August 7, 2020 § 19 Comments
By Sarah Terez Rosenblum
I’ve always been a commitaphobe when it comes to identity. From sexual orientation to avocation; I’m unwilling to claim one facet as the whole. Even with MFA in hand, and my first novel published, when Tinder dates asked, I never said “I write.” Yet in front of my students, I gave lip-service to commitment. “The work will come; just grant yourself permission to be who you are.”
Eventually, desperation, not dedication changed my relationship to writing. What I mean is, the man I was dating went back to his wife. I’m not sure why I found this change destabilizing. I’d weathered more consequential breakups—long term relationships, requiring the dividing of CDs and shared custody of dogs. I came to men late, but he wasn’t the first man I’d dated. And even that shift hadn’t shattered me. I’d never been one of those rainbow flag girls. The ones who start every sentence with “as a lesbian,” who wear their queerness on their tattooed sleeves. I’d faced no loss of self, so I figured my refusal to let one aspect eclipse my identity had paid off. But now, in the aftermath of this particular breakup, I felt formless; no matter I’d held back—same way I did with all my passions; afraid to dive in and find the water only two feet deep.
At first I wrote to imagine alternate endings; to linger longer with the man who had left. I wrote to muffle time until I could bear the ice-pick tick of minutes. Over time, my frenzy grew a thicket of fiction; eventually, I cared more about the character I’d based on the man than about the blurry past. Soon, I’d streamlined my teaching and quit scrabbling to live on internet Think Pieces. I gave up my apartment, moving in with my mother in Wisconsin. Less strapped for money, I blocked off more days to write. Meanwhile, my hours of writing built an infrastructure which supported my process. First, an inner wall to encircle my creativity. Protecting me from myself, it held my Critical Mind just outside. Next, an outer wall to shelter me from external forces. It kept me insulated from other writer’s voices and the whims of culture and commerce. These walls created space for me to invest in myself. It was true then, the smooth inspiration I’d soft-served my students: Once I committed to my craft, I was free to perfect it. After three years, I emerged from self-imposed isolation a writer. Finally I’d allowed myself to become who I was.
So, I’m forty-one, and what began as moony self-soothing has become a compact literary thriller. On the east coast, my agent has her sights set on the Big Five publishers. In the Midwest, I’m messing with some speculative fiction. Picture the writer, smug in her identity. She’s wearing tie-dyed leggings, drinking coffee out of a unicorn mug. She’s writing a story about a genie when the pandemic hits.
The first thing to go was the internal wall around my creativity. My Critical Mind rose above in a cherry picker. “Your mom is immunosuppressed, and you don’t know if your exhale could kill her! Hospitals are filling with victims! How can you write a story about a genie (Even if the genie represents the undervaluing of art)?”
Next, outside voices punched through the outer wall that shielded my sense of uniqueness. All around me I saw writers shifting their panic into Think Pieces. My Critical Mind found a megaphone. “How can these people write so fast about toilet paper? How can they think through their angle on Zoom exhaustion? What does any single point of view matter when we’re all having the same experience? Except also we’re not having the same experience! How is yours worth uplifting when the virus is highlighting systemic inequality, and the people hardest hit are disproportionally black?
Slog forward several months, and the genie story sits unopened on my desktop. I’ve heard from my agent sporadically. At first, sheltered at home in New York, she couldn’t find a hand scanner for my edits. Now. she’s watching the publishing situation with caution. Editors are being laid off and she expects more personnel changes across the board. In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court has long struck down the stay at home order and Covid cases are rising. My daily practice looks less like writing, more like trying not to check my phone. And God I miss the deep dives; distant sunlight making wavery shapes on the surface, while I’m alone in my depths below.
“I warned you,” my Critical Mind blares. “Making something your identity is dangerous. When it shifts, you don’t know who you are.”
I know what you’re thinking—my Critical Mind already thought it. There are worse things than writer’s block and a stalled career. I’m lucky I have savings. I’m lucky my employer transitioned classes to Zoom. But my concern here is identity, and vocation is just one part of that. The way we conceive of ourselves creates us. Identity is bound up in the constitution. It’s what we fight for in civil rights movements—whether Black Lives Matter or For God Sake Let Trans People Pee.
