piano, guitar, drums and more), comedian and digital content creator.

As a writer whose craft was influenced by a career in graphic design and marketing, I wondered if any parts of Ali’s multifaceted approach could be applied to writing as well.

I believe writing is like working out—the more you do it, the stronger you get. Expanding that analogy, drawing inspiration from other art forms is akin to cross-training. You’ll challenge muscles that are used less often and avoid falling into a rut. Speaking of which, Ali is also a fitness influencer, which explains her off-the-charts energy.

I interviewed Ali about her creative process and picked up 5 tips to enhance your writing:

  1. Start with the greats. When composing an artist swap like her Billie Eilish-Beach Boys video, Ali studies the musicians she wants to emulate in order to capture a surface impression of their sound. It’s just enough for her audience to recognize the source material while giving her latitude to take it in a new direction.

Writing tip: Hollywood frequently repurposes iconic works (ditto novelists). The key is avoiding a tedious retread. Aim to build on the original framework and illuminate a new perspective. Think: HBO’s Succession, a retelling of King Lear. Try crossing genres and find inspiration in music, dance or art.

  • Mix & match. How does Ali choose the pairing when blending two different musical styles? “Honestly, I’m looking for the most unique and interesting outcomes,” she told me. She recently reimagined the R-rated “abcdefu” as a Sesame Street song with puppets, and recorded Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” in the punk rock style of Green Day.

Writing tip: Write a braided piece based on 2–3 random, unrelated topics. Some ideas: a childhood memory, a cultural oddity, a devastating argument, a scene from a movie. Writers are masters at connecting seemingly disparate ideas. It’s one of my favorite elements of writing craft—a literary game of Chopped where you’re tasked with creating a meal from a pomegranate, a handful of peanut M&Ms, the smell of fresh-cut grass and a shot of peach schnapps. The ingredients somehow alchemize into a dish that tastes like your first kiss.

  • Embrace the journey. For Valentine’s Day, Ali challenged herself to create a work of sand art from 50,000 crushed candy hearts. Success is never a foregone conclusion with her stunt videos, which is one reason they’re so compelling. Ali’s viewers instead watch as she MacGyvers her way out of miscalculations and mishaps. For her, it’s the journey—not the destination—driving her concepts.

Writing tip: Make writing practice an end unto itself. Draft 10 different attention-grabbing opening lines for your WIP. Write nonstop for 15 minutes to the prompt, “I’ll never forget the sound of X.” Capture a memory entirely in dialogue. Write a journal entry as a character from TV.

  • Box yourself in. Ali produces a new video every two weeks, a parameter she set that necessitates getting it done without overthinking it. Ali confirmed, “I’m not one of those people that sits around and waits for the muse.”

Writing tip: Expand creativity by setting limitations. As Ali said, “Writer’s block comes from having infinite possibilities.” Try micro flash. Use only one-syllable words. Eliminate adjectives. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, has spoken of how his writers’ room used to paint themselves into a corner each season. Arguably, some of the best writing on television came from that room. 

  • Follow your curiosity. Ali constantly pushes herself in new directions. She calls herself a one-person team and when a project requires learning a new instrument, art medium or skill, she eagerly jumps in. Her final word of creative advice: “Follow the fun. Do what you’re passionate about. If you’re not loving what you’re doing and inspired by your work, waking up every day stoked about it, then maybe try and adjust.” 

Writing tip: Rediscover the excitement of beginner’s mind. Take a writing class. Explore a different genre. Experiment with structure. Cross-train your creative brain by taking up ceramics, guitar, knitting, baking, woodworking. Then get out your notebook and start connecting those dots.

For more creative inspiration, check out two of my favorite music documentaries:

  • The Wrecking Crew is the story of the legendary L.A. session musicians behind the most iconic albums of the 1960s and ‘70s.
  • It All Begins with a Song profiles the songwriting community in Nashville, from famous hitmakers to those still trying for their big break.

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Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, Hobart, The Manifest-Station, Unbroken Journal and elsewhere. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant and once had a column about hooping. The hula kind. Abby is writing a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.

A Review of Suzanne Roberts’ Animal Bodies

April 20, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Elizabeth Bales Frank

Grief is a canyon that rings with unexpected echoes.

