January 24, 2020 § 1 Comment
For 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?
January 20, 2020 § 2 Comments
Our 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.
January 6, 2020 § 14 Comments
By 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.
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.
December 27, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Chansi Long
In one of the early essays in his debut collection, Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, M. Randal O’Wain retells a poignant memory of a family friend’s suicide. In this essay titled “Arrow of Light,” O’Wain weaves normal childhood milestones alongside a horrific tragedy, recalling how his father picked him up from Webelos in his beat-up truck, but instead of driving home, he careened across town to Jimmy’s house.
O’Wain reassembles blurry details, combining his own memories with things he learned later, to tell the story of how his father’s best friend shot himself. While his father examines the truck where Jimmy’s body is, ten-year-old O’Wain plays in the yard, teaching himself to tie a square knot so he can graduate from Cub Scouts early. The narrator’s desire to mature early in such an innocuous way becomes salient as we discover that his environment will force him anyway into the adult world prematurely.
O’Wain’s father pilfers some gore—viscera and tissue—from the body, and later, O’Wain, his older brother Chris, and his father go to a meadow to bury a cigar box filled with these remains. O’Wain describes the memory thoughtfully, viewing his father’s decision to steal and bury pieces of the corpse with understanding and empathy. The fact that his father took him to Jimmy’s, rather than shielding his innocence by taking him home first, is a point of pride and a defining memory for O’Wain, bringing him closer to his father and the adult world he yearned to join.
Like Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, the essays in Meander are placed in chronological order, and deliberately ordered to provide structural and thematic coherence. The essays change in pace and tone but the voice—solid, compelling, honest, and funny—carries us through. One of the best is “The Junk Trade,” which has a theme similar to “Arrow of Light.” O’Wain, a fifth-grader, is once again eager to jettison his innocence for the adult world. He drinks black coffee, works his first job, smokes cigarettes, and makes out with his sixth-grade girlfriend Tatum. But the adult world is darker than O’Wain anticipates.
In this essay, a character called Junk Man Wayne sexually assaults O’Wain, and O’Wain follows the adult masculine models of his culture by staying silent on the matter. Reading this essay, I recalled my own attempts to grow up early with smoking, drinking, and sex. At fifteen, I once told my friends I wanted to have sex with a local twenty-one-year-old; a virgin, I was stunned when the man approached me at a party and took me to the woods. Too scared to say anything when he pushed my head toward his crotch, I felt obligated to perform oral sex for the first time in my life. At the time, I brushed the experience off as no big deal, but it was an ushering into the adult world that I wasn’t ready for. There are lots of innocence-shedding moments like this in O’Wain’s book.
O’Wain skillfully integrates humor into his darker material. In one scene, his mother is jamming to “Brown Eyed Girl,” “bouncing in her seat and waving her arms over to me. ‘Car dance,’ she said. ‘Come on, honey, car dance.’ But Tatum was half an hour late, and I didn’t feel like car dancing. ‘Used to love the car dance,’ Mom said, glowering.”
“Superman Dam Fool” is a numbered listicle that braids historical facts about Superman’s death with O’Wain’s personal vignettes on violence; most of the scenes O’Wain recounts occur at a Memphis public middle school where O’Wain was both threatened with a gun, and expelled for carrying a roofing blade in his unicorn emblazoned wallet. In this essay, O’Wain’s humor—an obvious defense mechanism—lightens the tone. “I learned people beat you up less when you acted crazy,” he writes. He was once told he didn’t like Virginia Woolf because he didn’t try hard enough. His rebuttal: “Perhaps you try too hard.”
Most of the essays are written in first or second-person, but there is a sizable section written in third-person. The middle part of the book is comprised of a three-part essay called “Memento Mori.” In this section we witness the movement of O’Wain’s mind as it focuses on his father. In his early twenties, O’Wain traveled the country touring with his band Sicarii, while his father stayed home living out the same-old routine he’d had for decades. With painstaking detail, O’Wain recreates his father’s day-to-day rituals working at a construction site. He embodies his experience using close narrative distance and third-person voice, imagining his father’s feelings and thoughts, and speculating what his life was like as he developed panic attacks.
