March 16, 2021 § 12 Comments
On Goofy Titles, or Why I Use Cultural References Almost Nobody Remembers.
I grew up loving Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. I remember that every episode ended with the announcement of the next episode’s title, which was always in two parts. So there you have it.
On Reflection, or What the Heck Just Happened?
The workshop provided a safe space and insight that carried me into profoundly personal and valuable work. Even though I had been writing for a long time and have had a few previous workshop experiences, I was still uncertain I had what it takes to make art. I am full of gratitude toward my fellow workshop participants. Their feedback was consistently enlightening and generous, and, for the first time in my life, I was able to post the words “I am a writer” where others could see them.
Most of all, I am profoundly grateful to Terese, who was the best teacher I could have hoped for. She is, without question, everything she is cracked up to be, and more.
Twelve Baskets Full, or Manna from Mailhot.
Here are just a few of the many things I gleaned during our four weeks together.
- Center yourself in the work. Honor the work and believe that it is important.
- I am not just what happened to me; I am much more.
- My survival is sacred. I don’t judge myself for how I survived.
- Self-care matters. I will give myself continued support.
- Drink more Margaritas.
- I am a dynamic person. (Margaritas help with this)
For the work:
- Keep making more work; eventually, I will get better.
- Trust the reader.
- Don’t be afraid to be direct.
- Not every sentence has to be art. It’s okay to call a hallway a hallway; it doesn’t have to be a vestibule.
- I have talent and voice.
- My art is important.
- Writing is not thankless work.
How Shall I Celebrate? Or, the Pandemic Is a Party Pooper.
We were encouraged during the workshop to celebrate our work, but in a pandemic, opportunities are severely limited. I did, however, treat myself to an excursion to my local indie bookstore. It felt good to wander amongst the shelves and see live people in three-dimensional forms.
The Endless Dusty Road, or, Nevertheless, I Persist.
Looking forward gives me pause. The road ahead of me is a lot shorter than it used to be. The end is now much closer than the beginning. My history of failures and false starts makes me hesitant to give voice to my dreams. I grew up believing that lofty aspirations were either beyond me or likely tainted by the ego and not to be trusted. While it is clear to me now that these ideas are false, they are still hard to shake.
Nevertheless, I persist. The best way to celebrate my accomplishments and honor them going forward is to choose to embrace the generosity I have received in the context of my workshop journey and to carry it with me going forward. To choose to believe that I have a measure of talent and voice. To choose to believe that I have a story to tell.
But talent, a voice, a story to tell, and encouraging words, are meaningless without continuing to do the work. For now, my primary focus is to do more and better work.
My best shot at a plan for the future:
- Keep doing work that moves beyond testimony to art. I don’t know any other way to do this but to read a lot, write a lot, and pay careful attention along the way. Read, write, pay attention, repeat.
- Never stop learning. Keep my eyes open for organized opportunities to grow as a writer. Don’t ignore the disorganized ones either, as they are often the best.
- Give myself time, space, and permission to work.
- Finish stuff.
- Take a shot at publication; I’ll survive. And, it just might work! I want to publish a couple of essays this year while I’m working on a collection. I’d secretly like to do a book tour someday. Uh oh, I guess it’s not a secret anymore. I suppose that means I have to finish a book first. It seems like there’s always a catch.
- Remember, writing is not thankless work; there are rewards as well.
- Make friends along the way; I’ll need them. They’ll need me too.
- Fight for my work. Both to get my work done and to get it seen because no one else will do it for me. It might be exhausting, but the battle is in my hands alone.
I only hope that when I achieve world domination and Oprah finally interviews me, I can still make time to hang out with Moose and Squirrel.
Ray T. Hernandez is an emerging writer living in Port Hueneme, California. He is currently working on a memoir in essays. He can be found on Twitter @RayTBlue.
March 12, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Rick Brown
Meditation—a practice often shackled with the uncomplimentary term, “navel gazing”—is considered by some to be an esoteric waste of time. The pursuit of writing is similarly maligned, especially in our hurry-up-and-produce Western culture. The rewards for both often amount to private victories, after all, and the labor expended may not be conspicuous to the critical observer.
