Here I Go Again: On Working with a Writing Coach

October 14, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Molly Brewer Hoeg

My forever project. That’s what I’m now calling the work that has consumed the last four years of my life. What was I thinking when I started out to write a book, expecting that it was “The Year of my Book?” Naive as I was, I poured my heart and soul into the stories I wrote for the next year. And the year after that. Tales derived from the thousands of miles that my husband and I covered on our bicycle tours, along with the joys and the conflicts that accompanied them.

I supplemented my work with taking writing classes, reading books about craft, joining Lake Superior Writers, and networking with other writers. I grew as a writer, but knew it wasn’t enough. I decided to engage a writing coach, to get first-hand personal input on my efforts to write a book. Even as I packaged up my work to send to her, I knew what I had was just “a pile of content.” I relied on her to steer me through shaping it into a book. I spent the next six months working with her, and she delivered.

It has taken me another two years to put those learnings into practice. To whittle down my stories and turn them into a cohesive tale. One that goes well beyond pushing the pedals of my bike and explores the inner me that journeys through life. I’ve learned that the bicycle is the vehicle, not the real focus.

Less than half of what I first wrote remains in this new version. But so much more is woven in between those pages. I’ve delved into my past, dug into my innermost desires, scrutinized my motives and exposed my biggest failure. There were times when writing felt like therapy sessions. But I could see how it all began to weave together. I could feel it working. Maybe.

I feel as though I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own. I could spend months tweaking and fine tuning, but it would all be for naught if I’m not on the right track. I’m yearning for that professional guidance and tutoring specific to my writing, to my project. I’m ready for another check-in with my coach.

As I prepared for the October start to our next engagement, I looked back on the notes I sent her the first time around. Specifically, I read through an exercise focused on Why am I Writing this Book? I was amazed to find that my original reasons no longer hold true. My purpose has changed. The themes have shifted. The points I want to make are vastly different.

I think it’s progress. I hope she thinks so too.

Yesterday I took my document to the printer and came home with 320 double-spaced pages. Nearly the same size as last time, but not at all the same inside. This time I’m willing to call it a manuscript.

I’m both eager and nervous to get my coach’s reaction to the transformation. I already know she will be encouraging. But I have no illusions that I’m close to done. I trust her to guide me from here and teach me the techniques and nuances that will take this to the next level.

My coach is still the only person besides me who has read this volume. I’ll keep it that way until I’m good and ready, until it’s good and ready. I know I still have plenty of work to do. So here I go again. Coaching round 2.

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Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth, Minnesota whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors. She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints.

I’ve Always Felt More Like You: On Disability and the Second Person

September 30, 2020 § 5 Comments

By James Tate Hill

A few months after I turned sixteen, I lost my sight. Not all of it, but enough that I no longer recognized myself, in the mirror or otherwise. If I dedicated much of my energy to avoiding situations where I couldn’t pass for the ordinary teen I had been, my blurry peripheral vision often convinced people, sometimes even myself, that I was still him.

Actually, let’s try that again.

A few months after you turned sixteen, you lost your sight. Not all of it, but enough that you no longer recognized yourself, in the mirror or otherwise. If you dedicated much of your energy to avoiding situations where you couldn’t pass for the ordinary teen you had been, your blurry peripheral vision often convinced people, sometimes even yourself, that you were still him.

Deleting all those I’s is how it felt to disappear.

*

Your awareness of second-person point of view came in graduate school for creative writing. You read Bright Lights Big City during college, but having seen the movie, you simply imagined Michael J. Fox every time the novel said you. Now you were the fiction editor for your school’s literary journal, interrogating the choices writers made. When your co editor showed you a submission she liked, the story’s use of second person was the first thing you noticed. It called attention to itself, like neon shorts or a septum piercing.

Despite the gaudy point of view, you voted to accept the story. It was a moving, well-crafted narrative about a primatologist who accidentally eats a chimpanzee she had been studying. Or something like that. Seventeen years later, you don’t recall the plot, nor your co-editor’s argument that the point of view underscored the narrator’s confusion. You trusted her taste. You also didn’t listen closely, not thinking you’d ever abandon first or third person. Since losing your sight, you tried to call as little attention to yourself as possible.

