Why Can’t I Do This At Home?

October 15, 2019 § 19 Comments

I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?

If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?

Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:

Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript

Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar

Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time

It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.

photo by Tawnya Bragg

At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”

A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?

Probably not.

Sorry.

But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.

We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.

We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.

Speed Dating with Editors

September 11, 2019 § 16 Comments

Diane ReukaufBy Diane Reukauf

I am not of the speed-dating generation (and feel lucky in that), but I am intrigued to see that the annual day-long Barrelhouse Conference, Conversations and Connections, in Arlington VA, includes Speed Dating with Editors.

I’d like a chance to meet even briefly with an editor, a professional who can read fast and speedily tell me what my work needs and where to submit it. The rules warn of a strictly-enforced ten minutes with an editor who will spend some of those minutes reading my writing, so I choose two short, related nonfiction pieces from a larger work.

A ticket for the event was included with my registration fee, but attendees can buy additional tickets for $5. I buy a second ticket, a chance for a second opinion. Waiting for my turn in the long line with other writers, I feel some anxiety, although not the kind of anxiety my younger self would have experienced in a real dating situation: Do I look good? Did I wear the right thing? Is my hair too frizzy?  No, I today am worried about being inarticulate in responding to an editor’s questions. I am worried that I will come across as too immature to be speed-dating nonfiction editors.

When it’s my turn, I walk across the wide gym floor to the young editor assigned to me. I sit across the table from him, hand over my pages, and feel awkward while he reads my words. When he finally looks up, he asks a few questions, encourages me to cut some lines, and identifies two sections that he says have “power.” He asks if I can envision writing a series of brief scenes like those. “I see a collection of short pieces,” he says.

“That’s exactly what I have in mind,” I tell him. Perfect, I think.

I leave the gym and immediately walk to the back of the now even longer line with my second ticket. When I sit down with the next editor I do not feel awkward. I feel like a speed-dating pro. This woman reads quickly and is encouraging. She asks me where I am going with my story, what I want to say in the larger telling. She makes concrete recommendations to expand and link the scenes. “Can you see how that would improve things?” she asks.

“Yes, I think so,” I say with only slight hesitation.

She tells me that she can envision the fuller story and explains that what I am writing is ideally suited for a single long-form nonfiction piece. Hmm.

A collection of discrete, short scenes or one integrated long-form piece? I leave that session and immediately head to the registration desk where I buy a third ticket. I want one more opinion, a tie-breaker. I feel a rush as I hand over my five-dollar bill and am given another speed-dating pass, convinced I have in my hand a winning ticket. I get back in line, wondering if this is what it feels like to be in a Las Vegas casino.

I look forward to the third professional who will settle the issue and tell me for sure what I should do. This editor makes marks on my pages as he reads. He notes the same two “powerful” passages as the first editor, and then he asks if I consider the two linked pieces to be two individual chapters.

“Yes, I do.”

“They’re awfully short,” he says.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s intentional.”

He explains that he hates that style. “I just hate it!” he repeats with some passion. “But you should ignore me,” he says. “That’s simply a personal preference, a stylistic thing.”

He then asks useful questions about my story and leads me to more fully describe scenes. “Write that down!” he says a few times. We talk about other parts of the story and he has ideas for expanding those sections. He is clear about his vision. He tells me he sees this narrative as a traditional book, a collection of long chapters. Again, Hmm.

As I leave the room after that last encounter, I feel a speed-dating buzz. Instead of feeling disappointed because I haven’t been shown the one sure path to publication, I feel grateful that three editors paid attention to my writing. I also feel energized, ready to take on the task of crafting my work into a collection of longer, more fully-developed chapters.

Or possibly a single long-form piece.

Or maybe a series of short scenes.

Hard to know. Harder still to know what a fourth editor might tell me! Here’s the thing, though. I have been reminded of something I know but routinely forget. Editors can disagree about what makes for a good read. Whatever format I eventually choose, it will likely not suit the majority of editors out there, but it might have a shot at appealing to one of them. I’m okay with that. It’s enough to keep me going for now.
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Diane Reukauf is co-author of The Father Book: Pregnancy and Beyond and Commonsense Breastfeeding, and her essays have appeared in print versions of Skirt! Magazine, Parenting and online at Women on Writing. She has conducted expressive writing sessions for pediatric oncology nurses at a cancer center and for international students at a community college. After a considerable hiatus, she has returned to her own writing and is currently working on a collection of pieces about loss and grief.