Suzanne Roberts’ latest essay collection Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties relates her experience with all of these things: grief, its canyons, and its echoes. “The essay is an accumulation of grief. Mother says to get over it,” reads a paragraph from the collection’s opening essay “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin” (which first appeared in Brevity). A common reply to grief is “get over it.” The very phrasing of this curt dismissal, however, acknowledges that grief seeks you into a depth. “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin,” even in its title, echoes the famous final line of a Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.”

Animal Bodies explores several of Roberts’ personal losses due to death: the death of each parent, of a cherished friend, of a faithful dog, and even of a forgotten high school torment—but also due to life: the erosion produced by the tension between sexual desire and the sexual shame, the dissolution of an off-again, on-again marriage, the encroachment by age on the carefree reliance on a strong healthy body. Life is grief; grief accumulates.

The fundamental grief for Roberts is, as it is no doubt for almost all of us, the loss of her mother, whose dying, death, and funeral are the subject of several essays in this collection. But the mother’s spirit infuses many other essays not strictly devoted to her. In her youth, Roberts’ mother, who was raised in England, fought her way out of poverty by offering her services as a “good-time girl,” akin to Holly Golightly’s livelihood in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—at least, in the glossed-over Hollywood version of it. Roberts’ mother is a compassionate guardian—“the president of my fan club”—but also projects the shame from her “good-time girl” years onto Roberts when she begins dating. And “dating” is itself a glossed-over Hollywood word for some of Roberts’ early sexual encounters and entanglements, and their consequences. She is candid in her descriptions of the shame, pleasure, regret, and occasional mess of it all.

Roberts, whose previous collections include Almost Somewhere and Bad Tourist, is an “outdoorsy girl.” “I have spent my entire adult life living in the mountains so that when the perfect powder days arrive, I’ll be ready.” Her devotion to the slopes shapes both her teaching career and her relationships. “I decided that if you went skiing today, I was leaving,” announces one boyfriend, who dislikes her writing because it takes her focus away from him, and considers their life in Lake Tahoe a brief respite from “the real world.” His departure leaves her with the courage to create “the extraordinary life I could only fashion on my own. . . an untethered life of wandering the world.”

Yet even her love of outdoors and travel is encroached by shadows.

In the masterful essay “The Danger Scale,” Roberts juxtaposes the dark side of her beloved “powder days”—descriptions of the escalating scale of avalanche danger—with the painful examination of the erosion of a longtime friendship under the accumulating fractures of political differences. In “Queen of the Amazon,” Roberts travels, with her second husband Tom (“always up for an adventure”), for an expected “quintessential honeymoon” at the Ecolodge Paradiso in Marasha in Peru, only to find herself disheartened not by the perils of the jungle but by the disregard the natives have for the splendor and the dignity of the animals that surrounds them. Ancient trees sacred to the Mayans have been razed by their descendants for farmland—“you can’t eat the trees,” one guide tells Roberts. Terrified sloths, jaguars, and manatees are plucked from their habitats to be caged by minders and offered to tourists to pose with for photo ops.

I told myself I couldn’t cry over someone else’s trees. I didn’t stop to ask myself to whom the trees belonged; I didn’t have the words for my deep feelings of unease and loss, which I now recognize as ecological or environmental grief, a term that would not be common for another five years—the deep sadness, mixed with the helplessness, we feel when faced with environmental degradations and disaster.

This collection may sound like a bummer; it’s not. It is beautifully observed and realized, heartfelt and informed, self-deprecating and often wryly witty. These essays explore how the bodies we inhabit bring pleasure and shame. How the planet which hosts us is beautiful and terrible. How sometimes we cherish it, and sometimes we treat it as carelessly as we would a disdainful ex. How grief is the residue of love.
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Elizabeth Bales Frank lives in Astoria, where she is writing a local history about the pandemic, gentrification, coffee, and dogs. Her most recent novel Censorettes was published in 2019 by Stonehouse Publishing. She works as a researcher in an international law firm and urges you to support your local libraries and librarians. Her website is www.elizafrank.com.

