Teaching Brevity in Memoir

July 16, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Linda Downing Miller

I’ve taught a weekly memoir and creative writing class for more than six years through the Center for Life and Learning, in Chicago. September to June, the CLL offers a variety of educational programs for adults 60 and older. Each meeting of memoir brings about a dozen participants together to read their writing aloud. Their life stories fill and enrich our sessions. Writers get to know one-another as they deepen their understanding of how writing engages an audience.

My job during class is to keep the process moving so everyone has time to be heard, to lead and guide follow-up comments that help writers learn and improve, and to offer a prompt at the end of each meeting that sparks their creativity for next time. Good prompts help writers unearth, explore, and find meaning in memories they may not have thought about for years.

I took on this role without thinking much about how I would come up with new prompts. The friend who taught the class before she connected me with the opportunity seemed to find ideas all around her. Fresh from a low-residency MFA program where I relished our in-depth writing discussions, I was eager to share the passion.

For my first class, I brought an old New Yorker piece by John McPhee called “Silk Parachute,” in which he remembers his mother and a toy she once bought for him. (As with all wonderful essays, it can’t be summarized.) Sharing the piece in class, I tried not to let my voice catch at the perfection of the ending. Then I offered this prompt to the writers in the room: write about a childhood toy, or an object or piece of clothing from your childhood, that has stayed in your mind. Writers returned the next week with their “homework.”

I quickly realized the constraints of our 90 minutes together meant teaching was more like coaching, a little bit here and a little bit there, around the main event of their work. But by sharing examples of published writing each week and creating prompts inspired by that writing, I could call attention to different features, styles, voices, and forms. It wasn’t long before Brevity became a regular resource for me.

Write about where you were and what you were doing when something “big” happened in the world. (Read “In Orbit,” by Brenda Miller.)

Write about something you did on a regular basis on one particular day. (Read “Solstice,” by Joanne Lozar Glenn.)

Write about a fight or a time when you said something you wished you hadn’t. (Read “Girl Fight,” by Joey Franklin.)

Write about yourself at 18. Begin “in scene”—in a place where you spent time with others. (Read “Ten Years Ago,” by Sarah Beth Childers.)

Write about a dance, date, or relationship from your past that you have not thought about in a long time. If you’d like, speculate about that person’s view of you then. (Read “Invisible Partners,” by Ira Sukrungruang.)

Ah, romances of the past! And the opportunity the author demonstrates to enter the imaginary in literary nonfiction. I remember this prompt bringing particular energy to the room.

No surprise, each Brevity example I share also models concision. To make time for everyone’s stories, memoir class members aim to limit the length of their pieces to about 500 words, a parameter established by the previous teacher. (Beth Finke has since written a guidebook about her process.) I allow some length leeway and try to rein it in when inspired writers approach Brevity’s 750-word cap.

Last fall, participants wrote personal ghost stories, with Maggie Smith’s “Ghost Story” for inspiration. (Have you ever encountered a ghost? Felt like a ghost? Been “ghosted” by someone?) Class members conveyed the trepidation of staying in an allegedly haunted room, the strange sense of a lost loved-one’s presence, the remembered mystery of a ghostly object sliding across the Arizona sky, and more.

Haunted by memories of your own? Put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Employ whatever tools you use to capture words. As I tell the writers in my classes, let yourself write as much as you want on your first draft. Then see what you have, and revise from there.

Seeking more writing prompts, for yourself, for students, for others? Pick a Brevity piece at random and see where it leads you. I’ve found a wealth of inspiration in the Brevity archives, and I’m thankful for the new material that arrives with each issue. The connections and creative energy built in a memoir class can keep writers—and their coach—coming back, year after year.

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Linda Downing Miller has led creative writing classes in Chicago at the Center for Life and Learning, the Newberry Library, The Clare, and elsewhere. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and other publications, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Water~Stone Review, The Florida Review, and the Chicago Tribune. She received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

Giving Up the Ghost

June 7, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Cynthia DiTiberio

A couple years ago, when the first copy of one of the books I had written arrived from the publisher in the mail, I held it proudly, seeing all the words I had carefully pieced together beautifully designed on the page. I then flipped to the back of the book, to unearth my name from its contracted place in the acknowledgements.

You see, it was both my book, and not my book at all.

