August 18, 2022 § 22 Comments
By Mary Ann McSweeny
Recently I came across this description for creative nonfiction: “sensual journalism.” It was one of those double-take moments. I was good with the “sensual” part of the phrase—as in the use of sensory details to create evocative scenes. The heady, cinnamon scent of a robust bed of petunias. The first sip of strong Ceylon tea just poured from the gently steaming round brown teapot. The blood on your iPhone after a dog lunges, breaks its chain, and hurtles fifty yards to sink its fangs into your upper arm.
Literary journalism has been considered a form of creative nonfiction. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is an example. For a general, complete description for creative nonfiction, though, I think one that includes “journalism” comes up short.
Journalism is the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event. It deals with facts. Creative nonfiction is also truth, but it’s not a recital of facts or events. Creative nonfiction comes from the heart of compassionate awareness of the writer’s own truth. For example, you can verify by the police report that a dog—a black boxer mix—bit me back in August 2013 when I was preparing for my mother’s funeral. However, there is no evidence that the dog bite was a farewell message from my mother, although that was my assumption based on my relationship with her. With creative nonfiction, you have to trust the writer is using the written word to reveal truth personal to that writer at that time.
A creative nonfiction piece may be jump-started by the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event, but the purpose of the written work that subsequently emerges is to go beyond the facts to find the human essence within the experience. With the final draft, the writer may even abandon the stimulus that first provoked the essay’s journey.
A workshop teacher offered this writing prompt: “Describe your childhood bedroom.” As I listed details of the room, I remembered the heating register in the floor. It was about a foot square, black metal, positioned directly over the kitchen to draw the heat of the stove before the central heating had been installed. As a four-year-old, I liked to squat next to the register and push its rectangular knob back and forth to open and shut the louvers. When the register’s louvers were open, I enjoyed peeking through at the scrap of the kitchen they revealed. But I hated the register when my parents fought in the kitchen. They saved their most acrimonious battles for after we kids were tucked in for the night. The sound of their anger—shrill and hysterical, cold and cutting—carried through the register whether it was open or closed. Their bitter arguments broke open my sleep and dreams, and turned me into someone with a lifelong dread of falling asleep. The memories of the metal register, the feelings it evoked, and the family dynamic would become the substance of my essay, not the report of the contents of my childhood bedroom.
In my personal contemplative way, I consider creative nonfiction to be my effort to reveal a bit of who I am through the written word. My outer life is rather ordinary and easily reportable. Feed the cat, clean the cat box, pet the cat, deadhead the petunias, bake cookies for teatime. Anyone could witness one of my typical days, write a piece about what the writer noticed, and throw in a few scenes to tickle the senses. The cat’s whiskers quivering in time with her purr. The stickiness of shriveled petunia blossoms. Hot tea melting chocolate chips sweetly against the tongue.
My inner self, on the other hand, can’t be observed or verified or revealed except by me. This interior existence often descends into a spiritually suffocating slot canyon whose sheer walls offer only elusive memories as handholds. The climb back to hope is an inelegant process where I sweat out poisons absorbed from the family disease of alcoholism and its attendant aggressions, inconsistencies, depression, and isolation. How these poisons affected, and still affect, me is a part of my inner truth as I understand and decide to reveal it today. My sense of truth will no doubt change as I grow in compassionate awareness of myself, those I grew up with, the nature of suffering, and the courage it takes anyone to be human.
“Infinite becoming” is how Richard Rohr describes the human journey. Facts may frame this odyssey, but they are not the truth that beckons me to find my way from what I have been to what I am becoming. To write this “becoming” with audible, touchable, sniffable, tastable, viewable details and scenes that allow others to be right there on the pilgrimage with me is the power of sensory self-revelation that, for me, describes creative nonfiction.
Mary Ann McSweeny’s work has appeared in a variety of online and print journals, including DoveTales, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, So It Goes, The Baltimore Review, and Highlights for Children. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.
July 27, 2022 § 60 Comments
As both Brevity (the magazine of original essays) and The Brevity Blog (discussions of craft and the writing life) both grow and expand their audience, we see more and more folks confusing the two. That’s not a huge problem, and mainly we are just happy you are here, but maybe some folks don’t realize we have twice the flavor.