We are not all the same in what we’ve lost to this virus— it spreads unequally. Shannon Doherty is live on Instagram cooking kale in her kitchen, meanwhile with schools closed, many of the nation’s poorest kids spent spring with no access to lunch. Still, it would be condescending to claim that only the elite have the wherewithal to grapple with a loss of identity. I might have time to (slowly, painfully) write about it— and that is a luxury—but the sense of lost self crosses income levels and race.
Recently, when I should have been writing, I listened to a Daily podcast about Achut Deng who contracted Covid-19 after an outbreak at her Idaho meat packing plant.
“Did you consider just staying home from work?” A reporter asks her. Deng’s voice cracks. “To be honest, I did not. I was just thinking… I need to keep working so I can support my family. Thinking about it now, it hurts.” It seems Deng means that her own health had not been her priority. An orphan and immigrant, her focus had been on remaining the person who made a better life for her sons. Obviously, survival is key here; you can’t self-actualize till your basic needs are met. Still, tied up in Deng’s answer are self-esteem and personal integrity. When she was sent home from work, she felt some essential part of her was gone.
Being told the local watering hole is closed is not comparable. Still you hear the fear in those who flocked to bars in Milwaukee when they opened. Cloaked in complaints of boredom were deeper questions. Who am I if I can’t blow off steam over brews with my buddies? For better or for worse, we ground our sense of self in what we commit to. We become who we are through the things we do. And those people with guns, shouting about masks and haircuts? They’re angry because they feel threatened by outside forces. I’m not saying “there are very fine people on both sides,” but anger covers fear, and beneath their indefensible politics and disregard for the collective health of the country, just like me, it’s a sense of self they’re afraid they’ve let slip.
Over these months of uncertainty I’ve wondered: Do I regret committing to my writing? Would I feel less threatened if I had less self to lose? Maybe the right answer is identity is ever-evolving. A healthy ego can incorporate new information. In the end we’ll grow stronger from this momentary loss of self.
But I’m not ready for peaceful acceptance. It’s like that Think Piece says (The one written, pitched and shared across Facebook, while I was deleting twenty different first sentences); right now we’re grieving. As individuals and as a country, we are removed from the daily ways we define ourselves: as churchgoers; as stand-up comics; as gym-rats; as physically demonstrative friends. A sense of identity and selfhood are made manifest through a number of factors, and like so many, more than stylish hair, more than community, my sense of who I am is what, for now, I’ve lost.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Third Coast, Underground Voices, Carve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.
August 5, 2020 § 21 Comments
by Dana Laquidara
I’m only a couple hours from home, but it feels like the middle-of-nowhere-ish. Why do writers and artists do this? Why do we leave the comfort of our own home—which for me includes a writing room of my own—in order to hole up in some other house to do that thing we do?
The short answer of course, is freedom from distractions. Let’s face it, home holds a lot of distractions. From the people we love to the laundry and to-do lists, our attention can only be on our craft for so long before our brain starts to signal a “times up” alarm. I am so aware of the life and the needs around me, I can hardly get to work if I think a plant needs watering. The idea of focusing on writing for almost three days straight with nothing else to do—and trust me there is nothing else to do here—appealed to my need for focus and efficiency.
So I sent off the required application, resume and sample of writing—all the things the gatekeepers of the residency wanted to convince them I am serious about writing. They want to know their applicants are not coming here to, say, smoke meth, hide from the law, or hook up with random strangers. And I passed their test. I’m here! I’m basking in the hours and hours of getting words on the page, writing submissions organized, edits done; all the things that I often do in fits and starts at home.
But here’s the thing about a writing residency that I did not entirely take into consideration:
There are PEOPLE here.
And the people here all use the same kitchen and yesterday when I was in my room writing, an overpowering smell of—I don’t know- beef broth? —but the fake, bouillon cube kind, not the good kind—filled the whole upstairs. Call me sensitive, but I was a little nauseous after that.
Also, we share bathrooms. It is a big old house with two huge unisex bathrooms. There are two sinks in each of these bathrooms and the toilet and shower each has its own enclosure. So it feels like we should leave the bathroom door unlocked while using the toilet or shower, so that someone else can come into the very spacious sink area to brush their teeth. But that would be weird because—did I mention we are strangers? When I took a shower, I felt like such a room hog. I mean, someone could have been waiting to brush their teeth, or wanting to pee, but they could not because I was in the back corner of this big bathroom, in the little shower stall and therefore had locked the door. Clearly we could’ve fit a whole group in there at once, doing several different toiletry things. But like I said, that would’ve been weird. So no matter what someone might be doing in there- flossing, combing their hair- they get the whole damn room.