You Always Remember Your First

April 5, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

I woke at 4 a.m. to catch an unreasonably early flight. Once in the air (and after a snooze) I pulled out the book I’d set aside for the journey—A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays edited by Randon Billings Noble. I already knew Noble’s essay in the collection, “The Heart is a Torn Muscle.” I’ve taught it many times. Excited, I dug in and immersed myself in flash, segmented, fragmented, collage, mosaic, and hermit crab essays—lyric in performance on every page. I marked my favorites with yellow post-it notes, like Angie Chuang’s “Scars, Silence and Dian Fossey,” combining her experience of ovarian tumor surgery, her trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda. and her take on the enigmatic life of the primatologist Dian Fossey, the essay a brilliant braid that connects and spins on the metaphor of a scar.

I landed on the East Coast seven hours later, the first time I’d been away from my husband since his work life moved into the spare bedroom at the start of the pandemic (I missed him already). The first time I’d see my brother and extended family in real life, in over three years. And by a fortuitous coincidence (my family lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia), the first time I’d attend AWP.

I boarded the train to center city the next day in typical spring weather, wet and gray. Outside the window, old two-story homes with steep pitched roofs made with the tan, gold, and gray fieldstone that I only see when I come back to Pennsylvania, dotted wide green lawns as the conductor called out the towns along the stretch known as the Main Line. Malvern. Paoli. Bryn Mawr. As we expressed to 30th Street Station, the Philadelphia skyline came into view. Everything felt familiar.

I started each day with coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun (a Philly specialty) and mapped out the sessions I’d attend, my focus creative nonfiction and memoir. Thousands of writers and the constant buzz of conversation filled the convention halls. I sat before panels of great writers who I’ve read, admired, and emulated. I’d heard much of what they said before, but here, in person, in real life, voices and thoughts amplified, they sounded clearer and resonated deeper.

The first draft is the place to put it all on the page. Be transparent. Don’t edit.

It’s easier to cut than add. As writers, we are always making choices.

Constraints lead to discovery. What you don’t remember presents opportunity.

What’s left off the page speaks volumes.

There is no truth. Memory changes with each recollection.

Write both the light and the shadow. We are all flawed.

I wandered the Book Fair. Aisles and aisles of booths for journals and publishers. Despite the masks covering half of our faces, eyes smiled. Everyone was anxious to engage. At least eight journal editors told me that they receive significantly fewer, quality creative nonfiction submissions. I’ve heard this before. Now it was clearer. Note to self: Submit more. Make sure it’s your best.

I ended each day with dinner, a glass of white wine, and my brother and his wife, talking and talking as if we hadn’t talked in years.

I attended the last session on the last day, pleasantly surprised to find Randon Billings Noble moderating a panel of contributors to her anthology. Another fortuitous coincidence. Before the session started, I approached Randon and told her how much I’d liked the collection, how I’d read it on the flight. As she autographed my book, the panelist sitting adjacent asked “Where are you are from?” pointing to my conference badge with my name and Diablo Writers’ Workshop, where I teach. Diablo, the mountain anchoring the skyline in my part of northern California, was the clue. She was originally from the same small town where I now live. We chatted. I settled into my seat to listen. And when this writer discussed her essay about a tumor, gorillas, Rwanda, and Fossey, she was Angie Chuang. Another fortuitous coincidence? No—this was connection. This is what good writing does.

I gathered with family on Sunday, my brother, sister-in-law, nephews, niece, great niece, aunt, and uncle. We ate brunch and talked and talked, telling the same funny family stories we’ve told over and over for years whenever we get together.

I woke the next morning at 4 a.m. to catch another unreasonably early flight. In the air (and after a snooze) I finished reading the last couple essays in the anthology and made a list:

Most everything has already been said but always sounds better in real life.

What makes home memorable is the familiar.

Stories are worth repeating.

As the lyric essay does, we connect in myriad ways.

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Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. She is teaching the personal essay class, Your Story, exploring craft, genre and writing technique in the contemporary essay and how to use it in your own work, in April and May. Details and register here.

What Would Happen If You Weren’t So Attached to Your Newsfeed?

March 14, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Research and several studies will tell you that social media can take a real toll on people’s mental health. With writers, the impact is even more given the low pay, fewer opportunities, loneliness of the profession, feeling misunderstood, needing external validation, and fiery insecurities. Constantly updating our Instagram and Facebook feed to see if anyone has liked it? Tweeting based on hashtag trends on Twitter and feeling disappointed if no one engages with our content? 