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Your next brush with second person came a dozen years later. You were reading House of Prayer No. 2, the memoir by short story and screenwriter Mark Richard. Recently you had published your first novel, a mystery featuring a blind protagonist. It was the first time your writing broached the topic of disability. How you went from hiding your blindness so diligently for fifteen years to writing about it, however thin the veil of fiction, is a question for another essay—a memoir, it turned out.

But you were talking about Mark Richard and House of Prayer No. 2. Growing up in the 1960s with deformed hips, Richard was labeled a “special child” and sent to a series of charity hospitals. In the memoir’s early pages, he refers to himself in third person as the special child. Returning home to the low expectations of parents and teachers, he shifts to second person for the book’s duration.

It made sense, now that you were writing about your blindness, why Richard didn’t refer to himself as I. The guise of fiction let you acknowledge parts of yourself you rarely had with friends or lovers. Experimenting with second person, shifting point of view felt at first like another costume. It proved to be a skimpy pronoun, however, nothing but a pair of glasses. It revealed far more than it hid.

The perceptions of others hover constantly above the disabled, casting long shadows. You are blind; you are deaf; you are the special child. You cannot do this; you cannot be this; you are, to the many who choose not to know you, invisible.

But in your writing, you are only you: author, narrator, protagonist. In second person, you are who you say you are, the only voice in your ears your own. Your failure to reconcile your disability with who you used to be, your mistrust of labels, the fear of judgment that led you to pass for sighted those many years, come into focus each time you type you.

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When you met Mark Richard in graduate school, a visiting author to your writing program, he had recently undergone another in a lifetime of hip surgeries. He walked with canes, but when you recall your brief time in his presence you rarely think of his disability. Instead, you conjure the stories he told over burgers at Old Town Draught House. Once, on a globe-hopping quest to interview Tom Waits, the author found himself face to face not with the singer-songwriter, who kept eluding him, but a well-known adult film actress of yesteryear, missing her front teeth.

In his memoir, Richard’s picaresque search for Tom Waits is more intricate and less straightforward. In second person, there’s another layer to the story. He’s telling it to himself as well as the reader. For two months, he rides trains across Europe, often lost, the journey its own destination.

When you think of Mark Richard, you remember, too, how quickly the visiting author dissected your short story during the afternoon workshop. “Is this a story or a sketch?” he asked your classmates.

“Sketch,” someone said.

Plucking a single line from the story you had turned in, Mark Richard crafted new dialogue for your characters on the spot. Instantly they came alive. You were startled by how much better his sentences were than yours, how much of the story you had not seen.
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James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, coming summer 2021 from W.W. Norton. His debut novel, Academy Gothic, won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. He is the fiction editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle and a contributing editor for Lit Hub, where he writes a monthly audiobooks column.

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

 

 

Pandemic Time, Crip Time

September 29, 2020 § 4 Comments

By Adam Hubrig

Under a thin cotton sheet, my face is illuminated by the dull glow of my smartphone. It’s 11:57 pm on a Thursday night during a global pandemic. I can see another midnight writing deadline come and go unfinished and I feel trapped in a cycle of doomscrolling on Twitter. Yet another day has passed and I’ve nothing to show for it.

I don’t know if I’m comforted or depressed to know I’m not alone: My email inbox is saturated with a particular genre of email I’m calling the “sorry, I’m exhausted” message. This genre, largely from my beloved circle of disabled friends, expresses guilt that they have been unable to write, that we often do not submit writing to our online group when we had planned. Even amidst a global pandemic and an economic crash that has unequally harmed disabled people and particularly multiply marginalized disabled people, we feel guilty for not writing.

Like my disabled friends[1], I want to write. I sorely want to write.

But I’m overwhelmed by uncertainty, which was already staggering before the pandemic. Already precarious access to mental health resources has been further strained. Like many disabled people, I am being asked to put off medical procedures because of the demand on medical resources caused by Covid.

It’s clear–in this time of upheaval–I simply cannot produce at the same rate. Of course, our worth has nothing to do with what or how much we produce. As Shayda Kafai reminds us, “productivity is how our capitalist-ableist culture regulates us, makes us feel less than.” Still, as disabled writers, it’s so easy to feel guilt for not responding to every opportunity, for taking a day off (or weeks or however long you need) from writing without feeling guilty. I know my own feelings of guilt are often manifestations of internalized ableism.