So a small thought for a late July Wednesday: should we rebrand The Brevity Blog as The BrevityBlog, or maybe just BrevityBLOG to make the distinction more apparent?
Vote in the comments, and thanks in advance:
July 25, 2022 § 25 Comments
By Candace Cahill
Past the title, the social media share icons, and the “listen to this article now” button. I slipped by the newsletter sign-up prompt, a “Read More Like This” section, advertisements for Covid Vaccinations, and a notice for a Van Gogh exhibit in Anchorage.
And there, just beyond the sponsored content and the “Popular in the Community” segment, I came to my destination: the conversation.
More commonly known as the comments.
I’d been warned. Chat rooms, writer’s circles, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds offered clear instructions: if you have an essay published, do not read the comments. But this wasn’t just any essay; this was my first essay in a top-tier publication.
In the days following publication, I received numerous emails and direct messages. I responded personally to each one: I owed it to those who reached out from a place of vulnerability to honor their bravery and willingness to engage.
But the comments section of the online magazine was different.
The morning the essay came out, my partner suggested I not read the comments. He wanted to protect me, which I understand and appreciate. However, I’d already read a few: I couldn’t stop myself. But when I came across the first statement to call me out – to label me an abandoner – I broke out in a cold sweat and stopped. I’d written about a topic that elicits a range of emotions depending upon the reader’s frame of reference: adoption relinquishment.
I never intended to reply to the remarks or add “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but I knew that reading the comments, no matter how “hard,” would be a unique opportunity to sit with my reaction without having to respond. Although I’ve spent most of my life avoiding confrontation and pushing away uncomfortable feelings, I’ve finally learned that what I resist persists, and what I feel I can heal. Emotions are temporary if I can create space for them. The capability – and capacity – to process what my reactions would be to any inappropriate or unpleasant comments is a valuable tool I was unwilling to forgo using.
My spouse continued to dissuade me as the days passed, so I agreed to wait until the sting of exposure eased.
And after a week, I scrolled down to the comments.
There were posts with the clear intent of inflicting pain, like being charged with using my dead son as a money-making tool. Initially, that felt like a punch in the gut, but after sitting with the discomfort, I could reflect on my true purpose in sharing this story. My goal is to encourage dialogue—I believe that is my role in this convoluted, painful life experience called relinquishment, and to do so without feeling the need to explain my circumstances. I want to acknowledge the myriad ways each person in the adoption constellation is hurt while recognizing that there also can be joy and beauty. One does not negate the other – both can, and are, true.
The built-in anonymity of the comments section frees commentators up to speak their minds without engaging further but this also provides space for reflection on my part, and the opportunity to respond, if desired, with intention.
I think some people labeled trolls are merely responding from their own place of pain and vulnerability. I remember a time I, too, reacted in knee-jerk ways to comments and suggestions, especially regarding my status as a birth mother.
By reading the comments, I allow myself the time I need to find the equilibrium to respond with kindness and compassion. That’s who I want to be – the person who listens and acknowledges other perspectives and feelings.
No matter what, I want to see that they are not trolls but complex human beings.
Candace Cahill’s memoir Goodbye Again, about losing her son twice, is scheduled for release in November ’22 from Legacy Book Press. You can find out more about her work at candacecahill.com or follow her on Twitter @candace_cahill_. The Newsweek article referenced in this essay can be found here.
July 21, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Beth Kephart
“How to tell if you’re a people pleaser: the 8 signs you’re too nice and why it’s impacting your wellbeing, (Amy Beecham, The Stylist)” the headline reads. I text the link to my son with a note: I’m afraid that if I look too closely, I might check all the boxes.
The phone rings. He wants to talk, to go through the signs in their order. I’m in a bruise mood. It’s the teaching. I have memoir-teaching rules: Love every student. Fall into the uprise of their stories. Find the right lines in the right books, the right prompts for the right hours, the right praise for the right words and assiduously share them, paying keen attention to the white-froth spaces. Push hard because you believe, and because these are your students, paying, and because if you don’t, you will lie awake remembering the clamor of what you failed to say, to wish, to propound. Be the reason they sometimes give when they do not snag their own ambitions. Accept their frustration as your own. Relay your sorrow. Receive their battering words because writing memoir is never easy and someone needs to take the blame, the fall, the knock for the hardness of the explicit hardness.