But make no mistake: both involve difficult and dedicated work.
No one will reap the benefits of meditation simply by thinking about it, even less so by talking about it. Instead, we must cultivate the solitary habit of returning to the cushion time and again, preferably every day. On some days, our thoughts will bounce around like sugared-up preschoolers and we wonder what we are doing wrong. Other times we will meditate like bona fide gurus.
Writing is no different, especially on the positive side of the experience. For are there not moments when we become so embedded in a story or essay that the “real” world around us drops from our awareness, if only for an instant?
As creative writers, we live for times like these. It is the paramount blissful state of our craft. Yet, amid the bliss we also have days, often many of them, when we find ourselves distracted by refrigerator noises, mischievous cats, or those irksome patrons who dare to walk into our café and shake our concentration.
But if we work in spite of it all, then we are on the right road; for showing up to stay is the first and most necessary step. Over time, and with dogged repetition, we will develop the ability to deal mindfully with distractions when they arise. After all, it’s not the distractions that shake us so much as our thoughts about them, right? And what are thoughts? They are electro-chemical impulses to which we assign meaning, and from which our bodies react physically. But the mental events need not always play out in the same way. In meditation, we learn to consider stray thoughts as ephemeral—cottonwood seeds in a breeze. Without judgment or excessive mental strain, we simply “observe” them as they float across our consciousness and out of sight.
The same tack can apply to writing. Rather than fighting those errant thoughts when they arise, or heaping shame upon ourselves for thinking them, we can adopt a basic technique from meditation practice: “return to the breath.” For this we pause, breathe deeply once or twice to re-ground ourselves; then, for a while longer, we do so more naturally, noticing each in- and out-breath with mindful intention. Sit apart from any wandering thoughts we might have, label them as simply thoughts, and let them travel on their way. Finally, we return to our work and pick up where we left off. If the distractions return (and they will) just repeat the process.
I know, it’s easier said than done. But it can be done. And the more often we employ this technique, the easier and more natural it will become. Return to the chair. Return to the breath.
Another axiom to both meditation and writing is that it is wise to come to each new session relatively free of expectation. As we know, expectation implies an attachment to a specific outcome. In some instances this is reasonable: we can expect that the sun will rise again tomorrow. But in the interminable play of the universe, even this is not an absolute; and in any case, it is not an outcome we can control by way of human power. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but we experience this truth on many lesser, everyday levels as well. We cannot, for instance, expect that our next meditation or writing session will be as “good” (or as “bad”) as the previous one. We can do our best to ensure a positive outcome—perhaps by reading something inspiring, by not eating directly before sitting, or by first engaging in a stretching or yoga routine.
But in the end, the session will be what it will be. If outside forces conspire against us, that is just the situation we face.
Some writers are good at disciplining themselves to achieve an outcome—siting on a certain number of words per session, for instance. Ernest Hemingway is said to have jotted down his daily tally in pencil on the sides of the cardboard boxes stacked alongside his writing desk. But many more of us approach the desk with trepidation. Are we up to the task? Will we ever publish?
Often, the mood we bring to the task depends upon forces outside our influence or control, such as past performance, the weather, or the needs of others. There is peril at the extremes too. Both overblown and undernourished attitudes can undermine us. If we begin with an air of pomposity, for example, especially one that is not earned, we can almost count on not performing anywhere near the level of our expectations. Likewise, sitting down with no confidence at all will yield predictable results.
Perhaps it is better to arrive without a predetermined outcome in mind, aside from the decision to arrive and remain. We might turn out a masterwork; we might stare at an empty screen for an hour. In either event, we will have faced the reality of our task at hand. In the final accounting, that is an accomplishment.
In this way, too, we treat the act of writing as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something “higher.” And if we make ourselves available in this way through the cultivation and practice of a dedicated awareness, then any added windfalls—like publication, book deals, or even enlightenment—will appear as whipped cream on the pie.
