February 23, 2021 § 15 Comments
By Judith Colp Rubin
Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop in an exotic foreign country co-taught by two well-known female American writers. Billed as a retreat suitable for prose beginners and veterans, it promised to motivate people to write. It turned out to do the opposite.
The first day, when everyone had assembled outside in a circle, the air smelling of orchids and roasted coffee, the main instructor began workshopping the first piece. The instructor’s tone quickly grew negative as she pointed out the flaws in the piece, which certainly needed some work. But for the entire half-hour critique, the instructor didn’t praise a single aspect of the participant’s deeply personal words and suggested a top to bottom rewrite. As the days unfolded, both instructors tore into other participants’ work, including mine. I had written about finding a memoir written by my estranged grandfather, an experience that had affected me deeply. There’s nothing interesting about finding a family memoir, the main instructor said. Afterwards, I cried for a long time in my lovely bungalow, feeling that although I had made a living as a reporter, I was a terrible writer.
To make matters worse, both instructors praised the work of some of the participants. These writers formed a clique of teachers’ pets who, together with the instructors, sat together in the dining room and stayed up late drinking at night. I felt I was revisiting my darkest days of high school. And so it continued throughout the retreat’s 10 days. Those of us who’d been slammed returned home feeling we needed a good hug and another vacation. The first participant to be workshopped decided to give up writing altogether. I strongly considered doing so.
As this was my first adult writing workshop, I had no idea whether such harsh treatment was par for the course. With trepidation, I signed up for an Introduction to Fiction class at my local writers’ center. But the teacher fulsomely praised everyone. He told me that my short story, the first I’d written in over 40 years, reminded him of Tobias Wolfe. I knew he was exaggerating — I mean, really — but the compliment gave me the motivation to continue writing fiction and even eventually to get back to creative non-fiction.
I have since taken about 50 writing classes in person and online and attended other writing retreats. I never again experienced what happened at that first retreat; if I had I probably wouldn’t have written another word. Instead, I received excellent advice on how to rework my pieces, but all within the context of pointing out what I’d done right.
Recently, I participated in an online Flash Fiction class taught by Kathy Fish. It took me four tries to get into this class which always booked up immediately when it was made available on a first come first serve basis. After having her server crash, Kathy switched to a lottery system. When I started the class, I hoped not only to learn about this genre but also to understand why this class was so popular. The teacher was excellent as were the exercises she provided. But there was, I think, another crucial factor. Kathy made clear she would only allow positive feedback to be given about all the pieces. Any piece can be better edited, she explained, but in her experience, positivity brought out the best writing in participants. By the interest in her classes, it seems to be working.
At times I’ve wondered whether the excessive praise was too much. I’ve read pieces whose authors might have benefited from some tough love and total rewrites. But I’ve seen how some positive feedback can give a writer dignity and enable them to focus on their weaknesses.
It’s been almost 50 years since I received my first encouraging words as a writer, but the incident remains clear in my mind. My third-grade teacher had underlined a phrase I had written in a story: “The cat’s eyes were gleaming,” and had written “excellent!” underneath. That one word probably more than anything made a writer out of me.
Judith Colp Rubin is a writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.
September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments
Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.
Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).
Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now. Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?
Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.
Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.
Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.
Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.
More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.
September 10, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Amy Berkowitz
A few months ago, a friend told me they were watching a concert on YouTube Live when they were suddenly overwhelmed by grief. They were enjoying the music so much, and then they thought about how temporary the pleasure was: once quarantine was over, they wouldn’t be able to go to shows anymore, as most venues aren’t accessible to them.
The amount of high-quality arts programming that’s been made available online during COVID is dizzying: on any given night, I can check out a poetry reading, an artist talk, a concert, and a comedy show. But while this glut of diverse entertainment is exciting, it’s also bittersweet. For one thing, well, it’s the result of a devastating global pandemic. And on top of that, it’s only being provided now that everybody can’t go to live events. For sick and disabled people, it’s been painful to watch accommodations that have been denied to us—or even framed as impossible—for decades immediately manifest as soon as able-bodied people need them too. All of a sudden, remote work and virtual learning are the norm, and you can go to a reading without getting out of bed.
As a chronically ill writer who wrote a book about chronic illness (Tender Points, rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019), much of my experience navigating accessibility has been around literary events. Right before shelter in place started, I did two readings back to back in New York and DC that have made a lingering impact on how I think about accessibility.