In my own efforts to combat this ableism, I keep trying to remind myself that pandemic time is crip time.

Understanding crip time has been extraordinarily helpful to me in my own efforts to be kinder to myself and my writing habits. Alison Kafer describes in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip as an interruption of the paradigm of time. Crip time resists the notion that time is experienced that same way by different people, that the timeline of how long any given task takes cannot be standard because our bodyminds are not standard. Instead of forcing a bodymind to be “productive” by ableist, normative frameworks, crip time is a reminder that there are no universal standard timelines. And during a pandemic, we are constantly reminded that nothing is standard. Tasks like procuring groceries become logistical nightmares (or even more so, for many disabled folks), and social lives evaporate. Pandemic time is crip time.

But even understanding that we need to prioritize the needs of our bodyminds, it remains true that others will not understand. In her essay “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” Ellen Samuels describes her own complicated relationship to crip time. Samuels describes how the disabled needs expressed through crip time are often not accepted by employers or publishers, how the arithmetic of working lives is often cruelly uninterested in our own needs. This seems amplified by calls to work remotely–or worse, the employers who seem indifferent to the pandemic and are forcing their workers to risk their health and safety to keep the coffers full.

And I get that–for many of us–we want to write more out of a love of writing. Writing can bring joy in itself, and we feel a sense of loss when we can’t. Those feelings are valid, too. Crip time–and disability pride for that matter–doesn’t mean you have to be happy about that loss. Leah Lakshmi Piepza-Samarasinha writes about caring for disabled bodyminds “that for most people, the words “care” and “pleasure” can’t even be in the same sentence. We’re all soaking in ableism’s hatred of bodies that have needs.” Despite the pervasive ableism, Piepzna-Samarasina insists that our needs should be present in the room without guilt.

The capitalistic push towards productivity asks us to ignore the very fact of our bodymind. As Christina Cedillo reminds us through her experiences as a disabled woman of color, this erasure of bodies “fosters institutional oppression.” As disabled writers, sometimes crip time means we can’t write or we need to turn out attention to other tasks tied to care that are more pressing in that moment. The number of pages we write and the time it takes to write them doesn’t dictate our “value” as a writer, and we are always more than what we produce.
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Adam Hubrig is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. His writing has appeared in Typehouse Magazine and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.

[1]In conjunction with Brevity’s “Experiences of Disability” issue, I purposefully center disabled writing experiences here.

This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Negative Space: At the Intersection of Disability and Writers’ Online Complaint Culture

September 22, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Amy Long

I noticed it first in my MFA program. Despite the opportunity costs inherent in leaving the workforce to return to school, most of my peers spent more time complaining about writing than they did writing. “I have to write a story for workshop,” they said in whining, exasperated tones when we passed in the halls or met in our shared offices. The complaints baffled me. Weren’t the pieces we had to write for workshop the reason we’d pursued the degree? Why had these people even applied to MFA programs if they didn’t want to write?

Our program offered us full funding, livable stipends, and good insurance in exchange for the low course loads we taught. Rent was cheap. We rode the bus for free with our student IDs. At the student health center, we got free counseling, even psychiatric care. We had instant friends and faculty who treated us as peers. We got Fridays off. We had little about which we could reasonably complain. Most of us did anyway.

I was different. As soon as I finished teaching my 11 am Writing and Rhetoric class on Mondays and Wednesdays, I hurried home to eat, take a painkiller—maybe two—and write until the sun set. I reserved Tuesdays and Thursdays for doctor’s appointments, therapy, errands, but just as often, I woke up, took two oxycodone, had a Coke and a few handfuls of cereal, and sat down to write on my laptop.

Given my disability, I was lucky I could write at all. I’ve had debilitating daily headaches since I was three years old and have spent the last two decades trying and failing preventive drugs, invasive procedures, and expensive alternative therapies. By the time I started my MFA, I knew that only opioids relieve my pain. My off-campus doctor wrote me a dose twice as high as the one I’m forced to accept now that physicians, government agencies, insurance companies, and others have restricted or de-incentivized opioid prescribing in misdirected efforts to curb overdose deaths and wage an unwinnable war on addiction.

