December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
- 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 email@example.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.
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 Magazine, Kenyon 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.
May 27, 2020 § 3 Comments
by 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 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
Let 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.
April 17, 2020 § 9 Comments
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.
March 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
By 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.
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.
January 24, 2020 § 2 Comments
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 § 1 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.