On to the bedrooms. Each one is named after a famous writer; mine is the Emily Dickinson room. There are several of her books in my room so that I might channel some of her inspiration or talent.
It feels a little bit like freshman year of college except that no one is telling us to leave our doors open and make friends, because we are here to work after all.
But keeping my door closed did not prevent the sound of the loudest snoring I have ever heard from travelling through my bedroom wall last night. All night. And by all night, I mean the guy slept from 9 pm to 9 am. It was like the snoring you’d hear on a cartoon. It was cartoon snoring. If I hadn’t been tired, and then wide-awake wondering if he’s been tested for sleep apnea, it might’ve been funny.
Another thing about this house: I think there are more books here than in my town’s public library. This place has books floor to ceiling every which way I turn. The house is cluttered with books. This is kind of funny because I intentionally left my books at home so that I wouldn’t spend any of my writing time reading. I’ve been known to read a whole day away, and I didn’t want the temptation.
I’ve resisted all the books though, and am pleased to have gotten a lot of writing done. All in all, it’s been time well spent. If my resident neighbor is still here tonight, it will likely be another loud night. But that’s okay—when I go to bed, his snoring will distract me from the creepy doll sitting in the chair right outside my room.
There’s no place like home.
Dana Laquidara is an award-winning writer living in Massachusetts. She is working on her first book, The Uncluttered Mother.
July 29, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Rosanna Staffa
As a child in Italy, my father, a successful businessman, implanted in my brothers and me a belief in the mythical power of linguistic precision. He looked at us kids like a panther in repose, ready to pounce on a misused adjective or sloppy adverb. He labeled any expression that was too generic, bambinate, childish nonsense, a weakness of the spirit that would lead to every kind of reprehensible behavior as adults. I was his devoted follower.
When I went to New York after college, I lost my ability to speak. I had been a top student in English literature in Milan, but American was radically different. I had no idea what people were saying. Words roared, purred, and clicked in their mouths. I reached despair one night when I urgently needed to call home. The operator kept insisting that I could not get in the Circus. I hung up and cried. Only years later, I realized that what she said was: “The circuits are busy.”
I listened to conversations in cafes and on the subway. I faithfully watched TV: commercials repeated themselves until I finally understood and jumped up screaming, “Finger licking good!” “Pearl drops!” But an authentic exchange as I knew it was impossible. I could not recognize myself when I spoke. Much to my horror, movies were always “interesting,” food was always “tasty.”
One afternoon I walked into a small Women’s Bookstore on the Upper West Side and looked around. I had missed reading too much. A title caught my attention: The Bluest Eye. I started reading the first lines. It was like listening to jazz. I could not follow each turn, but I understood in full. It affected me so profoundly that my hands shook when I bought the book. I was frightened and elated. One could be precise in a fractured way I had never known existed. I was so thrilled, I walked all the way home to the East Village.
My then-boyfriend, now my husband, said that American was a composite of many languages. It was not static in its rules. He suggested I look at a book about quilts he had. I had heard of them, but I had not seen one. The quilts were beautiful mosaics. One, a “Crazy Quilt,” had an astonishing, shattered appeal. I kept going back to it. The crazy quilt suggested movement and harmony within disorder. I loved the fragments reaching out to other pieces, and the solitude of each, even in the closeness.
“My brain,” I told my boyfriend.
I bought a bedsheet at a thrift store, a marvel of cheap treasures that did not exist in Italy, and went back daily for velvet scraps. I went to work in our small fourth floor walk up with the bathtub in the kitchen. Friends came and went. Peeked, drank coffee. It was a dancer who fully understood. He sat by me while I was silently pondering which color to use for the center piece. Somehow he knew what I was trying to express. He looked at the quilt thoughtfully then pointed at the middle.
“Grey silk,” he said. And it was perfect.
I never told my father what I truly learned in America. My words in American found each other, one snippet at a time. I learned to love the nervy intensity of American. The last time I spoke to my father before he died, I assured him of my allegiance to precision. I did not say it might be of a different kind. He was very old, and it was his birthday.