But in the meantime, return to the chair, return to the breath. Repeat as necessary.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
March 4, 2021 § 28 Comments
Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.
But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.
In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.
Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.
Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”
I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”
She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!
I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.
I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.
And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:
- There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
- If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
- Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
- Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
- Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.
In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”
Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?
When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Stephanie Hunt
“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.
This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.
Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.
And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.
During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”
This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.
Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites.
February 25, 2021 § 30 Comments
by Jan Priddy
I used to have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that read: Art Saves Lives. I was sorrier to lose that slogan than I was, eventually, to lose the car. Because that is how it feels and what we writers mean to do. We add our words to those who came before. We claim them: Sappho and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain, William Stafford and Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan Didion and Mary Karr. We know them by their words. We should be humbled, but our goals are not humble.
We want to change the world with our imaginations, one word at a time. Words are our raw material, and our tools include description and reason, vision and touch and sound and flavor and scent. We know that what we put down on the page makes a story and that stories are what make us human.
Here is a story:
In 1836, a recently widowed visionary, remarried. With his second wife he fathered seven children, preached, taught, found academic employment, and wrote in his study while a large household revolved cautiously about him. Quiet. Don’t disturb Papa, he’s working.
Most of us scramble and bargain for writing time, often finding it only in slivers and odd hours, between the detritus of day-to-day responsibilities and paying work, wedged between the insistence of people who rely on us to put their demands first and our human need for rest. How lovely to sit behind a door, working until we are ready to stop, parishioners anxious and waiting, our loved ones tiptoeing past the door—Quiet, don’t disturb the Writer.
But we are not writing sermons that come crashing into the world with authority and an eager audience, we are not Calvin Stowe, that mystic composing in his study.
It is his wife we know—the wife who bore the seven children and ran the house and did not, in her day, enjoy legal recourse to law, the right to vote, or control of her own finances. The woman who provided Stowe with a room of his own, didn’t have one herself. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Harriet Beecher Stowe, nearing forty years of age and with a newborn seventh baby, began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the kitchen table while keeping house. She was disturbed by something other than noise.
The little lady who started the Civil War, Lincoln called her.
I wonder: Did she worry her words would run out? Did she call herself a fraud and suffer writer’s block? How was it possible for her to have imagined, with a household bustling, interrupting, and tugging at her, that the words she struggled to pen would change the world?
Maybe we are writing our own transformational books at our kitchen tables and we don’t even know it.
Few of us have sheltered space or devoted congregations. We are not Emily Dickinson or even Calvin Stowe. We are poets scribbling lines while we wait for laundry to spin, composing in our head on a run, letting the cat out, letting the dog back in; we are novelists running sentences across the ceiling before sleep or revising stories in the rare hour children are preoccupied; we are memoirists and essayists getting up to make the coffee and losing ourselves in words when we have so many obligations. We hear voices. We stare into space and forget where we are and what we’re supposed to be doing. (Hopefully this doesn’t happen while we’re driving to the grocery store.)
We cannot know the influence our words might have on that still-imaginary audience. We only know we want to do it—this writing.
With so little outside our need, without free time or a room of our own, the leisure and space that all human beings deserve and crave whether they are writers or not—we have words. We have imagination.
We look up from our table and out at the world and bend back to our page. We’ll write what we understand of it, or admire, or deplore dream fear hope.
We’re not done with our work at the kitchen table. Whether we transform the whole wide world, or our own private corner, Art saves lives. I know it’s true. I think it’s why we write. We’re saving ourselves.
Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.
February 24, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Meg McGovern
“You may feel a hangover. Abandonment,” Carol Ann Davis, Director of Fairfield University’s MFA Program, warned me and the forty exhausted students gathered together on Zoom for the closing remarks of our ten-day Residency, “but don’t forget the beautiful community we have built together.”
The hangover is not from alcohol, but rather the foggy feeling of being immersed in workshops, reading articles, essays, poems, attending seminars, completing several common reads, and holding discussions all day and into the night with other writers. The abandonment is the feeling students get when suddenly they must go back to their real lives and figure out how to manage writing, jobs, and family at the same time. When you are in a Residency, everything else is on hold.
