November 23, 2018 § 11 Comments
The following rules may or may not be based on Jonathan Franzen’s Ten Rules for Novelists, but life is a mystery, and art doubly so.
Dinty W. Moore’s 10 Rules for Essayists
The reader is a friend, literally, because who else is going to read your work?
Essays in which the author does not grapple with the lingering effects of family trauma are probably just about food or possums.
Never use the word fleet as a conjunction—we have flotilla for this purpose. Substituting fleet is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many flotillae on the page.
Writing in third person is just weird.
When information becomes free and universally accessible, we will spend the rest of our lives mindlessly clicking “like” on Twitter.
Purely autobiographical essays require either a moth, a hammer, or a lame horse.
You see more looking out a window than staring down into a caramel macchiato.
It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is not being observed by the NSA.
Interesting verbs seldom intensify, intertwine, shimmer, or transmogrify your writing prowess.
It is easy to forget.
Dinty W. Moore was born, did a bunch of things, wrote a few books, and now finds himself pursued by polar bears.
November 1, 2018 § 7 Comments
Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?
Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.
But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her to see the penguins… But a writer friend and I have been trying to build more literary community in Dubai, and this seemed like a good opportunity. Not just to write—a lot—but to think through what makes a good group, in which I can do my work and still like everyone at the end.
As of Day One, here’s what’s working:
She who organizes, chooses… Dubai is a big place and not everyone drives. I thought about where to put the gathering that many writers could get to, what time of day would be best for the most people, if we could carpool, and then I realized, I’m doing this for me. For my work. I’m putting in the time to organize, so I get to pick. My times, my location.
But make it easy for people to help. We want to sustain the idea of writing in company beyond NaNoWriMo, so we made a WhatsApp group (it’s a texting app just about everyone outside the USA uses) where anyone who wanted to could set up a time and place to write, and anyone else could join them. You only want to write at night? You live on the other end of town? Great, tell us when and where and some of us will join you.
Stay loose… The group is for moral support and dedicated times and places to write. We’re not sticking to the NaNoWriMo model exactly—writers are sharing their specific, ambitious goals, but we aren’t all writing a first draft of a novel.
But set a big goal. One writer is doing 7 short stories this month. Another wants to generate enough blog posts to market for a couple of months so later he can focus on writing the actual book. I’m adding 50000 words to an existing manuscript, to get to the end of a first draft.
Be an enforcer. Our only rule: come and go as you please, but do it quietly. At the first meeting, I’m the person who popped up in the middle of my writing to say, “Welcome! Shhhhh! Jump in, we’re taking a break in 35 minutes and we’ll meet you then!” I’m also in charge of “Great break, back to the page everyone!” The sense of structure is appreciated, and having to set a good example keeps me focused, too.
Bring a multi-plug. Because the coffee shop you choose will have one inconveniently located outlet and everyone needs to charge.
Do your work. Writing groups can be a beautiful place of peace and harmony, or they can be (like today, around me) a swirl of corporate types doing a raucous team-building activity, opening and closing doors, writers coming and going, adding more tables, the waitress checking to see who needs more coffee. Put the headphones in. Focus. It’s good practice if you ever want to write at home. (The laundry can wait, I promise!)
It’s not a workshop. Generative writing in a communal space is not the time to share work. People can stay late if they want to share with each other. If you’re there to write, write, or you’ll end up resenting the time.
Writing is often solitary and sometimes thankless. Putting together a few people for peer pressure (I’m running out of steam! But they’re all still writing so I can’t stop!), fellowship, and cupcakes makes it feel better.
Want to jumpstart a project? Build a daily or weekly writing habit? Grab a group. Keep it simple, make strong choices, and keep going. Maybe the warm glow of group writing won’t last past the first week. Maybe we’ll make it to the end of November. But Day One was terrific. And I moved my Mom’s trip to December—the penguins will wait.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica, May 2019.