Rosanna Staffa is an Italian-born playwright and author. She is a prize winner of the 2020 TSR Nonfiction Prize and recipient of Honorable Mention for The Tiferet Journal 2019 Writing Contest Award. She is a Short Story Finalist for The Masters Review Anthology and for the 47th New Millennium Writing Awards. She is a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her plays have been seen on stages in Tokyo, New York, Seattle, and others. Her play “The Innocence of Ghosts” was seen in New York Off-Broadway at Saint Clement’s Theatre and was filmed for inclusion in the Lincoln Center Theatre on Film Library. Her plays are published by Heinemann and Smith & Kraus. She is a recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship and an AT&T/On Stage Grant. She holds a Ph.D. in Modern Foreign Languages from Statale University in Milan and an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University.
July 28, 2020 § 106 Comments
I was going to let this anniversary go unacknowledged.
I must have known it was a big deal. I wrote it in my calendar. One year out. July 26th, the day I took the decision to sit down for a specific amount of time, on specific days every week, to write. No matter how I felt or what else was going on.
For one solid year I have been sitting down, for a specific amount of time, on specific days of the week to write.
I wasn’t going to mention it. But that’s just false modesty. And feeling shy about outing yourself is counterproductive when you’re in the business of writing personal essays.
You might be wondering how I did it.
I had some help. From the Tucson Writer’s Table. What we do, is write. For two hours. Together. At a table. Every Monday. After fifteen minutes of pre-work chitchat, there is no talking allowed. That’s it.
Up until COVID our companionable silences were held amidst the roar of a busy neighborhood restaurant. Now, we Zoom—to say hi and bye. In between, I write. I’m not sure what everyone else is doing. We keep our cameras off.
I have kept this Monday night date for almost 3 years. Without fail. Nothing interfered with Writer’s Table. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I duplicate this at home? Imagine, getting even more done.
But first, I needed a hanger for my office door.
I got stuck here for a while. Writing “do not disturb” on a piece of cardboard didn’t quite do justice to the commitment I was making to myself. Three weeks and a trip to Kinko’s later I had a laminated door hanger featuring my alter ego—the tugboat.
Tugboats are slow, and their pace is steady, no matter what they’re pulling along behind them. I’m slow and it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay. I can do this. I love my door hanger.
When it’s out, I’m never disturbed.
I’m never disturbed period, because I no longer try to write in the run-up to kitty feeding time.
As I moved into a less sporadic writing routine I could see how I’d undermined myself in the past by, for example, waiting to sit down until I was certain to be interrupted by a starving cat.
But there is a time of day when my personal alertness peak intersects with household quiet and that’s when I write. Even if I’d rather be doing something else.
My former habit was to be seized by inspiration, crank something out, over-edit, and stop. Until my writing partner shared some amazing thing he’d composed and asked, anything new from you?
I was episodically committed. I got used to not writing for ever longer periods until, eventually, I stopped jotting down the very thoughts that ignited these “seized by inspiration” cycles in the first place.
I’m not special. What I read in books about writing is also true for me. I have to be sitting down and doing the work, so I’m available when the story arrives.
And no, I’m not going to tell you how many hours a week I’ve added. But here’s what I think: the perfect time commitment is located midway between resentment and contentment.
I have hundreds of idea files on my computer. And a book draft. I used refer to these as “unfinished projects,” a phrase that fills me with shame and anxiety.
Today, there are no unfinished projects.
There is only what’s next.
This is new.
Because I am working steadily, I know I’ll get to the ideas and drafts that I want to finish. Eventually.
More importantly, there is always something next. Which I start while I’m still editing what came before. No more work gaps.
All of this has made me more confident and less fragile in the face of rejection. Which has also increased because, hello, I have more work to submit.
I could have scheduled writing years ago, instead of lurching between production and procrastination. But I was afraid.
Fear has helped me get to jobs on time, adhere to deadlines, remember promises I’ve made–to others. In fact, it keeps me perma-stressed, lest I forget something and cause disappointment or distress or inconvenience for another person.
And fear is what kept me from writing regularly. Fear of prioritizing myself.
By taking this scheduled time for me, I’d be less available. I’d be saying no to other people. Disappointing them. And I have. I’m here to tell you it’s possible to do that and not die.
In fact, I’m happier.
Now, I’ve had a taste of discipline. I can see that it will take even more discipline to write and edit one entire book. I’m in awe of you book-writing people.
And I’m in awe of me. In the past year I’ve written amazing stuff I can’t believe I came up with. I’ve written terrible stuff. I’ve felt really stoked to be writing all of it.
I don’t wish I was writing someone else’s story anymore.
Sitting down to write on a schedule has healed even this. I’m no longer comparing myself to writers who are writing, and publishing, the beautiful things I wish I had written. But didn’t. Because I was not yet committed to being a tugboat.