I can think of few conditions more damaging to a writer than pain in the place where she thinks, but on my MFA dose, I functioned so well even our program director didn’t know I had a pain problem; on my post-grad dose, I’m lucky if I can write for two hours on a “good” day. Since writing time is harder to find and sustain outside academia, I assumed the culture of negativity around writing would stay there. But I hear echoes of I have to write a story for workshop all over the Facebook groups and Twitter threads that comprise the online writing community.

Online, writers compare the act of writing to torture, abuse, insanity. Their language assumes that anyone who enjoys her own artmaking is, among other things, an uncool goody two shoes harshing everyone’s deprecation buzz. The worst thing about listening to someone talk about how much they love writing is having to nod along in agreement reads one genre-typical tweet. Other writers commiserate in the comments or with clicks on posts’ little read hearts. Negativity has become something of a currency or writerly necessity—a way to make friends, create personas or “personal brands,” gain followers on social media, and signify in-group belonging. The half-jokes and memes serve as a rhetorical bonding exercise that all but requires a body unencumbered by anything approaching disability.

To not feel your body while writing—to not need to tune out pain, to rest, to wait for your next dose of relief—is a privilege too often ignored or left unquestioned. Instead, we allow participation in semi-ironic social-media threads to act as a never-ending networking event at which writers interpolate writing as an act of self-loathing or a cruel taskmaster to whom we voluntarily report. Complaints about writing broadcast to others not only that you write but that you “get it” in a way hobbyists (coded feminine) never will. “Real” writers, we are made to understand, pour so much of their minds and bodies into their work that they’re driven insane, even tortured or abused, by blank pages, flighty muses, narrative or poetic structures with which they choose to experiment. That their metaphors often invoke mental illness or physical pain reinforces and highlights the normative, implicitly abled bodies behind all those 240-character laments about a craft I practice from my bed.

But what might a disabled writer’s comment look like under that kind of tweet or Facebook post? If I say Yeah, it is hard to nod along when other people say they love writing; I haven’t been able to write since my pain flared last month, and I miss it so much that just seeing your tweet breaks my heart, I break the genre’s unwritten rules. Real hurt, actual illness, complaints expressed not metaphorically but as descriptions of writers’ literal pain aren’t funny; they don’t invite retweets or good-natured riffing or even lend themselves to metaphor. The different ways abled and disabled writers express frustration or displeasure with our shared art reveal inequities sustained and kept invisible by the cult of negativity: what we have that you don’t, the barriers we face that you can’t see, what you take for granted that we can’t.

Although my subpar pain management means I never feel as good as I did in my MFA years, I still write most days; it isn’t easy, and often I feel left out of this ritual we enact to signify belonging. I don’t hate writing. I love opening my latest draft and putting new ideas into it. On days when my head hurts so much I can’t look at a computer screen, I don’t relish the opportunity to take a “cheat day” or “go easy on myself.” I hate that my head so often robs me of precious writing time. But I’m even more angry with writers who take their pain-free heads for granted.

I’m disappointed so many of us feel compelled to hate this magical thing we get to do and that we don’t have more affirming ways to strengthen our collective ties. I don’t know exactly what forms those might take, but a discourse centered on the joys and frustrations of creative work might give us all a more robust, inclusive vocabulary for discussing what we love about writing and a more honest way to talk about the challenges we face, whether shared or unique to our communities. I don’t want to censor other writers or dismiss the pleasure I assume they derive from expressing negativity; we all need to vent. But our current approach too often excludes the voices of disabled writers and others who must steal our writing time and can’t afford the time it takes to tweet about the abundant opportunities healthy, abled writers are lucky enough to squander.
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Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays, selected by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019.

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Pain, My Kin

September 21, 2020 § 3 Comments

By Travis Chi Wing Lau

Chronic pain does not require constant remaking of the world and of the self because it creates a new state of being: one becomes a person who lives with pain rather than a person or body in pain. The normative conception of pain as acute and temporary does not fully convey this. ~ Emma Sheppard, “Using Pain, Living with Pain”

Two weeks have passed since I flew during the pandemic from Austin to Columbus for my new job. Mercury, my gray tabby cat, thankfully slept most of the way, but I remained wide awake with my pain. I had reached that familiar threshold of ache—simultaneously sharp and dull—one that reminds me that I have yet again worked too hard against my body. A heavy box too forcefully lifted, a few too many times hunched over to clean a grimy bathtub or the floors. Action, reaction; pained, painful. No singular origin or conclusion, but a living spectrum beautiful in its fullness, in its shifting forms and intensities.