Sign Number One, my son says, reading from the People Pleaser’s List: “You will drop what you’re doing to help another person, even if it means sacrificing something important to you.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
No need to talk it through.
“Okay,” he says, reading: “‘Being ‘nice’ is part of your identity, and you fear you must constantly be this way or you will be labelled as ‘fake’.”
“Hmmm,” I say.
“Let’s talk about it?” he says.
Could we not, I think, ruing my latest texting decision.
Now he’s up to Sign Number Three: “You feel overly responsible for others’ feelings, and will go to any length to not cause pain even if that means not standing up for yourself.”
“Let’s talk ‘nice,’” I say, reverting to Sign Number Two, which seems suddenly more considerate than Three. “I’m not worried about being labeled fake,” I say. “But I am worried about ‘nice’.” Nice sounds like just another word for boring. Nice is tepid, perhaps defenseless, perhaps even without value. My students, I repeat, are paying. Plus, I love them. Am I nice?
“Kind,” my son says, “is better than nice.”
I ask for a differentiating definition.
“The difference in my mind,” he says, “is ‘nice’ is often about doing good things for the sake of winning people over but ‘kindness’ is about doing good things simply because they’re the right thing to do.”
“Wow,” I say.
Teaching memoir is to set a ramble into motion. You urge the writer from behind. You walk along beside them. You run ahead with the jostle of your flashlight in anticipation of the next brazen, barren, brilliant juncture. (Rats to your left, cracks to your right, swerve in the hill up ahead.) You bear witness to the writer’s joy. You are proximate to their terror. I’m not trying to win the writers over. I just don’t want to harm them.
“You often ‘forgive’ easily and allow people to remain in your life with repeat harmful patterns,” my son reads, and I think of the times that I’ve been told that, just because I am a teacher, I am just a teacher, and how I’ve sat there, saying nothing. Tell the truth. Why didn’t I tell the truth? I teach because I write, because by writing I have learned what is worth teaching, I have empathy for the process, I understand the deflation of the fizzle and the exhilaration of the miracle, and how the hell does teaching make you nanoscopic? I should have said. I didn’t say.
“You have a history of being ‘nice’ to avoid harm, and this has become a survival skill,” my son reads aloud, and I think of the man who arrived at a workshop long ago, declaring, within minutes, that he was a memoirist without memory. I sat with him, I worked with him, I watched as he remembered, raved as he wrote, celebrated his emerging story. He left the workshop early and wrote to me to tell me that I was, hands down, the most uncherishable teacher ever. Thank you, I said. Be well, I said. Blessings on your journey.
“You tell people ‘it’s OK’ and comfort them after they hurt you, even though it really isn’t,” my son reads from the list, and I think of the writers who tell me they are better writers now because they are among the privileged students of wiser, cuter, brighter, younger, more svelte, better dressed, never-a-hang-nail teachers. I’ve over-the-mooned for these writers I once called mine, dangerously sloppy in my choice of pronouns. I’ve exulted with them, replied with exclamation points, wondered later why I’d felt the need to bludgeon punctuation. Because there are many, many exquisite teachers, and the writer grows through new perspectives, and I want the best for every student, and I’d hoped to be a privilege.
My son moves through the list; he tells his stories. He asks me to be honest, and he listens. He worries for me and he offers his suggestions, sideways style and neatly unassuming. He’s kind, he says, because kind is right. He respects himself so as to earn respect from others. When he’s hurt he lets the hurter know he’s hurt. He forgives when the hurt was not intended.
He talks, he soothes, I close my eyes. I see the jostle of his flashlight. I conjure him ahead of me, waiting in the distance. I hear the sound of my feet on the pavement.
Beth Kephart is a writer, a teacher, and a book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays, We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class, and A Room of Your Own: A Story Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Famous Essay (with illustrator Julia Breckenreid). More at bethkephartbooks.com.