Kirsten Voris is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Embodied Healing: Survivor and Facilitator Voices from the Practice of Trauma Sensitive Yoga (North Atlantic Books) and her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, Hippocampus, Superstition Review, and others. Follow her on Twitter @bubbleate.
July 27, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Carole Duff
Before the sun heats up the day, I retrieve a large scrub bucket, weeding fork, and garden gloves from the storage bin under the deck and head into the meadow and planting beds that surround our mountain house. My daily quota: one scrub bucket of weeds, so I don’t wear myself out and lose sight of what I’m doing. Although I love the grasses, flowering shrubs, meadow anemone, goat’s beard, wood aster, cone flowers, and yarrow, also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, it’s the weeds that get my attention. Most are stand-alone singletons, such as stilt grass, a recent invasive that can outcompete native plants. Though stilt grass is easy to pull by hand, the repetition becomes tedious. So many seedlings, going nowhere.
The weed I especially like to pull is a creeper, probably a variety of Pennywort, that roots and sends out runners along the ground. When I find that creeper—here in my grasp—I pull and pull and pull, following the vine until it breaks. Then I search for its root and pull again. A creeper is like a storyline thread or through-line that moves the reader from one rooted scene to the next. Meadow creepers like the Pennywort weave around a story’s characters and move the plot along without competing with the setting.
Another creeper that roots in our meadow, a mock strawberry, produces what my sisters and I call “starving” strawberries. Its flowers are yellow instead of white or pink, and the fruit though edible tastes bland and dry. Roots and vines of the mock strawberry—on my forearm—require digging with the weeding fork and even then, don’t pull easily.
The moral of this story is: not all creepers produce good threads, though there are plenty to pull. As Jill McCorkle wrote in an article titled “Haunted,” in the February 2017 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, “I have often told my students that if you walk around with your eyes and ears open, you can’t possibly live long enough to write all of the potential stories you will glimpse along the way.”
And so, every morning I retrieve my scrub bucket, weeding fork, and garden gloves from the storage bin under the deck and walk into the meadow and planting beds, eyes and ears open. After the sun warms the day, I sit at my desk and write—cutting fruitless singletons and looking for a creeping thread that pulls easily.
I won’t live long enough to pull all the weeds or tell all the stories I’ve glimpsed along the way. But I will achieve my quota:
One large bucket each day.
Except in winter when, like pulling singletons and creepers, I remove leaves from ditches and shovel pathways through snow.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and currently is seeking representation for her book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Faith, Love, and Forgiveness. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and now three overly-friendly shelter dogs.
July 20, 2020 § 56 Comments
By Abigail Thomas
Another rainy day in a long succession of rainy days and I’m bummed that the part of myself that has always kept me company seems to have disappeared. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, I haven’t left the house in five months, and can’t write a word. What’s the point of being me? I wonder. I’m so stuck. Write about what you notice when you’re stuck, I tell my students. Write about what you notice and see what happens. Nothing happens here except bugs. Oh my god, I think. I’ll write about the bugs!
For instance: I often see one large black ant wandering across the living room floor in early evening. I think there’s only one of him. He (I think of it as a he), is always headed toward the dining room but never seems to get there because the next night, and the next, there he is again, walking across the same portion of floor towards the dining room. It’s as if he’s having his own Groundhog Day. The pale brown ants, like little freckles, are everywhere and get into everything. One morning they turned up in the jug of maple syrup even though the cap was screwed on tight. My grandsons were horrified and refused to eat their french toast, although I ate mine and part of theirs.
But the most interesting thing is that once or twice a week I find a dead wasp on my bedroom floor. Their presence gets me in gear. Because where are they coming from? The windows haven’t been opened in the four years following the discovery of a spider the size of a salad plate in a basket of old yarn, and wasps are nowhere else in the house. When I find one I use my cane to nudge it behind the bedside table so I don’t step on it by mistake. It doesn’t occur to me to throw them out. They are too perfect, and too tiny to be rubbish.
