Second in the Story
March 27, 2023 § 5 Comments
A Ghostwriter’s Desire to Become the Subject
By Jody Gerbig
Recently, I signed a work-for-hire contract to ghostwrite a friend’s memoir, a task I have found as much self-reflective as other-contemplative. I have doubted that my voice matters. I have wondered whether I write for the credit or for the pleasure or for the money or to convey truth and beauty. I have even asked—in this new world of ChatGPT—whether anyone can write another’s story, or, in this case, does it have to be me?
These questions have arisen because, as a ghostwriter, I know I must become—and remain—invisible. This invisibility is the very undercurrent of the term, ghostwriter, and is likely not a new identity for many writers, including myself, even if they have never worn the label. If we have ever worked as copywriters, technical writers, speech writers, or researchers, we are used to getting no recognition—maybe even no credit. Instead, our art is treated as a product. And because, in many respects, that kind of writing-for-hire feels more objective than, say, a short story or poem, writers accept that distance. But, when writers devote themselves to ghostwriting an entire book-length story, considering arc, style, voice, and tension, that distance can become harder to see, much less accept, especially when our names do not appear on the page.
These are the issues I find myself wrestling with now. Though assuming another’s voice isn’t technically difficult, it has been emotionally challenging. And, while I might be used to professional anonymity, I didn’t anticipate the discomfort of hearing someone else using the phrase “my book” when discussing the document open on my laptop.
Mostly, however, I did not realize I would grow jealous, not of my subject, but of other ghostwriters receiving credit for their work, maybe even for the wrong reasons. In almost every conversation I have had about Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, for example, J. R. Moehringer’s ghostwriting has overshadowed Harry’s story. Since the memoir landed on shelves, I have heard “Are we supposed to believe Prince Harry—and not the ghostwriter—was thinking about the symbolism of that bird? Really?” or “I doubt Harry compared himself to Hamlet as he and Charles walked through that cemetery,” or, my personal favorite, “I read it for the writing, not for the royal.”
When hearing such comments, I can’t help but think Moehringer eschewed Harry’s voice to bolster his own, a disconnect that renders Harry a different kind of spare, this time to a Pulitzer-prize winning ghost.
While my intellectual or professional side criticizes that coup, my writerly ego secretly wishes I could do the same. Perhaps I feel this ambivalence because, while ghostwriting, I am both a creative director and nameless Other. Consider my process: After getting to know the subject’s values, speaking and thinking style, priorities, and goals, I conduct the interview, recording the often-nonlinear answers while mentally noting which information should probably not go in the book and which should take center stage; I write the major beats and organize them into outline form; I listen to the recording and fill in details and check facts; I revise for style, precision, and coherence, considering my subject’s voice and personality; finally, I fact-check with the subject.
I am doing a lot of work here—dare I say most of the creativity—teasing out the central story, molding and shaping the narrative into a cohesive, gripping piece, all while remaining true to the subject’s voice, personality, and journey.
Perhaps the most arduous of these tasks, though, is reminding myself that these choices are not mine to make. Rather, they are obligations. I am a vehicle through which the story will be told. And, really, this role may be no different than others I have assumed. Many fiction writers say the same about writing fictional characters, the true drivers of their stories; writers are merely listening to their characters’ instructions and the story is writing itself. Only, fiction writers get to write their names on their covers. Ghostwriters do not.
I am coming to accept that inevitability. I have come to realize that being true to mine “own self” is not, in the case of ghostwriting, flourishing my own style or voice, but recognizing that the story existed before I placed words on the page. I wasn’t the one who wanted to give up in the face of extreme conflict but didn’t. I did not suffer or cry for this story. In other words, I did not live it. I am merely a bard, retelling and passing it on.
In that way, I do not need to haunt the page. I am no Hamlet’s ghost. The story has already happened, and I, like its mentor, merely allow it to grow.
Jody Gerbig lives in Ohio with her husband, young triplets, and too many pets. Her work appears in Columbus Monthly, Brevity, Ruminate, Litro, and has been nominated for both a Pushcart and Best of the Net. She currently serves as a senior editor for Typehouse Magazine. Follow her on Twitter or find her other work at her website.