I am a ghostwriter. The books I write don’t really belong to me. Though I have sometimes written every single word that appears on each page, oftentimes my participation is hidden, by design.  

When my oldest daughter walked into the room and I held the book up for her to see, she looked at me, her blue eyes crinkled in confusion. 

“But where’s your name?”She asked. “Shouldn’t your name be on the book, too?

I paused as I stared down at the cover. I couldn’t deny I felt the same way. But I had agreed, many months before, that my contribution wouldn’t be credited. Now, however, it no longer felt like a good deal.

“That’s not how it works,”I explained, trying to convince her as well as myself.“My role isn’t public. The ideas in the book aren’t mine. I just helped someone write what was in their head all along.” 

“They would never let us do that in school,” she said, matter of fact, already self-assured at eight-years-old. “Promise me, Mommy, next book, will you make sure they put your name on the cover?” 

There was something about hearing those words from my daughter that made me finally wonder if credit was something I deserved. 

Then 2020 hit and with it, untenable working conditions. When I turned in a manuscript in May, I was burnt out. I had written eleven books in eight years, the last one during the grueling experience of shelter-in-place and remote school. When you are a ghostwriter, they expect you to write fast, otherwise, what are they paying you for? Everyone thinks they could write their own book, if they only had the time. The pace was exhausting. I needed a break. And after that conversation with my daughter, I began to wonder if maybe it was time to see what it felt like to write something of my own. 

I had always wanted to be a writer. I had filled notebooks as a child; idolized Anne Shirley and Jo March. At age twenty-two I had a specific book idea, with a title and subtitle, written in my journal.  At twenty-three, I was on my way, landing a dream job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house specializing in religious and spiritual books. Having graduated the year before with a major in religion, I felt triumphant to be able to prove that my degree wasn’t so useless after all.

I spent nine years working my way up to senior editor, learning the tricks of the trade.  But when I had my first child, and returned to full-time work with a 60-mile commute each way, I realized I was ready for a change and set out to create a freelance editorial business. The work that I most enjoyed, the actual editing, happened outside of the office anyway. I knew that we hired freelancers all the time. I had goodwill and all the contacts to make a go at it. 

To start, I worked predominantly for my previous employer. But then I began to take on projects with literary agents I had worked with in the past. Having once sat in the very seat of power, in the editorial board meetings where book proposals were dissected like frogs, I knew what it took to get noticed. Soon, writing book proposals turned into writing the books themselves. Before I knew it, I was a ghostwriter, writing other people’s books for them. 

I loved it. I spent hours on the phone with authors, identifying the themes they wanted to explore, getting a sense for their voice and the cadence of their teaching. I never had writer’s block, because the ideas weren’t mine; I just had to figure out how to translate them to the page. I didn’t have to worry about whether the books would sell, or how to sell them; my job was just to create. I got to live in the sweet spot, with none of the risk, but also, little of the reward.

As this year forced a pause on normal life, I thought, what better time to finally try and find myself on the page? I didn’t even know what I sounded like anymore. I hadn’t written in my own voice since college. But I knew it was time to try. 

I often joked that the reason why I was so selective about which authors I worked with was because whomever I was writing for lived in my head the entire time we were working together. For eight years, I had leased space in my brain to others. Once the tenants were out, I realized that my own thoughts had been drowned out by the psychic energy of others. To have my mind to myself again felt like the greatest luxury.

And yet it was also terrifying. Though I had been a “writer” for eight years, never before had I felt the prickle of fear that crawls up your neck when you see the rawness of your heart bleeding on the page. I had always written with someone else’s blood, nothing at stake.

But I knew it was time to let my words stand on their own, unshielded by someone else’s name. 

I know it is a long, grueling path, the life of a writer, trying to find places to publish, unearth people to buy your book. But maybe the point isn’t even to get readers, to be read, but the act of writing itself. Maybe I’m not writing to change others but to change myself. 

To listen to my own voice for once. And believe it has worth. 
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Cynthia DiTiberio is a writer and collaborator who has worked in the book business for the past eighteen years. Books were her first love and remain her favorite thing in the world. She worked as an editor at a division of HarperCollins for nine years before becoming a ghostwriter. She has just started writing on her own after collaborating on eleven books over the last eight years. She was born in St. Louis, went to college in North Carolina, and has called the Bay Area home for the last nineteen years. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children. Highlights of her career include getting to work with Frederick Buechner, having her second collaboration optioned by Reese Witherspoon, and being featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty-seven for her work launching a new line of Christian fiction.