It isn’t really a bedside table. It’s an old filing cabinet, empty of whatever files it once held. The drawers are now full of whatever I don’t know what else to do with when I find it in my hand. Uncomfortable earrings, a letter from somebody called William C . Estler to a woman named Mardi, apologizing for taking her to The Iceman, which she hated and asked to leave. “’I don’t like it and I want to go home,” he quotes her as saying. Not The Iceman Cometh unless he didn’t bother with the whole title. Whether it was a play or a movie I’ll never know nor do I know how it ended up in my possession. When I looked him up there were two of him, both dead, one a painter from West Virginia, the other a scientist of sorts in Palo Alto who published an article called Ion-Scattering Analyzer. There is also a silver bracelet, other scraps of paper on which various grandsons have written darling inauthentic apologies, licenses from four dead dogs I loved, and a necklace I bought because the woman who made it told me the tiny silver sword charm was supposed to cut fear. Why not? I thought.
Today I picked up a wasp by one wing and put it carefully in the cap of an old pill bottle from the drawer. The wasp is so completely dead, tidy and beautiful. Its wings are slender, themselves like tiny swords. I’m amazed that I’m not in the least worried by the intrusion. I’m not afraid that I will one day discover dozens of them flying around my bed. What’s wrong with me? It seems a natural fear, but I’m just not afraid. Maybe the necklace works whether you’re wearing it or not.
They are paper wasps, I looked them up. They chew wood or whatever else is handy and their saliva turns it into paper and they make hanging nests. Somebody had the brilliant idea of giving these wasps colored construction paper and my god, the nests they made look like beautiful misshapen rainbows. I am kind of in love. Paper wasps are also good for gardens, eating bad bugs. They aren’t ornery, like yellow jackets who’d just as soon sting you as not, but they will defend their nests. Well, who wouldn’t?
Some time ago I noticed what appeared to be a lightning bug clinging (or stuck?) to the side of my sofa, and I’ve been careful not to disturb it. It stayed fixed in place for several days without moving an inch. I wondered if it had decided to die. Then it vanished. Where was it, I wondered. Last night I saw bright blinks amongst the geraniums that climb up my front window. On, off, on, off. There you are, I thought. Oh good, there you are.
Abigail Thomas writes mostly memoir, her latest being What Comes Next and How to Like It.
July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dana Shavin
A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.
I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.
One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”
I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.
Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.
I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.
And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.
Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.
July 2, 2020 § 26 Comments
By Erica Goss
My favorite rejections start with “Dear Erica” and end with “sincerely.”
They explain that regretfully, unfortunately, after close review, even though it was lovely, even though it sparked interest, even though they were impressed, even though they enjoyed reading it, even though there was much to admire, even though it stood out from the rest, even though they appreciated the opportunity to read it, my work does not fit their needs.
They often seem disappointed. After all, they read my work with care, with pleasure, with interest, with gratitude, and with the closest attention. I almost feel sorry for them. I certainly feel sorry for myself.
Once in a while, the rejection comes with the explanation that they received so much high quality work it made their selection process extremely difficult. This is hard. I understand. I assume, of course, that my submission was part of the high quality work they refer to.
There is often a fee for rejection. This is also called a reading fee.
After I receive my rejection I’m frequently asked to buy something else. I’m invited to make a donation, buy a subscription, enter a contest, contribute to a tip jar, and recommend that others do as well.
Of course, due to the volume of submissions, they cannot respond personally.
It makes me happy when I’m asked to submit again, even if it requires another reading fee.
I keep track of my rejections. No rejection is ever forgotten. It lives forever as an entry in my spreadsheet.
I don’t like to see the word “rejected” in my spreadsheet. I prefer “declined.” It’s easier to see “declined” over and over, page after page, year after year.
I look back at my spreadsheet. I calculate my acceptance rate. From my figures, it seems I have mastered this rejection thing.
When I’m bored, I’ll see if the rejection email from a particular journal has changed. Some journals have sent me the same rejection email, word for word, for years.
There’s a thing called a “tiered” rejection. From a menu of rejection emails, the journal chooses one based on how much they liked your submission. From the rejection emails I have received, I can see that I’ve gotten rejections that range from terse to encouraging and back to terse again, from the same journals. This is true of journals that have accepted my work, as well as the ones that have rejected me over and over.
I try not to send my work to a journal that stipulates, in words similar to these, “If we haven’t responded in x number of months, consider yourself unchosen.” I want an actual, emailed rejection to seal the deal.
However, for reasons that aren’t always clear, those rejections might not come. Fairly often, the journal goes under and fails to inform the writers. When that happens, it’s hard to know what to put in my spreadsheet. “Never heard back?” “Ghosted?” “Crickets?”
I’m never sure if I should consider my work rejected if I haven’t heard back in a year. You’d be surprised how often a year goes by before you hear from a journal.