Falling In Love Again
February 20, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Vicki Mayk
I spent my childhood hanging out in the stacks of my local public library—one of the few places I was allowed to go alone in my Pennsylvania town. The walk there—one I can still take in memory—took me through glass double doors, past the World War I memorial in the lobby listing my grandfather’s name among those who served, and up the marble staircase where the weight of many feet had worn a small well in the center of each stair.
On the second floor, silence was broken only by hushed conversations or the soft whssh sound made by turning pages. It was before the digital era, so there were no computer workstations, only long, dark wooden tables. I ran my fingers along the leather spines of books meant for people twice my age: I read at a 12th grade level while I was still in elementary school, so books bearing the designation easy-to-read held no interest for me.
I remember the details of that time and place because it was where I first fell in love at age 8. Not with a boy or girl, but with words. Like hundreds of other girls, I became enamored of words and writing after reading Little Women, a book written by a woman about a quartet of female protagonists, one of them a writer. The place of that book in my literary lineage is a fact so often shared by American women that it’s become a cliché. I started publishing my own small newspaper before I was 10.
Words were the precious stones on the thread that pulled me through decades of my life. In high school, my teachers shared my essays as the best in class. I wrote for the school newspaper, detoured from nonfiction to poetry and back in college, and became a newspaper reporter after earning my bachelor’s degree. Late in my four-decade career, I left a lucrative public relations gig to go back to a job requiring me to write every day. Prioritizing writing over money: Surely that was love?
I once read a list of reactions common to people in love and was amused to realize that I often experienced them as I wrote: exhilaration, euphoria, increased energy, daydreaming, empathy. The list also included anxiety, panic, and feelings of despair—all feelings I’ve had when the writing isn’t going well.
I thought I’d never fall out of love with words until I published a book in 2020. It was a life-long dream realized during the pandemic. The book began with a story that had beguiled me. The suicide of an extraordinary young man who’d grown up in my town also turned out to be the story of a key figure in football’s concussion crisis. I fell in love with that story and its real-life characters. It was a bond that kept me committed to writing it for more than a half-dozen years before it earned me an agent and publisher.
But something happened in the two years after the book launched. Words and putting them down on paper lost their magic. I became a self-conscious writer. If I wrote an essay, I wondered, with every click of my laptop keys, if someone would publish it. I jotted down ideas for a second book, ideas that many assured me were viable, unable to start the research. Commiserating with other published writers, I learned that post-book blues are common. It didn’t comfort me.
I’ve thought a lot about the writer I was before the book and the non-writer I became for a while after. I keep coming back to Frida, one of my favorite films. In one memorable scene, legendary artist Frida Kahlo asks established painter (and future husband) Diego Rivera for “an honest critique” of her work. Rivera tells her it doesn’t matter what he—or anyone else—thinks. “If you’re a real painter, you’ll paint because you can’t live without painting. You’ll paint till you die,” he tells her.
That was me before the book: I couldn’t live without writing. It was as necessary as breathing. Now I was holding my breath. I wanted to fall back in love with words and stories. But unlike those looking for human romance, there’s no online dating site to match writers with stories. That marriage must come out of the need to create. Like love it can strike in the most unlikely places.
On my way to the Jersey Shore last fall, I meandered off the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia, detouring through the city to avoid stopped traffic. A favorite literary magazine’s submission deadline was approaching, and as I drove, I mentally reviewed an essay about a childhood friendship, which I’d revised off and on for more than a decade. Stopped at a traffic light near the Philadelphia Zoo, I suddenly knew what that story was really about, a focus completely different than what I’d originally written. I have no idea where the revelation came from. The insight was as inexplicable as love at first sight. I wound my way through traffic, mentally making notes.
Like a woman contemplating a romantic rendezvous, I couldn’t wait to sit down at my computer. Writing wasn’t easy, but it felt good.
It felt like love.
Vicki Mayk is a nonfiction writer, teacher and editor whose work has appeared in regional and national publications, including Ms Magazine, Hippocampus, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station, eMerge Magazine, East Meets West Writers Journal and in the anthology Air. Her book, Growing Up on the Gridiron: Football, Friendship and the Tragic Life of Owen Thomas, was published in 2020 by Beacon Press.