The Benefits of a DIY Writing Retreat

July 10, 2019 § 23 Comments

jovarnishby Jo Varnish

My Submittable let me know that my friend C and I hadn’t been successful in our application to Barrelhouse Writer Camp. I spent my mandatory few minutes wallowing, and then called C to fill her in. Similarly resilient through the disappointments this writers’ life hurls our way, we were open to a new idea. A Do-It-Yourself writing retreat.

We had already secured our partners’ support in leaving them with the kids and pets for three nights, we had set aside the money to pay for the camp – we could do this.

We decided on anywhere near Madison, Connecticut for our retreat’s venue, being midway-ish between C’s Massachusetts home, and mine in New Jersey. I immediately jumped on Airbnb. After coming dangerously close to accidentally booking a bargain of a stately home in Madison, Georgia, I found the perfect cottage. It had two bedrooms and sat on the banks of Oxoboxo Lake. What a name.

We would write, and relax by the lake, kayak, enjoy wine by the fire pit in the evenings: it would be our own Barrelhouse Camp. C and I are well acquainted with the writers’ getaway. We first met two summers ago in a retreat in France. On the day I had arrived, I had walked into the living room of our stone house in the tiny village of Villeferry, to meet the group. C was dramatically sprawled across a chaise lounge, eyes closed, hands on her face. “I have a headache,” she said and then she opened her eyes. “Oh, you’re younger than I thought you’d be.” We fell in friend love at first sight. We later spent a weekend on a writing course in Boston. We talk every day. Every single day.

We arrived at Oxoboxo Lake with long lists of goals, and huge excitement. As a mother with deadlines and work and pets, knowing I have an hour to write at home isn’t really an hour of fully focused writing. The on-call brain is always chugging along, reminding me the laundry in the basement needs to be switched to the dryer, I don’t have sandwich food for school lunches the next day, the dogs need a walk, the gas bill needs paying. Not to mention the fact that at any point in time one of my kids might call or text or Instagram message or snapchat me. Or Facebook message or Facetime me. Or yell from upstairs.

At Oxoboxo Lake, I was free to write in a way I have never been before. Even at the French retreat, or the Boston weekend, the time was punctuated with excellent workshops and craft sessions. I was hungry to learn and be part of those communities, but our weekend on the lake was different.

We chose our spots and stuck to them. C had the day bed directly in front of the picture window framing the lake. I wanted the armchair a little further back from the window. The view didn’t even seem real. Mist suspended over the grey lake in the early morning cleared within a couple of hours, burned off by the sun. The sky brightened to postcard blue, and the lake’s surface shimmered. We could hear the kids next door shrieking in the distance, jumping in, swimming. I got started writing at 9 am each morning, and apart from eating, didn’t stop until 7 or 8 pm each evening. After a late dinner, we organically continued writerly activities: we drank wine, we brainstormed, we read our day’s work, we critiqued, C even built me a writer’s website.

We never did make a fire. We never sat outside in the glorious sun. We didn’t kayak or even take a walk. I literally didn’t leave the cottage from our arrival on Thursday afternoon to our departure on Sunday, and none of that feels like a waste. I wrote thousands of words, edited even more, and submitted like crazy. It wasn’t Barrelhouse Camp, but it was inspirational and it was productive. I got home feeling reinvigorated, ideas spilling forth despite the laundry which had to be switched in the basement.

And isn’t this what a writer’s life is all about? Accepting a rejection and moving on, whether that’s researching new venues to submit your work to, or creating a DIY writing retreat. Barrelhouse Camp would have been an opportunity to learn and create and meet like-minded folk, but our weekend was a great alternative. We reaffirmed our close connection (I forgot my toothbrush and C immediately gave me hers – that kind of close) and re-energized our writing lives. Hopefully next year, we’ll make it to Barrelhouse Writer Camp. If not, I know exactly where we’ll be.
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Having moved from her native England aged 24, Jo Varnish now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.  Her short stories and poetry have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Manqué Magazine, Nine Muses Poetry, and Cathexis Northwest Press.  Currently studying for her MFA and working on her novel, Jo can be found on twitter as @jovarnish1.  The website C built her while at the DIY retreat is at jovarnish.com.