Sometimes, like curses or wise men, rejections come in threes, on the same day, in the same hour. Sometimes, this is how the day starts.
Rejections have a special look to them. The subject line almost always starts with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”
I’m an editor as well as a submitter, and much of the above applies to me when I receive submissions of other people’s writing. If I have to decline a submission, I try to inform the writer as soon as possible, and in as kind a tone as possible. If I liked their work, I invite them to submit again.
Every time I send a rejection, I remember how it feels to get those emails that start with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”
My rejection might be that writer’s third in one day.
Some days are like that.
Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer. She served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. Her essays, reviews and poems appear widely, including in Lake Effect, Atticus Review, Contrary, Convergence, Spillway, Cider Press Review, Eclectica, The Tishman Review, Tinderbox, The Red Wheelbarrow, and Main Street Rag, among others. She is the founder of Girls’ Voices Matter, an arts education program for teen girls.
June 22, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Sue Hann
- Respect each other’s privacy. Although someone might be writing about very personal things, this does not mean that you have free rein to ask all about their lives.
‘So spill!’ Faye says to me, seconds after we are introduced. ‘What’s the dirt you’re writing about? I’m going to find it all out anyway, that’s what we’re here for right?’ She laughs at her own joke.
‘Oh, I’m writing about the body,’ I say vaguely, taking a step back, hoping that will suffice. Shouldn’t we at least start off with the weather and how bad the transport links are in this part of town?
- Engage with the text on its own terms, don’t try to suggest how you would have written the piece.
‘I would have written this as a poem,’ Faye says at the first feedback group, flicking through my manuscript of two thousand carefully chosen words, describing the ache of an early miscarriage. I look around the group, hoping someone else will chip in and break her flow. The others look down, unwilling to interrupt Faye. We are all playing at being polite.
‘Yeah, I definitely thought you could have turned that into a poem,’ she nods, agreeing with herself, ‘Cut that right down’.
- Don’t forget that your role is to encourage the writer to write their own story.
‘Hmm,’ she continues, ‘And I’m just not sure if this is universal. Not everyone wants to be a mother?’ Her voice rises in upward inflection. ‘Like, what does this say to men? Or to LGBTQI+?’
I try my best to remain neutral in my face, though my bones are murderous.
‘It’s meant to be a memoir,’ I don’t say. I remain silent. I am following the rules of How to Receive Feedback.
- Pay attention to what is written and what is not. Subtext is important.
‘And this stars thing’ she says, ‘Well, it’s just a bit of a cliche really, isn’t it? Looking at the stars and thinking about your loss?’
Kris is meant to be chairing today, but he says nothing. Slumped on his chair, his face is expressionless, and I have no idea if he is even in the room. Faye is enjoying holding the floor, now that she has her teeth sunk in deep, the taste of blood has invigorated her. The subtext is clear: Faye does not like me. Her feedback is the gun under the table, the knife in the back, the torpedo in the water.
- Remember to point out the parts you like, as well as the parts you think need more work.
‘Yeah, and on that note, I just didn’t think that the grief was portrayed that accurately’.
‘I mean, I thought the emotions weren’t really what you’d expect’.
Apparently, even my own feelings are failing her test. I scan the room, wondering, hoping that someone else might have a different or even constructive opinion.
‘I thought it was incredibly moving actually,’ said Mark. ‘And I’m a man,’ he adds, softening the parry with a smile, as he pushes his trendy glasses up his nose.
- The key to giving constructive feedback is empathy.
Bouyed up by Mark, and taking hold of the gap he created in Faye’s monologue, I try to wrestle the discussion back from Faye: ‘I’d really like to hear some specific feedback on the structure. Did it work for people?’
‘Mmm,’ says Kris, finally coming to life. ‘It’s got to have an arc. It’s got to have some movement’ he says, scrunching his nose, lips dragging downward. ‘We already know that you can’t have kids, from this early chapter, so that’s not much of an arc…’
Wait, did he really just say that? My mind is behind, still emerging from its protective coma brought on by Faye’s kicking.
Kris steeples his hands in front of his face, while looking at the ceiling.
‘Maybe the movement is whether you and your husband stay together?’ he says as if it’s the plot of the BBC soap opera EastEnders that he is talking about, and not my marriage.
The circle of heads turn to look at me. One of them glances at my ring finger.
- Try to end the feedback group on a positive note.