Exploring the Possibilities of Artificial Intelligence in Creative Nonfiction Writing
February 1, 2023 § 32 Comments
A Q&A WITH OPENAI’S CHATGPT
By Andrea A. Firth
Discussion of OpenAI’s artificial intelligence program, ChatGPT, and its impact on writing, editing, and teaching has been creating quite a buzz. Brevity Blog editor Andrea A. Firth recently had a virtual conversation with ChatGPT about how creative nonfiction writers might use AI.
The conversation has been condensed, because ChatGPT has a penchant for repetition and tends to go on a bit.
Andrea A. Firth: First, thanks for the help with the title for this post. How do you prefer to be addressed?
ChatGPT: You’re welcome! As a language model, I don’t have personal preferences or feelings. You can simply refer to me as “ChatGPT” or “the model.”
AAF: Ok let’s put you to work. Describe a personal story by a creative nonfiction writer named Andrea that can be used to write an essay for Brevity Blog.
ChatGPT: The essay, entitled “The Art of Losing,” explores Andrea’s experience of losing her mother to cancer and how writing helped her process her grief. Andrea had always been hesitant to write about such a personal and painful topic, but she found that using ChatGPT made the process less intimidating. The essay’s atmosphere is one of sadness and loss, but also one of hope and healing.
AAF: Interesting. My mother didn’t die of cancer but peacefully in her sleep at 81. Do you think it’s important for creative nonfiction to be true?
ChatGPT: As a language model, I do not have personal experiences or beliefs. However, it is generally considered important for creative nonfiction to be truthful and accurate.
AAF: OK, got it. You don’t have preferences, feelings, beliefs or experiences. Writers often get asked about their writing process. Where they like to write, what time of day, with a computer or longhand. Can you describe your process?
ChatGPT: I am always ready to generate text when prompted. The process of generating text with me involves inputting a prompt, which can be a sentence or a set of sentences, into my system and I will generate text based on the patterns and associations [I] learned during training.
AAF: What metaphor can be used for the idea of a writer using AI to draft an essay?
ChatGPT: One metaphor is that of a chef using a recipe. A chef uses a recipe as a guide to create a dish but may make adjustments or additions based on their own preferences and creativity. Similarly, a writer may use AI as a tool to assist with the drafting of an essay but may make adjustments and additions based on their own ideas and writing style.
AAF: Mmmm, that feels like a stretch but let’s keep going. What are the advantages and disadvantages to using AI to write an essay? Please present this as a list.
ChatGPT: Advantages: Efficiency. Unique and Diverse Content. Assistance with the creative process. Exploration of new storytelling forms.
Disadvantages: Lack of originality. Lack of creativity. Transparency and Attribution. Quality. Ethical Concerns.
AAF: Is it unethical to use AI to write a creative work?
ChatGPT: Some argue that using AI to write a creative work is unethical because it is not an original and authentic creation of a human. Others argue that using AI as a tool to aid in the creative process is not unethical, as long as the work is properly attributed and the use of AI is transparent. It’s important to be aware of the ethical implications of using AI-generated text, such as the potential for bias, and to be transparent about the limitations of the model and how the data it was trained on might affect the generated text.
AAF: How will AI impact the future of creative nonfiction?
ChatGPT: It could bring new opportunities for innovation and efficiency but also ethical concerns. It will depend on how it is used and the context in which it is used.
AAF: I find some of your responses repetitive, sterile, sanitized. What do you think?
ChatGPT: It’s important to keep in mind that the text generated by AI models like me is not always perfect and may require human editing for clarity and accuracy. Additionally, the text generated by AI models may lack the personal touch, emotions, or nuances that human writing may have.
AAF: When I asked you to create a title for this conversation about using ChatGPT to write creative nonfiction, your initial response was: Crafting Reality with ChatGPT: The Future of Creative Nonfiction Writing.
Given our conversation, I don’t think reality, my personal reality, is a strength of ChatGPT. But I do think writers of nonfiction may be able to use the model in their writing. I find the revised title, which you suggested, more accurate.
ChatGPT: [The revised] title acknowledges that while ChatGPT may have limitations in capturing personal reality, it can still be a valuable tool for creative nonfiction writers in generating ideas and phrases, and in helping them to structure and organize their stories in a more engaging way.