October 22, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
At three years old, Sandra Gail Lambert lay in a windowless room, in a plaster cast that covered her from chest to knees, healing from polio surgeries. Her mother would see her only one hour a day. The rest of the time, Lambert did nothing but listen to ambient noises and try to identify their varying sources. This left Lambert claustrophobic and determined never to be trapped again and to make the most of her abilities.
From cast to braces to crutches to manual wheelchair to power wheelchair, Lambert moves on becoming a nature lover, kayaker, photographer, and adventurer plunging headlong into rapids. In these beautiful, linked essays titled A Certain Loneliness (part of the University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives Series, edited by Tobias Wolff), Lambert portrays her life as one that rails against limitations and pushes steadily toward confidence and freedom.
She finds joy in a tight group of women friends, so enmeshed, “We can open the door to each other’s houses and yell a hello,” she writes. “Or we rush over in the middle of the night to be there, make coffee, or cry after bad news…. Sometimes we sneak in a dozen cupcakes, chocolate filled with cream cheese frosting, and leave them on the counter just because.” These are pure friendships without “qualifiers.”
The challenge comes when a new friend enters their circle. Sometimes the friend builds a ramp to her house; sometimes, she doesn’t. If the latter happens, Lambert knows “it’s going to go bad.” Without a bridge, she will never be able to leave surprise cupcakes and ultimately, “I will have to break up with her in my heart.”
The power wheelchair offers Lambert mobility, and yet it creates its own barriers. For instance, she’s about a head lower than everyone else. So, friends must remember to look down; otherwise, she will be left out of the conversations, handshakes, and the hugs she craves. Lambert creates some math to calculate potential opportunities for physical touch. For instance, if she’s going to a friend’s house, she can count on a hello hug. That’s worth about five seconds of contact. Three more hugs, pushes it up to twenty seconds. However, if she swings her body out of her wheelchair and onto the couch, she’ll rub shoulders and thighs on both sides with friends for two hours. That’s 7,200 seconds of touching.
It’s in the streams and woods Lambert finds real freedom. Getting in and out of the wheelchair and into her kayak, launching it, and then reversing the process requires complex maneuvers and calculated risks.
Alone in the Okefenokee Swamp, she sees snakes hanging from the low-hanging branches and the nose, eyes, and rugged back of an alligator. None of this scares her. Fear only comes when she can’t remember if she brought the hook she needs to get to the platform to get to her wheelchair that will take her back to her van. If she doesn’t have that, she’ll be stuck and doesn’t know what she will do. Fortunately, she brought the hook, and as the moon rises, she watches as “the sunlight sheens across the grasses and turns each patch of water into a pink pool.” The songbirds stop, and she hears the hoots of the first night owl. This fills her soul with hope, magic, and self-accomplishment.
As I read this, I reflect upon my eighty-eight-year-old father, who I’d recently took to a nature museum. Since he couldn’t stand for long, I placed him in a wheelchair. As I pushed it around, I saw the world quite differently. I noticed the museum’s railings were mounted at Dad’s eye level, the exhibits placed higher, which caused him to throw his head back and stretch to see them. Visitors darted in front of him, some standing in his line of sight as if he didn’t exist or was too old to matter. We skipped exhibits that were either impenetrable or where visitors were unwilling to let a wheelchair pass.
While Lambert’s memoir shows us one woman’s strength and courage in her battle to defeat fear, loneliness, and physical challenge, I’d like think this book offers more. It should make each of us question: do we build ramps for those differently able or do we simply ignore the problem and look away?
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
October 9, 2018 § 5 Comments
Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich discuss the release of their Longreads essay on the morning that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
Jill: When we submitted our collaborative essay, “Trouble,” to Longreads in early August, we included the following synopsis:
The essay details the trouble we ran toward during our adolescence (drinking, boys) and the trouble that found us both, including sexual assault. While we had different upbringings—Talbot attending public high school as the daughter of a football coach in Texas in the late 1980s and Aldrich attending a private school for girls in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s—we share a history of daring, of lost direction, of dark bedrooms. Jill begins the essay, and we alternate sections throughout to reflect on our wild behavior, its consequences, and our respective parents’ inability to control or contain us.