The session ends at last, a merciful release. Faye stands and stretches. ‘That was really fun! I enjoyed that! I can’t wait to submit next week,’ she says. I gather up my things, mumble my thanks to the group for their feedback, while simultaneously thinking that I can’t imagine ever writing another word again. Almost touching my shoulder, hand hovering mid-air, she stage-whispers into my ear ‘Just make it universal, yeah?’
Sue Hann’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in Popshot Quarterly, as well as online journals including Ellipsis Zine and Litro. She lives in London with her partner and a problematic number of books.
June 19, 2020 § 21 Comments
By Melissa Hart
My mother was a professional writer as I am now, and when I was young, she created an office with a thrift store desk and a bookshelf in her garage. She wrote at dawn before my siblings and I woke up, the door thrown open to birdsong and backyard cats, a table lamp illuminating the page tucked into her electric typewriter.
When I woke, I brought her coffee spiked with cinnamon and slipped away to read whatever kids’ novel captivated me at the time. But the details of a writer’s life—the purr of the typewriter in its circle of light, the coffee, breeze blowing in through the door and cats winding around her ankles—made an impression, and I could think of no more fulfilling career to pursue than the creation of stories where there’d been only blankness before.
My mother desperately needed that hour to refresh and heal, to fight off the wild dogs of depression. My father had abused her for years until she fled with her kids to a girlfriend’s house and came out as a lesbian. In 1979, the judicial system regarded homosexuality as mental illness. The divorce judge ordered us to live with our father so we wouldn’t be tainted by our mother’s love for a woman.
Those mornings I brought her coffee and left her alone to write came few and far between; we were only allowed to visit her every other weekend. Her writing represented both financial and emotional survival. For money, she edited a small newspaper and freelanced articles. For solace, she wrote stories at dawn. Some were published, and some weren’t. Publishing wasn’t the point.
This is the part of the writer’s life that has nothing to do with rejection or promotion. It’s not about building platform or networking or attending conferences. This is the part that’s about focus and creation. It’s about donning metaphorical blinders and earplugs in order to concentrate, whether that means waking up before the kids or installing distraction-blocking software or turning a corner of the garage into an office with a desk and a lamp. It’s about respecting yourself and your work enough to provide tools so that both can survive.
I’ve been thinking about my mother and her writing a lot. She passed away a year ago of cancer at age 73, leaving file cabinets of rough drafts, magazine articles, the murder mystery she’d published in her sixties. Her other love was psychology; a PhD scholar, she knew the necessity of developing a habit and a reward system as a writer.
Every day for 39 years, she showed up at the same desk at dawn. The electric typewriter gave way to a word processor, and then a PC. Cats died, and she adopted new ones to wind around her ankles. She sold one house and bought another. Regardless, she woke up and sat down with her cup of coffee and honored her need for solitude and story.
A similar hour has sustained me for decades, as well–as a teen spending nights at a friend’s house after police showed up at my father’s door to cite him for domestic disturbance, through my tumultuous first marriage and my own cancer diagnosis, and last year, the death of the woman most important to me in the world.
My mother was also a runner, as I am now. At a certain point in a workout—Mile Six for me—there’s euphoria, the “runner’s high.” It’s an endorphin flood, a feeling of well-being, a sense that everything in that moment is aligned and joyful no matter what’s happening in the world. That’s the feeling I chase as a writer, as well–a sense of being in the zone, of breathing in contentment for an hour in the midst of chaos.
In the midst of pandemic, of heat waves and police brutality and job insecurity, I’ve been up early each morning to write. My daughter, home from middle school, wakes up later and pads barefoot to my backyard office. I watch her beautiful brown eyes absorb my thrift store desk, sunlight streaming through the open window, the cat curled beside my computer.
I hope I’m showing her what resiliency looks like. She’s been struggling with her history as an infant relinquished by her biological mother and adopted from foster care. As a Black biracial teen, she’s been grappling with news stories, and also with the loss of friends, of teachers, and her dance studio.
This morning, I left my office to help her with algebra, and found her on the couch, laptop open and brow furrowed as her hunt-and-peck fingers found the keys.
“What are you working on?” I asked her, anticipated Spanish verbs or emails to friends.
She looked up, eyes misty with concentration and calm, focused joy. And then she said the words that let me know that she would be okay in this unpredictable and tumultuous and brutally unfair world.
“I’m writing a story,” she said.
Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). www.melissahart.com