Social media is an important medium for many of us, I get it. Social media helps us connect with our readers, editors, other writers, people across the globe, and much more. I too use it quite fervently. But the algorithm keeps changing, impacting both reach and engagement. Of course, it can feel frustrating—just when you thought you’d cracked the code to connect with your readers, you are turned into a humble beginner all over again. 

What would happen if you weren’t so attached to your newsfeed? How about if we maintain a presence on social media (if that’s something that speaks to you) but we detach ourselves from the “outcome” aspect without being overly emotional, judgmental, cynical, or critical? How you let any social networks impact you can be a choice. I have read articles and heard podcasts where people ended valuable friendships because their friend wasn’t “supporting” them on social media.

We overthink social media. We over-analyze people’s behavior without knowing their motivation. We sulk without knowing the truth. All the ego, the attachment, the I-am-ness, the projected rejection leads to suffering. Can we agree on that? Quite honestly, my husband as well as most of my close friends don’t care about social media. My husband is on social media for all things football and sports. It’s not their responsibility to join Instagram to like my posts or even like my posts just because we are connected on social media. That’s a vanity metric for determining the value of a relationship in your life. People show support in many ways; let’s not force them to do it our way. For example, if a friend of mine starts to bake and sell cookies, I will suggest her name in rooms where she might get traction. I will inform her about opportunities. But it doesn’t mean I will always engage with her posts on social media because I have defined goals for why I am there. My work/business/dharma is around creativity, wellness, and productivity … well, cookies don’t necessarily fit in there. Support comes in different forms.

What if we didn’t give social media so much power over our lives? If we can write with abandonment for ourselves, our healing, our voice, our inner turmoil, our joy, our sanity…why can’t we apply the same philosophy to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.? Could we use it without being attached to how it performs? All our suffering (disappointments, heartaches, expectations crushed, not feeling liked etc.) come from a place of unhealthy attachment. Mental projections, false values, and unrealistic expectations create a toxic relationship with the world around us. It can make us feel lonely and unloved. 

I enjoy being bendy on the mat, but I appreciate the mental flexibility off the mat equally. As a modern-day yogi, I rely on texts like Yoga Sutras, Ayurvedic textbooks, Bhagavad Gita, Buddha’s The Four Noble Truths (You’d be surprised how relatable and relevant they are several thousands of years later) and other kinds of wisdom and holistic teachings to navigate life in the 21st century.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, who is at war with his cousins and feeling conflicted about hurting his family, “Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action. Do not let the results of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction.”  The conclusion of Bhagavad Gita is that we should always do our duties without attachment because attachment is the root cause of suffering.

The Pali word dukkha is translated in English as “suffering.” We all experience suffering. Buddhism holds that, above all, desire (selfish craving or tanha) and ignorance (unawareness or avidya) lie at the root of suffering (unsatisfactoriness or dukkha.) 

In Yoga Sutra 1.12, Sage Patanjali introduces two essential elements of yogic philosophy: effort (abhyasa) and non-attachment (Vairagya). When we practice abhyasa and vairagya together, they can serve as a practical roadmap for navigating almost every aspect of life with greater calmness, including but not limited to social media.

So, how can we find this balance between effort and letting go in our social media usage practice? How can we find a place of calm, instead of comparison, when we post the next time? How can we create, curate, and post content without any expectations of others to like it? How do we find the motivation to post even on those days when you feel meh and would appreciate strangers validating you?

Start with understanding that desires produce a bondage. Remember that there are no guarantees in life and suffering is inevitable. What we can control is how we react to any situation.

§  Show up to social media for yourself—it’s helpful to have defined goals.

§  Pay attention to how often you log on.

§  Limit how much time you spend online.

§  If you share what feels truest to you, you’d be surprised how fulfilling that can feel. 

§  Instead of asking your pod of people to engage with your posts, have the faith to share your words/pictures/thoughts authentically. 

§  It feels freeing to not be attached to expectations or burden your relationships.

§  I promise you; we all find our tribe. I once connected with writers in England who attended my book launch in London. We had organically connected on Twitter. 

§  Have faith—our stories have a humanitarian thread that connects us to the world around us. 

§  When you detach yourself from your newsfeed’s performance, you start to have fun.