Teaching Brevity: Deesha Philyaw’s “Milk for Free”

May 18, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Emily Dillon

When The Best of Brevity launched on the East Coast in November 2020, Deesha Philyaw was one of three authors to participate in its inaugural reading, alongside Lori Jakiela and Julie Hakim Azzam. I was not familiar with Philyaw’s writing, but during her reading I was impressed with her precision of language. In particular, her essay “Milk for Free”—originally published in Brevity’s “Experiences of Gender” issue in 2015—stuck out as unflinching and compelling in its look at how women often don’t own their own bodies. I wasn’t the only listener to feel that way. Both Hakim Azzam and Jakiela were moved to share similar stories of gendered violence before the night ended.

How serendipitous that only two weeks after that reading, a friend asked for my address to send me Philyaw’s newest collection of short stories The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. I just had to read it, he said, and he was right. It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed Philyaw’s collection, but I suspect you already know its successes well: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies won the 2020/2021 Story Prize and was a finalist for both the 2020 National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award. For me though, the real joy was returning to “Milk for Free” with the short story collection forefront in my mind, seeing anew how Philyaw built deft characterizations and imagination into the essay as she did the short stories. I realized then, too, that there was a unique shimmering to her nonfiction that was distinct from the fiction collection, each moment searing because I knew that it had happened–it had happened to young Deesha.

And what happened to her? Philyaw lets us in to the revelation slowly in “Milk for Free,” preferring ambiguous language for most of the essay: “some white stuff,” “down there,” “things below the waist,” “the men sometimes gave her money,” “big for my age,” and “what he did to her.” It isn’t until the penultimate moment of the essay—the spot in poetry where the volta would be—that Philyaw pivots into naming: “There is a word for this. Rape.” Though the rape is her mother’s and not her own, Philyaw still has to peel this revelation out of herself, conjuring the naming out of the ambiguous with imperative tense, said perhaps to herself, perhaps to the reader: “Go back, way, way back… the memory comes back, and here it is.” The violence enacted on her mother has violated her as well, which becomes most clear when she faces her own fear of men and realizes, “No one can protect me. If Shorty Hall doesn’t rape me, it’ll be because he chooses not to.” Men own her body, even if they choose not to act on that ownership.

This theme of ownership and commodification is doubly clear when looking at the essay’s structure as a whole. Philyaw sets off each memory—of her mother’s rape, of the old women’s advice to her not to “give away the milk for free,” of her sixth-grade friend’s sexual encounters with “grown men”—with the word “Item” and a colon. Bringing to mind a shopping list or a bill of sale, this listing structure is Philyaw’s way of emphasizing the commodification of her body and that of her friends and family. The theme takes on additional universality through the associative leaps that she inserts into the list: the item of Mick Jagger singing “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night…” and the item of Stokely Carmichael saying that the only position for women in the Black Power Movement is “prone.” These leaps, which move beyond her own experience into public celebrity, expose the origins of her personal violence and the wide-reaching impact of sexism, racism, and poverty in American culture.

Of course, these themes and their relationship to craft are essential for the American creative writing classroom. Because this essay functions on poetic structures—the associative leap, the volta, and language (in particular, dialogue) as the initiator of memory and narrative—“Milk for Free” is a useful teaching tool in both poetry and prose classrooms. I can imagine, for example, a poetry teacher using this essay as an introduction to poetic forms, especially for writers coming from a prose background, or a prose teacher using this essay to demonstrate the success of poetic moves in narrative prose. In either case, the creative writing instructor can use “Milk for Free” as a model for writing exercises that ask the student to 1) list dialogue repeated in their childhood and then use that language to begin or interrupt their work, or 2) attempt a work that begins with euphemism and ends with naming.

