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.
September 28, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Sejal Shah
We are told to pitch companion essays in the months leading up to a book release. These essays are meant to accompany and contextualize your book–to connect them to something current. I wrote one in February, intended for June, imagining the book party for my debut collection of essays, This Is One Way to Dance, as a wedding do-over. I got married five years ago in June, in a stressful ceremony filled with film-worthy religious conflicts and interfering aunties who saw my wedding as a stage for their daughter’s and granddaughter’s minor roles. I was 42 when I got married and disgusted by the stage mother behavior. My future husband and I dealt with their aggressive demands and my in-laws’ trauma. My brother-in-law had died suddenly many years earlier. He had never married, and a major life event resurfaces loss.
I realized later that I had been manic in the weeks before the wedding, but there wasn’t space for me to be sick. My grandmother, with whom I lived, had suffered a stroke six months before. My aunt had also moved in with us while undergoing cancer treatment. My mother told me later, we thought you were fine. You were smiling.
As someone with late-diagnosed and crushing ADHD, managing my book launch and promotion in a pandemic was brutal. I have written about neurodiversity and invisible disability, but in my experience, people don’t understand adult ADHD. In higher education, I had learned it was better to perform wellness than disclose a deficiency. We are a capitalist society, interested only in numbers, productivity, bottom line. I had put so many years and time and energy and myself into this book. I hired a publicist. She took a hefty deposit, stopped returning emails, and disappeared.
What I had going for me was my husband, and health insurance through him. I was not teaching in the spring, so I did as much as I could to prepare for my book release. I figured the book could be a happier, easier party. I figured wrong.
There was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know my father would be diagnosed with a fast-growing blood cancer, or that a global pandemic was headed our way. I didn’t know about sheltering in place.
I didn’t know about the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, sparking mass protests and a social media blackout the day of my virtual launch. In the months before my book’s publication, my father went through chemo, ending up in the hospital and rehab–a nightmare.
COVID-19 canceled the writing conferences I would have presented at and my planned book events. All travel: no. My husband taught middle school history from our dining room table. I was a zombie walking from the kitchen back upstairs to my desk.
My mother also has, I suspect, ADHD. My uncle helped her correctly fill out and file the forms for the long-term care insurance my father had. Even if you have insurance, they don’t make it easy. And when you have the stress of being the primary caregiver, who has the extra bandwidth to do even that?
In my recent reading list for Electric Literature, I wrote about books by women of color that helped me reclaim my voice and write about mental health. This reading list and an essay on invisible disability and neurodiversity I published last year both are my most important companion essays for this book.
I began with Audre Lorde, whose powerful essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” has been a touchstone for me since I first encountered it in college. I included books by bell hooks, Claudia Rankine, Abeer Hoque, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Esmé Weijun Wang, Yiyun Li, Mia Birdsong, and Cathy Park Hong: I wanted to make visible these Black and Asian American writers whose books have shown me alternative ways to think and write about voice, microaggressions, misogyny, disability justice, third cultures, mental health, academia, medical racism, and community.
As has become clear in 2020, it’s the President, Republicans, corporations and much of our culture who are sick. Rotten at the root. Not the Black and Brown people suffering under unequal access to health care. I mean, we may be sick and/or disabled, but we are not insane nor are we cruel. That’s our government and the limitations of a for-profit health care system.
My virtual book launch was like my wedding: it was an event that was eclipsed by events larger than, outside of, and more pressing the book itself. A wedding is not a marriage. A virtual book launch is not the life or journey a book will have.
My book has had many friends and supporters, visible and invisible, and who reminded me it’s a journey: there’s magic, there’s grief, there’s change, there’s the blank page. There’s the book, which has its own life beyond you. And writing? As Margaret Atwood says in her lyric essay “Nine Beginnings,” “You begin again. It never gets easier.” You give yourself over to the page.
I have learned there are no do-overs. Managing my invisible disabilities: depression, neurodiversity, ADHD, and rheumatoid arthritis are lifelong tasks. I’m a good performer and reader, with a long background in dance. I do smile a lot, but it’s not my only expression.
Making a book and letting it go is an invisible call and response in ways that have surprised me. This is One Way to Dance has felt most real when I read letters and emails from friends, classmates, former teachers, and strangers. This is when I see my book sallying forth, making its way in the world without me.
