Infinite ‘Write’ Ways: Meeting the Unique Needs of Each Individual Writer

July 19, 2021 § 8 Comments

By Margaret Moore

Someone once told me that I must be going about the writing process all wrong.

The remark came from an individual who was eager to see the release of my debut book—a memoir about growing up with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy, losing my father to cancer, and participating in academics, extreme sports, and extracurricular activities with my mother’s support and the inspiration of my father’s determination never to give up. Undoubtedly a flattering sentiment, this person wanted to see the book come out faster than my process permits.

He assumed, though, that I was dawdling, acting as my own worst enemy by procrastinating and delaying publication. While I admit I found the conjecture annoying, it honestly didn’t bother me—he was new to writing and had no experience with writing a book. We had never discussed my process. He couldn’t possibly know the steps that I take to produce my book.

His comments raise numerous questions, though: Are there correct and incorrect ways to journey through the writing process? Who and what defines an effective process?

I think about my experience thus far in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Semiannually, we gather for a nine-day residency and attend workshops, seminars, readings, and presentations. Our instructors guide us through writing exercises that enhance the depth, structure, and organization of our work. Some exercises involve prompts that provoke writers to delve deeply and create a thorough illustration of one aspect in their pieces. Others come as directions to write about a particular topic for a certain amount of time—two, three, even up to fifteen minutes—before moving to a new exercise or the next part of the prompt. Still others involve jotting down on index cards a few words to label the various scenes in our pieces and then moving the cards around on a table to explore potential arrangement.

It is notable that our instructors never sit us down and say, “These are the exercises that you absolutely must do if you want to succeed in your writing career.” They simply frame them as activities that writers can incorporate into their processes if they find them beneficial.

I think, too, of the writers who publicly describe their processes. Some have a certain word count that they like to hit each day. Others write best with pen and paper rather than with keyboards and screens.

There is no question that some writers use techniques that would never work for me. While my cognition is not impaired, I rely on a motorized wheelchair and a communication device. I don’t have the ability to handwrite (give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you the best chicken scratch you can find), and I also can’t use a traditional keyboard and mouse. My writing is done on my communication device, which functions as both a speech device and a Windows 10 tablet.

I operate the device with the joystick of my wheelchair and also with eye-tracking technology. A flick of a switch turns my joystick into a mouse, the cursor gliding in the direction that I move the joystick, and the buttons on the control panel—ordinarily power buttons for my headlights—acting as left-click and right-click buttons.

A small sensor protruding from the bottom of my tablet, the eye-tracking module is a system of lights and cameras that detects reflections of light in my pupils, monitoring my eye movements and translating them into mouse clicks. My device initiates clicks in the areas of the screen that my prolonged gaze rests. I alternate between my joystick and eye-tracking, and, while the physical act of typing still takes about three times as long as it takes my able-bodied peers, using both methods allows me to write most efficiently.

Manipulating physical tools such as index cards is out of the question for me. I instead use virtual sticky notes, bullet pointing moments to include in my memoir and moving them around to explore potential organization and structures. Once I settle on an order, I start writing.

I never know how much I’ll be able to develop in a writing session—it all depends on whether my hand and eyes are fatigued and whether my technology is functioning properly. The frequency that the device malfunctions largely fluctuates, ranging from every couple weeks to a few times a year. While waiting for the glitch to be fixed or for a loaner to arrive by mail, the amount that I can write is limited. Although I can access Microsoft Word and Google Docs from my phone, typing with my fingers takes abundant muscle coordination. I become fatigued after getting two or three lines on the page per writing session and end up having to wait to finish the bulk of my writing until my technological difficulties are resolved.

I don’t set out to hit a certain word count each day. That method would only lead to my own disappointment over my inability to get a profusion of words down. I instead look at the outline in my virtual sticky note and set a goal for what scene I want to have finished before the day’s end. I am flexible with this goal—it may take longer than anticipated to adequately write certain scenes, so I don’t mind if multiple days are needed. Crafting a thoroughly-depicted scene takes priority. The only rule I have for my process is to maintain flexibility—to keep an open mind and to continue to explore new approaches both for the craft and practice of writing and the technological side of composing.

Someone once assumed that I was approaching the writing process all wrong. Is this possible? Are there right and wrong ways to journey through the process? No. Every writer must tailor it to their own unique needs. As long as they are writing in a way that is best for them and are happy with their projects, they are spot-on.

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Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.

My Home is My Muse

July 5, 2021 § 9 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

My mother once visited a book-loving relative on the West Coast, and when I asked her what the house was like, she said, “He decorates like you do.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but her tone of mild disapproval mixed with amusement (and delivered in her heavy Brooklyn accent) implied he had books strewn about, mementos from his travels, items tacked up casually on the wall and art of personal, rather than aesthetic, significance.

My parents’ house where I grew up was also filled with books, and my mother and father have always been voracious readers (not to mention appreciators of art).