Yet even as I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat and processed the anxiety of relocating yet again to a new city, I felt accompanied by my pain. So often, I hear of pain described in terms of alienation or loneliness—that which someone deals with silently in isolation—but I have since felt a developing kinship with my pain. My pain who has remained a witness to every event in my life, who has provided the terms by which I understand them as meaningful events. This is the queer gift of chronicity: when the fantasy of “this will pass” collapses and the burdens of upholding it end, there is the gift of new kinship forged not from a remaking but a reacquaintance. Not merely resignation but redefining a sustainable relationship with pain who I thought I knew.

Learning to write honestly from this relationship has been the hardest but most profound shift in my approach to being a scholar and writer. Rather than trying to circumscribe my intimacies with pain within the act of writing or using writing to mediate my relationship with pain (which inevitably gives way to a futile, paranoid control over it), I have tried to crip my writing process toward a more compassionate invitation of pain into the precarious act of communicating ideas and experiences. A process that does not shy away from pain’s presence but is in fact constituted by pain and its vagaries. This, to me, is what a truly crip form does: poetry or prose that models the work of cohabitation with disability and chronic illness as kin.

In revisiting older work, I noticed such a desire on my part to speak for or over my pain or even to force out of it something we might call the “aesthetic” that neither respects pain’s complexities nor addresses it on its own terms. Pain’s terms are my terms, after all. Disavowing them or imposing someone else’ terms upon them was, unsurprisingly, that much more painful. As disabled writing is finally gaining recognition, I find myself thinking more about the painful cultures of writing in which we participate. So often we are, intentionally or not, encouraged to capitalize on our pain to be legible to audiences and publishers wholly uninvested in us as people living with pain. As with many BIPOC and queer writers, such rehearsals of our pain are seldom for us and in fact limit the horizons for how we collectively imagine pain and those who have relationships with it. While we might imagine futures without pain for those who have lived too long with it, we need to invest in more than just pain’s validation (we are here, we are in pain) and subsequent containment (a hotline, a statement, a short-lived balm). For those of us whose pain lingers, we have an opportunity to expand the narratives that we have long attached to pain by writing anew from that intimate space of kinship with pain. We can honor pain as a lived reality for so many of us, while also moving toward a less painful culture of writing and publication that fetishizes only certain forms and representations of pain. In the face of our current pandemic, a practice of painful kinship feels that much more urgent if only to enable reckonings with our own painful histories and institutions, our own respective relationships with our pain, and with each other as painful kin.
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Travis Chi Wing Lau is Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College. His research and teaching focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, health humanities, and disability studies. Alongside his scholarship, Lau frequently writes for venues of public scholarship like Synapsis: A Journal of Health Humanities, Public Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Wordgathering, Glass, South Carolina Review, Foglifter, and The New Engagement, as well as in two chapbooks, The Bone Setter (Damaged Goods Press, 2019) and Paring (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming). [travisclau.com]

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Building Literary Community in Hard Times

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.).

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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.

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More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.

 

Drawing The Wisdom Out

September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments

By Cameron Steele

At first, I thought I might be able to get away with romanticizing all the not writing I was doing during covid. After all, I reasoned with myself, almost no one wrote about our last great pandemic, the influenza of 1918 and 1919 that killed more people across the world than did all four years of the first world war combined. Unlike the explosion of narratives that have explored illness, human suffering, and pain in the centuries since, scholars agree those early 20th century writers didn’t have either the model or the impulse to make sense of pain the way writers have in the decades since the emergence of HIV/AIDs in the United States. “How to bring the [1918] pandemic and the narrative form together?” Ann Jurecic writes in the introduction to her book Illness As Narrative, “It is as if the project were unimaginable in the early twentieth century.” See? I thought to myself when I began Jurecic’s book in the late spring, it makes sense I can’t write right now. Those other writers couldn’t either. Ignoring the “flood of texts” since “those other writers” that have offered a path forward since then—offered ways to make meaning of, from, through, and against illness—I clung fast to the not writing. My body hurt, I did not sleep, my new baby was sick.