Sejal Shah is the author of the debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance. Her stories and essays have appeared in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, the Kenyon Review Online, Literary Hub, Longreads, and The Rumpus. The recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) fellowship in fiction, Sejal recently completed a story collection and is at work on a memoir about mental health. She serves on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA at Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Rochester, New York.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
author photo by Preston Merchant
September 22, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Amy Long
I noticed it first in my MFA program. Despite the opportunity costs inherent in leaving the workforce to return to school, most of my peers spent more time complaining about writing than they did writing. “I have to write a story for workshop,” they said in whining, exasperated tones when we passed in the halls or met in our shared offices. The complaints baffled me. Weren’t the pieces we had to write for workshop the reason we’d pursued the degree? Why had these people even applied to MFA programs if they didn’t want to write?
Our program offered us full funding, livable stipends, and good insurance in exchange for the low course loads we taught. Rent was cheap. We rode the bus for free with our student IDs. At the student health center, we got free counseling, even psychiatric care. We had instant friends and faculty who treated us as peers. We got Fridays off. We had little about which we could reasonably complain. Most of us did anyway.
I was different. As soon as I finished teaching my 11 am Writing and Rhetoric class on Mondays and Wednesdays, I hurried home to eat, take a painkiller—maybe two—and write until the sun set. I reserved Tuesdays and Thursdays for doctor’s appointments, therapy, errands, but just as often, I woke up, took two oxycodone, had a Coke and a few handfuls of cereal, and sat down to write on my laptop.
Given my disability, I was lucky I could write at all. I’ve had debilitating daily headaches since I was three years old and have spent the last two decades trying and failing preventive drugs, invasive procedures, and expensive alternative therapies. By the time I started my MFA, I knew that only opioids relieve my pain. My off-campus doctor wrote me a dose twice as high as the one I’m forced to accept now that physicians, government agencies, insurance companies, and others have restricted or de-incentivized opioid prescribing in misdirected efforts to curb overdose deaths and wage an unwinnable war on addiction.
I can think of few conditions more damaging to a writer than pain in the place where she thinks, but on my MFA dose, I functioned so well even our program director didn’t know I had a pain problem; on my post-grad dose, I’m lucky if I can write for two hours on a “good” day. Since writing time is harder to find and sustain outside academia, I assumed the culture of negativity around writing would stay there. But I hear echoes of I have to write a story for workshop all over the Facebook groups and Twitter threads that comprise the online writing community.
Online, writers compare the act of writing to torture, abuse, insanity. Their language assumes that anyone who enjoys her own artmaking is, among other things, an uncool goody two shoes harshing everyone’s deprecation buzz. The worst thing about listening to someone talk about how much they love writing is having to nod along in agreement reads one genre-typical tweet. Other writers commiserate in the comments or with clicks on posts’ little read hearts. Negativity has become something of a currency or writerly necessity—a way to make friends, create personas or “personal brands,” gain followers on social media, and signify in-group belonging. The half-jokes and memes serve as a rhetorical bonding exercise that all but requires a body unencumbered by anything approaching disability.
To not feel your body while writing—to not need to tune out pain, to rest, to wait for your next dose of relief—is a privilege too often ignored or left unquestioned. Instead, we allow participation in semi-ironic social-media threads to act as a never-ending networking event at which writers interpolate writing as an act of self-loathing or a cruel taskmaster to whom we voluntarily report. Complaints about writing broadcast to others not only that you write but that you “get it” in a way hobbyists (coded feminine) never will. “Real” writers, we are made to understand, pour so much of their minds and bodies into their work that they’re driven insane, even tortured or abused, by blank pages, flighty muses, narrative or poetic structures with which they choose to experiment. That their metaphors often invoke mental illness or physical pain reinforces and highlights the normative, implicitly abled bodies behind all those 240-character laments about a craft I practice from my bed.
But what might a disabled writer’s comment look like under that kind of tweet or Facebook post? If I say Yeah, it is hard to nod along when other people say they love writing; I haven’t been able to write since my pain flared last month, and I miss it so much that just seeing your tweet breaks my heart, I break the genre’s unwritten rules. Real hurt, actual illness, complaints expressed not metaphorically but as descriptions of writers’ literal pain aren’t funny; they don’t invite retweets or good-natured riffing or even lend themselves to metaphor. The different ways abled and disabled writers express frustration or displeasure with our shared art reveal inequities sustained and kept invisible by the cult of negativity: what we have that you don’t, the barriers we face that you can’t see, what you take for granted that we can’t.
Although my subpar pain management means I never feel as good as I did in my MFA years, I still write most days; it isn’t easy, and often I feel left out of this ritual we enact to signify belonging. I don’t hate writing. I love opening my latest draft and putting new ideas into it. On days when my head hurts so much I can’t look at a computer screen, I don’t relish the opportunity to take a “cheat day” or “go easy on myself.” I hate that my head so often robs me of precious writing time. But I’m even more angry with writers who take their pain-free heads for granted.