June 3, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Mary Kay Jordan Fleming
In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle, a larva nibbles plants for five days, binges on Day 6, samples a single leaf on Day 7, and emerges from its cocoon two weeks later as a perfectly proportioned butterfly.
The reimagined manuscript features a female caterpillar who eats healthy foods in moderation for five days, commits a minor indiscretion (a single-dip ice cream cone) on Day 6, and then repents, starves, and does CrossFit on Day 7. Two weeks later, the sweaty, bloated insect furiously hacks her way out of the sweltering cocoon, spots her skinny spouse swilling beer and eating his weight in Doritos, and declares all of this “bullshit.” Her head explodes.
In WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak, a rambunctious, wolf-suited youngster is sent to his room where he enjoys a wild romp with imagined monsters.
Retooled for midlife, this story introduces a mature female protagonist who goes to her room only to discover the “wild thing” in the mirror is her own reflection complete with jowls, wrinkled saggy skin, and lots of hair but not where it’s supposed to be. Her spouse joins her but there is no romp because she has been exhausted since her first pregnancy.
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff features the humorous escapade of a small rodent who eats a cookie, requests milk, develops a milk mustache, naps, and needs another cookie.
After a minor plot tweak, readers discover a middle-aged woman who eats a cookie, drinks decaf because menopause has rendered her unable to sleep, and develops a real mustache. She consoles herself by hiding in a closed pantry with an entire sleeve of Thin Mints.
THE GOING TO BED BOOK by Sandra Boynton illustrates the nightly routine of animal characters who bathe, brush their teeth, and rock to sleep on their little boat.
After a light reworking of this plot, readers observe the nighttime routine of a pitiable middle-aged woman in desperate need of sleep. After a quick shower, she moisturizes for an hour using products costing at least $300, assembles sheets and blankets of various weights and materials, and turns the ceiling fan on high, defying anyone to comment it’s “so cold in here I can see my breath.” Between mopping up neck sweat and determining which limbs she must hang outside the covers to achieve a bearable temperature, the heroine opens 37 browser tabs on her phone in search of moisture-wicking pajamas, silk pillowcases, and wrist thermostats that promise to lower her core temperature. She stumbles on the suggestion that last Tuesday’s headache might have been an aneurysm. She never sleeps again.
CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault sees letters of the alphabet crowd to the top of a coconut tree, overwhelm it, and fall to the ground with minor scrapes and bruises.
Retitled Chicka Chicka Doom Gloom, the updated story portrays a beautiful coconut tree ravaged by time. The tree’s only two coconuts hang progressively lower as it ages, especially each year when a radiologic technician climbs the trunk to compress the coconuts almost to the bursting point. The tree dries out, her trunk shortens, and a new ring of fat appears around her middle. The tree drips when exercising, coughing, or sneezing, and threatens to crush the next person who says she is “living her best life.”
THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown showcases a bunny dissuaded from running away after his mother promises to bring him back no matter where he goes or how he disguises himself.
Retitled I’ll Let You Run Away If You Take Your Father with You, the modified plot finds a rebellious teen threatening to spend Spring Break on a party bus to Florida. His exhausted mother pledges not to stand in his way if he takes his father along as “chaperone.” When the teen protests, she explains he can drop off his dad anywhere along the route as long as she gets one quiet week alone in the house.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO! by Dr. Seuss portrays a fanciful character who overcomes loneliness, temptation, and fear with kindness and optimism—a strategy “ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed” to succeed.
The new version portrays an early-60s character who rids her home of mirrors, cancels magazines that feature Size 0 models, rejects chemical fillers that turn her face to plastic, and declines to dye her hair because she’s good enough as she is. The book identifies several places disagreeable housemates can go, including one destination that would make routine hot flashes feel like air conditioning. 100% guaranteed to succeed.
Mary Kay Jordan Fleming is professor emerita of psychology and a multi-award-winning humorist with publications in McSweeney’s, Next Tribe, Next Avenue, and elsewhere. Find her essays at the pinned posts here: https://www.facebook.com/MaryKayJordanFleming and in several anthologies including Sisters! Bonded by Love and Laughter.
May 17, 2022 § 65 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!
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.
April 25, 2022 § 13 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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.