AAF: Ok we’ll see.
ChatGPT: Of course, I’ll be here to assist you with any questions or information you may need. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything.
ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI. ChatGPT is trained on a diverse range of internet text and used for a variety of natural language processing tasks such as translation, summarization and text completion.
Andrea A. Firth writes creative nonfiction, literary journalism, and hybrid work. She may explore using AI in the creation of her next essay, but she will be sure to acknowledge that fact and to share a byline as appropriate.
Finding the Words
January 30, 2023 § 9 Comments
By Leslie Doyle
In eighth grade, our science teacher assigned the classic “drop an egg from the second floor without it breaking” assignment. I was pretty excited about this—I had ideas about Styrofoam or cushions or other large, bouncing materials. My father, a brilliant man who adored puzzles and math and read Scientific American religiously, suggested something else: Jell-O. I liked the weirdness of this and decided to give it a try. We prepared a batch of grape flavor—I can still see the wiggly purple chunks–and made a nest in a plastic food container. I gently placed an egg in the middle and piled in more Jell-O. Then he dropped the whole thing from a second floor window in a test run. I can still picture myself standing on the front sidewalk below the window, opening the translucent carton, and pulling the egg from its gloppy, violet packing. Intact.
In a recent New Yorker article, “How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking?,” Joshua Rothman recalls doing the egg drop challenge in school. His egg also stayed whole. He tells this story as part of an exploration of the ways we think—verbally, visually, something else entirely? Rothman describes himself as a non-visual thinker, but despite that, he was able to come up with an egg plan that worked. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, partly because the way brains work has always fascinated me, but also in my identity as a writer, someone who pulls ideas out of my mind and turns them into words. And the ways I struggle to do that.
The topic of thinking in words or not has been popular lately. Countless Twitter threads convey amazement upon learning that some people “do not think in words,” the commentors agreeing that they internally narrate everything—”doesn’t everyone?!” I do think in words at times—mostly when I silently address a specific audience about something I want to explain, whether it’s someone I disagree with online, someone I know, or a totally made up listener, to help me clarify an idea. But I know that underneath, there’s thinking going on that has not been yet put into words. My real thinking.
Rothman discusses this. When he discovers a researcher who suggests that some people think in “unsymbolized thought,” he recognizes himself. And that resonates with me–that most of the time, my thoughts are wordless ideas, not sentences, not narration. Unsymbolized thoughts.
At the same time, I am also a visual thinker, and can recall small details of long-ago memories with granular detail. The colors of the tiled floor in the room I played in as a small child (gray background with a white, black, yellow and red splatter design), the pattern in the vinyl seats in our first car (small dark blue alternating isosceles trapezoids), the lobby of the grocery store where we shopped, including a large fountain in one corner with a huge, fake stone leaning against the wall, water trickling down the mottled gray slab, different colored lights illuminating its crevices, surrounded by a low wall on which I’d sit and watch the water pooling while I waited for my father, sharing some talk, and a drink, with whoever he found in the liquor store that connected to the supermarket. I can still draw the layout accurately, in case anyone needs it.
Towards the end of the piece, Rothman says, “[s]tories aren’t real, and yet they’re meaningful; we tell different stories about our minds, as we should, because our minds are different. The story I tell myself about my own thinking is useful to me.” I wrestle with my mind to find the story—I’m one of those people who often don’t speak up because it takes so long to get the thoughts in order, long after the conversation has moved on.
Here’s another thing about the day I made the egg contraption: that morning, the teacher announced that there were no second floor classrooms available to drop our eggs from. Instead, we went to a high hill far behind the school, and he had a couple boys from class heave each egg holder as hard as they could, because the hill sloped and he wanted them to reach the level ground below.
Well, physics took over. The eggs wrapped in cushion foam barely made it down to the bottom and remained unscathed. My elegant, compact little Jell-O contraption, small and heavy, sailed halfway to the school, landing with a thump many, many feet farther than any other entry.
My egg didn’t stand a chance.
I might have been a little angry with my father for talking me into this odd choice, but I was much angrier with the teacher for changing the rules mid-game. Dropped from a window, all the eggs would fall with the same force. Heaved by eighth grade boys showing off, mine hit with a different, lethal, momentum. I was angry; I knew I’d been cheated, but I didn’t know how to say it. So I said nothing.