But neither of them worked with books the way I do as a writer, teacher and translator. Their home was a place to raise children, sleep and eat. My home, where I do much of my work as an itinerant wordsmith, is the external manifestation of my thoughts, my ongoing projects, not to mention my plans for dozens of writing, translation and journalism ventures I’ve not even begun.

So I let the written word in all forms act as my decorating motif. This approach to home decor reflects where I write. Which is to say, not in an office at a college or on a magazine staff. And perhaps that’s because I began to keep a regular writing practice only as an older person with a day job. Translation: I don’t have a nice, tenured position that comes with a permanent office.

Even at home, my office is wherever I put my laptop at 6 a.m. But pity me not: I’ve arguably commandeered the whole house, with a table in the dining room for writing and another one in the sunroom, in addition to a large, vintage desk in the living room.

Books are everywhere, but that goes without saying. And besides, having stacks of books isn’t enough for me because book covers of favorite tomes are like the faces of loved ones. So I have books propped up on every flat surface the way other people might position vases or porcelain figures. Exhibit A: a French graphic novel sitting on the bedroom radiator so I can see the cover, which features a curly, girlish script overlaid on a thicket of green vines. I don’t read French fluently but I do read beautiful book covers with foreign titles fluently.

Anything that I find inspiring is taped up onto the wall if it’s made of paper or leaning against the wall if it’s solid. Any card that has words on it – especially words like amore or reading – goes on display. The notecard my Australian artist friend drew for me is tacked up next to a pink and green map of Florence, Italy (which is where I met the Australian friend, back when we were ex-pats in the city of Dante). There are also receipts from Italy, plus old letters from my mother, her familiar handwriting doubling as a writing prompt. The things other people would throw away feed my writing soul.

On the wall of the dining room, I have a large event poster the Italian town of Siena gave out for free before a Palio horse race that I witnessed during a semester abroad. Later, my father framed it, perhaps sensing that I would forever see my life as divided in two – the period before I visited Italy and every moment of reluctant exile that came afterward.

The whole house is wired to pulse me with inspiration, and to envelop me in cozy, literary familiarity.

Initially it wasn’t something I consciously sought. In my 20s and early 30s, I moved from place to place and state to state, working my through journalism jobs, and I wasn’t ever especially interested in interior decorating. I don’t care to know exactly what a pillow sham is. But the process by which I have assembled a kind of mosaic of visual influences and inspirations feels vital – and not a habit I want to part with. There never seems to be enough time for all the ideas I want to pursue but I take solace in the walls of my house and the surface of my desk beaming back to me all the things that occupy my mind.

Indeed, after a while, I realized this approach was essential. When we left Atlanta in 2017 for a new life in Connecticut, the boxes that rode with us in the car contained nothing anyone would ever want to steal, nothing that the movers could break, but everything that had nurtured a fledgling writer’s life: my journals, my books, my papers, my mementos, my private correspondence, and a manila envelope full of the special talismans I had placed around my computer for inspiration. I would desperately need them all in Connecticut when I felt completely untethered from the engine that had powered my writing life.

In essence, I want my home to look like the inside of my mind. And that’s where I store all my grand writing plans. To help me focus, I have seeded the house with photos, strategically chosen to stoke my memoir instinct. Take the photo of my uncle and my grandparents in their home in Bayonne, N.J., which I found after his premature death. They are in the kitchen during what’s likely a family party in the 1960s, judging by the type of photo paper. He had lived in the house his whole life, and it’s the house my father grew up in, where his grandparents had also lived, and which remains in the family. Other families may retain pedigreed estates with fancy names. Not our clan. It’s a rickety, three-story house in a quirky working-class, New Jersey city that doesn’t make you think “The Garden State.” But the house looms so large in my memory, perhaps because my father and his siblings have long referred to it as “Ten East,” an abbreviation of the street address. “Back when I was still living at Ten East…” Or, “Up in the third floor at Ten East…” This mythology is something I hope to probe through writing. Hence the photo, reminding me there are stories to tell.

You could call it all the chaos of reading and writing. Maybe it’s a consolation prize for trying to make it in the literary world, which is the wordsy equivalent of Hollywood — in other words, a cut-throat industry where few succeed but many aspire. I haven’t written a book nor do I have an agent. But one part of my literary life is thriving – and it’s this monument I am building day by day to all the things that fire my imagination.
___


Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

It Can Happen: Rejection and Other Good News

July 2, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Jenny Klion

Another day, another essay rejection. I rarely respond to rejection e-mails, unless they read clever or uplifting, and this one was same-old, dry but polite. “Thanks but no thanks, send us more work if you think it’s a match. Good luck placing that essay we don’t want.”

Here is how I’d like to respond:

“Oh hi Lit Mag, 7 months later. A lot has transpired since we last communicated, when you moved my submission status to ‘in progress.’ Thanks for that and also your note but I recently got a 6-figure book deal via a high-end lit agent, so reject away! I’m only bothered a little bit.”

Dare I press send? What terrible thing would happen if I did? Told the truth with a capital T, which I thought CNF was all about? Do I really have to keep being so proper and well-behaved all of the time? 