I generally make an effort to read in accessible spaces, and I was particularly committed to finding one for the New York event because I was appearing in conversation with a filmmaker whose work also centers chronic illness. I emailed my disability community friends, my art friends, my publisher—do you know an accessible, large-ish space that we could use for free?
I got a lot of almost-but-not-quites: it’s accessible, but the bathroom isn’t; or it’s accessible but it’s small, so the audience will have to stand. And then my publisher put us in touch with Mara Mills, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies, and all of a sudden our event was being hosted by the NYU Center for Disability Studies.
The reading at NYU was the most thoughtfully accessible event I’d ever been part of. It’s not that I hadn’t been around accessible events before; in 2016, I co-organized Sick Fest, a free Oakland event that featured readings and performances by sick and disabled artists and writers. We did our best to make Sick Fest accessible, but we were winging it: we had no budget and none of us had ever organized a large event before, accessible or not, so we had to educate ourselves about what accommodations to provide and then somehow figure out how to provide them for free. While we did manage to find a wheelchair accessible space and arrange for ASL interpretation and other accommodations, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out until the last minute.
But at the Center for Disability Studies, as you’d imagine, accessibility was built in. There was plenty of space for audience members in wheelchairs; a CART captioner typed our words as we spoke and they appeared on a big screen. I’d never seen CART captioning before, and I was a bit distracted by it, in part by the narcissistic pleasure of seeing my speech appear in big green letters and in part by the joy of seeing this accommodation provided for the first time. And it hadn’t even been something I had to ask for or fight for or scrounge up funds for. The Center for Disability Studies provided it because that’s how their events are. For them, it was routine; for me, it was utopian. What if all events were CART captioned? What if accessibility was a thing you didn’t have to wrangle? What if it was always built in, assumed, part of any space?
Three days later, in DC, I appeared in conversation with a memoirist whose publisher had arranged for our reading to be held at an independent bookstore. It was a great venue, except for one thing: the event space was down two flights of stairs. I have a couple of friends in the DC area, a fiction writer and a poet. The fiction writer came to the reading; the poet, who gets around on crutches, did not. As I walked down those stairs to the event, I thought about how they were keeping my friend out and I wondered who else they were keeping out. But once the reading started, the venue’s inaccessibility fell from my thoughts, replaced by nerves and excitement about the memoirist’s book. For the two or so hours we talked and answered questions from the audience, the fact that we were in an inaccessible space didn’t cross my mind.
Remembering my reading at the bookstore helps me understand how easy it is for most people not to think about accessibility. If you’re able bodied and go to events in lots of inaccessible spaces, you might think there’s no need to have your event in an accessible space because you don’t know any wheelchair users who like poetry or film or memoirs.
And thinking about my reading at the Center for Disability Studies helps me envision exactly how beautiful access is, how it brings people together, makes everyone welcome, includes everyone in the conversation. How access is an act of love, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes.
I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about these gains in accessibility lasting any longer than able-bodied people need them, but maybe the future will prove me wrong. I don’t think we’ll have live streams of every reading and show, but I could see some arts organizations rethinking their online offerings. I do think this is a great time for everyone—including and especially (currently) able-bodied people—to be thinking and talking more about disability and access.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015 and rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019. Other writing has appeared in publications including Bitch, McSweeney’s, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing a novel.
Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020
September 7, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Josh Sippie
Writing conferences can be kind of daunting. I spent about half a decade going to various conferences across the Eastern seaboard as an eager attendee, relishing my 2.5 minutes of facetime with editors and agents, and awkwardly trying to start conversations with writers because we had one thing for sure in common—we were both writers. Whether it was a conference for book-length projects or just slinging essays about tattoos or poor choices made as a teenager, I felt like my success as a writer would be won or lost in the hallowed halls of a generic hotel-turned-conference-space.
But it got to the point when I started to feel like they just weren’t doing it anymore. Those 2.5 minutes didn’t amount to success, and it seemed like they were all blending together into the same experiences. Fortunately, I found myself eventually in a position to make a difference. As the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers, I wanted to make a conference that could make a difference. Only I wasn’t exactly sure how, only that I knew what I wanted from a conference, and assumed others would want the same.