I wrapped up my MFA a few weeks ago with a virtual celebration. The Hallelujah Cohort, as my graduating group called ourselves, dressed up in cap and gowns in front of our computers. Our emotions were mixed. We were high on the satisfaction of accomplishment that comes with completing four semesters which included craft papers, a third semester project, a 140-page Thesis, a graduate reading, and a graduate presentation, not to mention the pages and pages of reading, writing, revising, and editing work. At the same time, there was a sense of departure, abandonment, from the MFA community and the writing life established over the past few years.
No longer would we get regular emails from the director about deadlines.
No longer would we have semester assignments forcing us to sit at our desks for hours.
No longer would we choose a mentor and then meet every few weeks to discuss progress.
No longer would we spend ten days on an island or virtually immersed in writing.
It is now up to us to create our own writing lives and stay connected to our MFA community, to keep the momentum going and the friendships alive.
The day after graduation, I attended my last workshop then headed to the virtual closing. I had an unexpected wave of emotion, and tears welled up in my eyes as I left the Zoom gathering. What should I do now?
I had a million things to do; go over the comments on my writing from the Publishing & Editing workshop, read the few articles I hadn’t gotten to, read the pile of books I purchased during Residency that had already arrived, submit essays to literary journals, and write new essays brewing in my head. I needed to catch up on lesson plans for teaching my 6th graders the next day, do the laundry, pay bills, take down the holiday decorations—all the stuff I had neglected during Residency. Instead, I decided to lie down on the couch with my pup, Gia, at my feet. The brain fatigue—the hangover—hit, but thoughts churned through my head like butter and brought me back to a workshop about “Writing Life and Success.” I pondered on my own writing life. What should my writing life look like now? What are my successes?
Several professors from the MFA program spoke about their own writing life. One said she has kept track of her daily writing hours for thirty years. Another said, he doesn’t keep track, he just writes. In his memoir On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says to writers, “You need a room, you need a door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.” King suggests writing 1,000 words per day and staying in that room until your goal is complete.
I don’t keep track of my hours writing, and I don’t have a room with a desk and a door. I write whenever I can, wherever I can, usually on weekends and in the evenings after work, a swim or workout, and dinner. My writing space is in the living room. I put on my headphones, listen to music for studying, and write. Many of my ideas come when I swim, on my walks, in the middle of the night, and on weekends when I am not teaching. When ideas come, I jot them down anywhere I can. Every writer needs to establish a definition for their own “writing life.”
What I have learned is that success also has different definitions. Some write for money; others write to be heard. When my nonfiction book, We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination, about Chris O’Brien, an eighteen-year-old who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, was published in October 2018, sales were great. Amazon listed it as #1 in Spinal Cord Injuries. Chris and I launched the book together with a 200-person event at a brewery, we spoke at high schools in our area, and we were interviewed on Connecticut’s Channel 8 News. After the initial launch, the momentum slowed, but success did not come just from sales. For me, success came from the impact on readers. While writing the book, I interviewed people who knew Chris and had been influenced by his positive mindset. A young man, a paraplegic, who Chris had met at Shephard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, told me he didn’t have determination like Chris despite being more physically capable. Accepting a new identify, from athlete to paraplegic, was unsurmountable. He died just as the book was being published and left a grieving family; his mother, father, and a sister who then reached out to me.
My words had helped them heal from their loss.
Their words were my success.
Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.
February 16, 2021 § 29 Comments
How does a poet morph into a memoirist? It happens when poetry can no longer restrain words that spill over the sides of a container composed of lines and stanzas, instead filling page after page. It happens when the need to lay down a narrative becomes so compelling that a poet must begin to write the story of her need.
