Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life

May 17, 2022 § 59 Comments

By Carole Duff

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.  -Anatole France

Western culture divides life into three stages: birth/student, work/family, and retirement/death. My husband and I, moving into our retirement years and building a new house, borrowed the Hindu concept of four stages, adding a time of spiritual growth and reconnection between retirement and death.

The third stage of life, Vanaprastha, the name we chose for our mountain home, means retreat to the forest. Not retirement but time to learn, reflect, and grow. Time to take the internal journey and heal past wounds from loss, rejection, and inexplicable disruptions. Time to explore, discover, seek meaning, share wisdom, and serve others. Time to become our truer selves.

As it turned out, I became a writer.

While overseeing the construction of our mountain retreat, I read the books I’d promised myself I’d get to but never had time, walked the dog, and tried new recipes. I wrote about my husband’s daughter, lost to suicide at age twenty-four, a girl I’d never met and wanted to know about as part of my husband’s past. But while reading her journals, hearing her father’s stories, and writing, I found my story bleeding through the pages into hers, because of connections I never expected. Disruptions from when we were five: her parents’ divorce and a home-invader assaulting my mother; mental illness episodes starting at sixteen; troubles in college; rejection in love—stories begging to be written, hiding in our closets. After the house was built, I signed up for writing classes.

Being a novice was humbling after a long and successful career, teaching, designing curriculum, and publishing technical articles. I was no longer a sage on the stage or guide on the side. My teachers were often the same age as my students—my recent students. More to the point, my wants and path-to-purpose had changed. After years of forward motion, raising children, earning money to pay the bills, pursuing success and honors, I looked back and moved toward asking, Who am I?

Third-stage-of-life writers often employ creative nonfiction in memoir and personal essays. They are less interested in earning a living as a writer and more interested in the internal search on the page. This journey for self-knowledge is heroic in the Joseph Campbell sense, fraught with external and internal obstacles and resistance. We all have wounds in our past and tend to evade them at all cost. I was appalled to discover the extent of my evasions, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness, my need for approval, to be right and in control. The “clever” stories I’d told myself and others over the years were often self-serving and sometimes outright lies. My husband’s daughter took the same journey, until her mental illness exacted its toll. To become the master of my story, I had to portray myself as both protagonist and antagonist, to turn victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able; to find a third way to manage fear, other than flight or fight. Only then could I find peace and offer what I’d learned to others.

The nuts and bolts of writing can be daunting. Pitches, proposals, publishing, platform. The bottom line of becoming a writer in the third chapter is growth, both personal and professional. Write, write, write. Take classes to grow your craft, read craft books and recommended models, join writing groups, attend conferences, create communities. Open yourself to criticism; be honest and generous in return. Study, learn something new, sing, garden, volunteer. Do all those things and more—and have a grand time!
______

Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, serious flutist, avid naturalist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine, The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor, and other publications. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, writer K.A. Kenny, and two, large overly-friendly dogs. She will present a session on “Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life” at HippoCamp 2022 in August.

On Husbands, Fathers, and Seeking Approval

May 12, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Melissa Fraterrigo

When I published my nonfiction piece, “The Night of the Fire,” which details a kitchen fire we had growing up, I sent the link to my husband. A few days later, I wanted to ask him what he thought. But I already knew the answer: he hadn’t read it. And writing these words even now, my stomach turns.

The rational part of my brain speaks up, says: You have to believe in your work above all others. Exactly what are you hoping for him to say about your piece? Why is it so important that he reads your writing?

I don’t have a definitive answer, just a number of hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: You are seeking his approval.

It’s true. I didn’t come from an artistic family. My dad took me to the library on a weekly basis, but once I was in high school and talking about college plans, he made it clear that writing was not a job. Nursing—like my mom—would be a much better choice. Dutiful daughter that I was, I went along with his advice until I shattered a beaker in the middle of a chemistry lab and 24 pairs of safety goggles bore down on me, their looks saying the one thing I’d been thinking since our first day of class: You don’t belong here.

Hypothesis #2: I’d like for him to understand what I do.

It’s true that even now at extended family gatherings few ask about my current projects—and I don’t offer. I wish I was the kind of writer who didn’t need the support of her family, but I crave it now as much as ever. I remember once many years ago, during my first fiction writing class, I handed my dad my first story and asked him to read it. It was about a woman who worked at a factory naming shades of lipstick. She hated her job and I recall spending a fair bit of time coming up with exotic names for her to assign to each new lipstick color. I remember asking him later what he thought. “It was good,” he said.