“Milk for Free” also has relevance beyond the creative writing classroom, particularly for studies of gender, race, class, and/or intersectionality. The characters presented in this nonfiction essay, because they are real people, are useful examples of how identities can layer into composite injustice in America. Philyaw’s friend Cyprana, for example, gets money from the grown men who come to her house for sexual favors “while her mother was at work” and “sometimes she gave some of it [the money] to her mother.” The acknowledgement that Cyprana gives the money to her mother, though she is only in sixth grade, suggests that Cyprana lives in a low-income space, where children participate in earning money for the family. And though Cyprana’s race is never explicitly identified, she explains the “white stuff” on the couch to her mother as “curl activator,” which places Cyprana among the hair product culture of black and brown women. If a secondary or higher education teacher were so inclined, they could assign “Milk for Free” as a model and then ask students to consider two or more of their own identities and how they overlap, writing a reflection on how they do.

In the end, “Milk for Free” vibrates with an echo on its final lines: “There’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing we can do.” I wonder, who is the “we”? Who can’t do anything? Is it all of us, stuck in heavy systems that direct our lives, or is it more specific, the low-income black and brown women facing commodification of their bodies? There is, perhaps, a tinge of hope if the “we” is the latter, as it leaves open the possibility that everyone else—men, white people, people of money—have power to end the oppression. Perhaps this final question is the most stimulating for the classroom, opening up larger questions about justice and imaginative reform. Perhaps it will lead your students to find an answer for all of us.
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Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from the Piedmont Plateau of Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She seeks honest representations of lived experiences in her work, which ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. She is currently an assistant editor for Brevity.

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THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.

Take the Giveaway4Good Challenge

December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments

By Lisa Ellison

During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.

One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.

But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.

After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”

A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.

Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
Agoraphobia.

At ten, I absorbed her lesson.

It took several decades to unlearn it.

Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.

A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
Economic turmoil.
Increasing inequity.
Tragic deaths.
Health crises.
Election drama.
More COVID cases.

And yet, even now, I have desires.

I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.

I want to send it to agents.

I want to believe this story will help someone.

When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.

While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.

Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.

In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.

During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.

It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.

As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.

I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.  

My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.

Here are the details for this week’s challenge:

  1. Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
  2. Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
    1. Subscribe to Brevity’s blog (If you’re reading online, the subscribe button is in the sidebar on the right)
    2. Read and share any Brevity blog post on social media
    3. Follow Brevity on Instagram @Brevitymag
  3. Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.

The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn. 

This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class

You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.

To participate in this challenge, send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.

If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.

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Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary MagazineKenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison. 

Jumping Backwards: A Writing Prompt

May 27, 2020 § 3 Comments

Santana Author Photoby Celina Marann Santana

I have been inventing quarantine games. For the purposes of this blog, let’s say I use them as writing rewards or prompts rather than procrastination from the writing itself!

One invented game is to investigate what I was doing on this day one year ago. Give it a go. Jump back through your calendar, do an email sort. As fair warning, it can be humorous, sad, curious, frustrating. Recently, I skipped forward to the summer months to see the types of adventures I’ll potentially miss this year.

I landed on June 23. Now there are many things I could have been doing on the many June 23rds of my past, at midnight. On the ones I happened to be in Puerto Rico, it was jumping backwards into the sea, seven or twelve times (depending on who I asked) in order to cleanse my sins, start anew, and get magic powers.

Noche de San Juan is celebrated every June 23 in Puerto Rico, Spain, and many other countries around the world. The original Noche de Feugo (Night of Fire) was a pagan tradition to celebrate the summer solstice but was co-opted by the Catholic Church to commemorate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist.

I managed to secure fragments of the history of the festivities while wandering the beach, weaving around bonfires, hammocks, drummers, loungers, drinkers and dreamers. There were those who had no idea why they had gathered in the dark (beyond a good party of course) and for those who knew something of this night’s origins, there were debates as to its traditions. Further research revealed some of the most common:

  • Go backward into to the sea, while watching the moon, for special powers or luck.
  • At the exact moment when the sun illuminates the dawn of the 24th, the waters of springs and streams are endowed with special powers to cure and provide protection. Bathe in the dew for protection throughout the year.
  • Sit under a fig tree with a guitar in your hands and you’ll learn to play it right away.
  • Look through the window of your home after midnight and you will see the love of your life walk by.
  • To rid yourself of things you would rather forget, throw representations of them (clothes, objects or memories written on paper) into the fire and watch them burn.