So I reached out to the people that attract writers to conferences—agents and editors. And I asked them what they would want to see from a conference. My logic was if we could make the “talent” happy, we could make the attendees happy as well. After all, you can only see so many panels before they start to repeat. I know I’m not alone when I say that I attended conferences with the hopes of making a connection to further my writing endeavors.
Their response surprised me—they hated conferences. Many saw them as a “rite of passage” for newer agents and editors, to get their feet wet in the industry. They highlighted any number of things that writing conferences did that drove them crazy and begging for the end of the day. So I asked them what would make that different, what would get them excited about a conference.
That got a better response. They didn’t want quick pitches, they wanted to educate. They wanted quality projects. They also wanted a decent lunch break.
Thus, the Gotham Writers Conference was born. A conference for book-length projects of nonfiction and fiction alike. Rather than speed dating 10 agents hoping to strike gold, we’re giving writers the chance to make a genuine connection. And, in turn, that allows us to line up some of the best agents in the business. We divide writers into “pitching roundtables” where they spend four hours with up to eight other writers in their genre, as well as two top agents in that genre. In that four hours, everyone will go over their first few pages and query letter or nonfiction book proposal. If it sparks a connection—great. We had writers land their agent in our first ever conference last year. But the goal here is to put writers in a better place after the conference so that they are better equipped to find an agent on their own.
With the individualized attention, writers leave their table knowing how to move themselves forward with their writing career, because there isn’t always going to be a conference there… as we are unfortunately learning in the times of COVID.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
August 17, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Nancy Nguyen
Recently, I attended a knockout virtual reading highlighting writers with disabilities. Not only was I introduced to work that would otherwise be disregarded under “normal” circumstances (“normal” meaning auditoriums with steep ascending seats or the upstairs of a seedy bar that doesn’t have an elevator), but I found myself paying more attention than usual. Seamlessly, the facilitator handed off hosting privileges to each reader, and the highlighted reader shared their screen while they read aloud. In any other virtual reading circumstance, I would’ve opened my spiral notebook and sketched flowers as I listened, but this reading took accessibility a step further by sharing their manuscripts on the screen to accommodate the hearing impaired. As I read and listened, I was astonished by how easy it was for me to follow along.
Growing up, I was a quirky kid, whimsical with a limitless imagination. I would later learn that these descriptions were euphemisms for my chronic inability to focus. I was a habitual procrastinator, often guilty of overlooking small details, and I would automatically zone out upon hearing the monotonous drone of the priest’s homily during mass. It was only in graduate school, at the age of 28, that I went to see a therapist for the first time. After our second session, she graciously referred me to an ADHD specialist, who said I am textbook inattentive: limited attention span, good at cramming, painfully late diagnosis.
After shelter-in-place, I was lucky to find a job teaching writing to kids online. For the first time in my teaching career, I have been able to create my own work schedule and found a rewards system that works the best for me. For instance, I set up a timer for grading, bracketing fifteen-minute internet-browsing breaks between papers. When I have to buckle down and grade several papers or write up performance evaluations, I put on pants and sit out on my porch, which activates the Pavlovian part of my brain. I have also found more time to read, about half my reading made up of audiobooks I listen to on my walks. And of course, I’ve been spending my free evenings at virtual events.
Attending a virtual reading usually only requires an RSVP and a Zoom account. As the days in quarantine melt together like Jolly Ranchers in the cupholder of a hot car, I have been taking advantage of Zoom’s option to turn off my laptop’s video camera. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how many days I’ve gone without showering, and I no longer worry about appearing like a well-behaved attendee. When I went to obligatory readings in graduate school, I practiced good attendee manners (left my phone in my backpack, refrained from doodling in the margins of my notes, kept foot-tapping to a minimum), but I usually came away having not retained much information. In the unchecked safety of my own home, however, I’ve been trying out ways to focus my attention. I’ve been sketching objects around my room and folding origami. Lately, I’ve been playing the online board game Ticket to Ride on my phone, which has been the best method thus far.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic has encouraged me to realize the value of my unique perspective, how much it lends to my sense of humor, my ability to problem solve, and of course, my writing. During lockdown, I’ve discovered virtual readings, writing groups, and discussions. I’ve found organizations that uplift marginalized voices, like Radix Media (which organized the reading highlighting writers with disabilities and aims to spotlight marginalized groups in their monthly virtual readings) and Kweli Journal’s International Literary Festivals (a virtual ten-week long event dedicated to BIPOC writers that will recur annually).