I’m disappointed so many of us feel compelled to hate this magical thing we get to do and that we don’t have more affirming ways to strengthen our collective ties. I don’t know exactly what forms those might take, but a discourse centered on the joys and frustrations of creative work might give us all a more robust, inclusive vocabulary for discussing what we love about writing and a more honest way to talk about the challenges we face, whether shared or unique to our communities. I don’t want to censor other writers or dismiss the pleasure I assume they derive from expressing negativity; we all need to vent. But our current approach too often excludes the voices of disabled writers and others who must steal our writing time and can’t afford the time it takes to tweet about the abundant opportunities healthy, abled writers are lucky enough to squander.
Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays, selected by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
August 27, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Kailyn McCord
I grew up in what I’d call a traditional workshop. Non-genre specific, usually involving between six and twelve people, this model will be familiar to any in the capital-C capital-W Creative Writing world. In it, the writer under critique listens, verboten from speaking, while peers and professor discuss their work. The conversation usually begins with strengths, then progresses to problems. The function of the writer’s silence is two-fold: first as mechanism so that they might listen more thoroughly, and second, so that the group might elucidate the work before them without clues as to the intentions behind it. Silence bears enlightenment; via their role as witness, the writer comes to see, somewhat miraculously, the true meaning of their own work.
My experiences with this model (years in an MFA, a smattering of conferences) weren’t bad, but they did breed a familiar pattern. When in the hot seat, critique would leave me in one of two places. If the group mostly liked the piece, I was often more or less exactly where I started: alone with my work, unsure of what next steps to take. If the group didn’t like the piece – if they employed the kind of cutting-down to which I’d become accustomed – I was still alone, but this time tasked with parsing individual criticisms into a cohesive plan. Knowing myself to be ever the idiot when it came to what my essays were “actually doing,” the group had handed down its meaning, and now my job was to bring it forth.
As critic, I did as had been done to me, offering my classmates a gentle barrage at best, a borderline combative litany of their failings at worst. Certainly, my criticism was craft-based; certainly, I wasn’t mean. But in my mind, I was supposed to return a favor, to show my peers where they’d gone wrong, and what they might do to right themselves. A strange sort of esteem began to build, a conflation of my critiquing abilities and my image of myself as a Good Writer. So that I might display genius (and reassure myself of its existence), there need be problems in the work of my peers, faults on which to proffer my cutthroat analyses. It amounted to a fragile success, contingent on the failures of my classmates, as were theirs on mine.
Until a month ago, I thought this was just the way of things.
A few weeks prior to my participation in a recent conference, I received an email from my workshop leader. Amidst various specific instructions was a bold-faced paragraph informing us that she did not run silent workshops, that of course the writer should aim to stay out the driver’s seat, but that should they think it necessary, were more than welcome to speak. Perhaps more shocking than this invitation, the bolded paragraph instructed us that, when critiquing, we should explicitly challenge any assumed authority over the work in front of us. Constructive criticism was encouraged, but we were to operate by the maxim that the writer knew more about their work than we did.
I balked. Surely, I thought, this model was designed for pandering, to coddle weak-minded writers who couldn’t stomach the true stuff of critique. Surely, a writer invited to speak would become mean, petty, defensive, provoking battles between intention and observation, writer and peer critic. Surely, I would walk away from this workshop with word documents full of saccharine compliments, or shyly hedged notes. When imagining my own feedback, I dreaded what I’d offer, sure I’d couch my every ‘real’ thought in fluffy, soft-handed language.
To say that I was off base would be an understatement. I was in the outfield. I was in the stands. I was the guy selling cotton candy in the parking lot.
First of all, we fought no battles. Instead, if a writer spoke, they were usually brief re-directs, and helpful for us in avoiding red herrings. Conversations that, in the old model, would have harped on (for example) inconsistent POV instead turned to how the POV was working, and what effect it rendered. Real critique still materialized (that the POV was confusing), but because we’d assumed their expertise, the writer got to see reactions to choices they’d already made, rather than our theories about ones they should have made, and hadn’t yet. This lens – one that takes a barely fledged idea and parses it out as if already complete and purposeful – is golden stuff, a rare longview, and to my experience, the very most difficult perspective to come by when drafting. There it was, in easy reach, born of the new model we found ourselves in.