For me, the night represented change and looking back on it made me realize something new about change. Helen Keller said, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.” And Jennifer Donnelly writes about wanting “a word that describes the feeling that you get—a cold sick feeling, deep down inside—when you know something is happening that will change you.” Erica Jong advises that “accepting fear as part of life, specifically the fear of change…” allows us to “…go ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.” And finally, Jarod Kintz says, “The only thing I am for sure is unsure, and this means I’m growing, and not stagnant or shrinking.”

These strange times of social distancing and sickness means lots of changes and can induce plenty of fear, but it doesn’t have to mean stagnancy. One June night, in a few hours of darkness on the ocean’s shore, I basked in the company of a friend, released the loss of an old friend, and celebrated the meeting of a new friend. “Staying in place” makes me realize this is more how life is: no matter how great the change, there is something we can hold onto, something we can let go, and something new to find. Maybe powerful, meaningful change is what results when we have the courage to do all three.
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Celina Marann Santana writes brief nonfiction, loves writing from prompts, and is at work on a novel. She spends her days doing all kinds of things, like starting up a PechaKucha Night because she enjoys informal gatherings where folks share their passions in a concise, engaging format. She founded Your Dreamery to encourage others to discover their best selves through writing and exploration.

May 2020: Brevity in a Pandemic

May 4, 2020 § 2 Comments

SilvermanLet us say first that we hope you are all well, wherever you may find yourselves in the midst of this pandemic. Our latest issue has been in the works for six months, and so is not themed to our current moment, but we hope the brief essays included here will offer you solace, insight, beauty, and encouragement during this profoundly difficult time. Many thanks to our featured authors Brian Turner, Sue William Silverman, Kristine Langley Mahler, Carly Anderson, Laurie Rachkus Uttich, Sara Ryan, Tyler Mills, Julie Marie Wade, Melissa Grunow, Katy Mullins, Will Howard, Lisa Lanser Rose, Michelle Myers, Kailyn McCord, and B. Bilby Garton, and for the beautiful photography, Christina Brobby.

Plus, new in our Craft Section, Nuala O’Connor takes stock of her career and what it means to be a published writer, Beth Kephart considers the fear that no one will care about the books we write, and Jody Keisner looks at small moments and beautiful things. If you have not yet explored our extensive collection of excellent craft content, you are in for a treat.

Stay safe and healthy, and enjoy our new issue.

Writing Trauma: From Professional to Personal

April 17, 2020 § 9 Comments

By Lorraine Camenzuli, Ph.D.

Amy Roost, the editor of the Fury anthology, and I had a shared interest in promoting an integrative approach to graduate studies in clinical psychology. I shared with her my passion for including the latest neuroscience research into treatment, especially treatment of trauma. I argued that our expanded ability to work with so-called “unconscious” reactivity helped the body, as well as the mind, to heal. Amy had already begun gathering women’s personal experiences and reactions to the then-recent,Trump election, and asked if I might want to contribute to an anthology she was editing. I told her it sounded intriguing and I would think about it. What I didn’t tell her was that I had a big dilemma to resolve before doing any such thing.

As a professional psychologist I was trained to leave myself, my personal beliefs and my biases out of any conversation with clients, potential clients, or the general public. My modus operandi was to remain neutral – at least on the “outside.” Going public with my views could jeopardize this. But a group of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals around the nation had already gone public with their views about Trump’s personality issues, going so far as to suggest he suffers from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Though confidentiality is one of the hallmark ethical principles of mental health care, these professionals also felt duty-bound to warn the public about the dangers of having someone like this in a leadership position, no less the presidency of the United States. They succeeded in validating what many already knew: that our new president would put his own needs before those of the country.

I resolved that the public would benefit from understanding some of the principles underlying what we see and hear every day in the new Trump world.  While remaining true to my professional ethics, I realized I could share a trauma injury/recovery model I had been using in my practice on a daily basis, mostly with women. The “Polyvagal” Model informs us that when we perceive a threat, real or imagined, our nervous systems go into fight or flight. Hundreds of changes occur instantly but outside of consciousness, as our body activates to fight the threat or run away. This normal response only becomes traumatic when we can neither fight nor flee.  Being trapped and helpless triggers another part of the nervous system that calms everything down, presumably to preserve energy, but can lead to utter immobilization, dissociation, numbness, and depression, especially if the threat(s) is chronic. Sharing this model, then, might offer another lens for viewing what was happening not only to us as American citizens, but to President Trump himself, and at the same time possibly map out a path to recovery.