I took the typed copy back to my bedroom and flipped through the pages looking for any sign of what he’d really thought—a bent page, maybe a smudged word. I was looking for him to tell me if I was on the right path. If I could write and if he thought I should keep going.

Twenty-some years later it seems I’m still seeking the answer to this question.

I have a new writing group. Once a month we gather for two hours over cheese and crackers and write. We take turns hosting at our kitchen tables and offering a prompt. Last week L brought a box of old children’s books. The month before, K piled the table with art books and encouraged us to find an intriguing image. I found a picture of a Norman Rockwell print of a preadolescent girl sitting in front of a mirror in her slip, chin in hands. In her lap was a glossy tabloid with an actress on its cover. Will I ever be pretty? the girl’s expression seemed to ask. We had the identical print framed in the basement of my childhood home. After everyone had tired of The Brady Bunch or Eight is Enough, and went upstairs, I’d stand there in our wood-paneled basement looking at the girl, feeling her ache, and matching it with my own sense of inadequacy.

The power of this new writing group is that we write. There is no critique. Sometimes we’ll share generally what we worked on, but the reverberations of sitting at a table and writing in concert with fellow writers lasts for days.

I have always been a people-pleaser. A rule follower. A box checker. And yet writing pushes against this time and again. I am compelled to write through my own determination. There’s no grade involved. No one knocking on my door asking to see the pages I worked on that morning.

I’d like to be the kind of writer who just writes for herself and doesn’t need anyone else’s approval—only I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. Maybe it’s the drive to be seen that keeps me going.

In a culture that is not focused on literature or the creative arts, I’ve created an environment where I feel accepted and at ease. The process of making such a space has been life affirming: each time I meet with my writing group, I am saying I chose this. And this and even this. And that won’t change no matter who reads my work.

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press), which was named one of  “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). She founded the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, which offers live and virtual classes on the art and craft of writing. Coming June 23: You + The World: Expanding the Scope of Your Memoir with E.B. Bartels, a virtual workshop on writing and planning your hybrid memoir.

Robe, Coffee, Crossword

May 5, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Melissa Ballard

Don’t worry. You won’t be asked to remember those three words. This is not part of a cognitive assessment. It’s how I start my mornings: put on my robe, make coffee, and sit on my living room sofa with the newspaper crossword.

I’ve tried doing actual writing first thing in the morning, but I’m not cut out for it. I could barely fill one page with my illegible cursive, much less the three pages suggested by authors like Julia Cameron. When I read the legible bits later in the day, the content showed no promise.

But I do like the idea of waking up while sitting with words. Sometimes I read a poem or an essay while I sip my coffee, but there’s something about holding a mechanical pencil with a good eraser, folding the page of newsprint, reading that first clue, and gradually filling in the blank spaces. This is a luxury I did not have when I worked, so I enjoy it in retirement.

I’ve learned some tricks along the way:

  • Start at the beginning but be willing to change course

Sometimes, I read several “across” clues and am stumped. So, I switch to the “down” column. Or I work my way back and forth, building on my completed answers. Sometimes I concentrate on one quadrant at a time.

  • Know when it’s time to take a break, switch tasks, change location

If all else fails, I put my crossword on the kitchen table and do other things, like write.  I look at it again while I’m eating lunch and, often, I can finish it.

  • Give it a second thought

Most words have multiple meanings. They can be used as more than one part of speech or pronounced in more than one way. This morning, for example, I read the clue “Polish prose.” My first thought: “I don’t know a single word of Polish.” I went to the next clue. Later, I came back to “Polish prose,” and remembered the first letter of a clue is always capitalized. I filled in the answer: “edit.”  

  • Be brave, make mistakes

William Stafford, Mary Tyler Moore, and others have said some version of this. Working with a pencil and a big eraser reminds me to forge ahead. I can always make changes if I need to.

  • Celebrate that one word that opens the rest of the puzzle.

Sometimes, I suddenly know an answer I didn’t think I’d ever get, and filling it in allows me to “see” much of the rest of the puzzle. It’s almost magical.

Fun fact: these tricks, or strategies, also work when I’m writing.

Sometimes a clue or an answer will give me an idea for an essay or a new path for a draft, so I write it in the margin of the puzzle.  Sometimes I add more words. If I’m really inspired, I’ll scrawl some phrases in the blank journal I keep nearby.

Justifying my morning crossword habit as prewriting rather than procrastination is such a small thing. Yet, if writing has taught me anything, it’s that the small things, the details, matter.