I’m terrible at large-scale structure. I’ll sit in a line all day, or work the acceleration of a paragraph until it sings, but ask me about plot, and I’m lost. In this workshop, there was one writer’s piece in particular I’d had trouble with; the line-level wasn’t where it should be, I thought, even for a workshop setting. I explained patiently in my comments about showing and telling. I was sure the author was inexperienced. But come workshop time, I found them sharp, wise, and committed to every piece we addressed. I was blown away. How could someone who said those things write something like that? After the workshop, I read the piece again. I watched the beats move. I tracked character motivation and exposition. Yes, the line level wasn’t to my taste, but this writer’s command of pacing was exceptional.
Had I read this piece in the old model, I would have hung my hat on its flaws and considered my job finished. In the new model, because I was reading for intentionality, I wasn’t only seeing what the writer was doing, I was learning from it.
Comments on my own work proved honest, straightforward, and devoid of dismissiveness. Their aim wasn’t to correct, but rather to bolster what vision I’d offered. Rather than finding myself swamped by a sea of contradictory commentary, I felt empowered to take or leave what I thought was best for my work. It was surprisingly easy, in part because I knew what the group was rooting for: not their vision, and not an instructor’s edict, but my own intentions.
My favorite aspect of the new model is what I can only call genuine community. Not only is this basically nice, but it serves as real balance for moments where the ego falters. The longer I write, the surer I am that doubt will always return, dark and gnarly, a seemingly unconquerable force. What better antidote than a group of smart, dedicated people who not only believes what in moments of doubt I cannot, but who are willing to help me find my way again? What better gratitude to offer them in return than the pledge that I will do the same?
So, I’m officially ditching the hard road. Writing is hard enough, and the traditional model, for me, isn’t worth the price of asking. Instead, I’m choosing community, voice, and a new path toward the next draft. I dare you to set down your ego, and join me.
Kailyn McCord writes fiction and nonfiction in Oakland, California, her hometown by way of Oregon, Alaska, and New Orleans. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Brevity, The Believer, The Cincinnati Review, The Master’s Review, and The Rumpus, among others. She holds a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she was the editor of Bayou Magazine. Kailyn has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, Montana’s Open AIR, and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. When not writing, Kailyn likes a good camping trip.
May 11, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Julie Vick
Can’t seem to get much writing done during the pandemic? Here are some writing prompts that probably won’t help:
- Write a letter to your younger self. Find a way to casually suggest that you start learning how to cut your own hair.
- Plan a trip to a different room in your house. Write a detailed packing list.
- Imagine a character that could actually finish something they start. Write some instructions on how one would do that exactly.
- Write about one of the hardest times of your life. You know, other than right now.
- Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a quarantine from the plague. Write a historical essay about that time that focuses on Shakespeare’s wife.
- Lie on the floor for a while. Think about all the writing you could do if you got up.
- Find a photo on Instagram that depicts a family baking profiteroles in matching hand-knitted sweaters. List five possible hermit crab structures that could convey the importance of not staging unrealistic scenes at a time like this.
- Imagine someone has hit refresh on the The New York Times page 20 times in the last hour and on the 21st time, the page does not reload. Describe the type of cake they should eat.
- Write a manifesto about how any writing rejection should only be delivered at a time when the writer is emotionally prepared to deal with it.
- Outline a braided essay that interweaves musings on sourdough starters and Tiger King tattoos.
- Describe the taste and smell of the food you would make if you could just locate a single packet of yeast.
- Write an ode to Netflix, Hulu, or the My Little Pony video that has kept your child entertained for the last hour.
- Retitle 10 famous memoirs into things that could apply to this time in your life. Just don’t use “Eat, Play, Zoom”—that one’s already spoken for.
- Write one word. Any word. See? You can still write!
Julie Vick’s writing has appeared in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Electric Literature. She is an English Instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Follow her on Twitter @vickjulie. / https://twitter.com/vickjulie
April 22, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
If you, like me, are an easily distracted writer who tries, tries, tries to keep her butt in chair, but who inevitably fills her days—day after day after day–with never-ending, “more pressing and important” things to do, then we might have discovered a kind of writer’s nirvana in the days of the pandemic lockdown.
I’m not suggesting the pandemic is a good thing, but it’s clear that our behavioral changes are affecting us in many different ways, not all negative.
Nirvana: a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.
Let me deconstruct this concept as it relates to the ADD/ADHD-type writer that is me, and perhaps you?
A transcendent state: Yes, this lockdown and social distancing experience has put me in an elated state (not as in joyful, but as in high). The regularity with which I now find myself in front of my manuscript is unequalled in my life as a writer. I delight at being this connected to my evolving work, having removed most if not all non-essential activities from my life.
No suffering: The usual (and frequent!) dilemma (followed by guilt) I typically experience when I want to participate in a social activity, that I know will take a good chunk of time while I know I should or could be writing instead, is gone. Poof, like that: no more FOMO suffering.