I wrote out the theory and how it might be showing itself on us right now. But I got bogged down in professional jargon. Try as I might to wade through the complexities, I couldn’t whittle down my thoughts enough to be readable or relatable. When an editor read it, she essentially tore it apart, accusing me of being too abstract, avoiding my own feelings and seeming too sympathetic to Donald Trump. Usually this kind of criticism makes me shrink, but I had to laugh because she was right. Despite my professional reserve, I had to come clean with why I felt this was important to say out loud, and what drove me to say it in the first place.  So I finally found a way to talk about myself, illustrating how I had once reacted to a debilitating threat. In this way I could demonstrate how the model worked and not just preach about it. Very humbling but very valuable!

Finally, I was able to end the essay as most research papers are concluded, not with certainties or predictions about the future, but with suggestions for how this model can help us understand why we do some of the things we do, and from there, be able to generate more creative solutions for change. Spreading understanding and helping people find solutions that work for them was my ethical imperative after all, and might even contribute to our ending the cycle of trauma-based reactivity under which we’ve all been suffering.

*

From Trauma in the Age of Trump:

For this presidency we might even think of American women as the canaries in the coal mine, directly experiencing in our minds, hearts and bodies, just how toxic such a presidency can be.  But when we use our nervous system reactions to fuel our voices and our votes, we can bring about a new level of leadership that restores the moral stature of the U.S. as a just and caring leader of the free world.  What distinguishes women in this effort may be our very capacity for reading those first non-verbal cues of danger­—honed by millennia of tending to non-verbal infants.  In effect we were primed by nature to perceive and react to the danger afoot in the leadership of this kind of man.  While many of his verbal expressions seem less than logical, repeatedly reactive, and singularly unempathic, his non-verbal cues are terrifying.  In word and deed to many of us, this man signals ‘predator.’

______________________

Lorraine Camenzuli, Ph.D. is a Clinical and Neuropsychologist in private practice focusing on sequelae of trauma. She also consults in EAP Critical Incident Debriefing and workplace trauma. Past research included emotional sequelae of brain trauma and therapeutic effectiveness. Community education has included trauma, cognition and political activism, while service on boards has focused on trauma, the arts and politics. Her essay, “Trauma in the Age of Trump,” is featured in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences of the Trump Era.

A Review of Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences

March 4, 2020 § 2 Comments

survive_deathBy Debbie Hagan

Hemingway said all true stories end in death. But he wasn’t from Jersey, so what did he know?” quips Sue William Silverman in her latest essay collection, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences.

The book’s title may suggest this is a morbid book; yet, Silverman in her own clever way leans towards tongue-in-cheek, mixing pop culture, literature, and history with her stories and, of course, her unending quest to survive.

But what is death? First, she thinks it’s the Ultima Thule on medieval maps—the great unknown where sea monsters roam. Then again, it could be the ultimate boundary…the great wall. On the other hand, it might be a new path, a grand new adventure. Whatever…Silverman is dead-set to outwit, outdrive, and outrun it.

My bets go on Silverman—survivor extraordinaire, author of two memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, in addition to her memoir craft book, Fearless Confessions.

This latest collection of essays examines her life from age four to present, though not sequenced chronologically. They are stories of survival. Most focus on Silverman’s teenage years in Glen Rock, New Jersey, cruising Route 17 in her gold Plymouth Savoy “for hours, for days, or seemingly forever.” Windows down, hair flying, Stones, Beatles, and Supremes blasting, she’s searching for action: bars that welcome teenage girls, diners with illuminated “Eat Here” signs, boardwalks with rides, and parking lots with guys with packs of Camels rolled in their sleeves.

Terrified of death, teenage Silverman nevertheless taunts it: “When I reach Deadman’s Curve, I hit the gas. I spin around the circle once, twice, as if driving an amusement park bumper car, daring death to catch me in this never-ending circle. I swerve to avoid an unamused driver inching into the roundabout from a side street. He honks, I wave, smile, and press on, driving faster.”

The gold Savoy propels Silverman into a dream world. On the shoulder of the road, she sits and watches a movie flicker on a drive-in screen. “Giant movie stars, night after night, hover godlike over the awed assembly: Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood. Their starry faces glow, projected against the backdrop of night,” she writes. “The movies end. Cars roll from the lot. Tinny voices, from speakers knocked from their posts and dangling on frayed wires call out: Come back, my darling!