I think about my brain because I want to figure things out. I think about words because I want to communicate, to share what I see, what I remember, and because I always, always, want to be able to speak out, even when it’s difficult, even when I’m holding a plastic box of Jell-O and a cracked, leaky egg, far from the bottom of the hill.
Leslie Doyle’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Fourth River, The Forge, Gigantic Sequins, Electric Literature, Rougerou (flash fiction contest first place), Tupelo Quarterly Review (BAE Notable), Propeller, The New York Times, Cutleaf, The Sunlight Press, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey, writing full-time after teaching college writing for many years.
Grey Ladies and Gymnastics: On Ageism at Writing Conferences
January 16, 2023 § 76 Comments
By Julie Ushio
In November, I hopped on a plane and took the forty-minute flight from Honolulu to Lihue to attend the Kauai Writers Conference. It was my third time at the conference and I looked forward to a week of Master Classes and the Conference.
As usual, women of a certain age filled the chairs. Not all had grey hair, but it was easy to see that demographics were heavily female and well over the age of fifty. I was not surprised. After all, this was Kauai and the cost of a plane ticket and the luxury hotel rooms (though heavily discounted for the conference), excluded those who could not afford the trip.
Of the fourteen people in my afternoon workshop, there was a man in his seventies and two women who might have been under forty, but most of were female and sixty plus. One afternoon, Dee, a white-haired firecracker of seventy, told me about her recent pitch to an agent.
“I asked him,” Dee said, “about ageism in writing.”
Dee said the agent had responded, “Well, it’s not as bad as gymnastics.”
Her comment took me back to a column I read years ago in a leading writing magazine. A well-known male author said he felt ambivalent about encouraging older women writers he met at writing conferences. He didn’t state why, but much was implied. Was it their shortened time horizon? The diminished possibility of finding an agent or selling their book when the publishing world embraces new voices under 30? What I do remember clearly, is that the writer did not say “older writers” but “older WOMEN writers.”
Over the past thirty years, I have been to conferences and retreats across the mainland and Hawaii. I often go alone and the night before the conference begins, I am filled with anxiety and doubt. What am I doing here? Why spend all this money, this time, away from work, from family, chasing this futile dream of writing a book. The next morning, I walk in and find a chair and sit down. I turn to the person sitting next to me and introduce myself and tell them where I am from. Then I ask them what they are writing.
And the door opens.
It could be memoir, mystery, romance, or poetry, but when they start to talk, I feel an instant connection. When they talk about their writing, I know it is something they hold close to their heart. They ask what I am writing, and in a few moments, we have peeled away our veneers. Over the next several days when we pass, I often do not remember their names, but I do not forget their stories. A wispy blonde, writing about the baby she lost while living in Samoa with her husband’s family. A veterinarian volunteering in Africa, who finds herself operating on the chief’s son, the chief wondering why a doctor tries to save cats. Memoirs of adoptees, of abandonment, divorce, and illness. Survivors all.
In sharing our writing, we connect with others, on a deep, intimate level. So rare in today’s world of short tweets and social media connections.
I have noticed over years of attending conferences here in Hawaii that many writers and agents return, year after year. I see their connections. An agent who reps a featured speaker, as well as the top editor at the publishing house that publishes the writer. Writer friends who speak on the same panel or give the same workshop, year after year. They blurb each other’s books, appear in acknowledgments.
We newbie wannabe writers are not the only ones making connections at conferences.
And I think, for those agents, editors, and authors, flying in and spending some time on Kauai or Maui in the middle of winter, is a welcome respite from the grey cold of the East Coast. I don’t begrudge them the sun and ocean, of mingling with their industry peers but wish they cut back on the sarcasm and show a little more “Aloha Spirit.” Maybe the agent talking to Dee thought he was being witty, but at whose expense? Dee paid money to talk to him. For fifteen minutes.
Our conference fees and Master Class expenses paid for his hotel room.
We Grey Ladies buy the books of the writers he represents. But we are buying less.
A January 10, 2022 Gallup poll states that, “Americans Reading Fewer Books Than in the Past.” “Reading appears to be in decline as a favorite way for American to spend their free time…The changes are especially pronounced among the most voracious book readers, namely, college graduates, women and older Americans.” It might be we Grey Ladies are buying less, because we are writing our own books.