No desire: Once I got over the initial, brief disappointment of cancellations (and my desire to go see my son in NYC, my desire to spend spring in Tel Aviv as was planned, and my desire to tell a story at a fun storytelling event in Boston where I was slated to be on stage…etc.), none of those otherwise important events mattered in the same way. There will likely be other opportunities, later, when I’m not in lockdown. Desire and pining gone.
No sense of self: I have never felt less “ego” than in this time of globally shared and urgent predicament. It is as if the idea of “me and mine” has dissolved. Now, it’s just “us,” because we’re all in this together.
Subject (a.k.a. writer) released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth: Meaning and purpose has shifted, and suddenly, there is space to focus on what really matters. I am convinced this release will herald some extraordinary writing in the months ahead from writers all over the world.
Nirvana represents the final goal Buddhism: Isn’t the final goal of being a writer to be a person who actually writes. I’m guessing the lockdown will see the birth of some fine auteurs, not just another baby-boom. Because we have been released
With this novel-like-clockwork habit of undistracted writing, I must have developed a new kind of muscle memory. I come back to it again and again because there aren’t many other options, and it feels good, like a “normal” I’ve never known. There is something comforting about the predictability and simplicity of this stripped-down routine.
Butt in chair, Anne Lamott famously says, but it was never that easy for me. My report cards from elementary and middle school read, without fail, “Nina disrupts in class” and “Nina leaves her chair without permission.” Who knew that at the age of fifty-four and living through a pandemic, I’d finally be able to experience the kind of calm and focus that greatly benefits the writing habit. This extraordinary feeling is grounding me, centering me.
May the looming threat of Covid-19 soon be diminished and our lives return to normal, and by then, I hope the muscle-memory of my newly discovered writer’s nirvana will be sufficiently imprinted in the fibers of my body, so that the practice–for it is a practice, isn’t it?—can be sustained from here onward.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to editing my MFA thesis.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, Hippocampus (forthcoming), and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 4th and final semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.
April 10, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Meg McGovern
It’s not often—or ever, before all of this—you get an email saying schools will be closed indefinitely. That word feels so permanent now.
On March 12th, students arrived off their buses at the middle school where I teach Language Arts. The building bustled with activity. Lockers were opened and closed, halls echoed with footsteps as students made their way to their classrooms, teachers chatted with each other, and laughter rang through the halls. The bell rang and the two-minute warning was announced. It was business as usual. Students and faculty stopped in place to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the building otherwise silent. After the normal announcements, the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker advising students to take their chrome books and chargers home at the end of the day. Anyone who didn’t have one or the other, or both, were told to report to the Learning Commons. A whisper of concern filtered among students and staff. At noon, the announcement was made again. By 12:40 p.m., our lives changed with an email from the superintendent. By 2:40 p.m., the hallways were empty except for staff members standing in disbelief, trying to figure out what had just happened.
The next morning, I rose as usual at 5:15 a.m., I could have slept late, but my mind spun like a top hurling into an unknown space. No school buses screeched to a stop across the street at 6:30 a.m. to signal it was time to head across town to school. No bell would ring, classrooms and hallways would be empty, and life as we knew it would change. I walked around the house in a daze. Should I work on my MFA project, grade papers, catch up on the bills, do the taxes, or just sit and read while I had the chance. I could have crossed things off my to do list, but I hadn’t figured out this new routine, so I sat on the couch with Gia, my yellow lab, and did nothing.
“Distance Learning” began a few days later. Administrators and teachers rallied to get teaching online up and running. Faculty and department meetings were set up on Google Meets. “How to” seminars were launched for staff to get up to speed with technology to teach from their computers. Teachers created, planned, shared lessons and schedules. Students sat around kitchen tables across the country doing schoolwork with their parents in the place of their teachers.
I sat at my desk from 7:30 a.m., until 5:00 p.m., nonstop, without getting to my MFA third semester project like I had promised. My eyes burned, and my whole body ached. In my classroom, I am ordinarily in constant motion, sitting only to grade papers, to conference with students about their writing, and to eat lunch with my colleagues. It was difficult on a normal day to come home and begin my own writing, but this, setting up assignments and grading in Google Classroom, responding to students, and recording myself to provide instructions, was killing my ability to get anything else accomplished. If this was my new normal, my workspace and schedule needed adjustments.
Productivity for me, means an organized teaching and writing space. My desk can be an eclectic conglomeration of bills to be paid, to do lists, papers to grade, books to read, books to write up in my MFA Bibliography, journals, and index cards with ideas. Something had to change, so I spent a weekend going through piles of papers, sorting, dumping, purging. I organized MFA materials into semester binders and teaching materials into another. I organized my computer files, and my books into baskets by semester and genre. Even Gia’s toys went into a basket under my desk. Finally, I had space to teach and write.