Later, the gold Savoy climbs the majestic Palisades taking Silverman on a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. There she discovers a monument erected to Alexander Hamilton who died in a duel against Aaron Burr. Silverman consoles him: “Generations will visit you on this spot, keeping you, albeit, not the corporeal you, alive.”

It’s here, I realize that the “death” Silverman refers to is not limited to the physical, but includes the soul-crushing spiritual death that dims our lights and steals our hearts.

The gold Savoy moves on to the Jersey Shore, famous for its rides, games, saltwater taffy, and sandy beaches. On a starless night, a man with a knife pulls Silverman into the dark, below the boardwalk. “His hand pins my long braid as if staking it into eternity,” she writes. “A wisp of soul levitates from a somatic body.”

Traumatized, she’s unable to speak certain words. Later, when she returns to the boardwalk, she watches the Ferris wheel  hover over her as it did that night, and she sees the ride has since darkened. Now, though, she knows bulbs can be replaced, light restored.

One of my favorite essays (originally published on Rumpus) is “Miss Route 17 Refuses to Grow Old.” At an Adam Lambert concert, Silverman watches the American Idol winner rise onto the stage, glittering in sequins in a feathered top hat, fringed jacket, and black pants. Though Silverman is on the third row, she pushes closer, closer, closer: “In Adam’s presence, we are cloaked in a black-magic trance, a malarial fever, an outbreak of frenzied worship.”

I know this so well. Years ago, I fell under the spell of a goth rock band, known as Rasputina—three women with cellos, dressed in lacy corsets, hair in ringlets, singing outrageously creepy songs about plagues, fires, insanity, suicide, and eating rats. I obsessed over the band’s lead singer, Melora Creager. Her voice, reedy as a siren’s has a wide quivering vibrato. It combined with the cellos and special effects created a gritty, old, faraway sound as if hearing this music from the horn of a Victrola. It became my gold Plymouth Savoy, taking me away from real-life dramas that scared me far more than any crazy tales this band could conjure.

“In short, pre-Adam, I slumped into middle age,” Silverman  writes. “But now he and his music jump-started my heart better than any defibrillator.”

No Hemingway death ending here. These essays show a narrator pushing on, doing whatever it takes to rock on.
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

Embracing the Unknown: Writing as Discovery

January 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

Jennifer McGaha PhotoFor Jennifer McGaha, writing a book is like hiking. The journey will envelop you in foggy haziness, unexpected visitors will creep up along the way, and hopefully others will be there to push you when you’re floundering. She finds joy in not knowing what will happen on a walk or where an essay or book will lead her. After all, we all want to get to the end of the trail and finish writing a story in the same way: tired but satisfied with the process of exploration. Here’s an excerpt from McGaha’s craft essay:

You can write without discovery, of course. You can write to a scripted conclusion, and it will be easier. Maybe no one will even notice. But why on earth would you? Why, with as hard as it is to write anything, with all the time and love and grit you put into the creation of your art, would you settle for anything less than two stunning bighorn rams rising out of the mist?

 

Read this craft essay and more in Brevity’s January 2020 issue.

 

 

Brevity’s January 2020 Issue Launched Today

January 20, 2020 § 2 Comments

IMG-2476Our newest issue, Issue 63, is out this morning, featuring crisp, provocative essays from Maggie Smith, Lara Lillibridge, Joanna Brichetto, Natalie Rose, B.J. Hollars, Kelly Shire, Marcia Aldrich, Robert Julius, Natalia Rachel Singer, Amie Whittemore, Margo Steines, Matt Donovan, Mary Zelinka, Doug Lawson, and Jill Kolongowski and her Spring 2019 creative writing class. All of these, along with stunning photos by Mike McKniff.

Also new today, in our Craft Section, Jen Corrigan, Jennifer McGaha, Mary Ann McSweeny, and Sonja Livingston discuss impatience and restlessness in writing, the art of discovery, the role of compassion in nonfiction, and how to bring Nancy Drew into your essaying.

Meanwhile, we are still accepting submissions for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. We are also still actively seeking some financial support to make this issue possible, and even small amounts go a long way.  Thanks to those of you who have already contributed, and to anyone who can help as we go forward.

Happy reading!

 

 

 

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