How to Feel Old While Attending an Elite University’s Summer Writing Workshop

July 1, 2019 § 31 Comments

jenny.klionBy Jenny Klion

Acknowledge that you are, in fact, the oldest living being in your class, older probably than the classroom itself, and definitely older than your eye-candy teacher.

If and when you are not the object of any classmate’s romantic or sexual affection: let it go. You had your turn, and you did it well. Remember that at one time, you too might have wondered who that random older woman was—the one looking to get laid at the summer writing workshop.

Realize you may miss out on some late night social intrigue, since you have opted out of staying in the dorms due to the nightmare scenario of shared coed bathrooms. Harken back to the time when you knew you were done doing circus work, because you ultimately couldn’t live without porcelain.

Know that your work may scream Boomer themes and concerns—your poor little rich girl saga, for example—and that your story might not be as fresh as your classmates’ stories, with their contemporary radium-filled toxic hometowns and their coming-of-age slaughterhouse sex patrols.

Comfort yourself with a lunch at the documentary-famed pint-sized burger joint in town, which traffics in cash only, offers no condiments, only tomato and onion on white bread toast, with the burger cooked medium rare, and you better not ask for anything else. Do this because you know that you are not part of the popular crowd anymore. Suffice it to say that your idea of partying involves getting a to-go cup for the remains of your one glass of sangria from the Cuban restaurant you eat at by yourself.

Bless your soul also when you admit that at one point you feel like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, whose ability to land a doomed plane on the surface of the water was due in large part to the depth of his age and experience. And that you yourself survive the crushing defeat of a bad critique, with your head held high to boot, because you’ve already been there and done that before. Many times over. And come out with something better on the other side.

Pat yourself on the back when you exchange your campus keys for a certification of completion. You have earned serious bragging rights, and that kind of satisfaction never gets old.
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Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.

Nudity and Other Dangers of Writing Workshops

April 22, 2019 § 15 Comments

Kim Hinson fully clothed and happyBy Kim Hinson

I gripped my mouse in a trembly hand. I’d just registered for New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed’s Writing Camp, and wanted to find out exactly what I was in for.  Scrolling through her website, I nervously clicked the link for the Esalen Institute—location of the camp. This was my first famous-person-led writing event and I was in a good, old-fashioned tizzy at the thought of actually meeting and learning from such a wonderful writer.

“Calm down,” I told myself. “It’s just a writing camp, for crying out loud.”

I explored Esalen’s lovely, photo-filled website, repeatedly mumbling, “Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Power,” to steady myself. Searching for a map of the grounds, I figured that my first priority was to find out where the bathrooms were. Not for obvious reasons, but so I could take my youngest, introvert-iest daughter’s advice to hide out and calm my nerves in the privacy of a bathroom stall.

The more I clicked, the more I relaxed.   My eyes lingered on words like “well-spring of energy” and “convergence of mountains and water that is the Big Sur coastline.”  I took a deep breath and pictured myself on the beach doing a little shell collecting between workshops.  More phrases from the website soothed my lily-livered thoughts—“healing lives”, “retreat center”, “educational institute”.  This Esalen Institute sounded more and more relaxing and less and less intimidating.  Oh!  And “inspiring beauty” and “unparalleled intellectual history.”  Now that’s a place I could love!

I clicked on the Visit tab and scrolled down to the Frequently Asked Questions link. Calm now, I casually strolled through other people’s ordinary-type questions starting with—“Is there a Shuttle or Van Service to Esalen?” And at the bottom of page one, “Can I bring my child?” Awwww.  So I’ll be among people who love their children, too.  I smiled and relaxed even more when I read the answer: “Yes, as long as they’re supervised.”  Okay.  That makes sense.  That’s what I’d say if I were running the place.  Page two questions—“What payment methods/credit cards do you accept?”  Oh, good.  A practical question.  I sighed, thought about getting some milk and cookies and let my eyes drift to the last few questions on page three.  My eyes bugged and I nearly had a heart attack on the spot.  “Must I Get Naked?” someone asked, and “Is Esalen a Nudist Colony?”  But no, I thought.  Those were just prank questions slipped in by some … prankster.  Writer Prankster even.