It’s this book deal! I’m feeling since like nothing can touch me, like it’s my birthday, every day, except I’m getting younger, or have more future ahead of me, though of course that’s not true. And also that I want to use this good news as a weapon, to point at certain specific someones. Yes, I’m that shallow, and in fact nothing has changed day to day, really. Except that a window is open, at least for a short while, and there’s a wonderful view, which is very satisfying after having had so many doors closed in my face. Also that high price per word, if I’m telling truth with an upper-case T, as in possibly TMI, even after the skim off the top and the split down the middle and the step payments, plus the taxes and what not, that is my best yet!

Over the years I’ve written thousands of words, hundreds of thousands, millions of words. Essays, and more essays, pieces of essays, ideas only, flash, memoir, all of those drafts, and more drafts, some that have seen the light but most have not. Plus cover letters and artist statements, residency and grant applications. The readings and prompts, and classes, endless classes, assignments, and newsletters, tips, how-tos, freebies, and the failures to boot. I once wrote in Brevity Blog about padding one’s word count, as if I needed more words! And then there’s the stuff I barely remember writing. 

Now I see, decades later, that my moment of Zen turned out to be the most petite of flashes—a kids picture book I wrote with someone else—for those in the buying position to sit up and take notice. Also, my writing partner here, my lifelong BFF, happens to be a successful film producer, with enviable representation. Also, I am aware of how gestalt can happen, and I’m just proud enough to take it however I can get it! It was a two-and-a-half-week whirlwind of agent and pub meetings, a book auction OMFG, offer/love letters my shrink suggested I turn into wallpaper, and the realization that I need zoom makeup, badly, which I got for Mother’s Day, along with a tutorial from my proud daughter #amcrying, and a month later I’m still floating back down to earth….

Ah look, here’s another essay rejection rolling in. I won’t say a word, like a good writer shouldn’t. Instead, let me pop it like a balloon and pin up the remains on my new wallpaper, because one couldn’t exist without the other. And get back to work on the next book, for which my partner and I have a ‘first look’ deal. 

It can happen.
__

Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, The Hairpin, The Nosher, the Woodhall Press Anthologies Flash Nonfiction Funny2018, Flash Nonfiction Food, 2020, and more.

A Picture’s Worth 75000 words

July 1, 2021 § 24 Comments

By Damhnait Monaghan

Shortly after she sold my debut novel New Girl in Little Cove, my agent sent me an email that made my giddy heart droop:

“You are going to need (and want) a professional author photo for your book jacket.”

Need? Maybe. But want? Nuh-uh.

Still, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down a few books to study the author photos, examining clothing, props and arm placement. Black-and-white or colour? Smiling or serious? Toothy smile or close-lipped? Who knew?

I googled a few articles, learning that your author photo should be a slightly better version of you. You on a good day, maybe your best day. I briefly pondered the appropriateness of using one of my wedding photos. They were only twenty years out of date. Then I put the whole thing out of my mind. There was no rush.

Then the U.K. entered a national lockdown. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t book a photographer, but the thought crossed my mind that a pandemic author photo had at least one advantage—the bar would be significantly lower. Most of the time during lockdown I wore a bra and brushed my teeth. Me on a good day meant I’d probably brush my hair, too. It seemed manageable. But weeks turned to months; my hair grew longer and greyer. I read another article that encouraged me to think about the message I wanted to send with my image. (Please buy my book?)

Now that I couldn’t book a photographer, I almost wanted one. My agent chimed in again. It was important to be happy with my author photo—who knew where it might be reproduced—but a talented amateur photographer was also an option.

I wasn’t sure there were any talented amateur photographers in my COVID bubble. My husband had recently been called upon to take my picture for passport renewal. Smiling was obviously prohibited—I suffered a prolonged bout of the giggles. The final image? My eyes squeezed shut, my mouth wide open, looking away. On balance, a professional seemed a better choice.

When the lockdown restrictions eased, I leapt into action. The photographers in my area mostly seemed to specialise in weddings. (Maybe I could still fit into my dress?) But I found one who also did portraits, and liked the samples on her website. She’d never taken an author photo. I’d never had one taken. A perfect match! Even better, she was free on the same day I’d booked an appointment at my hair salon. Hair? Check. Photographer? Check. Alas, unlike my wedding, this time there was no string quartet and even more disappointing, no open bar.  

I chose a favourite top, applied light makeup and met the photographer outside for the surreal experience of a one-on-one photo shoot in my back garden. I followed her directions to sit, stand, lean against a wall. I stared pensively into the distance, then faked laughter. If laughter was required, I thought, maybe I should’ve booked my husband after all.

While she clicked away, the photographer asked about my novel. As I gave her my elevator pitch and mentioned my long, tortuous path to publication, I forgot to worry about how I’d look. Instead, I reflected that despite all that was awful in the world, there were still things to celebrate. 