This morning, as I erased my last mistake and finished the puzzle, I wrote “free-for-all” in the margin. A reminder that my writing is never this linear, neat, or easily completed. That I will always have too many “eternal drafts.”  

Still, tomorrow morning, I will begin again: robe, coffee, crossword.

Melissa Ballard has written essays for Appalachian Review, the Brevity blog, Full-Grown People and other publications. Her work is forthcoming in Berea College Magazine. 

How Creating a Writing Workshop Brought Me Back to My (Neglected) Memoir

May 3, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Nina B. Lichtenstein

If you are anything like me, you have a partial or completed manuscript that you’re dreading getting back to. You have spent a lot of time writing, thinking about, workshopping, editing, developing, and fine-tuning this yet-to-be published project, but there are limits to your perseverance, so your darling has been stuck in the proverbial drawer for longer than you care to admit, even to yourself.

A memoir I am working on, My Body Remembers, started as writing assignments during my MFA in creative nonfiction. I’d woken up one night during my first semester with a terrible ache in my hip. Having just lost a friend to cancer I immediately felt gloomy about my pain, but also grateful for a body that had, after all, been my reliable companion for more than fifty years. Four semesters later, my thesis consisted of a “full-bodied” 270-page manuscript with chapters titled “breasts,” “hips,” “nose,” “hands,” etc. I felt stoked about the concept and my completed degree, but now what?

After a good while writing shorter pieces and publishing personal and craft essays about other topics (walking away from the body-project felt really good), I decided it was time to find a developmental editor who was willing to work with me and my manuscript. Her extensive notes and edits were what I expected: a frank and generous validation of my writerly abilities and a detailed outline on what needed to be improved and how to do it. Ah, the revisions. What a pain. Back in the drawer my manuscript went for another long while. Months. Seasons. 

Then my friend Jennifer Lang, who runs a writers’ studio in Tel Aviv where I live, invited me to teach a workshop. There is nothing like having to prepare a presentation or workshop to whip me into shape around the topic I care about and have been working on. Give me a deadline and an (even small) audience, and I perk right up. Add some (even paltry) financial compensation to the mix, and now I also feel more professional about the topic.

I had a few weeks this winter to build “Writing the Body” into a 3-hour meaningful writing experience for the participants; now I was excited to unearth all that body material I had worked so hard on for several years. I re-discovered my carefully crafted introduction that could serve as a jumping-off point for the workshop, and all the body writing prompts I had created in my manuscript for the reader. Now the words, sentences, scenes and chapters in my manuscript served a new purpose, and this energized me about the work still to do.

Running a workshop will not only revitalize your own work, but your students/participants’ work can spark new insights and deepen understanding of your subject and yourself. One “Writing the Body” participant picked “vagina/labia/uterus” from the wild-card writing-prompt basket I had prepared, and what she shared with the group blew me away. I had never thought of (my) uterus in a cross-generational way, but she not only wrote with gratitude about her own, having carried three children, but connected this to the uterus of her mother who had given her life, and to that of her daughter, about to give the author her first grandchild. Suddenly, the idea of our bodies telling stories grew in scope as the writer evoked a whole new and meaningful perspective of bodily connections through time. How can this idea enhance my own work? I thought.

Thanks to the workshop I was able to prepare and teach, body parts—including what I call their muscle and emotional memories—moved to front and center in my consciousness again. This is where they belong if I want to finish revisions and take my project to the next level: publication.

If you need a kick in the butt (or a gentle nudge in the hip) to get moving on a project you’ve been writing for a while but grown tired or discouraged about, creating a workshop, conference presentation or session is one way to get re-invested and re-energized.

Participating in the literary community—being a good literary citizen—through teaching keeps me in the loop about our profession/field and helps me build relationships with other writers, which in turn bring ideas and opportunities. Often, and especially since Covid, this typically takes place online, but that is how I got to know Jennifer Lang, who runs the Israel Writers Studio and invited me to run a class. Go ahead, dive in and find your opportunity: you won’t regret it.

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv. She has a PhD in French literature and an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Tablet, the Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Lilith, and AARP’s The Ethel, among other places.

Against the Shitty First Draft

April 22, 2022 § 33 Comments

By Gabriela Denise Frank

Can we strike shitty first draft from our vocabulary?

No wants to do a shitty job at anything. Writing time is precious and we know words matter, yet we erode our efforts with faux-cheerful statements: “I’m writing my shitty first draft this weekend!”

It’s just an expression, you say. It doesn’t mean anything.

Well, honey, self-talk matters.

We seek to move people with the same language we use to label our writing shitty. When this phrase infiltrates our thinking—that shit is part of writing—we denigrate our creative labor and the joy the arises from it.