No one really knows how long this pandemic will last. We can only glean the infection numbers and the ways our leadership has failed us in order to make conjectures and prepare. My single hope is that we observe all the ways shelter-in-place has improved our lives, that we remember these improvements when things become “normal,” though maybe we should realize by now that “normal” is a mirage. I hope working from home becomes more widely accepted, that we commute less and find more sustainable ways of living. That virtual readings, workshops, and events strive to become even more accessible and recur even after shelter-in-place is officially lifted. That we realize how many people would be excluded without them.
Nancy Nguyen is originally from Orange County, and she now resides in Baltimore. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she has received support and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Kweli Journal. A selection of her work can be found in NANO Fiction, Pidgeonholes, and Jellyfish Review. She writes about women, environmentalism, and the ways in which capitalism stands at odds with family bond and loyalty.
July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dana Shavin
A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.
I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.
One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”
I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.
Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.
I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.
And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.
Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.
May 15, 2020 § 22 Comments
By Jan Priddy
Twenty years ago this June, I attended The Flight of the Mind, a generative writing retreat for women. Two of the founders, poet and memoirist Judith Barrington and publisher Ruth Gundle were the driving force behind two week-long summer workshops, small groups of about twelve to fourteen women who were privileged to work with genuinely famous writers. I was fortunate to be accepted for five summers in a row. Dorianne Laux, Gish Jen, Allison Joseph, Grace Paley, Judith Barrington, Helena Maria Viramontes, Marjorie Sandor, Barbara Wilson, and Alienda Rodriguez led groups in poetry, memoir, and fiction during one of the two weeks in 2000. Every morning we met in our groups, and in the afternoon we wrote or hiked, ran or watched the river flow by. There were evening readings by each of the mentor-teachers, and also readings by students. For a solid week, eighty women talked of nothing but writing. It was glorious.
The workshops were wonderful, but so was everything about those weeks. The site was a “Dominican Order’s rustic retreat center on the McKenzie River.” Simple rooms with a desk. Incredible food—various and freshly made on site. No cell service (if we’d had cellphones), no television or internet, only one phone with a single short call allowed only once a day, and the newspaper available down the road. Communal showers blasted us clean. Hikes led to a massive waterfall and pool of glacial water too pure to support fish, a hot spring, and mature forest all around.
The pace was focused, refreshing, and wildly productive. Everything was impeccably run because planning continued nearly year around: find writers to lead workshops, review student applications, seek funding for scholarships, hire cooks and bakers, arrange for transportation and menus and supplies. Work for the next year began immediately after the summer session, and it seemed like full time work when I talked to Ruth Gundle. She had cooked meals to order for the first year’s small group, seventeen years earlier. By the time I first attended, talented bakers and chefs took vacation time in order to feed eighty women and bask in the rich creative atmosphere.
It was a nonprofit, it was divine, and it benefited hundreds of women writers. I was fortunate to have five years at Flight, including the last.
The 2000 application packet announced there would be a break after that seventeenth summer. The eighteenth year would be a “Jubilee year” and Flight would return in 2002. “Rest assured, we will continue, just as before, or perhaps with greater energy, in 2002.” I immediately feared this was a promise they could not keep, and this was part of the reason I sat down in my garage with my acceptance packet in my hand and cried. Once they had a year off, I felt sure it would be impossible to face the task again. And so it was.
Recently journals and writing events have begun moving online. Like The Flight of the Mind, I have no faith that after a year we will return “back to normal.” Publications are quicker, simpler, cheaper online. Massive conventions that always were intimidating to some of us may begin to look foolish if not downright dangerous to many. We will adjust for the time of our necessary isolation, and at the end of it, what we accepted as inevitable just last year will have been proven otherwise.
The last meeting of The Flight of the Mind week always concluded with a gentle warning from Judith Barrington. Flight existed as a sort of writers’ paradise, she’d say in a voice both powerful and soft, and reentering world beyond we should be kind and patient with ourselves. Take the time, breathe and remember who we are.
I drove alone several hours to get home, and I did take my time, pulling over now and again to think of what I’d left behind at Flight and what I had to look forward to at home.
I think we will be okay because ideas and imagination and experience remain. Much will change and refuse to change back, but we will write. We will read. We will re-balance our lives and recreate our world, because creation is what we do best.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she shelters in place in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, writes, weaves, walks, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.