The next morning, I received an email and filled my computer screen with dozens of images of me. Scrolling idly, I wondered how I would narrow it down to one photo.

Alas, on closer inspection it was too all easy.  

Why had I worn a top with cap sleeves? The beefy arms on display (surely just the camera angle?) meant many shots were quickly rejected. Likewise, the fake laughing. Lips firmly closed was definitely my better side. And it’s best to draw a soft-focus filter over the puckering in my trousers crotch in some of the photos. Cropping is your friend, my friends.

Luckily, if someone takes several dozen pictures of you, there are bound to be a handful of contenders. Examining five in greater detail, I realized what might be meant by “the message” I wanted to send. In my favourite photo, I’m standing in the shadows, beside a tree. But something about that dark background and my knowing look didn’t seem to fit with my debut novel—a light-hearted romantic comedy. (As one of my friends said, ‘Save that one for when you write a psychological thriller.’)

Like any true diva, I asked for input from my people: my sister, trusted friends and my agent. As I waited for their feedback, I was struck by the similarity between the author and wedding photo shoots. On both occasions I was happy, excited, and a bit nervous about what lay ahead. Perhaps it was no surprise that we all chose the same photo: me in front of white hydrangeas—a favourite wedding flower. If only I’d worn that dress. It even had longer sleeves.

Damhnait Monaghan is an award-winning flash fiction writer. Her novella in flash The Neverlands won Best Novella in the 2020 Saboteur Awards. Her debut novel New Girl in Little Cove—a light-hearted fish out of water tale—is out now with Harper Collins. A German edition will be published in early 2022. Find out more at www.damhnaitmonaghan.com

Writing Down the Knowns

June 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Krista Varela Posell

Before the pandemic, I hadn’t published anything in three years. I don’t even think I even finished writing a single essay that entire time. I had not one but two book manuscripts that had stalled out. Major life events kept me from writing regularly: my mother’s dementia diagnosis, the death of my first dog, and a significant transition in my marriage. I kept telling myself, “you are just living the life you’ll write about later”—though that did little to assuage the guilt I felt thinking I should be more disciplined if I wanted to call myself a writer. 

When California’s shelter in place orders went into effect last March, I decided to use the shakeup in my routine as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing practice. For inspiration, I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a frequently recommended book on craft and one that had been sitting on my shelf for over a year after I found it on clearance in a bookstore. 

I committed to reading a chapter a day, which amounted to just a few pages, to get myself to think about writing. Looking at the table of contents—65 chapters including the introduction—I thought, I won’t even finish this before life goes back to normal. It seemed like a productive and pleasurable way to pass the time. As of this writing, 423 days since I started working from home, I could have read the book several times over.

I established a morning ritual: sitting at my desk to read, then writing down a line or two that captured my eye. I followed up with journaling, trying to capture the strangeness of daily life in an unprecedented time. “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical,” Goldberg writes. “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.”

And so, I did my best to record the details, filling almost an entire notebook in six months. Many pages served as to-do lists. I became obsessed with keeping straight the basic tasks I had to accomplish to get through the day: “Put out the trash bins. Repot the plants. Weed the backyard. Hang up the laundry. Return book to the library.” Writing down any task became the first step in being able to complete it. If it wasn’t on the page (short of eating and bathing) it wouldn’t get done, disappearing in my brain amongst the riptide of constant anxiety.

As the pandemic pressed on and it became evident that we would still be living in this reality far longer after I finished Writing Down the Bones, my motivation for reading evaporated. The book was meant to serve as a time marker, a source of optimism. But one of the rewards for finishing it—going back to “regular” life— was no longer there. Even something as small and manageable as a single chapter felt too overwhelming.

After taking a break for a few weeks, the chapter I returned to began, “When you are not writing, you are a writer too,” as though Natalie Goldberg knew that was exactly what I needed to hear to get going again. These words reinforced what I wanted to believe during those years I hadn’t been writing but wasn’t comfortable enough to embrace until now.

I’ve tried to do my future self a favor to document as much as possible when I have the energy for it. In between my lists, I’ve kept other notes, unfiltered raw thoughts of what I don’t want to forget about this past year, mostly frenetic musings on loneliness and angst:

June 5th: “It’s hard to know what to even write. Black people are dying.”

August 20th: “I can’t feel excited about turning 30 when I’m feeling so anxious about just surviving.”

December 22nd: “I’m still feeling an all-encompassing restlessness that makes it so hard to get through the day. I’ve never felt so much animosity toward just having to exist.”

Having to be gentle with myself for all the complicated feelings arising during the most stressful time in recent history, I’ve let go of the idea of a daily practice, of sitting down at the same time and space to write every day, for good. Even Goldberg acknowledges the importance of cutting yourself some slack, of making sure you don’t become too rigid in your routine: “Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly towards it.”