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For a long time, my very small, very new baby was sick.

For a long time, I did not write.

Until I did, and here is how I started.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, I, a woman living with mental illness, a mother with a new baby who appeared, by the accounts of his pediatrician and a battery of specialists, to be unfortunately, worryingly ill, have not been able to write.

Though I ostensibly have made my living from writing nonfiction about violence, illness, and pain, first as an investigative crime reporter in the deep south, and now as a graduate student teacher whose work examines those years against the backdrop of my own struggle fight diagnosis bulimia, (here the language always fails me, I don’t know what to call this thing I have been doing with food and puke and my body all these years or why the mind suggests it, even after all the books, all the rehab, all the medication, all the meditation, all the therapy, all the drugs), I haven’t managed to write a thing about covid since I locked down myself, my husband, and my new baby six months ago. The words fail me. The desire to read what other people are writing right now fails me.

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What I read, I read out of obligation to my college best friend in Detroit.

She DMs me links to articles over Instagram and mails me essays clipped from her favorite magazines: Roxane Gay cooks through the pandemic, David Sedaris walks the footprint of New York daily, Toni Locy, our legal reporting professor from Washington and Lee University, rails against our alma mater’s mythologizing of Robert E. Lee in The Nation.

“I’m fascinated by how writers have been keeping themselves busy during this time,” she texts me. “And what they’ll have written at the end of it. I think it will be really important.”

“I totally agree,” I text back and feel anxiety and shame flame up against the mastitis in my left breast.

*

The baby shifts in his crib on the monitor. He’s finally started sleeping through the night, but his GI specialist in Omaha, during our last telehealth visit, was talking about feeding tubes, weighing the pros and cons of one down the nose (pro—it’s temporary, it doesn’t require surgery, con—it could actually make his reflux and feeding aversion issues worse) or one surgically inserted through the stomach (pro—less reflux and more sustained results, con—an invasive procedure requiring anesthesia and a hole in my baby’s stomach). I worry about karma, about his Virgo moon, about passing my own chronic mental health and digestive issues onto his new, perfect, tiny little body. I can’t write any more about this. It doesn’t feel good or enlightening or, to borrow a line from Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts when she refuses to discuss her baby’s early illness, “precious or rich to me.” But because my baby’s feeding struggle fight issue is truly the center of my life, the inflamed sun around which my days revolve, with no opportunity to meet up with friends, or escape to my office on campus, or even see my therapist face-to-face, this is all I can think about.

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Also I think about a Twitter fight I observed with more than a little casual interest in my seventh month of pregnancy. Novelist Lucy Ellmann gave an interview in The Guardian where she laments the force of motherhood on new mothers, how the needs of the child winnow the mom’s attention down to only them, whittles away the capacity for focusing on much else. (“People don’t talk about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive, and thankless parenthood is,” she said. And: “illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents”). So many women writers on my timeline were outraged—oh, the indignity of another woman saying that, what a retrograde opinion, I published three books while I raised my three kids under the age of five and got a divorce—that kind of stuff. I was frustrated then, reading the response to what seemed like an honest interview from a woman who’s done both her fair share of publishing and of having children. And now, during the pandemic, not writing anything, trying to raise a baby who’s been ill for the first four and half months of his life, trying to keep myself from relapsing into my own illness in isolation, I find myself living out Ellmann’s words, my attention narrowed down to a red breast, a baby scale, a hypoallergenic formula, a hospital bill, a tarot card and a few sentences scrawled out each morning to keep me sane, to keep me from feeling completely silent.

*

“Compassion can only flounder,” Susan Sontag wrote In Regarding The Pain of Others, when confronted with mass suffering like a pandemic, like a war, like state-sanctioned police violence. And yet, Jurecic argues (and models) in her book published six years after Sontag’s death, compassion can radically attend to the complexities and needs of intimate, everyday life. I want to say it was reading this, it was reading Jurecic that got me on the page again. But in truth, I had begun to write—more and more, every morning, for myself, in my journal—weeks before I encountered her book, and how it felt right and real to me. “Like any good book,” Lauren Slater writes when she encounters the work of philosopher Williams James in her own illness memoir Lying, “it did not teach me something new, but draw out the wisdom that was already there, inside me.”