Attend an artist residency, and you’ll witness the pathology: hands down, the writers will be the most tense. The visual artists will fill their studios with music and invite people in for chats over wine; the writers will be bug-eyed at 1 a.m. under the blue light of a screen, tearing their hair out because everything is shitty, shitty, shitty!

I get it. I’ve been in those workshops. The shitty first draft was a cockeyed badge of courage and a way to diffuse critique. If I call my draft shitty before you do, you can’t hurt me.

While potters work with clay and wheel, painters with pigment and canvas, and photographers with camera and film, writers must conjure our medium and our tools. The first draft is our clay, our canvas, our film, and through revision we add shape, color, and focus. Have you ever heard a sculptor degrade the material she’s chiseling a statue from? Look at this shitty marble! We can’t purchase our first drafts from catalogs or quarries, which makes how we set the foundation of our practice even more important.

When an essay lives in our mind, it’s perfect. When it becomes embodied in letters and words, it’s no longer idealized. This isn’t a fall from grace. In the first draft, our gauzy notions become more. Now we can do something with them.

Do we say shitty first draft because an idea made tangible isn’t immediately what we hoped for? It’s not a binary: writing doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try or it’s garbage. Artmaking is a durational practice. We work the material, and the material works us.

One year at the Tin House summer workshop, Jo Ann Beard said she doesn’t revise her work. She shapes language in her mind, then writes sentence by sentence. She’s the only writer I know who possesses this stunning capability. The rest of us need to see words on the page to work with them, otherwise our essays will remain ideas—perfect and unrealized.

How do I know if something is worth writing?

We don’t know what’ll happen until we write. If we knew, it would be a list.

I need my shitty first draft. Shitty lowers the stakes.

Risk is what making art is about.

It’s fine to risk and sputter. Maybe you’re still learning how to tell that story, or you need more emotional distance to see the undercurrents. Maybe it’s a building block that’ll help you write the next essay, or maybe you need to go deeper—you need more time in revision.

But what if this essay is a waste of time?

How can it be a waste if you learn something by writing it?

As artists, we’re here to move minds and shake souls with humor, grief, reflection, delight, wonder, and gorgeous language. Craft takes time and practice. The carapace of shitty—a brittle, cynical shield—stands in the way of us moving into deeper relationship with nuance and vulnerability. Flawless and gorgeous are not the same thing, by the way. Drop the guard and worry less about failure. Move that shit out of the way.

Ocean Vuong notes how our language is laced with hardness and violence: “You killed that poem. You came into that novel guns blazing. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The audience is a target audience. Good for you, a man once said to me at a party, you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ em dead.”

We hammer out shitty drafts.

We submit work.

We master language.

A podcast host asks, “Does your poem bang?” A cool kid’s way of saying, Do your words have resonance?

Consider how the mind internalizes these expressions, how we’re steeping ourselves in harmful language. I’ll repose Vuong’s question: why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration rather than defensiveness and violence?

The expectation that essays will spring fully formed from our heads is ridiculous. Even Jo Ann Beard revises, albeit in her mind. Uncooked doesn’t equal shitty. There’s no reason to preemptively shit-talk ourselves—or set low expectations. The point of writing isn’t to remove risk or to pen something perfectly on the first try. How would readers know? What difference would it make? Would that prove you are perfect? Would you stop writing then?

Writing is revision and the first draft a gateway.

Rather than aim for shitty (or perfect), write towards finishing the first draft. Write to the end rather than stop midway to polish those early paragraphs. Write to the end so you have clay to shape, so you can see where to layer pigment. In revision, the work teaches us what we’re trying to say and to get there we need a draft.

The next time you write a new thing, delight in the rolls and wrinkles of your infant words. Celebrate those tottering first steps. Give that squirmy first draft space to change and grow in ways you hadn’t planned when the idea twinkled in your mind’s eye.

What happens when you nurture your writing rather than call it shitty will surprise you.

____

Gabriela Denise Frank is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her work has appeared in True Story, HAD, Hunger Mountain, Tahoma Literary Review, Bayou, Baltimore Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. The author of Pity She Didn’t Stay ‘Til the End (Bottlecap Press), she serves as the creative nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com

Sometimes Ted Lasso Isn’t Enough

April 14, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Lynn Haraldson

A few months ago, my partner and I were sitting at the workbench in his garage, sharing a beer and talking about nothing in particular, when a 1970s Cheap Trick song, “Voices,” came on the radio. I was humming along until, halfway through, a lyric stopped me cold. I looked over at the man I’ve been with for nine years—now paging through a Polaris catalog—and thought, Oh no! I’m in love with someone else!