And yet, for the sporadic fluctuations to my process, I had more victories in 2020 than I had in the three years prior combined. All that journaling eventually began rendering itself into actual essays, some that I managed to publish throughout the year. I also started a blog and got my first paid byline. Writing finally feels like it has a regular place in my life in a way that it hasn’t since I was in grad school. And by regular, I mean one that doesn’t feel so tenuous if I can’t manage to do the thing for a week or two.

I still don’t write every day, but the biggest difference is, I no longer feel guilty about it. We are living in a pandemic, after all. I spent years wringing my hands over whether to call myself a writer, feeling like it’s a title I don’t deserve. Now, it’s an identity I comfortably inhabit, one that is pliable and forgiving of the circumstances of life. When I’m not sure where to start, I simply write down the knowns, the truths of what I’m experiencing: “It’s your life, begin from it.”

I haven’t finished reading Writing Down the Bones yet either. Instead of rushing toward the end to move on to something else, I’ve chosen to savor it like a decadent dessert I come back to when I need a little pick-me-up. Over thirty years later, it feels as though Goldberg is still speaking directly to our present: “In the middle of the world, make one positive step,” she writes, “In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.”
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Krista Varela Posell (she/they) is a queer Latina writer living in San Francisco. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Bold Italic, GO Mag, Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Krista earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and is co-creator of the community blog Poly in Place.

Falling in Love with Books

June 18, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Elizabeth Garber

It was the first day of summer vacation, about 1960, the end of third grade. I sat in the small rocking chair next to a bookcase in the dining room in our old Victorian house. I saw a faded blue bound book with a title that tempted me.  I Capture the Castle. The house was quiet. My brothers were napping. I must have begged off my nap, which was rare because my mother always told me “You, of all people, need so much sleep or you are not good for anything.” I usually read through naps, perfecting my face to look asleep if my mother passed by, ready to slip my book out from under the covers. But that day the house was quiet and it was mine. I remember the light coming in the windows and stretching across the floor where my brothers’ wooden blocks spread over the floor.

I pulled the book from the shelf of grown-up books, and opened to a drawing of a kitchen in an old castle. I knew the book was too old for me, but I wanted to read it so much. It was about a girl writing in a journal. She started: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it: the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I was padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cozy.”

I loved English words like tea-cozy. The narrator was a writer, and I’d begun my first journal. She was sitting in such an unusual way, like someone I’d be a friend with. But at that moment a spindly spider crawled out of the arched space between the sewn binding and the cloth spine and headed down the page. His fine legs like cactus spines tiptoed over the words I wanted to read. I slammed the book shut and threw it down on the floor. My heart pounded. I quickly picked up the book with my fingertips; afraid the spider would pull himself out between the pages and crawl on my hand. I shoved the book back on the shelf, my happiness slammed in with the spider.

I glanced sadly at the book for years, remembering the spider. Even when we moved years later to a modern glass house, the book stayed out of reach.

When I was sixteen, on a quiet afternoon when I was desperate for a book, I glanced at the book shelves, and remembered. I took the fade blue book and opened carefully. The husk of the spider slid off the page. I sat down and as I began to read, the book became mine, written by a girl who wrote in journals. It was perfect. She was me.

I couldn’t bear to let the book leave my bedside table. I’d turn on my side before falling asleep and glance at that book. As if the secret of me was inside. I didn’t believe anyone knew me well enough that I could trust them read the book. It would reveal too much about who I really was. 

A year later, I knew I’d truly fallen in love with my first boyfriend when I realized I had to lend him the book. But it was such a risk. Would he understand?

                                                            *

Elizabeth says I have to read a book she loves. She holds the faded book to her chest before placing it in my hands. She’s excited and nervous. I don’t really get how a book written in the 1930’s or something in England could be too revealing for her to share. I smile and reassure her. But I hope I’ll like the book.

Kids at school think we’re kind of weird cause we’re so into books, but that’s part of why I fell in love with her. In English class, we competed over Drieser’s American Tragedy in English class. We’d meet at our lockers to compare pages read. One day she crowed, “I got to page 580!”

I grinned, “Sorry kiddo, I’m at 614.”

So I read I Capture the Castle. In the first paragraph there’s this girl writing in her journal. Her name’s Cassandra. I get right from the start why so many things are perfect for Elizabeth: a long elegant name with no nickname, the narrator is quirky and funny yet insecure about whether her poetry’s any good, and she’s absolutely determined to write everything in her journal. Elizabeth says she finally found someone really like her even though Cassandra’s going on about tea time, and dying dresses with green dye, and exploring the castle. The voice starts to become Elizabeth’s voice, as if I can imagine her writing it.

After a while, the novel becomes a kind of comedy of errors, mistaken identities and hiding under bear skins, all quite light, but through it all the narrator is determined to do the right thing. She works so hard to keep the family together and to understand everyone, and to bring out the best in their crazy father, always hoping that he’ll get better. In contrast to Elizabeth’s dad who keeps getting worse and angrier. The book is a comedy, and the book’s dad actually comes through in the end.

Is this what Elizabeth is hoping, that her dad will get better, and is this really why this is her favorite book, even though she thinks it’s because the heroine writes in a journal?