*

The baby began to get better. The doctors disagreed over what went wrong. They still disagree about how to feed him, when to start solid food, what kind of weight he should gain to be healthy.

“I guess you can say this is where medical treatment is more of an art than a science,” our pediatrician told me. I guess so, I think I said, needing something more than that.

I hung up the phone. The baby cried, hungry and finally willing to eat, and I, finally willing to draw the wisdom out, rocked him, thinking : gotta start writing all this down later.

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Cameron Steele is a writer and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essays and poems have appeared in SFWP Quarterly, Poets.org, Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, Entropy, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her poems won first place in the Gaffney Award for the Academy of American Poets in 2019.

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Between Routine and Utopian: Accessibility at Lit Events

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.

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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.

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Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020

 

On Waiting, Watching, and Writing about Family

September 2, 2020 § 11 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

In bed, under our Crate & Barrel paisley duvet cover, I crisscross my legs with my husband’s. Philippe squeezes his bicyclist thighs against mine. I turn on my black-framed Kindle. He stares at his white-framed one. I read Jayson Greene’s heart-crushing Once More We Saw Stars. Philippe reads my uploaded manuscript. My insides flutter like a sixth grade girl picking an oxeye daisy. I want him to read it; I don’t want him to read it. Gulp!

Last week, after confessing that I was procrastinating over submitting my manuscript and he asked me why, I hemmed and hawed. Because you’re in it. The kids are in it. I said. I’m not really asking for your blessing but need you to know what I’m doing before I press send.

I’d already been down this road. A few years ago, during my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I began writing about my marriage and my uprootedness. For two and a half years, I dug into boxes of old photos, outdated journals, letters to my parents that they had returned to me, and wrote. When, during our family dinner on Rosh Hashanah, I shared my accomplishment, my three young adult kids balked, understanding they were in the story too. A few months later, after a trusted reader-writer-friend read my manuscript, she recommended I ask a different question, write a different story. I put my 65,000-something words away with no regret. Six months later, I started anew. I turned the spotlight on my inner journey: a seven-year struggle, both on and off the yoga mat, to make peace with moving from America to Israel and to reclaim my sense of self. Still, our 25-year-union and the products of that union play important parts.

I glance at Philippe’s screen and glimpse a familiar sentence: “I program it to Go Home, even if home is actually hiraeth, an untranslatable Welsh word meaning grief for the lost places of your past” from Year One: 2011-2012. He changes the virtual page. I force myself to focus on my book. He shuts off his gadget. I keep reading.

Night after night, after watching one or two episodes of “Ozark,” we snuggle and read. As midnight draws near, I shut down and close my eyes and wish for undisturbed sleep. Not a given in midlife. Not easy with a man who snores. Not certain with a never-ending global pandemic and raging uncertainty.

Days dance by. Coronavirus numbers fluctuate all around the world; the we’re-all-in-it-together feeling fuels me.

After another sticky afternoon under relentless Israeli sun and a cool shower to remove the grime of Tel Aviv streets, I lie under the lightweight covering in bed and tangle my legs with my husband’s. Sometimes we discuss Wendy and Marty’s money-laundering dramas in Missouri. Sometimes we share food finds in the half-closed Carmel Market. But seldom do we discuss what we’re reading. I’ve finished my book and started Finding Chika by Mitch Albom. My eyeballs stretch left toward Philippe’s screen. When I see the chapter in big, bold letters “Child’s Pose,” I know he’s in Year 3: 2013-2014.

Married almost thirty years, we love binge-watching Netflix dramas and buying exotic spices when we travel. But we don’t share the same taste in books. He usually sticks to historical fiction, while I have a soft spot for memoir. He doesn’t understand the point of stories based on someone’s life. If you know the ending, what’s the point of reading (or watching) a true story?  