Without routine, life can catapult into bad habits and result in poor time management. As a teacher and writer, I could work around the clock without leaving my desk. The reality of indefinite “Distance Teaching” has forced me to create a new structure and give myself permission to take breaks. My day now starts with writing early in the morning before checking in with my students at 8:30 a.m. My alarm still goes off at 5:15 a.m., but now I am at my desk, in my PJs, with a fresh cup of coffee and my computer by 6:00 a.m., writing while everyone else is sleeping. When the school day begins, I’ve worked on essays for my MFA and feel productive. Taking breaks from the screen every hour or so is essential for my mental and physical health, so I’ve set my Fitbit with reminders to get up and stretch, start a load of laundry, chat with a friend, or get some fresh air. My husband and I shut down our computers at 5:00 p.m. to take a long walk with Gia. We cook and have dinner as a family. Afterwards, I have time to write or read MFA related books and essays then relax before bedtime.
The Coronavirus has asked us to change the way we work and live. It has asked us to evaluate and focus on what is most important. Family and good health have become priority. For the unforeseeable future, we are homebound and have new routines. It’s not the same as the face to face contact with students, family and friends, but for now, I am happy to do what I am passionate about from a distance.
Meg Keeshan McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker in Connecticut. Her book, We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination was published in 2018. She is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Fairfield University.
March 25, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Kristen Dalli
As an MFA student in the midst of writing a thesis, I’m always looking for more time to write. When classes, meetings, and assignments all migrated online in the last week, I thought having more time at home would mean more time to write. This was the perfect excuse for me to finish my thesis.
I should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as that. Writing is hard enough without the general anxiety about the state of the world interrupting motivation that is already hard to come by. Regardless, I spent the better part of the last week beating myself up over not getting enough work done, not making enough progress, and feeling the looming panic of how quickly my next deadline is approaching.
Sleep, too, has been hard to come by. As I was lying awake in bed recently, tossing and turning and talking myself out of panic, I thought back to the conversations I’ve had with friends in my MFA program. I certainly wasn’t alone in my feeling; we all were struggling to sit down, focus, and write.
The longer I lay there not sleeping, the more I thought about the things that have helped me – and the things that have definitely not helped me try to get words on the page. And how in these times of uncertainty, it’s important to find comfort in the things we hold dear. So, my fellow MFAers, here are some “do’s and don’ts” that could help make writing from home during these uncertain times even a little bit easier.
Do: Anticipate that writing will be hard. And that it’s hard for everyone.
As an MFA student, there is always a deadline – or three – looming. Despite everything going on in the world, I was treating my writing the same as it’s always been. I was mentally calculating how many days I had left until I had to submit more work, and weighing the pros and cons of skipping a day or two of writing. I also assumed I was the only one feeling the weight of these uncertain times in my writing practice.
As my friends made clear, I am not alone in my struggles. We all were having a hard time. In a low-residency program, self-motivation and focus are crucial, and both have been incredibly hard to come by recently. This is normal. Expect some bumps in the road.
Don’t: Deprive yourself of breaks.
I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough for my thesis. I’m not writing enough, editing enough, reading enough. It’s hard giving myself space and distance, and it’s even harder when self-quarantining has given me a seemingly endless amount of time. Last week, I wrote three pages. Every day that I couldn’t do more than edit a few paragraphs, I grew increasingly more frustrated with myself. I should be doing more, I kept thinking.
That line of thinking wasn’t helping. It was making me more anxious. After I gave myself a few days of absolutely no thesis-related work, I was able to reopen the document and actually do work I felt good about. I’m still not firing off pages, but I feel better equipped to make incremental progress day after day. Give yourself some space to breathe. To bake. To read something that inspires you. To watch a new show on Netflix. To take a walk. To color. And then come back to writing.
Do: Reach out to your friends and faculty members.
We’re all in this together. We’re all trying to figure out how to incorporate writing into the rest of our new indoor routines. No one knows what it’s like to doubt your work, your routine – all of it – better than other writers. My group chat of MFA friends has been an endless stream of support, shared worries, and distracting memes to get us all through the day.
While we’re all social distancing, it can be hard to feel connected to people – especially those we’re used to seeing and talking with on a regular basis. Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Stay in touch. Check in regularly. It makes all the difference.
Don’t: Give up.