When I hand back the book, her eyes are so vulnerable. I say, “Yes, the book is perfect. You are Cassandra.” And she cries.
_____

Elizabeth W. Garber is the author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (2018), and four books of poetry.  Three poems have been read on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Low Residency Program. She was awarded writing fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming. She is currently pitching her new memoir, Not As Lost As I Thought: The True Story of a Girl at Sea, about when she was eighteen, attended a hippie high school on a derelict square rigger and encountered pirates, avoided a near sinking, was held hostage in Panama, and broke free from tyranny at home. More at:  www.elizabethgarber.com.

How Writers Learn and Grow

June 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Aimee Christian

This spring, I attended my first writing conference, and it was almost embarrassingly life-changing.

For a long time, I wondered how people just sit down and write a book and send it off to an agent and then get it published. Where do they find the discipline? How do they know it’s any good? How do they know when it’s done? And then wait, when we study craft, are we saying these writers did these things intentionally? They didn’t just sit down and dash off sheer brilliance? They knew what they were doing?! So many questions!

I am forty-eight and now I finally know. They don’t just sit down and write perfection. They too had to learn it from somewhere.

For the past year I have been taking the class to end all writing classes. A year long memoir incubator. That name should say it all. A year ago, I had little more than a folder full of bits and pieces of creative nonfiction from fits and starts at writing. I applied to the class with 50 not-terrible pages. They were premature, and I had more ideas, all in desperate need of incubating. So for a year, I wrote. Through the pandemic. Through a change of jobs, remote school for a disabled kid (read: no school) and another kid (read: not enough school), getting and surviving COVID, losing my father, and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And in the process, I learned more about writing and about myself in this year than ever before.

In this class, we also read. We read each other’s half-baked manuscripts, we read excellent memoirs, we read craft books and essays. We picked pieces apart, we studied craft, we learned to give feedback and make edits both developmental and line by painstaking line.

As the third trimester of the class began to near its end, our brilliant and patient teacher prepared us for the conference. Her process was well thought out. We prepped as though we were querying: writing synopses of our manuscripts, picking out agents we might want to meet with, practicing our pitches.

That I was even able to follow the lingo in the conference: prompt, comps, query, proposals, prologues, revisions, writer vs author, memoir vs autobiography, and more, just shows how much I learned in a year. I didn’t know any of that a year ago.

Overall, the conference was humbling. The content was both about writing and about all the steps that come after it, and because it was virtual, we didn’t have to choose one session over another. They were all recorded, so we were able to see one and then go back and watch the others later. It was a lot of information, all varying degrees of useful, all of them leading me to one (long) conclusion, which is my new mantra:

I am not quite done with my manuscript, I have a community of writers around me, I have lots of resources, I need to avail myself of them, and when I am ready to query I will know it, and I will be successful even if it takes me a very long time and success doesn’t look the way I think it should right now.

But most of all, I WROTE A BOOK. And I know it’s gonna be a good one, too, because now I have help I didn’t have before. My friends and I read each other’s work and we can see easy improvements in each other’s pieces that we can’t see in our own. I can move paragraphs or sentences around in someone else’s essay in minutes but hang on to pages and pages in my own manuscript for dear life that a fellow writer can take a quick red pen to and say “this has to go” and when she does, I know immediately that she’s right. Or she can offer a pointed “Like what?” or “How?” to a sentence which makes the story I’m trying to tell so much clearer.

I know I am late to the party here. You probably know all this. But now I know, too. I won’t go it alone anymore because I don’t have to. This is how writers learn and grow. It makes us better writers, better editors, and overall better members of the writing community. Count me in, for however long it takes.
____

Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.

I Didn’t Choose Writing: Writing Chose Me

June 14, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Robyn Fisher

When the question, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” comes up at author events and conferences, as it often does, I lean forward, hoping to hear something different from the usual “Oh, I knew as soon as I could hold a crayon that I wanted to write down my stories!” I have yet to hear a successful author say, “Gosh, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer till I was well into my 50s.”

I am a writer now, well into my 50s, but I didn’t always know that’s what I wanted. When I was kid, I liked crayons and books, for sure, but I also liked paint and dirt and the piano and TV and rocks and bugs. I was extroverted and interested everything out there. Writers spend their time in here. Back then, showing off my cartwheels on the lawn with friends was way more attractive than spending time alone in my room.

To be fair, to say I was one of those who didn’t know she wanted to be a writer till late in life is a bit of an overstatement. In high school, I was known to write angsty songs on the guitar, and the journalism room was my home away from home. In college, though, I didn’t even find the journalism department until my junior year, and that was because I thought I wanted to be a news photographer.

During my senior year of college, I applied for a photo stringer job with the largest newspaper in my state. I went on assignment with my Nikon and my Tri-X, and my contact sheets had several good shots worth submitting. I thought I was pretty good. And then there was the freshman who also wanted the stringer job. Every single one of his shots was better than my best.