I had always wanted to write but in my early years struggled with narrative. I have a drawer full of old short story fragments and aborted novels, all typed on onionskin paper with a portable typewriter (yes, back in those days!). I’d never dreamed I could write poetry but one day, when I admitted to another story failure, in frustration I gave verse a try. Even now I can picture myself sitting in the university library when the thrill of my first (very badly written) poem ran through me. I believed I had found my calling and gave up wrestling with narrative then and there. In my last forty-odd years of writing and publishing, I believed that would never change.
Many decades later, my father, then in his mid-80s, began to slide into the shadow world of dementia. As I watched my father losing words, losing memories and losing me, I tried to capture the progression of that loss, to capture him on the page. I wrote poem after poem, several of which appeared in my collection Always a Blue House, published the year I turned sixty. By then my father, living in a nursing home, couldn’t come to my book launch party. He couldn’t even understand that I’d written a book, much less read any of the poems.
My father had always been a closed man, emotionally damaged by his Depression-era childhood. Abandoned by his mother, he grew up in orphanages and foster homes. That early trauma left him with an inability to express his emotions, turning him inward, into a silent man. A silent father with a daughter who lived for words.
As his disease progressed, I found myself compelled to write about our strained relationship, a subject poetry couldn’t satisfy. I wanted to come to terms with our conflict and with his dementia that had stolen any opportunity to heal our breach. As suddenly as poetry came to me long ago, the desire to write a memoir appeared. Since my father had such trouble expressing himself with words, I would help tell his story. And that required the full sweep of narrative.
In my transition from poet to nonfiction writer, I battled insecurities not very different from those that plagued me starting out. For so many years I had called myself “poet” and not “writer.” Those two labels connoted to me two completely different types of artists. I had to battle the power of those labels to realize: what is a poet if not a writer of poetry?
Since I earned my living as a language arts teacher, I did what I would advise any of my students: start learning. I took online courses and read book after book on writing nonfiction. I read as many memoirs as I could, soaking up every technique and way of telling I could find. I had to learn to combine my poet’s voice with the “telling” reflective nature of memoir, how to lay myself on the page as the genre requires. Poets can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “tell it slant,” shading their emotions and selves behind metaphor and imagery. I came to see that I’d found it easier to write about difficult topics in poems by keeping myself in soft focus. Memoir requires bold-faced honesty, the reflective voice revealing the writer’s deepest foibles on the page. Still struggling with this, every time I write I replay the wisdom of a writer friend: we must see more of you on the page.
I wondered if I the poet, used to works taking no more than a page or two, could find the fortitude to amass words page after page, until I created a book. A daunting task—but the thrill of pages piling up kept me going.
I persist and the word count increases. Now I can say writer as well as poet. I focus on the doing and not the labels. Next to my computer I keep William Faulkner’s quote: “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”
Lisa Rizzo is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a finalist in the 2016 National Federation of Press Woman Awards, and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals and anthologies including Calyx, Naugatuck River Review, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Unmasked, Women Over Fifty Write About Sex and Intimacy (Weeping Willow Books). She is at work on her memoir in progress, Half-Orphan: A Daughter and Her Father. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com
February 15, 2021 § 32 Comments
By Joelle Fraser
It started out as most pandemic relationships do, with a post. In this case it was mine, on Facebook: a story about a plagiarizing student. That night, a witty response popped up in my inbox. A quick search revealed the sender was a 50ish divorced novelist with a cute kid and reassuring politics.
Soon we were texting like teens, a rapid-fire exchange of lives defined by writing and parenting during a plague. By the next night, the topic drifted to the reasons for our divorces.
“Can I call you?” he wrote.
I paused. This felt like the online equivalent of a date, and I wasn’t ready. But it seemed coy to say no, and besides, we lived in different time zones in the middle of a pandemic. How fast could we possibly go? The call turned out to be flirty and fun, and in a merlot-inspired moment, I suggested we mail each other our books.
The next night he wrote: “I looked up your address on Mapquest…a 15 hour drive.”
I felt myself flush as I scanned a map. I typed in a city, half way. “7 hours,” I replied, picturing a hotel room, moody light slanting through the blinds, the swirl and clink of glasses.