April 1, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Kim MacQueen
I’m home because we’re all home. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window, because we’re all sitting on our couches, looking out our windows. We’re all watching our neighbors walk their dogs, or take out their trash, then go back inside and shut the door. It feels like we’ve been here forever.
But it was only two weeks ago that I was lugging two heavy bags 2,000 miles through five different airports to the writer’s conference, trying not to freak out. When I made my rushed and distracted travel arrangements, I’d bought two different flights at two different times from two different airlines. I sort of decided, in this annoying way I sometimes have, that both flights would connect at JFK. They did not.
There was nothing to do but admit my mistake and fork over another $300 for a new trip involving three trains and five airports, that would start 18 hours earlier than planned and end 7 hours later. My trip lasted 16 hours and felt like it had been planned by a monkey.
At first I wasn’t even going to tell my husband about the travel snafu. Then I gave in because I needed to let him know that, even as he planned to drop me off at the airport at 8 am, I wasn’t going to be able to send him a “Landed safely!” text until after midnight, as my trip to Texas was now set to last longer than a recent trip that took him from New York to South Korea. He just shook his head as I fled the bedroom with my head down so I wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. If I was my own personal assistant, I would totally fire me.
So I set off on this ridiculous trip. I brought a magazine and two audiobooks and six hours of editing work and one online mindfulness course I signed up for on a whim. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I jumped full-on into pretending this had been my idea the whole time. If you’d stopped me in any of the above-mentioned airports and asked me why I looked so tired, which luckily nobody did, I would have told you I’d actually wanted to fly this circuitous route from Vermont to New York to Chicago to San Antonio in the same day. I would have claimed I was excited to see whether I could get from JFK to Newark Airport (route: Airtrain to Long Island Railroad to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit) before passing out for lack of food.
And it kind of worked. After a couple of hours of pretending I was enjoying running through five different airports, I found I did kind of dig it. I started talking to myself in that way you do when you’re traveling alone. I watched a show on the plane where a young blonde woman who really needed a haircut, or a blowout, or something, talked about all the different wines you can pair with tater tots.
I should write something clever about this given the amount of time I’ve spent consuming tater tots and the money I’ve spent learning about wine, I told myself. You’re the one who needs a haircut, my self said back.
I did not pass out from lack of food. I had an egg salad sandwich in Newark that was more than serviceable after I pulled off the disgusting wilted lettuce, and a martini and sushi in Chicago that was perfectly fine if I ignored the glare of the awful Gate C lighting and the fact there were a few specks of somebody else’s food on my menu. The more I pretended to be interested in experiencing the people and food of five different airports, the more fun it was.
And I learned some things. I learned that most of the transit apps on my phone don’t work to actually get me anywhere. “Those apps are a pain in my you-know-what,” said a friendly Long Island Railroad guy, who then told me the train I’d been trying to get on for the last 20 minutes would take me not to Penn Station but to the site of the movie The Amityville Horror on the other end of Long Island.
I eventually got to Texas, where I did what I’m doing now in Vermont: sit on the couch and look out the window. Then my friend Anne got there from Massachusetts. She sat in the chair, because I had commandeered the couch. The next day we went to Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for the few sessions we were interested in that hadn’t been cancelled by COVID19. Most of the programming we’d traveled 2,000 miles for was moved online. So.
So we had nachos and margaritas by the river at a restaurant that had been there since 1946 that is — unthinkably, horribly — closed now. We had cocktails at the longest wooden bar in Texas, watched over by a bison head the size of a Volkswagen, and the egg-and-potato tacos we had for breakfast the next morning at Patti’s Taco House II helped me deal with my hangover. We sat under a tree with fragrant purple-pink flowers in the front yard of our Airbnb and ate grocery store pizza I’d thought would be good (it wasn’t). But Anne was nice about it.
At the time I thought, this trip is totally worthwhile, just for this. Maybe not the pizza, but all the good things around the pizza. A chance to connect with people I love and admire, some for the first time in person. Time with Anne to sit in the sun; time to hang out if just for a minute with all the people who served me at those airports and restaurants. I got to see them and talk with them and eat their food. I so hope they’re okay.