I had better work on my writing I thought. Time to get real. I didn’t have the passion for shopping for, buying, having, and carrying around heavy photography equipment, but I knew I was in my element talking to people. And, I loved Writing Lab. We student reporters brought in our beat notebooks and typed up our stories on IBM Selectrics while our instructor made the rounds and helped us sharpen our prose. We wrote alone, but together, and as we created, we received immediate feedback, not only from our instructor, but also from each other. Writing Lab was social, my skills improved, and that made me want to keep doing it.

After college, I worked in public relations for a non-profit where I wrote articles and columns, then later, I wrote for a weekly newspaper. Seeing my byline in print was addictive.

Eventually, I married a man who was a writer and a musician, and I became a high school journalism teacher. My brilliant, introverted husband would go out to his studio, put on some Vivaldi, fall into a trance and write. I was jealous of the way he could tune out distractions and not seem to need the external validation. He made his living writing about economics and teaching as an adjunct, but I especially loved the way he documented our family life with his stories, poems and songs.

Years went by, the kids grew up, and we found ourselves facing a medical crisis: Lewy Body Dementia was ravaging my husband’s body and brain. The decline was steep. I quit my teaching job to be his caregiver, and it became my turn to be the primary writer in the family.

I wrote regular updates to keep our friends and family in the loop and I always read them aloud to my husband before I emailed them. “Your writing brings me such joy,” he told me. “Not many people know what writing can do.” My updates and essays about our days navigating this disease grounded him when he felt reality slip away. “You remind me who I am,” he told me.

My writing helped ground me, too, when anxiety came to call. The positive responses, from both my husband and our circle of friends, made me want to keep writing. I honed my updates until they became essays. After he died, I hired a writing coach who helped me turn those essays into the skeleton chapters that eventually became my full-length memoir. Rest, long walks and writing have been the only activities I have felt driven to do in my grief.

Today, I am a widow with grown kids, shopping a memoir, writing a blog, submitting essays, reinventing myself, posting photographs, getting rejected, getting published. These days, I spend considerably more time in here than I used to.  When I am not writing, I think about writing. Sometimes, I even put on Vivaldi.

I’ve never been one to fall fast in love. My husband and I were friends for years before we chose each other as life partners. Now, like a lover, my writing is the first thing on my mind when I wake up each morning, and the last thing on my mind before sleep. It’s a lover’s attention: beautiful and life affirming, and it chose me.
___

After Robyn Fisher’s husband died in 2017, she went on Pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, sold her home of 25 years and finished her forthcoming memoir, You Remind Me Who I Am: A Memoir of True Love and Lewy Body Dementia. She is a writer, blogger, musician who writes about life reinvention after loss. She has appeared on the Daring to Tell podcast, Pilgrimage to Self blog, and was named recently a finalist in the Women on Writing Creative Non-Fiction contest. She is a vagabond who divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Maui. More info www.robynpassowfisher.com.

Your Class is Showing

June 9, 2021 § 11 Comments

by Melissa Scholes Young

At a reading for my first novel, a reader waited patiently at the microphone and asked, “Why would someone like you write about people like this?”

My friend in the front row shook their head. The bookseller hosting me inched closer. I smiled and asked back, “Someone like me? People like this?” The audience laughed. It relieved the tension.

It was actually a good question, albeit loaded. My rural accent thickens when I speak into microphones or sit in rocking chairs on porches. My debut novel, Flood, is set in my hometown of Hannibal, Missouri where I reimagine Tom and Huck’s famous friendship as female. My second book, The Hive, traffics in the political divide of rural communities and tells the story of sisters, secrets, and survival. Both books are set in the Midwest and my characters look and sound like the country people who raised me. I write from my roots, but my roots aren’t always visible in my presentation.

The implication of the question was that I couldn’t possibly be the product of working-class people in rural America. She saw them perhaps as unsophisticated in their manner and uncouth in their behavior. She saw me as a successful author and esteemed university professor. Her question was innocent enough, though it revealed more about her own bias than about the many and sincere parts of my identity.

At best, it was a backhanded compliment. At worst, it revealed exactly why I write about the community that raised me. We all deserve to be complicated on the page. If you can’t imagine that a person without a formal education can be brilliant and nuanced in their thinking or that economically disadvantaged folks don’t also have desire, than maybe you’re not bringing an open heart and mind to the page. My people aren’t stuck in a life they don’t want; they choose to devote their talents to a life they’re familiar with and want to make better. I write worlds I know but I read worlds that I have never occupied.

My work in fiction and nonfiction traffics class because I have the unique vantage to do so. I move freely within the cultural divide. I was raised in a conservative community but I’ve built my career in a liberal one. I lean on my rural roots and cling tight to the values of self-sufficiency, hard work, and grit from guts. Shared stories are an invitation to challenging conversations. At the dinner table, it’s safer to discuss characters, their values, and choices perhaps more than our own. The discussions are possible when they are about fictional plot rather than personal story. It’s vital that readers have representation on the page. It’s important, too, that readers don’t only seek out stories from characters who share the same values. Books should challenge us to imagine beyond our own experiences and to inhabit a world we may not otherwise have access to. It doesn’t threaten my beliefs to read something I disagree with. It makes me think harder about my foundation.