Initially it’s unclear why O’Wain invests so much attention in recreating the onset of his father’s anxiety—especially when he wasn’t present for these moments. But then his father dies unexpectedly of a heart failure at age forty-eight. O’Wain’s exploration of his father’s last days seem like an attempt to reanimate him via written word, to both grow closer to him and empathize with his struggle.
“Memento Mori” is artful, but it’s not the best part of this book, and in ways, it feels out of place. The other essays are more concise, and they tell us about characters through the author’s perspective, rather than trying to take on their points of view. O’Wain’s voice is strongest when he focuses through his own lens.
William Zinsser’s description of what a memoir does has always resonated with me: “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” And that’s what O’Wain provides—a deliberate construction of salient moments, when read, that trigger our memories, produce their own, and linger like lived experience.
Chansi Long is a graduate from the Nonfiction Writer’s program at the University of Iowa. She has been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and others. Living in southeast Kansas, she is working on a memoir about foster care and poverty.
November 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Alison Ernst
I did not think having a child was an option for me, mainly because of fear: pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. All of it scared me. I loved children, especially the preschool ages, though the vulnerability of newborn infants terrified me. Someone I knew in college couldn’t wait to get pregnant and have a bunch of kids; eventually, she hoped to become a midwife. I couldn’t relate at all. The out-of controlness, the potential pain of the whole endeavor seemed like something I could never handle. The concept of parenthood was particular fraught. My brother and I figured out early, we were on our own; our parents’ alcoholism and whatever trauma they’d experienced in their childhoods left them unable to refrain from passing on damage. I held an honest distrust of the institutions of Family, and the Cult of Motherhood. I’d even studied developmental psychology in college hoping to learn what a healthy childhood looked like, which mine had indeed not been. Though I grasped elements of how a parent might nurture a beloved offspring, I had no confidence in my own ability.
The preface of Carla Rachel Sameth’s book, One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays, concludes with her weeping in a lifeboat bobbing on the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night, fleeing a burning ferry. She writes, “I was not ready to die without having a baby.” Her yearning for motherhood reaches clarity during the chaotic emergency evacuation, setting the stage for much of the book’s focus. Sameth documents her fierce desire to get pregnant after several well-considered abortions, miscarriages, and frustrated infertility treatments, including artificial insemination, even after a successful pregnancy and birth of a son.
Sameth writes about the challenges of being a Jewish lesbian parent of a brown son whose father is African-American. The essays explore the inner workings of abusive marriages, futile attempts to craft a happy blended family with a dysfunctional wife, and the parental nightmare of an adolescent son with substance abuse.
The memoir derives its name from an essay about a graphic incident of police brutality. Sameth was erroneously suspected of boarding a train at a Pasadena metro station without a ticket, and for this perceived violation was slammed into a subway pillar by a sheriff’s deputy who handcuffed her. Sameth crumpled on the filthy floor—nose broken, teeth chipped, and bleeding—while passersby turned their heads and uniformed perpetrators stood around appearing bored, waiting for their supervisor to document the injuries. This terrifying incident took place the same year as the events inspiring an award-winning film, Fruitvale Station, in which Oscar Grant, a young black man, was killed by a police officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform.
The eponymous episode appears about halfway through the book, following a lighthearted chapter titled, “The Year of Eating Banana Splits,” with subheadings such as “Gestational Diabetes, Beets, and Baskin Robbins” as well as “Ice Cream and Hot Tub for Mother’s Day.” Sameth swings from humorous to serious, even within an essay. Early in the book, “A House Is Not a Home,” a poignant piece about the hope and promise of a new relationship and the destructive impact of its disintegration, Sameth quips, “So I stopped shopping around for sperm and began searching dating sites for a girlfriend.”
Sameth’s voice varies throughout, at turns funny, frenetic, and despairing. Sameth appears in several developmental stages, from childhood identity as scrappy Sammy Boy, an insecure college-aged young woman working on a back-country trail crew, through shifting sexual identities, marriages, and motherhood, and losing one’s shit with an adolescent child in a treatment center for drug abuse.