Time is blurred by social distancing and masks and travel bans. One exceptionally hot day in July, I peek at his Kindle and recognize my words: therapy, trade-offs, freedom, warrior two pose. He is inching toward the end: Year 7. And I steel myself for the inevitable conversation, knowing I cannot move forward without it. What does he—my overly critical, keenly intelligent, overtly biased husband—think of my memoir? As I turn the pages of Christy Lefteri’s novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo about Syria’s civil war, I cuddle closer to him and wait. The only thing any of us can do.    
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Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives and writes in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Brevity Blog, and Crab Orchard Review, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites. 

The Power of Positivity in Storytelling

August 31, 2020 § 8 Comments

Author Headshot_Sweta Vikram_BrevityBy Sweta Srivastava Vikram

I have had several folks tell me that they have a persistent sense that the world is coming to an end. Between the pandemic, racism, and world leaders losing their marbles, most of us are feeling traumatized. It doesn’t help that so many are still working remotely with minimal social interactions, cued into the news constantly, and scrolling through social media where we end up watching/listening to a lot of negativity.

Research tells us that people are naturally attracted to negative news, in part because our brains are primed to scan the environment for danger and remember threats later, as a way of promoting survival. Because of their beliefs, they get careless with what they consume (food, media, and thoughts).

I believe that there is still a lot of good in this world. I do believe there are a lot of reliable people who can make positive change. It is unfortunate that our mainstream media often wants us to think the opposite. Because of the content bombarded at us, it’s equally fair to ask how one can be positive in this current climate. Honestly, it takes a shift in the mindset and an effort to see the good in the world. The idea that your mind can change your world almost seems too good to be true. But research tells us that a person with a positive thinking mindset can anticipate happiness, health and success, and believes that they can overcome any obstacle and difficulty.

The constant focus on negativity can affect your health. This article in Forbes delves into the impact negativity has on our stress levels and as a result, our health. “If you experience stress, you release cortisol, the main stress hormone. Cortisol has a variety of effects, including on the immune system. If you consistently experience negative emotions, you will be subjected to stress and more sensitive to stressful situations. Being positive is the best defense against stress, after all.”

Don’t just focus on what’s not working. I am not suggesting that we ignore the status quo. But my suggestion is to try and find that ray of light that urges you to navigate the world through kindness and positivity. For all the negative stories we write and hear, can we make an intentional effort to share positive words as well? As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

It’s important to see and share the truth. But the truth is that every culture has several stories. Don’t adhere to just one about negativity. I hear some of my closest African American friends remind us that they want us to celebrate Black culture with joy. Don’t read and watch material that only focuses on Black victimization; be curious and educate yourself about stories of empowerment as well. There are so many inspiring moments born from BLM protests.

Experiences of positive emotions are central to human nature and contribute richly to the quality of people’s lives. In Bollywood and media in India, we mostly hear/read stories about patriarchy, violence against women, and gender inequality. Yes, these are all truths that must be told. But India has also produced powerful, female role models like Indira Gandhi (Former Prime Minister of India), Shakuntala Devi (Known as the “human calculator,” she is in the Guinness Book of World Records), Indra Nooyi (Former CEO, Pepsico), and Priyank Chopra Jonas (Former Miss World and star of hit show Quantico). Can we talk about them as well to inspire?

A study, Constructive Journalism: The Effects of Positive Emotions and Solution Information in News Stories, by Karen McIntyre tells us that people who read inspiring news stories were more willing afterwards to sign up for generous actions related to the story, such as signing a petition or donating money to support a cause from the story.

Stories are a powerful tool for learning. I believe that positive, empowering stories can have huge educational value. Mr. Anil Bhasin, Managing Director, Empower Activity Camps—a corporate outbound training & adventure resort near Mumbai, India said, “The rural areas of India look up to Bollywood stars and mimic messages and behavior shown in movies. If all the stories are about misogynistic and violent men, the men in small towns and villages believe that’s what an Indian man ‘looks’ like. But if there were stories highlighting men supportive human beings, equal partners, caregivers, feminist allies…it might inspire the moviegoers to emulate positive behavior.”

It takes gumption to make intentional efforts to stay on the side of positivity and tell positive stories. But including daily doses of positivity—a cultivated habit—can change how you see the world. It is actually good for our mental health as well as relationships. Norman Vincent Peale said, “Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate.”
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Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

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