Four years ago, at a workshop at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, Alaska, we participants shared what we were writing and why we wrote. One of the last to speak was a white-haired woman who owned a remote lodge across the bay.
Tough and independent, she simply said, “I write to give me a reason to go on living.”
We Grey Ladies have been around for a long time. Throughout our lives, we have planted flowers interlaced in our vegetable gardens, cooked a favorite family recipe, pieced together a quilt. Writing, like other creative pursuits, is a part of our lives. Some of us may or may not have a goal of publishing a book. Writing itself is the journey. Because within creativity is timelessness.
So, to the agent who talked to my friend Dee. Yes, we Grey Ladies do not do gymnastics. You do not have to give us false encouragement about our publishing prospects. Just sit and listen to what we have to say, then send us gently on our way.
And we will continue to write.
Julie Ushio has been published in Bamboo Ridge Journal, permafrost, and Noyo River Review. She is currently querying a novel based on her Japanese grandmother’s life in Nebraska. The first chapter of the novel won first prize at the 2019 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is also writing a series of essays about growing up Japanese in the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @JulieUshio, and Instagram @julieushio.
Conditions of Artistic Safety
December 27, 2022 § 22 Comments
By Tommie Ann Bower
My predators were winning. A debris field of drafts and reset strategies surrounded the couch where I watched tiny house videos over a bowl of potato chips for breakfast. This was a surprise because I can name my trauma triggers in three notes. But this time, a kudzu-like growth was smothering the hilly lobes of my prefrontal cortex. I couldn’t think my way out of stuck.
The latest science on trauma suggests running towards the disturbance in the force. But until I noticed that I was metaphor bombing in every sentence, I didn’t get that the writing was too painful to approach. Bluntly speaking, I was not safe.
Think OSHA—when you cross into a construction site, you wear the hard hat. When writing, we leave Content Warnings for the reader. But I needed a Content Warning for myself so that I could bridge the gap between my desire to be the Zen-like resilient survivor sashaying into horror, and the vulnerability that is perfectly reasonable.
The solution was to articulate a general process that would lead to specific Conditions of Artistic Safety. What follows is a tidied-up version of what I found useful.
1. Start at a distance and circle the experiences, situations, or feelings you have elected to address. Prompt: Study the project risks in its most abstracted geography—a printed map versus a Google street view. This increases a sense of control by putting an X on the easy-to-spot alligators.
2. After staring down the project, convert the dangers into numbers rather than feelings, words or diagnoses. Think simplistic PG-13 movie ratings or a Personal Intolerable Number, a PIN. Prompt: The writer is responsible for researching and defining personal categories of risk. Size, intensity, and duration are all potential data points. Is it bigger than a bread box?
3. Next, place your critics and nagging scolders in suspended animation on the dark side of the moon. List how this project is likely to impact you. Prompt: Subtle avoidance strategies are often the best clues to identify a need for safety interventions. Do you belittle vulnerable feelings, soldier on, stand with fist, go all crabby-faced into the kitchen, or invite those critics to comment?
4. Revise your PIN number with new data, as needed.
5. Access your innate wise guru, or transcendental maniac, to create a list of things that have helped in other situations. Prompt: What strategies have you used? There is a time for idealized self-care and a time for Oreos or chopping down zombies. Conditions of Artistic Safety may include inanimate, furry, real or imaginary adoring humans.
6. Plan for intermittent, high-value rewards to recognize the challenges. Prompt: How will you take responsibility for rewarding your accomplishments? Are the rewards consistent with the degree of difficulty? Consider including time to play or visit your favorite tree.
7. Name a kindness that might be worth a try. Aim for at least three. Prompt: you are a creative. Use your omnipotent, compassionate narrator voice to throw a little kindness at this valiant writer.
8. Ground your Conditions of Artistic Safety with an elegant or pithy mission statement for this work. Prompt: What are your ideal intentions and hopes? Sign, date, print, read it more than once, amend as needed.
Some days, even with a clear reckoning of the difficulties, I am sidelined. But predicting and preparing for my safety allows me to throw words at those predators. We are both the writer and the caretaker of the writer; as such, we are charged with the responsibility to decide how to leap into the deep pool of honest writing.