The traumas I survived in childhood and adolescence led me to think I would be incapable of bearing and raising a child of my own. Despite my fears of the emotional and physical trauma, I had the good fortune to eventually go through the whole rigmarole of having and parenting a child who has survived to adulthood. Sameth was determined to have her baby by any means necessary and, as he grew, strove to create a nurturing family. The traumas inherent in her efforts, as well as her fierce maternal love, is the grist of One Day on the Gold Line.
Alison Adams Ernst is a librarian by profession and writer by compulsion. She’s a frequent participant at Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers Conference. Though her MFA is in Writing for Children from Simmons University, she’s currently working on a decidedly adult memoir.
November 5, 2019 § 16 Comments
I’m taking an Instagram course. Which is the sort of ridiculous thing that exists these days—you paid real money to learn about Instagram? From who, some kind of Instagram guru? Wait, don’t you already teach about Instagram?
I’ve argued before that writers don’t need ten thousand followers for our literary community and/or platform; we need about a thousand engaged followers. People who actually want to have a conversation with us, and for whom Instagram is a free and convenient way to do that. My captions aspire to mini-essay status, and I do, in fact, have conversations with other writers. People I admire; people who (I hope) admire me right back. I’d like to have more conversations (please join me!), and I’m missing a key ingredient: better photos.
While I love and advocate for words on Instagram, there’s no escaping that it’s still primarily a visual medium. Many of the people I interact with I’ve already met in real life, at a writing conference or an event. If I want strangers to slow their scroll and interact, I need photos that pop, that say “there’s more to find out here.”
The course teacher’s photos are amazing. The visual impact is such that scrollers become readers, pausing to look at Sara Tasker’s posts and read her words, click over to her blog, maybe buy her book. One key concept she teaches is “Moments not things.” For example, a plate of beautiful cupcakes, arranged just so, pink frosting sculpted into dainty swirls. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s just a picture. Add a child’s hand reaching into the frame, one finger sneaking some icing, and now it’s a moment, the first sentence of a story, with the rest told in the caption.
This applies to people, too. What’s more precious: The photo of a kid posed stiffly in front of a photo backdrop? Or the hurried shot of “First day of school but she’s late for the bus so I’ve got her running and waving while I thrust the 7TH GRADE sign into the frame”? One is a moment. One is a thing.
As writers, this is the difference between telling and showing:
We were so poor we qualified for public assistance and had to buy the cheapest groceries. My mom was ashamed and tried to hide our broke and hungry state.
It’s not bad, but it’s still telling. An exercise I learned from Andre Dubus III was to take a series of abstract concepts and express them through a concrete situation or action.
We made dollar-store macaroni and cheese with water instead of milk.
We went through Justice, Fatherly Love, Motherly Love, Betrayal, Jealousy, Sexual Deception, Shame, Pride, Loyalty and a few more. I took the workshop two years in a row, and both times, every writer in the room had vivid, concrete experiences that could be turned into useful elements of their memoir or novel. Sometimes, pinpointing the moment led to an even larger theme:
My mom resewed her underwear for us…but we weren’t poor, it was that dad controlled the money and wouldn’t let her have it.
As I take the lessons of the course into both my writing and my photography, I’m looking at the world differently. The huge, shiny food court I see every day? Sure it’s part of my world, very “Dubai,” and different from many people’s experience, but it’s a thing. The janitor resting, head down on his arms on the plastic table before the mall opens, because he’s dropped off by a van that gets here too early? That’s a moment. If I do the research, maybe it’s also a story.
Whether you’re writing only in words, or including photos in your work, your Instagram, or your personal album, find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story. Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.
October 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Penny Guisinger
Disorder is rarely static. The word implies a certain kind of motion: erratic, unpredictable, chaotic. This is only one of the reasons that this thing we commonly call “addiction” is, perhaps, better referred to as substance use disorder. It’s a condition that keeps the afflicted in that certain kind of erratic, unpredictable, chaotic motion.
In his debut memoir, The Distance Between, Timothy J. Hillegonds captures the terrible and terrifying motion of the life of his younger self: a self trapped in a state of ricocheting between chaos and control. The book chronicles four years of the author’s life, opening when he was only 18. Hillegonds spent these first four years of adulthood diligently trying to self-destruct using whatever tools he found: drugs, alcohol, teen fatherhood, violence, toxic masculinity, and a finely-developed skill in the art of running away from, or at least deftly steering around, the smoldering ruin of the life he was creating. In constant motion, the story starts in Chicago, then whisks us off to Colorado, then comes back. The problems that get started in Chicago multiply exponentially in Colorado, then further fail to resolve once back in the Midwest.