I am not here to tell you whether social media is for you or not. But as a writer, I do know that protecting our mental health and energy is integral to our creativity. 

“The wise are not bound by desire for rewards.”

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Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 13 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. Her latest book, A Piece of Peace, (Modern History Press) was released in September 2021. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce and in an Ayurveda documentary with Dr. Deepak Chopra, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

Making it Light—On Pottery and Writing

March 9, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Melissa Uchiyama

At my last pottery session, Sakai Sensei picked up my mug. Eyebrows raised, she exclaimed “Karuii.” So very light. I took so much clay out from the inside and still, it didn’t crack. It’s drying. Next time, I’ll glaze, then in a week, it will come back to me, out of the fire.

It’s like that with writing: it’s deep excavation that mostly happens inside. Scraped clay piles up like eraser shreds. “Slowly, slowly,” the potter next to me warns. Or encourages. “Yukkuri.” He sees me trying to be Zen, shoulders pulled to my ears. He suggests a new tool every week, placing it by my arm. Lately, he nods more. My shoulders are less tense, but it’s not yet relaxing work.

Pottery class has me chip at my words with more force and confidence, though. I’m less afraid of taking away, more convinced that space inside means more volume for words or coffee. It is a physical, visceral metaphor. My hands are getting dried-out. Less timidity, more pick-axe. 

I see this with my young writers, too. The ability to examine their work and more quickly see what detracts. Perhaps I need to treat them to a session in my pottery class—to see writing under our nails, in our shoulders, and in the focus of comparing each word, each extra idea projected into this Japanese clay. They’ll get to know which tools in each bucket and tray gently erode silty dust from a piece and which tool goes in more aggressively for a “kill your darlings” feel. They’ll work a bowl and feel the weight in making a thing to keep. 

A young writing student of mine recently shaved off hundreds of words to make a strict contest word count. She chipped and shedded. Boom, 750 poignant words. “It seemed so heavy, so encumbered before!” Karuii. It was brevity and a lightness that allowed her real words the space to take up space with authority. The ones left needed to be there. And they were light so that the weight of each word could work. 

I’m only five or six pottery classes into learning at my local Tokyo studio, but the writing metaphors are halting every time. When carving, too thin and the base pops open, there is no “command z” to undo an error and bring the clay back. I had to chuck my first piece, throw it into a bucket of clay bits and water to be reborn by someone else later. Just a simple crack and it’s wasted. Too thick and the piece will also break, unable to sustain the kiln’s heat. 

Every move is both creation and peeling away. I go to sleep giddy, hollowing mugs and carving bases on the edge of dreaming. I’m hungry to form strong bases and thin walls that are lighter and mightier than those formed by my sensei, and I think: To hold this earth and gape. 

After firing, my mugs, bowls, and sake cups will be immovable. They will be able to take more heat, hot water, and thousands of coffee mornings. My words, too, and teaching, will stand with me, feeling every right to be there. They are the matter that allows negative space, to be filled with the volume of beauty and light. Milk and granola, coffee, truth, space, reflection. To remove and add are the functions towards art. Using clay is molecularly more like the story of creation—differentiating space, “light and day” from “darkness and night”. It is there, or it isn’t. The clay is either there, a part of the thing, or it’s taken off, peeled from its base to fall back to the bucket.

By the time I get to hold my latest piece, a real mug with a handle, it’s as if I am seeing a piece go live, seeing my name in the Table of Contents and turning to my page, heart proud and fluttery.

Every word that didn’t make it is also part of the work. I like this ballooning feeling, the hunger to make space and shape for lasting, good ideas.

I know, as I learn the balance of how much to add and how much to take away, I’ll be a stronger writing teacher, too, with more tools and buckets of watery clay that will become glue called slip. It’s just clay. 
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Melissa Uchiyama is a writer and creative writing mentor for young authors, leading workshops and camps in her city of Tokyo. Her food and culture writing appears in The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, The Japan Times, The Kyoto Journal, Taste, The Epoch Times, and in anthologies, Knocked Up Abroad Again and Mothering Through the Darkness. Connect with Melissa on https://www.eatenjapan.com/about or on Twitter, @melibelletokyo. 