Tommie Ann Bower, M.A., writes at the intersection of addiction and trauma, a core part of her memoir, now under construction. She is a consultant devoted to improving the quality of treatment for those individuals with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders, whether in private, public, or correctional facilities.
Writing in My Ninth Decade
October 26, 2022 § 75 Comments
By Sarah Barnett
I need a word. The first letter is p. Out-of-focus, it floats above my head. I want to grab it, but it hovers just out of reach like the wine glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet.
No big deal, right? My friends boast about having senior moments as if they deserve a prize for their failing, flailing memories. But I don’t have time for memory lapses. Midway through an essay I’m stuck trying to remember the name of a flower that starts with p.
Is my writing life over because I can’t recall words? Because my mind can no longer plot a direct path from beginning to end? Because recently I was so careless as to turn eighty?
My worries became an essay—”Adventures in Forgetfulness”—in which I catalogued my concerns over misplaced keys, a family history of dementia, my fear of finding my purse in the microwave or other wildly inappropriate place. But guess what? While I’d been worrying, I’d been finding alternate routes around my memory issues.
I explored my handwritten journals and stockpile of one-liners, scribbles and short takes written in response to prompts in weekly free writes. I found recollections of dreams, incidents, insights, none of which I remembered recording. One day, I surprised myself as I happened upon this handwritten line: “I am all of the seven dwarfs except Happy.”
My stash covered my Brooklyn childhood, a difficult relationship with my mother, my experiences when I became a mother, a divorce after a 30-year marriage. I’d covered almost everything in my memoir universe. Now, when I can’t produce the right words, I recycle, repurpose, and cut-and-paste from older work as if piecing together a mosaic from broken cups and plates.
Mining older pieces helped me produce new work. But did it count as writing? In “Adventures” I declared, “I’m not writing. I’m Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of draperies.” Or, I wondered, “Am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett producing a dress from drapes, but neglecting to remove the curtain rod?”
In my ninth decade, my writing style reflects the haphazard way my brain works. I jump back and forth, pinball from past to present, and swivel from serious discussion to flippant remark in the same way I desert the half-emptied dishwasher to do a load of laundry or rummage in the freezer for something to defrost for dinner.
In another essay, I explored the concept of home. What draws us to certain places? Where do we feel most at home? Over several months my piece evolved into a collage of the places I’d lived, the places I’d dreamed about living, quotes from TV shows, movies, and literature all juxtaposed against the lifelong search of the hermit crab for the perfect home.
Was this better than the traditional beginning-middle-end method? I can’t say. Maybe I’m learning to write the way dementia sufferers say, “The thing on the wall with numbers,” when they can’t think of the word clock. Still, I recall that as I played with the pieces of my collage, arranging and rearranging to produce a readable flow, I felt like an abstract painter adding a splash of yellow here, a black triangle there. The design, the mosaic itself, felt as essential to the essay as the words, sentences and paragraphs.
My brain had misplaced the word for those flowers you plant in the shade, with blossoms in brilliant white, cheery pink and lipstick red. First letter p. I tried petunia, pansy, portulaca—astonished I could remember these, but not the word for those—the ones I planted every year until I tired of them. Though how could you tire of the way they zoomed from sparse seedlings to bountiful rounded bouquets?
It took a full day before the name returned to me. Impatiens, the p not where I remembered it, the name so like impatient, the temperament I wish I didn’t have.
Growing old is not like catching a cold. The possibility of losing myself along with my memory has become a constant concern. But I’m excited to have found detours around the roadblocks in my brain. Now, I focus on the seemingly endless possibilities as I assemble fragments, repurpose older work and rearrange sentences and paragraphs to discover fresh insights.
Before retiring and discovering the joys of creative writing, Sarah Barnett had careers as a teacher, a librarian and a lawyer. Her work has appeared in Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Delmarva Review, and other publications. She lives in Rehoboth Beach Delaware, where she is vice president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild.
Watch Out for the Unexpected
October 14, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Andrea A. Firth
I walked out the doors of the tiny airport in Fayetteville into the blazing afternoon sun. At the curb I was greeted by Shari, my ride to The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs where I was doing a residency. My plan for the week was to complete drafts of two essays and start a third.