But with the dawn came a cold vision of this man sitting on a couch, turning the pages of the memoir one reviewer praised (?) as “scorchingly honest.” This is what it felt like: Conjure up your deepest, darkest confession and then imagine a romantic interest reading it before he even knows how you like your coffee.
Meanwhile, I’d have his book of fiction. It’s not unlike losing at strip poker—you’re sitting there shivering in your undies while the other person lounges in fully clothed comfort. Thus is memoir.
The first time it happened was during my book tour, 18 years ago. I was having lunch with Sherman Alexie, who’d blurbed my book. (He’d eventually go on to write his own memoir, but if you’d told him that then, he’d have said you were nuts.)
“I have to admit,” he said with an apologetic wince, mentioning a scorching incident from the book, “I can’t believe you wrote that.”
He’d named one of the two things in my memoir I regret writing. At the time, it threw me. Didn’t he know this wasn’t something ripped from a diary, but a crafted work? The deeper question also remained unspoken: was he shocked that I’d revealed it for all the world to read—or that I’d had the thought at all? Again, thus is the cautionary tale of memoir: people (including many book reviewers) will judge your life more than the writing of your life.
Looking back, I cut myself some slack. In my teens, my mother got sober and brought me to her AA meetings, where people shared their raw pain and the mantra was that “secrets make you sick.”
I took this to heart while studying for my MFA in my mid 20s. I rarely thought about anyone outside my family reading a future book. I could handle my mom and two brothers. Anyone else, I believed, would just have to live with it. Besides, it was Iowa, where the Workshop attracted authors like Tobias Wolff and Norman Mailer, who wrote searing nonfiction as well as fiction. Agents from NYC regularly came a courtin’.
The competition for the nonfiction folks was brutal in its own way. Sometimes our workshops felt like a literary version of Truth or Dare—everyone vying for the most exposing confession: “You think that’s intense/outrageous/wild? Well, read this!”
If you held back, others smelled it like blood in the water. “You’re just skimming the surface,” one teacher often remarked. An agent, after reading a chapter of mine, asked hopefully, “Didn’t something else happen?” When I told him no, that would make it fiction, he didn’t request more writing. It was hard to find the line between privacy and power in that environment. How could I foresee that in 10, 20 years, I’d cringe at the thought of certain passages being read by some cute writer on FB?
I suppose you’re curious about those regrets. One was an ugly thought about a man I was leaving, the kind of thing you think but don’t say. At the time it felt daring, even brave. But the pain it caused to this man, and I assume to his family, wasn’t worth it.
The other was about sex, a bit too much TMI. Did my future (ex) father-in-law need to know about my favorite position? Great Aunt Martha? The novelist on the couch halfway across the country?
If you’re going to write a memoir, be prepared for someone to say: I can’t believe you wrote that. When that impulse comes to confess, I ask three things:
- Will it hurt someone to read this?
- Will it make the story better?
- And conversely, will it matter if it’s left out?
If I apply those questions to that awful confession at the end of Chapter 19, the answers are Yes, Not necessarily, and No. When it comes to the sex passage, the answers are No, Maybe, and No. The solution for both is to take out—or rewrite.
I wrote my second memoir 10 years later, and by then I was the mother of a 5-year old and going through a second divorce. Those three questions helped me navigate the painful and dramatic reasons for leaving his father. An editor did want more, so I wrote a chapter that I knew wouldn’t haunt me one day. The book was less sensational—and less successful–than it could have been, but I’m okay with that.
Now, working on my third book, at least I know that with the help of those guiding questions, I won’t lose sleep when certain people read it.
In the meantime, what happened with the fiction writer? Honestly, I’d rather not share. Not just yet.
Joelle Fraser has two published memoirs (The Territory of Men, 2002, Random House; and The Forest House, 2013, Counterpoint Press). Her essays have been published in several journals, including Crazyhorse, Pangyrus, The Hawaii Pacific Review, The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives with her son and two rescue cats in Reno, and is working on her third memoir, NO ONE CAN FIND YOU. She teaches online at Creative Nonfiction.