Marcia and I were delighted to receive an acceptance from senior editor Krista Stevens about a week later, but when we were asked to approve the preview in September, I grew anxious. Anxious about what I had divulged, anxious about the details that pinpointed a young man so clearly that anyone with an MHS yearbook could identify him, and anxious about describing my own reckless behavior. I wondered when the essay might run, feeling more and more a desire to run from it. And then on September 26th, Marcia and I received an e-mail from Stevens:
In light of the subject matter of the piece we want to get it out ahead of Ford’s testimony and so we’ll be publishing this tomorrow morning at 7:30 am Eastern.
Marcia: When we began our essay “Trouble,” we didn’t think about how it might participate in any specific event larger than our own personal lives. It was the second iteration of our collaborative essay writing experiment, undertaken after we completed our first essay on our mothers, and we wanted to continue the practice. “Trouble” seemed the natural next subject because it had defined and troubled both of our lives, haunted, one might say, and those are the kinds of subjects that we feel compelled to write about, that call us. Of course, I was aware of last year’s dramatic rise of the #MeToo movement although it didn’t explicitly influence me, at least I don’t think it did. I couldn’t talk about trouble without at long last resurrecting a few of the sexually disturbing experiences I had as a very young girl. Entering those experiences again was made more meaningful because I was doing it with Jill and not alone. I don’t want to say writing with Jill made it easier exactly, but it emboldened me, bolstered me.
Here’s an excerpt from the essay, from one of Marcia’s segments:
At some point he hauled me to my feet and got me back in the car and drove me to my house. I don’t remember any words between us. He didn’t get out of the car and help me to the door. He leaned across me, opened the car door and looked at me as if to say get out. Which I did. Somehow. And I walked up the flagstone path to the back porch, stumbled around looking for the key, and finally opened the door. It was way past my curfew and my father had been listening for my return. I can’t remember if he saw me or just spoke to me from behind his bedroom door. It’s hard to believe he could have set eyes on me and not known something wrong had happened.
And it’s hard to fathom what he made of my running a bath at 2:30 in the morning. But that’s what I did.
My mother never stirred.
Read the entire essay “Trouble.”
October 2, 2018 § Leave a comment
There’s nothing meek or mild in Gabe Montesanti’s evocation of being coached on a girls’ swim team, found in Brevity’s September 2018 issue.
Here’s an excerpt from Montesanti’s flash essay:
Coach decided months ago we should wear two suits. Then he decided we should all wear men’s trunks on top. Mine are black with red flames. “Good thing the boys think you’re pretty,” he tells me. “They don’t have to know how goddamn slow you were today. I could’ve gone down to the music store, gotten a piano, chucked it in the pool, and it would still kick your ass.”
Read the full essay in our new issue.
September 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
In Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Steven Schwartz finds his breathless way through a haze of distraction during a short meditation to discover the meaning of dhyana, or keen awareness, when he least expected it.
Here’s an excerpt from Schwartz’s fine flash essay:
…and I was so fully into detailing this imbroglio with the uncongenial barkeep that steam could have been coming out of my ears, and I had to think, Whoa, I’m meditating here! and get back to my breath, which had of course become rapid with anticipatory rage as I conjured a scenario along the lines of Kill Bill…
Read the rest in our new issue.
September 20, 2018 § Leave a comment
In Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Peggy Duffy confronts the sometimes painful, sometimes profound, and often long process of dying as mother moves in and out of consciousness during her last days of life.
An excerpt from Duffy’s poignant essay follows:
At her scheduled visit, the weekday hospice nurse will not commit to the couple of days the weekend nurse predicted. Vitals are better. In hospice language, my mother has rallied. She lies on her back in a semi-conscious state, blanket tucked under her armpits, raising and lowering one arm in a slow, gentle rhythm, as if conducting an orchestra in her sleep. My father lies on his bed, sneaker-clad feet propped on a pillow, interpreting each movement as a sign of recovery.
Read the rest in our new issue.