When I got in the car, Shari asked me where I was from.
Northern California, I said.
She told me that she was a transplant from the Pacific Northwest and that she hadn’t known what to expect when she moved to the area. Then she countered with a laugh,
You know, not everyone has a banjo and a gun.
I smiled and wondered if hillbilly jokes were considered PC. I’d never visited this part of the rural South. I thought about the preconceived notions I might be carrying. What came to mind when I thought of Arkansas was Johnny Cash, Bill Clinton, Walmart, and the fourth season of Jason Bateman’s crime drama Ozark that I had just finished watching. Information easily found through a Google search and Netflix.
I didn’t know what to expect of the area either.
Around five p.m., we arrived at “The Colony,” a cottage nestled in a woodland on the outskirts of town. The question buzzing around the dinner table that first night was who had seen the statue—Christ of the Ozarks. At seven stories tall, you would think it would be hard to miss, but Eureka Springs is surrounded by dense forest. I’m not religious, but I was intrigued by the idea of a monumental sculpture that none of us, three poets, two fiction writers, and me the lone CNF-er, had yet to witness.
The next morning, I started on essay one: a braid of two events, one natural, one unnatural, one remarkable, one despicable. Both had entered my orbit on the same day the previous week. I got the first braid down fast, then I started the second braid and got stuck, like two hours stuck. I knew there was a connection, but the essay fragments were scattered like fly away hair. I couldn’t tame the strands into a cohesive whole. On day two I moved on to a new essay that poured out steady and slow, which is how I write, like honey one day and molasses the next. The first essay was still rumbling around in my head.
That night we climbed a steep hill to the historic (and supposedly haunted) Crescent Hotel. From there we could see the outstretched arms of the Ozark Jesus, a 65-foot span, hovering above the treeline in the distance, as if he was reaching out to give us a big hug. The mega-statue sparkled in the setting sun, and I was surprised by how he felt like a protective presence.
Each day I’d take a couple walks and explore. Eureka Springs is a quirky tourist town full of contrasts. A blue dot in a red sea. A welcoming space for the LGTBQ community with all the trimmings of a conservative, small-town. American flags hang near Gay Pride flags. A town with at least six churches steeped in ghost stories and tales of the healing powers of the natural springs. Brightly painted Victorian homes with gardens full of angels, gnomes and sprites. An herbacy next to a tobacco shop. Kitschy souvenir stores next to high-end art galleries. A counter-culture hippie vibe on display alongside leather-clad bikers and middle-Americans on vacation. Contradictions abound but everything fits together, like a weird 3-D jigsaw puzzle.
Shari’s comment about the banjo and gun echoed in my mind. In the few days since I’d arrived, I had come to expect and accept the split nature of the area too. What we don’t see is as illuminating as what we do, but you have to dig below the surface to understand how and why it works. Like subtext in writing, what isn’t said says as much as what is.
One evening I stopped to admire the eclectic assortment of furnishings on the front porch of one Victorian home. A couple of inviting chairs, a dog’s water bowl, a campy painting of Napoleon, and a mannequin in a lacy skirt with a rabbit’s head holding a placard that said I’m Not Giving Up. Me either, I thought. Strange. Oddly creative. Anomalous décor. Idiosyncrasy that I took as inspiration.
Over the week, I finished essay two, started essay three, and essay one, the braided one, came into focus. The weird front porch motivated me to take a less conventional approach. I began to see how the two disparate things I was writing about could lie on the page and intertwine and intersect in new ways. I was able to grasp the strands of the braid and weave the story together.
You don’t always know what will help you move forward in your writing. Here in an eccentric small town, known for its tradition of coexistence, I grew to better understand the magic of juxtaposition. A new setting can be revealing. When you first arrive, you might feel out of sorts, and that’s the generative beauty of it. Your mind will set off in new directions, different neurons will fire. Have a plan but be flexible. Explore your surroundings. Wander. Observe. Give it time. Think on.
Andrea A. Firth is a member of the Brevity Blog editorial team. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Andrea has two classes coming up: Let’s Try: Essay starting on November 2nd and The World of Literary Journals: How to Get Published on October 22nd. Details here.