But before all that, Hillegonds craved a healthier flavor of motion. A teen inline skater with aspirations of turning pro, he spent his days spinning, shifting, sliding and sailing over the heads of his teammates in gravity-defying acrobatics. He explored the outer rims of self-preservation, then went farther, faster. He writes with such grace about the thrill of being airborne, just off the edge of a skate ramp: “I began to flip forward just as I cleared Dan, the last person in line, and the world disappeared, but I could still feel it, the world, could still feel where I was in relation to it, and then my eyes found the blue they’d been searching for, the horizon, and my body slowly unfolded.” Hillegonds’ writing is at its best when he releases into these long, momentum-filled passages that evoke the sense of motion present throughout the book.
His journey to Colorado was meant to start his new life as a snowboarder. Instead, he jumped into a toxic relationship with a woman with whom he drank, drugged, fought, and had a child. Then they drank, drugged, and fought some more. Enraged by the phantom pains of a father who walked out on him, Hillegonds tries to fill that empty space with stuff that could not do the job: substances, violence, arrests, jail time. He is guilty, twice, of violence toward his girlfriend. He breaks a lot of things. He enacts a lot of pain onto others and himself. Not surprisingly, nothing about this turns out well.
Except that to someone with substance use disorder, it actually can be confounding when nothing works out. The illogical, flawed thinking is one of the many things that makes it a disorder. I read this book as I achieved 2.5 years of my own sobriety, and I thought so many times about one of the first things my therapist said to me in treatment, “This disorder makes you do things that are against your own values.” It’s one of the truest things I’ve heard in recovery, and it’s writ large in Hillegonds’ memoir. He didn’t want to be an angry, violent man, just as I never wanted to be a risk-taking, irresponsible woman, but there we were anyway, in spite of our own moral codes. If addiction is a bowling ball, a good moral code is a perfectly-placed set of pins.
When Hillegonds writes about the most shocking, violent events of his past, his prose takes on the frenetic energy of those moments, as in this passage in which he’s kicking in someone’s door: “I was kicking at the door, black scuff marks that looked like exclamation points, my voice rising, getting louder, and I was screaming and pounding, and the door was groaning, the space next to the doorjamb widening each time I kicked it, and it seemed that it might break under the pressure. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and I turned, and it was Austin. He was saying something to me, his mouth opening and closing, but I couldn’t hear him, could only hear myself, my breathing fast and hard and violent.” Interestingly, the violence reads with an effusiveness that comes close to the joy expressed during the passages about stunt skating. The prose takes flight.
How easy it would have been for Hillegonds to present this as a self-congratulatory study in overcoming a glorified, misspent early adulthood, but he resists. Instead, he presents this as a study in toxic masculinity and he writes with great awareness that it was his whiteness, and possibly only his whiteness, that afforded him second and third and fourth chances that eventually got him back to Chicago and into residential treatment. It would have been similarly easy for him to blame circumstances around him – his girlfriend, his absent father, the high school that expelled him, his mother and stepfather, his dead-end job as a waiter, the dealers who sold to him, the friends who used with him even though they saw he was in trouble – but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he unflinchingly keeps us focused on the things he did and can’t undo, the pain he rained down on everyone around him. He doesn’t understand his own rage, but he doesn’t let that lack of understanding free him from responsibility.
Those of us in recovery live in a delicate balance. We have to be accountable for the doors we kicked in and the people we scarred, while also understanding that our inability to quit using, or even to moderate our behavior while we’re using, is the result of a disorder. We have to take a long, painful look at the chaos we created while simultaneously learning how to forgive ourselves. It’s not easy. I feel like the title of this book – The Distance Between – captures, not only the miles travelled and the motion created in the story it tells, but as the ending of the book asks us to look forward, the title also conveys something about that space between who we used to be and the people we can become. The afflicted, after crossing that distance, can find stillness.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the memoir Postcards from Here. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is a former Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She is blogging about sobriety at: mycrankyrecovery.com. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.