I clicked the question and Pow!  The answer:  “The hot springs at Esalen have been in use for over 6,000 years and are clothing-optional. Nudity is common in the baths and the swimming pool but by no means mandatory.  We encourage each individual to find their own edge between comfort and growth, either wearing a swimsuit or not.”

Now wait just a ding-dang minute here.

Heart aflutter, I shakily wondered exactly when a pounding heart turned into an honest-to-goodness heart attack.  I decided to join the exclusive Facebook group created especially for Cheryl Strayed Esalen Writers Camp attendees. Clearly I needed to scope out the nature of the actual writers I’d (maybe) be associating with.

The first post was from another new attendee—someone who’d never been to Esalen, was nervous, and wanted to know what to bring. One reply suggested bringing layers of clothes, and then, regarding swimming suits, something like,  “You’ll feel more naked with a suit on than without.”  And it ended cheerfully with, “See you there!”

Gulp.

After a lengthy consultation with, and upon review and approval from my best writer friend, I decided to post my own Newbie Note on the Facebook page:

Hello lovely Esalen Writers! I’ll be new this year too. And Hoo-boy, from what I read in another post, it looks like I’ll be feeling like the naked-est gal in the whole durn swimming pool, what with my black, turtleneck swimming suit, my retro, ankle-length swim cape, my classic, stretch-fit, silicone swim cap, and my knee-high water boots.  But I reckon I can handle it, especially if you’ll all kindly avert your eyes whilst I’m in your midst.

That post got an immediate “I’m with you!” from one person and then roughly twenty, “Oh you’ve got to try it!  You’ll love it!!!” posts after which I stopped reading and nearly keeled over.

I don’t say private body part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself. And I definitely don’t want to be in the immediate presence of other people’s unclothed, private body parts. My people keep private things private. I shakily assured myself that no amount of writerly peer pressure could change this girl’s modesty policy.

Before keeling over, I went online and bought two separate and totally serious Accidental Death and Dismemberment policies, leaving lots and lots of money to my husband and three daughters upon my seemingly imminent Death by being exposed, overwhelmed, and overcome by the nudity loving writers of Esalen.

The happy conclusion to this self-inflicted psychological thriller is that not only did I not feel pressured to get naked, and not only did I not see anyone else get naked, but instead, my writing spirit was completely refreshed, exhilarated, and energized. The presentations and workshops—led by several brilliant, successful writers—were creative, informative, and inspiring in every way.

Last summer Cheryl Strayed retired as the leader, but the Esalen Writers Camp, now led by authors Pam Houston and Samantha Dunn, continues in full strength. With distinguished returning and new faculty that includes Lidia Yuknavitch, Steve Almond, and Lynell George, my final thought on this magical camp is, “Wow.”
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Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. She believes that finding a home—a capital H Home—and having a good horse are what life’s all about.  Add a lot of great books to that mix and Poof! It’s Heaven on Earth. Find out more about Kim and see lots of pictures at http://kimhinson.com/

 

I Didn’t Want to Go: A Post-AWP Reverie

April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments

Lorri in the Library (3)By Lorri McDole

When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:

Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.

But second thoughts:

It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?

As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.

Dammit.

On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.

Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!

Dammit all to hell.

If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.

Beth Ann Fennelly

I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.

Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”

“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.

Ira Sukrungruang

On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”

“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”

I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.

*

There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.

But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.

I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.
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Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The WriterCleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.

Three Days of AWP (Wipes Brow)

April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments

awBy Alexa Weinstein

I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID

James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.

Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.

Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.

**

I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*

(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)

who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges

how it made me feel • how many pages

a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air

in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit

not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft

the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away

no long speeches

as the plane crashes • as I learned to write

so weird and unique • so enchanting

for the picture • for the end • for taking it

like a sentence • like lying down

to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over

more silence • more attention

wants to arise

**

I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY

At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.

At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.

On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.

At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.

At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
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Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.

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