In the many years since my husband died, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in grief. When I started writing a memoir a few years ago about my experiences in the aftermath of his death, I knew I couldn’t write from a detached place. I planned ahead and established supports—my therapist on speed dial, Ted Lasso on the DVR— for those times when grief got overwhelming.

But it wasn’t grief that prompted a writing timeout. “Voices” made me realize that—while I’d never stopped loving my husband—I’d fallen in love with him again, on the page. And that, I decided, was a problem.

Sometime during the third or fourth round of edits, when I went deeper into my past in search of the tiniest details, the ones that prick the heart and make a scene more intimate, I’d added more physical details about my husband’s body, and the ways and times we danced, laughed, slept, showered, and made love. It was often emotionally difficult to write, as I expected it would be. It also reignited feelings I haven’t felt for him in a very long time.

I thought if I listened to “Voices” few more times, the feeling would go away, like when you rub a sore muscle and it relaxes. I found the video on YouTube, but as I sang along, the harder seventeen-year-old Me fell for the farmer boy who would become my husband.

I shouldn’t feel this way! I told myself, even though it was the same phrase that—for decades after his death—kept me from grieving at all, or at least grieving productively, openly, and honestly.

Guilt tagged along, and I felt like I was cheating on both my partner and my memoir. How could I stay true to my partner and to my central theme of normalizing grief, without saccharine, starry-eyed in-loveness screwing everything up?

I needed supports beyond Ted and my therapist. First, I opened my dog-eared copy of Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief:

This is how the AfterGrief tends to show up…A random site or sound or smell pushes a memory up to the surface, and time does it’s funky little twitch. The future pulls back and the distant past rushes up close, both compressing into the present. Then is now and now is then, and later ceases to exist. The images are dazzling in their clarity. If I’d known they were coming today, I might have planned better.

Ah…so instead of identifying the song as a sensory trigger and letting it be what it was, I immediately jumped to, “This is bad!” OK, got it!

I went to Megan Devine’s website, Refuge in Grief: “Beauty doesn’t so much fix anything as it creates more space in your heart.”

Had I learned so much about grief that I forgot how it intersects with love? Love is beauty! I took a deep breath and indulged the in love, and let it sit in my heart in all its bubblegum gooiness. It was…lovely. Love and grief intertwined like helixes, rotating in unison, one strand no less than the other.

After addressing the what and why of this love feeling, I addressed my memoir as a writer. I opened Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book and reread “Memoir: Character” to remind myself not to turn my late husband into a “Mary Sue”—a too-amazing, too-special character, too good to be true. To make my late husband—and our relationship—real for readers, I must include—along with love—moments of vulnerability and conflict, to show, rather than tell, the story of our life together in all its messy stickiness.

I could do that.

Just when I thought I’d earned that Ph.D in grief, I had to relearn that feelings aren’t bad guys. If I feel guilty or tell myself to “get over” a feeling, then it’s me, not my feelings, creating the problem. Feelings—the good and the ugly—give authenticity to writing. Blame, guilt, and “shouldn’ts” contribute nothing. In the next draft, I faced my feelings, and—after a generous break and offering kindness to my experience—let my words do the rest.

P.S. When I told my partner I was in love with my late husband, he hugged me and said, “Yeah, I’ve known that since I met you.” Hunh…

Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. Her memoir, An Obesity of Grief, is currently in the hands of the query gods. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. She writes at LynnHaraldson.com and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @ZenBagLady.

On Not Leaving My Writing at the Door

April 13, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Caroline Stowell

I first heard the phrase “leave it at the door” from my high school choir teacher. Forget about that math test you have next period, she’d say as she plunked out some bright chords. You’re going to leave that at the door. This space is just for singing. Years later, I was in my church’s basement when the leader of the weekly moms’ group asked, What is one thing you are going to leave at the door? I understood that she was giving us space, and then she was going to move on to keep us on time. I played along, but I realized that if I had to verbalize the most awful thing I was dealing with that day, it would have been nice to tell the entire story.