Now I’m back on the couch in Vermont. Enough time has passed that I now feel lucky I didn’t become infected or infect anyone else. A trip like the one I just took is unthinkable now. And good, because the way I set it up was super dumb. And not good at all, because without that trip I would have missed all that life-sustaining connection through writing and food and just knocking around Texas together, buying bad pizza and trying to figure out where to park the rental car. In the end, I still have my window and my couch. And I can talk to my friends online. I’m grateful for them.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
February 24, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
- Pace Yourself. Put together a schedule of things you want to attend, but don’t try to go to a panel in every time slot. Shoot for no more than two panels a day, and try to hit the keynote readings. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I got to see people like W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, and Dereck Walcott read now that they are gone. Seeing these luminaries was more memorable than those times I went to a 26-person marathon reading in a crowded bar with bad free beer.
- Break up your visits to the book fair. If you spend too much time in the din of the flickering lights in the windowless book fair, you will, more than likely, lose your mind. I recommend visits to the book fair on the first day when everyone is fresh and giddy with jetlag, and they all want to talk to you and foist their free things on you (like candy and pencils). And go on the last day, when everyone has been glued to her table for three days and has turned into a zombie. These people will be staring into their phones to keep themselves from eating your brains. But it’s Saturday, and your voice is gone, and you won’t have to talk to them. And the cheap books and journals that no one wants to cart home will make up for braving the zombie apocalypse.
- Hydrate and bring your own food. Bring a bottle to fill with water and have it with you at all times. Also pack some energy bars, nuts, and other healthy snacks. Otherwise, you will live off book fair chocolate, hotel coffee, and cheap well drinks, and by Saturday, you will be a shaking sallow version of yourself, and won’t be able to remember your own name. You might have even joined the zombie apocalypse. Three days doesn’t seem like a long time, but in AWP-time, it might as well be forever, plus a few years. And if you can, schedule a recovery day. I am writing this the Monday after the Portland AWP. I slept 12 hours last night. It is now 4:30 PM, and I am still in my pajamas. I might take a shower and put on clean pajamas. Then again, I might not.
- Be like Cinderella. This one took me about 15 years of AWP to learn. If you go to the lobby bar after midnight, you are likely to say or do something you will later regret, although arguably, the person you say this in front of will be too busy worrying about her own post-midnight transgressions the next day to think about you. When you get home from dinner or that off-site event, repeat this mantra as you walk to the elevators: Nothing good comes of going to the lobby bar after midnight. I repeat this mantra to myself (it mostly doesn’t work for me, but it might work for you). And if you do end up at the lobby bar after midnight (or the VIP Party, which you would have to sneak into), here’s some advice: How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP. (Though be forewarned, in Portland, the VIP party was switched to a one-time event, so by the time you find out when and where it is, it will be over. It’s a secret now. Like Fight Club. This might be because of me.)
- A word about FOMO. You are going to miss about 99% of what is going on at AWP. That’s okay. Be present where you are. Enjoy the people you are with. Look at the people you are talking to in the eye, rather than scanning the room for someone else to talk to. If you keep looking around for someone more important to talk to, the people you are in conversation with will correctly assume you are an asshole, and never want to talk to you ever again. This is not the way to make new friends.
- Think twice before taking on an AWP boyfriend or girlfriend. I am too old and too married to know if hooking up is still a thing at AWP, but I’m going to assume it’s still very much A THING. But remember, you and that funny way you scream during orgasm may very well end up in a poem or essay, or worse yet, a best-selling memoir. And this can prove to be problematic if you are married or otherwise committed. Remember where you are. And with whom. These are people who believe, like you probably do, that the story is more important than you are. And just so you know, sleeping with a famous poet will not magically help your verse, nor will it help you become a famous poet. You have never heard of me? See. It didn’t work.
- Think of network as a noun and not a verb. There are people who always complain about AWP. They say they hate AWP. This might be because they use the word network as a verb. Instead, think of network as a noun. You are part of a huge 15,000-person network of writers. AWP is a place where you can connect with your friends and hopefully make new ones. It’s not a place to meet someone who will want to publish your book. I have seen too many graduate students wandering around the book fair, desperately gripping onto their master’s thesis, hoping that the editor of Penguin/Random House will see them, rip said manuscript from their hands, and declare it a masterpiece. This is not how things work (you know that already, right?). The people at the book fair tables are likely graduate students themselves, and in the 15 years I have been to AWP, I have never seen a bona fide representative from Penguin/Random House there looking for the next great American novel. Yet, I have met many of my dearest friends at AWP, for which I will be forever grateful. These friendships have sustained me and have made my writerly life less lonely and way more fun; these connections have enriched my life in ways a book deal never would. So, if you see me at AWP, please say hello.
