Jumping Backwards: A Writing Prompt

May 27, 2020 § 2 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.

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!




Seven Stages of Submittable

January 6, 2020 § 14 Comments

AlisonPhotoBy Alison Lowenstein


After meticulously crafting a brief cover letter and biographical statement, you upload your work of creative genius, along with a twelve-dollar submission fee. You press submit and enter a period of limbo when you see the essay, along with your many other submissions–ranging from haikus to flash fiction, logged as Received.


Every evening you visit the web page for the literary journal you submitted to and imagine yourself on their homepage. Fantasizing that within minutes of the essay being on the journal’s website you get a book deal or at least an inquiry from a literary agent.

Rebuilding Your Confidence:

You reread your essay to remind yourself that you truly are talented and any editor tasked with navigating a content management system to review a virtual slush pile will be delighted to read the layered work rife with metaphors and allusions to religion, literature and a variety of high and low brow works of art.

Judging Those Who Don’t Publish:

To pass the time, you silently judge your friends who aren’t vulnerable enough to submit their creative work to literary publications like you do. You think about your old college roommate who was lauded in the alumni newsletter for discovering a procedure to cure blindness, who as far as you know has never published in JAMA, while you have had three poems and an essay featured in literary journals with a circulation of over 2,000.

In Progress:

Your heart skips a beat when you see your status finally changes from Received to In-Progress. You imagine your essay being discussed at an editorial meeting where the words “brilliant” and “we made a serious discovery here” will be uttered several times by an enthusiastic staff comprised of unpaid grad students and a lecherous aging professor. After two months, when your status hasn’t changed to Accepted you start reading the masthead of the journal and craft impassioned letters to the editorial board about how they better make a decision or you will be forced to Withdraw the submission. You wisely never send these letters.

Perusing Social Media:

You follow many notable writers and other literary icons on various social media platforms and cringe when you see them mention work they’ve recently published in the literary journal you submitted to and haven’t heard back from in four months. In addition, you follow the editors from the publication you submitted your essay to and wonder how they could tweet several times a day, while it takes them months to make a decision to Accept or Decline on Submittable.


It’s been six months and you still religiously check your Submissions page, but there has been no change in status. You regret not sending your essay out as a multiple submission and blame your monogamous nature as a reason for this mistake. Late one night in a fit of rage, you make your way over to the Discover page and search for other journals accepting creative nonfiction. You submit to a contest that has two hours left before its submission window closes, and a series of online and print journals, spending a total of one hundred and four dollars on submission fees. The following morning you receive an email congratulating you and you log onto Submittable and see your status has changed to Accepted.

Alison Lowenstein is a freelance writer and author of children’s books, guidebooks and plays. She’s written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Modern Loss, Gothamist, New York Daily News, National Geographic Traveler, Travel and Leisure.com, and many other publications and websites. You can find her at www.brooklynbaby.com. Follow her on twitter @cityweekendsnyc.

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