The Path to Creativity

February 22, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Stephanie Weaver

Stepping into the labyrinth on March 1st 2020, I heard the polished gray river rock crunch beneath my feet. Dawn was breaking on the last day of a creativity retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains of Northern California. This movement-based meditation helped me see that living a creative life is like walking a labyrinth.

You choose to step forward. Not everyone does. I’ve met plenty of people who tell me they want to write someday. Stepping forward might look like breaking out of your comfort zone. Retreat speaker and storyboard artist  Domee Shi could have continued in her role at Pixar, working on other people’s films. Female directors are rare in animation. Yet she still pitched her idea about a little Chinese dumpling. Bao almost didn’t get greenlit when Shi toned down her pitch to make it look “less weird.” It went on to win the Academy award for Best Animated Short Film in 2019. “Step into your weirdness,” Shi told us. 

The labyrinth only works as a walking meditation if you follow its boundaries. You can leave the path and break the pattern, but then you aren’t walking the labyrinth.  Creativity requires discipline. It’s easy to get impatient and want to finish. Yet getting to the center isn’t the point of a labyrinth meditation—it’s being present in the moment. Professor, author, and cartoonist Lynda Barry said, “The work comes first and the questions come later. We hold up our drawing and say, ‘What does this mean? Am I a genius or a failure? And what do I DO with it?’” If we don’t do the work, we’ll never know.

Over the retreat weekend, the leader talked about thinking outside the box. I still believe the box is required—not something to break out of, but a road map to follow, similar to the constraints provided by the labyrinth. I returned home convinced of the absolute need for structure and limitations in order for creativity to flourish. Chef Samin Nosrat pushed the boundaries of what a cookbook could be with Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, having it hand-illustrated and focused more on method than recipes,  yet she produced something we all recognize as cookbook.

The attendees debated all weekend whether creativity required exploration or discipline. Most everyone chose exploration; I was nearly alone defending discipline. But the people I know who create—whether that’s writing, art, or music—do the work. They do it because they must, not because it’s glamorous or they want to be famous. I don’t choose to write my books: they show up and demand I write them. I take that first step, then the next. The last two years have provided constraints like nothing we’ve ever experienced, and I’ve found keeping to my previous structure of daily creating difficult. I’ve made my steps smaller so I can keep inching forward.

You can explore all day, but I don’t believe you’re truly creative unless you sit down and produce on a regular basis, even if that’s not a daily practice. The world is facing a host of scary problems, and unlimited exploration is not going to solve them. Discipline and focused creativity might. The late Amy Krouse Rosenthal made films waiting in the school pickup lane, what she called, “making art in the crevices of life.” As Amy’s short, bright existence attests, we never know how much time we have. Don’t wait.

Listening to Shi, Barry, and Nosrat inspired me to keep going with my writing, despite the challenges they’ve experienced. Barry noted she’s never made a living at her art. Nosrat shared that her parents still “don’t really know what I do” despite her best-selling cookbook and Netflix series. Mindfulness practices like walking the labyrinth help me stay grounded, focused on the present moment.

When you start walking a labyrinth, your main focus is getting to the center. Yet every time you think you’re getting close, a turn takes you in the opposite direction. Keep walking and eventually you get there. 

But what is the center after all? Simply another place in the path. The labyrinth’s design requires you to retrace your steps to finish. If you pay attention on the way out, every shift brings you a new perspective.

The labyrinth is a reminder: it’s in the making of the art that the joy is found, not the result. Taking the next tiny step is worthwhile, even if only to feel the satisfying foundation of stone underfoot.

Stephanie Weaver, MPH is a writer, speaking coach, and recipe developer based in San Diego, CA. She’s the host of The Blue and Yellow Kitchen and The Resilience Series on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Her fourth book, The Migraine Relief Plan Cookbook will be out July 12, 2022 (preorder here!). Follow her @sweavermph on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

On Meg Tilly, Early Trauma and the Rise of the Fragmented Memoir

January 19, 2022 § 2 Comments

Dramatic Monologue for Women - Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes Agnes of God |  monologuedb

In our Craft Section this month, Sonja Livingston explores the link between trauma and fragmented memoirs, and that unlikeliest of literary pioneers, Agnes of God * :

I have fallen for a thirty-year-old memoir.