Suzanne Roberts’ books include the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) and the travel essay collection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Her work has appeared recently in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University, serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate, and lives in South Lake Tahoe. For more information, check out her website: www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
February 6, 2020 § 33 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
“I miss the joy of words,” I said to my coworker through a mouthful of potato chips while trying to ignore the ping of my inbox. “I miss synonyms and antonyms and the thrill of reworking a sentence until it sounds like music.” I had been trying to write on my lunch break, and everything felt wrong. Nothing I wrote sounded like me. Well – not like the old me, anyway.
After years of writing for joy and pleasure and occasionally, publication, for the last 10 months, writing has meant one single, terrible thing – dealing with my grief.
My father – arguably the most (positively and negatively) influential person in my entire life – died unexpectedly in his sleep last May. He was only 65, so it was a shock. He was also recently retired, happier than he’d ever been, and finally getting used to sobriety, which had been a pretty bumpy ride for the first 9 years he had been doing it. He was, for all intents and purposes, the best he had ever been. And then he was gone.
Since then, when I write, it feels like this: I am a jug overflowing with shitty feelings, confusion, and pain. When my pen hits paper (or more often, my fingers hit keyboard), the little faucet on the jug is turned, and suddenly, all of the grief comes spilling out. It gets everywhere. There’s very little I can do to control the flow. The only thing I can do to regain a sense of control is to stop writing. Which I hate doing. Because I’m a writer.
When the mess comes out of me, it’s self-indulgent and disorganized and weird and full of convoluted allusions and references to things no one would understand. It’s basically a few steps below what my journal looked like in the 7th grade.
When I try to revise what I’ve written, dreaming perhaps of placing my poignant, heart-wrenching piece in a top-tier publication, and later, being asked to give a talk on grief at some exclusive writing retreat (hey, it could happen), it feels impossible. Like trying to put a person with no bones into a prom dress. (Wow. I can’t even come up with a good simile anymore.)
So now I’m left with these pages and pages of brain-dump. These floppy, uncooperative words that do no one any good, least of all me. Because I want them, more than anything, to serve a purpose. I want them to reach people, maybe even help people. I miss the craft. I miss the hunt for the perfect phrase. I miss the art of writing, and the pay-off when it’s really, really good.
I sit in coffee shops and stare at the blank screen of my laptop, the cursor blinking at me in Morse code – Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t sit here and whine about things you can’t change. Don’t feel a million feelings instead of finding meaning. Don’t forget what it feels like to create something good. Don’t let this grief last too much longer. Don’t let this year go by without a byline. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
For whatever reason, even though it’s only been 10 short months since this huge, life-changing loss, writing just to get the grief out of me – just to keep emptying that big, way-too-full jug over and over again – isn’t good enough. Perhaps what I need more than anything is a way to forgive myself for being full to the brim with this strange new sadness.
It’s not really an acute sadness, the kind that feels like a needle prick or a sharp pain. It’s dull, and it’s everywhere, and yes – it does leave room for other feelings, moments of happiness and enjoyment and delight. But underneath it all is this huge wave of – ugh. When I’m working, I rarely feel it. When I’m hanging out with my friends, I rarely feel it. I have moments of distraction, moments when I’m not just functioning, I’m doing really, really well. But the second I try to write – it’s all that exists. There is nothing else inside me.
I feel productive and useful when I write – specifically, when that writing is fit for public consumption. I assign a lot of personal value to that; meaning, the better my writing is, and the better received it is, the better I feel as a person. I know that I only became a good, useful writer because for years, I filled journal after journal with mindless immature dramatic drivel, the unvarnished messiness of my adolescent brain spilling out uncontrollably – so why now, when I have something legitimately difficult and complicated to work through, can I not give myself a break and just let it flow?
I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, but that’s okay. Through writing, I ask myself hard questions, and sometimes I don’t get to a satisfying end. Sometimes it’s just a way to scream out to the Universe, “Hey – what the hell is going on?!” I know that the Universe is not going to answer me. I do know, however, that the jug of grief inside of me will change shape and become more or less full with every passing day, and the only thing I can do at this point is keep turning the tap and hope for something beautiful to come.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.