February 10, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Robyn Tait
Jagged flashing lines suddenly appeared on the left side of my vision, so I had to stop my long stare at the screen and lie down on the plump leather couch, palms pressed into my eyeballs, willing them to relax. Visualizing a flow from the firm round orbs down the optic nerve, exhaling into my brain, soothing the frayed synapses.
I had been up before dawn first silhouetted the mountains, hours sliding by as I sat immersed in the writing and rewriting of memoir—hotfooting through the cracking stones of memory and completely forgetting to look up—to take my gaze off the screen and out the window, picking out Freemont Peak, or Sacagawea.
Only the morning after my daughter left for New Zealand, I’d overdosed on caffeine, not water, lack of sleep, and loss. The piece for my graduate Autobiography class, in which I felt I must excel to hold a place amongst classmates younger than my children, was due. The urgency of the work and the longing for perfection kept me glued to the screen. I’d had deadlines before, and the perfectionism isn’t new—the excitement of discovery locked me in. Adrenals pumping anxiety.
Too much screen time. The writing, the research, the Zoom classes, the weather app I must check every day to know how my children in all three countries fare, the New York Times daily virus updates, the emails, the texting—the Covid connecting.
The ophthalmologist I rang the next day, to see if I was going blind assured me, I wasn’t. She diagnosed ocular migraine—often preceding the more familiar headache, which. . . thankfully, stays away. Her advice, Remember the rule of twenty: every twenty minutes look up for twenty seconds and focus your eyes twenty feet away. I knew this, but had forgotten, so captivated by the memoir’s lure.
They say ocular migraines are caused by an unknown combination of factors, and list caffeine, dehydration, alcohol, screens, stress, even chocolate as possible culprits. A malfunction in the brain. As I saw patterns of family narrative revealing themselves, my visual cortex sent pulsing crenelated patterns floating through my vision. Stopping me in my tracks. I could not read. How can a writer write if she cannot see?
The mind and body are one. As often as we think to divorce the body and live only in our heads, the body hangs about, and mostly we like it, but not its limitations. Scarily, it kept happening—five times in three days. In the back of my head neurons firing randomly, so that on the first day zigzag lines surrounded odd shapes of “unseeing,” scintillating scotomas on the left side of my vision; and then later, false eyelash lookalikes scudded across, the jaggedness gradually softening, becoming water in a fish eye, washing the edges. Almost trippy distortions, if you’re not terrified your retina is imploding.
Our third eye: the Tibetan lamas’ eye of spiritual vision; the yogis’ sixth chakras of insight and intuition. Representations of Shiva and Buddha show their third eye open in the center of their foreheads—a sign of their enlightenment. This far seeing eye is said to correspond to the mysterious pea-size pineal gland deep in our brains. It regulates our sleeping and perhaps our hormones, responding to patterns of light and dark. Descartes named it the seat of the soul.
Some say the third eye helps us see the underlying patterns in our lives, focusing our autobiographical dredging: the patterns of narrative, the patterns of leaving; the crossing of seas; the deep grief of loss. My great grandparents’ left their stone croft in Shetland for the southern hemisphere in 1913, never to return; I flew back northwards in 1987, New Zealand to Washington DC; and now my daughter wends her way back south, Wyoming to New Zealand, 2020. Such alluring tragedy, a deep familiarity in its pain. Are we locked in its cycle? The opening of the third eye can cause migraines and visual disturbances. How much did my inner search tear open the generational scarring, the looking inside?
The answer is the same – less screen time, less coffee, more water, no wine. And from the ancients, still the mind: meditation. Follow that tear and dig deeper. The memoir a harpooning whaleboat, spearing and dragging those deep fish to the surface, boiling the blubber and smelling it reek.
I gaze out on wide water at sunset, and feel the dancing light soothe my screen addled brain. I will meditate so I can continue to fish.
Robyn Tait is a native New Zealander and adopted American, working on her MA in English with a focus on Creative Nonfiction, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before sitting at her computer so much she used to teach yoga.