Writing is always hard. Being an MFA student is always hard. There have been several times over the last week where I’ve thought about how inconsequential it all feels in the face of a global pandemic. I couldn’t see the point in sitting in front my laptop and watching my cursor blink back and forth, taunting me for an hour, while the whole time I’m so anxious about everything else going on in the world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how silly it felt to even be writing what I’m writing, or writing at all, for that matter. Given the state of the world, everything has felt so trivial and unimportant.
I don’t think it is, though. Celebrate every new word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Big or small, what you’re doing counts. We always need stories. We always need art. Hang in there. Don’t give up.
Kristen Dalli is an emerging writer from New York. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor’s degree in English, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University, where she serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of CausewayLit, and as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe and For Women Who Roar.
March 6, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Cindy Sams
A long teaching day nears its end when a buzz from the phone in my pocket grabs my attention. A covert glance at the screen reveals a text message from my MFA writing mentor at Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA.
She announces, simply, “Congratulations!!!”
What did I do?
Attached to the text is a link that made my 60-year-old-self rear up and pay attention– an announcement from The New Southern Fugitives, an online literary zine in Atlanta which recently published one of my essays. There’s a nifty picture there of a man pushing a cart … a man … pushing a cart … OHMYGOD … The Pushcart Prize.
“Congratulations 2020 Pushcart Prize Nominees!” Six names follow the announcement, including that of my mentor, Anjali Enjeti. At the bottom of the list, in small print, sits my name. Mine. The name of a first semester creative writing grad student who was thrilled just to be published so quickly. The name of a former newspaper reporter turned high school theater teacher who returned to writing after her fella died and her chicklet flew the nest.
The name of a woman who entered her sixth decade in late 2019 with a bang. I’ve waited my whole life to write creatively. Delayed through marriage and childbirth and work and divorce and illness and surgery and death. And now, at the cusp of retirement, opportunity beckons. Time seems to have shoved itself into a corner to give me space in which to write. Poems. Short stories. Memoir. This ol’ gal is on fire with it all. Even more so since news of the Pushcart nomination came along, a turn I never expected to happen, much less this soon.
In truth, I applied to Reinhardt’s MFA program for the Fall 2019 term with no real expectation that I’d be accepted. Not because of age, but from fear that lack of recent writing would hold me back. I cobbled together a collection of stories I’d written for The Macon Telegraph during my career there, accompanied by a new essay I wrote for my submission packet. That piece, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” stems from the gift of a wooden cutting board carved in the shape of the Lonestar State. I’ve never used the board, but The New Southern Fugitives paid me $100 to publish the essay – then they nominated it for a Pushcart prize.
I’m mighty impressed with myself, but just how big a deal is that nomination? Depends upon whom you ask.
As any good reporter would do, I turned to the wisdom of the Interweb to find out. Some literary pundits contend that the Pushcart ain’t no big thing. Thousands upon thousands of writers are nominated, so stop listing it on your CV. In an “Open Letter to Pushcart Nominated Folks,” author John Matthew Fox stakes this claim: “But to people who know what a Pushcart Nomination means, it looks desperate. Especially when you don’t list what journal gave you the nomination. Because we know it’s not Tin House, it’s more like Podunk journal run by an MFA fail from his parent’s basement in Arkansas.”
Others take an enlightened view that’s more to my liking.
“A Pushcart nomination is a solid credential so you’ve got bragging rights,” said Gray Stewart, a Georgia novelist and one of my RU professors.
Let’s be frank. Accolades matter. Even at my age. Especially at my age. I don’t have six decades ahead of me to develop my skills. Never mind that never will I now be heralded as an up-and-coming young writer. There’s enough attention paid to talented young people and so little given to those of us who taste success at a later point.
Funny that all of this occurred around the same time a piece by Lorrie Moore popped up on the assignment list for one of my MFA classes. Moore’s essay, “How to Become A Writer” blew up my brain with its parallels to my own life. The questions Moore raises in her work are those I ask myself frequently now.
She’s crafted this piece in the guise of a Self-Help Writing Guru, I suppose, yet there are such deep truths here. Some of them describe me quite accurately. So much so that I wonder if Moore’s posing under a pseudonym and is really my long-dead Great Aunt Inez, who advised me to become a bank teller or telephone operator as a life-long career. That I could not then and cannot now count back change has no bearing on the matter.
Did Moore eavesdrop on my life?
“Somehow, you end up writing again,” she posits. “Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.”
I don’t know what it takes for anyone else to become a writer. Perhaps, as Moore suggests, there is no one-size-fits-all method, and each writer must find his or her own way. Whatever it takes, I’m going to cross that bridge and learn to take myself and my efforts seriously. Stop equivocating about my work. Recognize its value regardless of its reception.