The amazing thing about writing is that I don’t have to leave anything at the door. Whatever I’m going through, I can put it on the page. I can let it make a mark in the world. And then I can share it with my writing group. I can jump right into the hardest stuff, because in an essay you have to get to the hard stuff quickly and try to make sense of it before the end. There’s that hope that maybe if I figure out how to write the essay, that maybe I can figure out the solution in my life too. But before that happens, I generally need a space to sit in the hard stuff, to let it soak in before I am forced to race to a conclusion, and what better way to sit in the tension of the hard stuff than teasing out the central question of an essay with your writing group where no one asked you to leave it at the door. We may discuss mental illness, misplaced desire, or existential crisis, and we can do so in a way that acknowledges there are no fast and easy answers to these struggles. We can probe our feelings and circumstances somewhat obliquely as we critique the writing. And perhaps, in doing so, through improving the writing, they will help me tease out what it is I’m trying to say, what questions I’m trying to answer, what solutions I’m searching for.

At my writing group gatherings, we may not always have time to circle back to small talk and what else is going on in life or current events or what books we’re reading, but the time remains immensely satisfying because we have discussed what matters most. We have discussed the hardest thing, the thing that is too often relegated to the doorway because it could otherwise distract us from our purpose . But with writing, processing the hard stuff often is the purpose. We can say, here, here is a space for that. It’s on the page, and I will work through it with you.

It’s been a long time since I had a weekly moms’ group at my church, and many of the casual or planned interactions with people I care about outside of my home have simply vanished because of the pandemic. My writing group, however, which formed in 2019 after we met during a course at GrubStreet in Boston, has continued to meet semi-regularly. While we are all women, we cover a breadth of female experience. We’re single, married, divorced, mothers or not, gay or not, working or not or on disability, and yet, each devoted to the writing craft. In the beginning, we met at Pat’s office in Central Square, nervously getting to know each other beyond the structure of the classroom, finishing our sessions with a drink around the corner at the Plough and Stars, later sharing some of the last hand sanitizer to be found in February 2020 before retreating to Zoom. When we finally emerged from our homes later that fall, we all laughed around a firepit in Sylvia’s driveway in Roslindale, and in whatever form we have met since, we have found connection with each other through our work. We have also celebrated first and subsequent publications in poetry and personal essay, as well as acceptances into advanced courses at GrubStreet.

But, my dear writing group, I am moving away. In a few months time, I won’t be able to see you in person without getting on an airplane, and I know we are all Zoom weary. I cannot leave you at the door. How will I keep you with me? Will I find similarly supportive writers in my new home?

When the writing gets lonely, I’ll think of you and how encouraging you’ve been. When I don’t know what to do, I’ll hear your voices murmur: Write it down, love. Write it down.

___

Caroline Stowell’s essays have appeared in The Other Journal and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. In May, she will graduate from the Memoir Incubator, a competitive year-long program at GrubStreet in Boston. You can follow her at evenincambridge.com and on Twitter @evenincambridge. She lives, for now, in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.

Does the World Need Another Essay?

April 11, 2022 § 38 Comments

by Dorothy Rice

It’s Spring 2022, over two years since life was transformed by a global pandemic. Meetings, appointments, and vacations cancelled. Professional obligations and expectations suspended. My longest stretch of workaday limbo, aside from three maternity leaves.

“I think we should stay away for a while. You’re in that vulnerable age group,” my son said, over the phone during the initial quarantine. “We can’t risk anything happening to you.” Which meant no son, no grandkids, for weeks that became months.

I had unscheduled time. Every writer’s dream. I might have completed that memoir, tackled my moldering list of essays, made progress on the middle grade novel begun as a break from the navel gazing of personal writing. But my thoughts were unfocused, too diffuse to distil into coherent sentences.

I excavated closets and cupboards, arrayed the leavings of five grown children and my recently deceased mother on the dining room table, wishing they were the pages of a manuscript. I held each object, felt its heft and texture. Victorian glassware and mismatched China. Grandma’s handknit, hand-sewn suits and dresses, each with a dyed-to-match silk slip. Mom’s Latin American textiles, photo albums from her world travels. Children’s artwork, their imagined futures in photos, award certificates and boxes of mementos.

I amassed piles. Keep. Gift. Recycle. Repurpose. Trash. The lines bleary as my thoughts. A can of baking powder that expired in 1988—trash or collectible? A sack of wooden spools from my own sewing days—string them into aclunky necklace for a kindergarten teacher?

The silverware drawer and pantry became marvels of cleanliness and organization. I ordered padded storage boxes (that appeared on the doorstep days later) for the glassware—one daughter said she’d want it if she ever left Manhattan. I assembled sewing baskets for my two sisters with surplus notions acquired from Grandma, Mom, and thrift stores. I did touch my writing. Documents dragged into computer folders. Journals arranged in descending year order. My office was ready for me whenI was ready for it.

Along with routines, schedules, and external obligations, I was suspended, in creative limbo.