That fact that a memoir snagged me isn’t surprising. For all the genre’s pitfalls—the dogged self-reference, unmitigated earnestness and occasional fibbery—when a story is both well-told and true, its power is unparalleled. A good memoir can magnify silenced voices, shed light on overlooked places and connect us beyond the pervasive divisions of this world. That the book was published in 1994 also doesn’t trouble me. What is thirty years in the life of a book? No, the astonishing part is that I was nabbed by a celebrity memoir. Because I prefer how a book is written to what it’s about—and celebrity memoirs tend to be, by definition, more about subject than craft—swooning over one is no small thing. 

Read the full essay here:

https://brevitymag.com/craft-essays/waxing-episodic/
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  • Full disclosure: Meg Tilly, the actress, not her character Agnes, wrote the book. But that’s pretty amazing as well.

She Flees to Structure: A Screenwriter’s Refuge when Writing Prose

January 11, 2022 § 11 Comments

by M. Tamara Cutler

I’m printing draft six of a “based on a true story” screenplay and wrapping my head around notes from my producers for an act three rewrite. It sounds daunting, but third act problems are usually the result of hidden flaws in act one. Now that everyone is happy with the first eighty-five pages of the script, the final thirty should be easily resolved.

My story with this script began in 2016. I read a ‘where are they now’ article in the New York Times written by Susan Antilla, the journalist who first covered the landmark sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by women against a major brokerage house on Wall Street in the 1990s. When we discussed adapting Antilla’s book, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room, into a screenplay, I knew she should be the protagonist. But her story wasn’t written. Thus began a year-long interview process to track her story with the one she reported so I could braid the two narratives into a film.

Transposing fact into fictional landscapes like film or television is similar to writing creative nonfiction. We start with the truth, as far as we can research or remember it, and shape it into a structure that keeps the audience emotionally and intellectually invested until the theatre lights go up. This requires a cultural deep dive into the era, editorial decisions like combining characters, compressing time, and cutting anything that impedes the trajectory of the main character’s journey. We don’t, however, divert so far from the truth that the story loses its credibility and becomes fiction (or libelous!).

Because the screenwriter’s job is to leave herself off the page, absolutely nowhere do we write about our feelings, impressions, memories, beliefs or intangible states. It’s maddening, but it’s a useful tool for mastering the omniscient point of view, allowing the viewer to make her own conclusions from what is presented on screen. This emotional remove was a huge hurdle for me to overcome when writing first person prose. I didn’t feel right expressing myself in my own voice and was often urged by readers to put myself more into the story.  

During my year-long creative writing course at Cambridge, a tutor remarked that my dialogue read as bodiless, appearing on the page without a gesture or a voice. In a screenplay, there is no “she said” following a set of quotation marks. It’s introduced simply with the name of the character. The actor’s spoken dialogue reveals the character’s internal wants and fears without a narrative saying what they want or fear.

A screen story also has no past. The industry standard for verb tense, and my go-to, is present active (“she flees to safety”), which permits little to no reflection, what Sue William Silverman defined as The Voice of Experience in her 2005 Brevity craft essay. I allow myself to free write in active present tense but follow up with a pass for the past tense. These are tricks I’ve had to learn so that I can write the way I do in cinematic and dramatic mediums, then transpose it into a literary form.  

Structure, the screenplay’s greatest strength, is my refuge. I wrote the storyline for my book on index cards, as I do with a film story, and posted them on a cork wall. I built tension through act breaks knowing I would flesh out the scenes once I wrote them in prose. When I hit what would be act three, I realized the story was running out of gas. I knew act three’s problems are often rooted in act one, and I played with various opening scenes instead of having to discover the issue after months of composing on my laptop.

Writing myself, my aunt, and my mother’s characters into dramatic scenes freed me from overthinking on the sentence level. I could see the scope of my story with me in it and still be true to the facts. The result is a memoir-driven narrative infused with investigative research and tangential, sometimes surrealistic, thematic interstitials. I believe this classifies as an experimental hybrid form, which is true to my way of processing experiences and telling stories, but with a narrative arc that tracks for the reader.

There are many how-to screenwriting books and blogs about structure and the hero’s journey. I learned by first analyzing movies that had a profound impact on me.

If you want to try:

  • Pick a film you love in its original language, ideally the one you write in.
  • Read the production or shooting draft (not the transcript).
  • Press pause every five minutes during a second viewing to write down the action.