After all, I am Pushcart nominee. More than that, I’m a writer now.
Cindy Sams is a teacher and writer in Macon, GA, a hub of soul food and soul music in the New Deep South. A graduate of Wesleyan College, she holds an MA in Theater from Regent University, and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. When not teaching and writing, she directs high school plays and musicals and breaks into random show tunes in shopping mall parking lots. Her work has appeared in The Chaffey Review, Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, and The New Southern Fugitives, which nominated her for a 2020 Pushcart Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
February 26, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Nathan Strobel
Exactly three months after my wife told me that she wanted a divorce, I sat on the floor of what used to be our bedroom and watched the dull flash of Roanoke’s Fifth of July fireworks through the window. The show had been rained out the night before. Our four-year-old daughter was asleep across the hall and my wife, who by that time was paying me rent to live in the basement, was, I could only presume, out with someone else. A thick volume containing all of Jane Austen’s novels was on my bedside table. I was halfway through Sense and Sensibility.
The day after our separation that April, I did only what had to be done, which seemed outsized in its cruelty: listen for the morning rustlings of my daughter; brush her hair and teeth and give her a waffle and strawberries for breakfast; tell her that we were going to visit her grandma, my mother, for a week but that she would see mommy when we got back. My efforts at normalcy felt like a lie that would widen into a chasm and swallow everything I thought my life had been. Words like “custody,” “visitation,” and “attorneys” were already rising out of this breach and choking me with anxiety as I shoved my daughter’s Elsa suitcase into the back of the minivan.
We left for the four-hour drive across Virginia to my hometown. During a stop at Bojangles’, I texted my brother that it seemed like I should be taking notes on this day for posterity. If one is lucky enough to live the fairly insulated middle-class life that I do, there are only a handful of such ruptures in a lifetime. So, I remember the man in the blue shirt in the restaurant who handed me a straw when he saw me standing behind him, and the minimum-wage cashier who carried our tray to a table for us because she saw that I had my daughter on my hip. They were kindnesses that would normally be noticed in the moment but quickly forgotten. But in the darkness of personal tragedy, they felt like pricks of light, and I wanted to ask, “Do you know?” But they couldn’t have.
When I finally reached my family and hugged my mother on the doorstep of my childhood home, the kindnesses widened: offers for dinner or coffee from old friends, unsolicited nuggets of calming wisdom, phone numbers of divorce lawyers. But most of the advice consisted of encouragement to pursue what I loved and from which I’d been restricted by the toxicity of the relationship that had been the dominant feature of my entire adult life to that point.
I decided that I needed to start reading again, really reading. In the preceding months, as I had felt my marriage dying, my books had become nothing more than a frame around the IKEA shelf on which the TV sat. They gathered dust as my wife and I sat down for another desultory night of Netflix surfing.
In what was now my bedroom, I started Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. I was embarrassed to be reading it because it had a sunrise on the cover and looked like a self-help book. But she described the last stage of post-divorce grief not as “acceptance” but as “lifting,” a sense that one deserves better than a plain peace with the facts, that life after loss can be a work of art rather than a newspaper article.
So, I picked up Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which, when I read it as a college student, had filled me with a sense of inestimable possibility. Now I was picking it up as a 32-year-old soon-to-be divorcee looking back on a decade crisscrossed with decisions and events that served as a mesh preventing me from going back and recapturing that fire for the written word with which I had been so wholly consumed. When I’d first read Dillard, it was like a lightning strike, and I’d spent the months afterward devouring Dostoevsky, Henry James, George Eliot, and dozens more that I can’t even recall. This time it would need to be more of a slow burn.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell that college student to choose a different path, to pursue his PhD in literature instead of moving to New York in the depths of the Great Recession with his then-girlfriend on the fantastical notion of either becoming a big-time editor or a fiction writer. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, until my dad died and we found ourselves back in my hometown with my pursuit of an MFA aborted. I know what I love: I love reading words, analyzing them, discussing them. But no one particularly cares about your reflections on Jane Austen and her exigency in modern life unless you hold a doctorate.
That takes me back to Annie Dillard, who went into the woods just a few miles from where I live now and wrote about what she saw. It was as simple as that. The result of her observations opened my heart to a beauty with which it’s still being filled today, even as I sit in the midst of a failed marriage wondering what could have been. But what if she’d said to herself, “No one will care about my musings on elm trees and muskrats and hoop snakes,” and put her manuscript away? What if she had been terrified by her awe instead of inspired? In my new life, I want to be like Annie Dillard: so filled with love and wonder that it can’t help but overflow into creation.
Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his daughter and an Australian shepherd.