In younger years, when I expressed angst about the future, Mom would remind me I was just a grain of sand on the beach of life, a cog in a great machine. “Find your cog and put your shoulder behind it,” she would say. I’ll show you, I used to think, I’m no cog, no grain of sand, I’m special.

Now I get it. I was, I am, a grain of sand, a cog, a Victorian bubble-glass goblet.

The urgency of anything I had to say withered in the face of world events. Global pandemic. Wildfires. Uncloseted white supremacy and bigotry. Gun violence, fake news, conspiracy theories. War, refugees, famine, closed borders. Earth gasping for breath. There all along. Then a massive hand shook the planet like a snow globe. Virus molecules insinuated themselves into every nook and cranny, leavening, and gas-lighting our differences, our placement on the privilege scale.

In light of life revealed, bruised and diseased, I was neutralized. Does the world need this essay, I asked myself. Does the world need another memoir? Does the world need anything I have to say? Of course, the things the world doesn’t need appears infinite and expanding. Does the world need another roundabout? Another dipping sauce, cat celebrity or meme? What the world needs now (cue music) is less, not more, a time out from human-kind’s machinations.

For two years I’ve treaded creative water, begun project after project, only to stutter, then stop, in the face of the blinking, blinding, why. Why these words, this topic, why me? No one will be hospitalized or cured if I don’t write. No one will despair. No one will notice at all. Was that ever the point? It’s not as if I believed my words could home the homeless, put food in children’s bellies, or avert another senseless war.  

Joan Didion famously wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”  Of course, she’s Joan Didion, and I’m not. Yet isn’t it the same for any writer, no matter our success or visibility? I write to dissect what it is to be me, in this body, place and time, never knowing when my words will bring comfort, make someone feel less alone, or elicit a smile.

When I don’t transcribe life onto the page, when I don’t move words around until they resemble my truth, I’m left with a sense of lost opportunity. Does the world need another essay? No. But sometimes I do. How else to attempt to make sense of the world? And why cede my words to all that we need even less—another “reality” show, miracle diet, clump of big box stores. My words don’t take up space, interrupt traffic, create false hope, or defile what’s left of nature. Yet once written, they exist, one human’s experience distilled, like the petroglyphs and cave drawings of civilizations past.  

After two years twiddling my fingers over the computer keys, I’m clicking them again, not because the world needs me to, but because I do. I’m a writer. That’s the cog I put my shoulder to.

Lately, when I see my ten-year-old grandson, he asks, “How’s that novel coming, Grandma?” If he were a fellow writer or nosy neighbor, I’d assume he’d asked because he knew it wasn’t. From my grandson it’s a reminder that he wants me to finish the dang novel so he can read it.

“It won’t be you,” I remind him, because I’ve told him the protagonist is also a ten-year-old boy. “There may be parts of the character you don’t like.”

“Yeah I know,” he says. “He can’t be all good. That would be boring, right?”

Which he knows because his grandmother is a writer and we talk about these things.
___

Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance, The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir, and editor of the anthology TWENTY-TWENTY: 43 Stories from a Year Like No Other. She is Managing Editor with Under the Gum Tree, and co-director of Stories on Stage Sacramento, a nonprofit literary performance series. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60. Find her on twitter at @dorothyrowena and at dorothyriceauthor.com.

Audio Immersion

April 7, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Sarah Boon

A few weeks ago I was sick – not with COVID, but with an illness that left me dizzy and headache-y. Lying down was preferable to sitting up, and I couldn’t read a book or look at a computer screen because it made my eyes hurt.

So I turned to podcasts about writing to entertain me when I wasn’t trying to sleep. And I realized that, during my solo forays into writing during the closed-off time of the pandemic, I’d been missing a writing community.

I listened to Sarah Broom talk about THE YELLOW HOUSE, a home that carried so much of her life but was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. I listened to Charlotte McConaghey talk about her two books, MIGRATIONS and ONCE THERE WERE WOLVES, and articulate her idea that climate fiction isn’t really a genre but a theme that is worked into books of many genres. I listened to Vivian Gornick, Ferdinand Mount, and Kathryn Harrison discuss memoir, and the fact that memoir writers carefully curate what they do and don’t include in their text. I listened to Ruby McConnell, author of GROUND TRUTH, talk about her writing process. She ruminates on a piece of writing for weeks, then sits down and puts the whole thing on paper fully formed, as though she is a conduit for the words that have been swirling around in her head all that time. I listened to Helen Humphries talk about the structure of her books, that she puts herself in the same situation as her characters to better understand how to write about them. Like the time she went up in a biplane to see what it was like, then recreated the cramped quarters with a chair and various accessories in her writing room. I listened to JB MacKinnon talk about THE DAY THE WORLD STOPPED SHOPPING, and the process he uses to structure his books.