On the stage, celebrating my debut novel, the question from the reader about the distance between my reality and my roots felt like an indictment. I grew up on a country road, speak with a Midwestern twang, am the first in my family to graduate from college, and make my living as an author and professor of Literature. Her question implied that those identities couldn’t coexist, yet they absolutely do and we should expect them to.

The real win of my reader’s question that day is that my publishing story provides perspective into a life she’d never live but could see more clearly. The truth is that I was in awe of her ability to even ask me such a question. I was taught to behave and to be quiet like good girls do. Not all of us were born into progressive families that valued our voice. We’re still clearing our throats.
___

Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novels The Hive and Flood, and editor of Grace in Darkness and Furious Gravity, two anthologies of new writing by women writers. She is a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Ms., Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Residency Fellowship and the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Quarry Farm Fellowship. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, she is currently an associate professor in Literature at American University.

Don’t Let Him Rob You Twice

June 3, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Alizabeth Worley

The atmosphere in which I fell in love with writing—and with essays—was toxic.

My high school English teacher was a ghost writer, literally sitting down at the computer where a student had been working, then writing or rewriting a whole poem or essay or story. Every year, he won dozens of awards under his students’ names.

As a high school student, this literary surrogacy was debilitating. I did not feel like I was a good writer, not really, because he had overwritten so much of what I worked on. I do not believe that my classmates felt confidence in their writing either.

One of my classmates had won an award for her poem, and she was invited to read it at an award banquet. This teacher, the same who had overwritten so many of her words, was helping her rehearse it out loud. It was painful; they said lines back and forth over and over, he in his way, she in hers, while he became more and more frustrated.

Finally, he paused, reading the poem silently and looking into himself, as if to gather his frustration and smooth it out. Then he repeated one line of her poem—I still remember it, one arm hangs like a broken wing—and said, “Such a good line.”

She said, “That’s because you wrote it.”

He said, “I know.”

Now, I can’t believe that I was so blind to his quiet contempt, that I said and felt nothing for her at the time.

*

The atmosphere in which I fell in love with writing was toxic, and invasive. He read my journals: some of my friends had given him their journals to read, and when I finally did, he said to me, “It’s about time.”

We played games like “The Line Game,” where students were told to step up to a line taped to the carpet if they had been through certain life experiences: therapy, eating disorders, bullying. When he asked if anyone had done drugs, he put his toe on the line. He said, “I think I’d have to say yes to this.” But he was talking about pornography, not drugs. We just didn’t know that.

I told him everything: about the older boy who touched me when I was younger, about the classmates who called me stinky and freak in elementary school, about the turmoil that led to my parents separation and the divorce that had just come through my junior year. It was everything I never knew I wanted, to let out the secrets and shames I had never thought to share.

It was everything I wanted, but it was also everything he wanted: to be serenaded with the remains and reshapings of pain.

One of my classmates once said to me, he makes me wish I had a drinking problem, as if that was the best gift she could offer, the surest way to sustain his engagement.

For a while, it was everything he wanted.

*

The atmosphere in which I learned to love writing was toxic and invasive and ultimately abusive. The first time he hugged me, I wrote about it in my journal, which he read and then asked me to pen over or shred finely enough that no one else could see—people will get the wrong idea, he said, he said exactly that, and I really believed him.

Soon enough, I discovered the easiest way to erase my records: soak the paper in water, then let the words pill off as I scrubbed two folds together. Soon enough, I stopped writing about my life.

One day, he said, maybe I’d write about all this—the phone calls and trips to hotels and nights in empty parking lots—when there was less at stake. He believed that I wanted his burning, really believed it in his heart, as if he had no other choice. But even then, when he said I might write about all this, as if I would defend it, I remember thinking: no.

I had fallen in love with writing, not him, and he had mistaken the two.

I had fallen in love with words by Galway Kinnel and Toni Morrison, and then so many others. There, in his classroom, long before he said he loved me, I had pulled a freshly printed sheet off a stack of papers sitting on a desk and read “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. Reading it, I was as moved as I had ever been, and though I would revise my desires in time, right then I thought: if I could do only one thing with my life, this would be it.

*

Don’t let him rob you twice.

So much of what I love was bound up in that situation: writing, yes, but also theater and film and art and school itself. There are streets and freeway exits I avoid because of their association with that time in my life. There are songs I don’t listen to, and movies I don’t watch.

But when it comes to the core tenets of who I am, I tell myself, over and over again:

Don’t let him rob you twice.

And so, I write.

______________________________________

Alizabeth Worley has an MFA in nonfiction from BYU and was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals Project. Her essays, poetry and illustrated works have been published or are forthcoming in Guernica, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Tar River Poetry, Hobart, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alizabethworley.com.

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