You will begin to notice a formula, but the best films feel organic and surprising even once the structure is understood. They unhinge from plot points and come to life—which is where I want to be when writing creative non-fiction.

Give it a try with your favorite film and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

_______________________________

M. Tamara Cutler is a narrative screenwriter and executive producer writing from a rural village in southern Spain. She works on feature length film projects in Los Angeles, New York and London and is currently writing her first book of creative non-fiction, Brilliant Miami Sunset. She has an MFA in film from New York University/Tisch School for the Arts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drip, Drip, Drip

December 9, 2021 § 23 Comments

By Heidi Croot

Writing the first-draft hot mess of my memoir was easy—a mudslide down the inky slopes of several thousand journal pages.

Rewriting countless drafts, fun—an archeological dig I’ve never tired of.

Restructuring the thing, hell—as I struggled to place backstory at the precise moment of reader thirst. 

But none of those ups and downs compared with the anxiety I felt about sending my manuscript to my two aunts and my uncle, who appear frequently in its pages.

I had reason to be nervous.

My memoir is about their eldest sister, my mother—a woman they were estranged from most of their lives, my own longest estrangement from her spanning a mere seven years. My aunts and uncle tried to have my back through the turbulence. An only child, I leaned heavily on their love and support.

Yet as soon as I mentioned I was writing a memoir, I detected frost in the air. Heard rumblings of that old lament, “airing the family’s dirty laundry.”

I understood their wariness.

They were of a generation that preferred to hold troubling family truths underwater with the flat of their palm. I am driven to haul those truths out, towel them down, assess them from every angle. What can they teach us? How might they heal us?

My aunts and uncle don’t read memoir. I knew if they were going to accept my manuscript, I couldn’t just thrust 300+ pages at them and hope for a miracle. I would need to chart a wayfinding course to the genre using signposts and lamplight.

And about two years ago, drawing on what I knew about awareness campaigns from my 35+ years in corporate communication, that’s what I did.

I casually sent them essays by memoirists who acknowledged their vulnerabilities and the challenges of truth-telling.

I sent book reviews and memoir quotations to show what other writers were sharing with the world.

I sent updates on my own project with excerpts from my work-in-progress that I hoped would demonstrate a balanced take on our difficult family circumstances.  

This drip-drip-drip approach paid off when the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay, “How to Tell Your Mother She Can’t Go Home Again,” describing one of the harshest events of my mother’s life (and mine)—her first day in a nursing home, eight years before she died.

With that, my memoir project could no longer be ignored. Nor could its intent, tone or potential reception in the world.

My aunts and uncle read the piece and sent congratulations.  

We had taken the first hill.

It was time for the second.

By now the manuscript was ready for beta readers. I promised my relatives a copy but kept them waiting while I finished some edits. One aunt in her eighties complained that at this rate she might not be around to finally read the thing. My uncle asked how it was going. I could hear the other aunt’s fingers drumming from her home in California.

They were eager to read.

Good.

I emailed the pdf to the California aunt. She immediately responded with family stories triggered by my chapters, as well as helpful editorial suggestions and a factual correction.

“For the duration of the reading it was as though my sister were alive, in front of me with all of her strife and fury…” she wrote me when she finished reading. “You’ve done yourself proud, Heidi.”

My beloved writers’ groups responded to this news with jubilance.

Meanwhile, I invited my other aunt, and my uncle and his wife of 50+ years, to my home, where I presented them with coil-bound copies. We spent a convivial weekend enjoying a charcuterie board, tacos, wine, and quiet time as they turned pages.

They didn’t offer encouragement, though my uncle remarked that his avid reading signaled his interest, and his wife dissolved into tears at one point, acknowledging the painful path our family had been forced to take in tangling with my mother.

In my beta reader guidelines, a one-page menu of suggestions I developed for first-time readers on what kind of comments would be most helpful, I had asked for their feedback within a month—one week away as I write this. I’ve invited them back for a second weekend to close that loop. After all, this was a business arrangement: their access to my full work in exchange for their editorial catches and family history tweaks.

No reply yet.

Offering feedback can be challenging when you’re not used to it. 

No reason to be nervous, I want to tell them. You’re in safe hands here. It’s going to be all right.

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi on Twitter @heidicroot.

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