I listened to all of these recordings lying in bed with my eyes closed, and I felt my soul transformed. I had found my tribe, all of these people talking about writing and the writing life. I felt as though I had been immersed in a world that I had been missing for some time.

I used to take writing workshops, way back when I was in graduate school. I particularly remember the Women’s Words writing workshop, a supportive week of creative writing with only women participants. More recently, I’ve attended the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society’s annual meetings occasionally, and felt inspired by that community of writers to work on my own book.

But this was the first time I immersed myself in recording after recording about writing, hours of being with writers and sharing their lives.

Now I’ve recovered and only listen to podcasts when I’m knitting. But I long to go back to those few days when all I did was think about and listen to authors talking about writing. To keep up the momentum, I’ve signed up for a few webinars and online readings that I hope will draw me in as thoroughly as those podcasts did. These podcasts re-energized my writing, giving me courage and support in my quest to test new ideas of how to approach the structure and content of my work-in-progress book, and to try new essay ideas.

What are your favourite writing podcasts? Please share them in the comments.

Sarah Boon, PhD, is a writer based on Vancouver Island, Canada. She has written for The Rumpus, Hippocampus, Catapult, Narratively, and other venues. She is currently at work on a book about her field experiences as a scientist, and how those experiences affected her love of writing.

I Believed I Could Fly, and Other Deeply Held Writerly Convictions

April 4, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino

The summer before I turned four, I truly believed I could fly if only I tried hard enough. It was my greatest – and most secret– desire. My launching pad was the steps near my bedroom door that led downstairs. I would stand on the top step with my arms out, quivering, waiting for a sign that I could release my feet to float and fly down the stairs. I scrunched my eyes together to better concentrate, made my arms and legs rigid, lifted up on my toes, felt the longing in every muscle, but never experienced the woosh of lightness I’d need to fly. I knew I would fall unless I could summon that special woosh. Any time I could stand on the top step without a brother or mother or father nearby, I’d give it a shot. I believed fervently that I could fly, and equally fervently, that I hadn’t yet flown because I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

That memory of fervent conviction returned to me recently when our writing group mentor challenged my writing sisters and me to freewrite things we deeply believe, urging us to begin broadly, then narrow the list to the essentials. Once we’d captured them, a further question arose: How are these beliefs reflected in our writing, even if (especially if) we’ve never spelled them out in our work? What consistent beliefs seem to thread through what we’ve created over the years?

At first, I thought this a foolish exercise. It felt wildly attenuated from revisions I’m straining to complete on a difficult piece I’m determined not to turn into a memoir. But as I turned dutifully to the exercise, the old choral chestnut “I Believe” an ear-worm in my brain (“I believe for every drop of rain that falls/A flower grows….”), interesting things happened on the page.

I summoned thirteen beliefs, eliminating or combining them down to five. Once I winnowed to this number, I began to see common belief threads in the prose I’ve been writing over the past six years. I began to see them, too, in my current revision, making it a subsurface memoir no matter what other rewriting I do: For every drop of rain that falls, a memoir grows. And I encourage other writers to take twenty minutes or half an hour to scribble about beliefs. Here are mine, to encourage your rumination. No doubt yours are entirely different, and that’s a wonderful thing, and a key reason why people and their writing are endlessly variable.

  1. I deeply believe that trying isn’t enough. The alchemy of chance, which one could also call magic, is nearly always involved in accomplishment. Nevertheless, trying has other benefits: creating purpose, building character, teaching patience, encouraging discipline, enhancing storytelling. Trying has defined my life.
  2. I deeply believe that people are formed by their losses, and that the most interesting people are those who understand their losses and are trying to resurrect themselves from loss – even when trying isn’t enough.
  3. I deeply believe that happiness is usually fleeting; that insight is a longer-lasting, more rewarding experience; that aspiring to live an interesting life is, in the end, more achievable and worthwhile than aspiring to live a happy one.
  4. I deeply believe in the importance of seeing both the Big Picture and the little details. Sometimes the Big Picture is God, and we are the little details, but this belief applies in all kinds of contexts.
  5. I deeply believe in the remarkable power of humor, the fizz of humor in the middle of quiet darkness, the jig of humor in the midst of a dirge, the way humor substitutes for flying down the stairs when the chuckle lines up just right.

___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Lumiere Review, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is presently working on a collection of short prose.

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