March 3, 2017 § 21 Comments
By Judith Sornberger
You would not believe how many things I’ve done today to avoid beginning this essay. (Except, if you’re a writer, you probably would.) I say writing means more to me than just about anything, but I would do almost anything some days to postpone putting pen to paper (including going shopping for a new, magic pen), especially when it comes to breaking the ice on a new writing project. This morning, for instance, I called a friend to commiserate on how little we’ve been writing. Then I scrubbed a pan that had soaked overnight in the sink, grocery shopped, stopped in at my local bookstore to check on a book I’d ordered (knowing full well it couldn’t have arrived yet) and, of course, had to browse. Then I went through my closet, wondering if it might be time to donate everything below size sixteen, my current size, which caused me to go for a power walk.
Usually, I procrastinate until the need to write becomes stronger than my fear and consequent resistance, which can take days or even weeks. But today I suddenly remembered the Roberta Mickel Method, named—by my sister and me—after our mother, its first practitioner.
Mom worked half-time as a bookkeeper, a job she loved. One reason she enjoyed it was that working outside the home two-and-a half days made the other two-and-a-half weekdays at home especially precious. Nevertheless, on those at-home days, there were plenty of at-home tasks she didn’t particularly enjoy. That was where her genius came in. After making her to-do list, she would choose the least appealing task, let’s say cleaning bathrooms, and tell herself she only had to work on it for half an hour. Then she could do whatever she pleased for half—or sometimes even a whole—hour. In summer that might mean sitting on the patio with a cigarette and a Diet Pepsi, tilting her head back so the sun bathed her face. In winter it might be tucking her feet beneath her as she read on her gold velvet couch.
Before retirement, I delighted in almost every aspect of college teaching—dreaming up exciting new courses, choosing textbooks, planning class sessions, and especially interacting with students in the classroom. But I constantly bemoaned my lack of writing time. And I hated grading papers, putting off starting to read a batch until the students began timidly asking when I might return them. I usually claimed to be reading them very closely, when the truth was that I hadn’t been able to bear removing them from my briefcase.
Wish I could say that I was writing instead of grading. But mostly I was puttering around the house, cruising Facebook, or deciding tonight was the perfect time to try that new and complicated recipe for paella, necessitating a two-hour round trip to a store that carried fresh mussels. At least I later wrote a poem about making that paella.
Then I would agonize on the phone to my sister who would remind me of the Roberta Mickel Method. By that time, I’d have collected so many papers that thirty minutes of grading wouldn’t have made a dent. So I’d set a timer for an hour, grade like a madwoman, and, when it buzzed, I’d go for a walk, read, or maybe even begin a poem. Since writing wasn’t my most loathsome chore, it rose to the category of reward.
Yet it feels wrong that I would use the same method to get going on a piece of writing that I’ve used for grading, especially since, once I get started, I love to write (some days more than others). Mom’s method provides a doorway into the place where writing can become absolute bliss. I tell myself all I have to do is buckle myself into my writing chair and work for half an hour, and, most days, I’m still spreading ink across the page an hour or two later. For to begin, whether you’re cleaning bathrooms or writing, is always the hardest part. As Goethe (second only to my mother in the wisdom department) famously wrote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
Take now, for instance. I began scribbling away on this essay at 1pm, telling myself I’d work for half an hour. Now it’s 2:30, and I’ve written, relatively painlessly, and somewhat joyously, an hour longer than planned. If Roberta Mickel were still alive, I think she might be cheering.
Judith Sornberger’s newest poetry book, Practicing the World without You is forthcoming from Cavan Kerry Press in 2018. She’s the author of one full-length poetry collection Open Heart (Calyx Books) and five chapbooks, most recently Wal-Mart Orchid, winner of the 2012 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize. Her memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany was published by Shanti Arts Publications in 2015.
March 1, 2017 § 3 Comments
Part two of Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige’s consideration of place, grief, and the river as metaphor, talking with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. [Part One can be found here]:
PAIGE: There’s a powerful depiction of sexual assault in the book. The scene struck me most for its brevity and omissions, for what did and didn’t make the page. Can you talk about how you approached writing the scene and why? Can you describe your decisions about what to include and what not to include, and how you came to approach the moment tonally?
PALM: I didn’t want the narrative to become about that particular violence, but instead wanted the incident to appear in the book as one link in a chain of violence, wherein accumulation would be more powerful than individual acts. Because that was my experience: a slow boil of not-quite-right exposures to violence in a culture where such experiences were not questioned, had no language with which to be questioned. The sexual assault didn’t fit my then understanding of what rape was. It didn’t fit anywhere and so I tucked it away along with everything else, but my body remembered, the way a body remembers what’s been done to it at unexpected times. My mind remembered it more spatially, in flashes. Emotionally, I was numb. So I wanted to write it the same way—emotionless, just the quick flash of bodies in space. That window I looked out of, what a body too big to move feels like. A sensation that said wait—what just happened? is what I wanted to convey to the reader because that was how it felt. The scene focuses on how the experience connects to where it happened, too—the window’s symbolic meaning transforming from excitement and promise to pain and escape. That inextricable linking of place and experience at the book’s heart.
PAIGE: Here, I want to present a few sections of text to show how you seed certain ideas and to show the spectacular weaving you do so deftly and deeply—different modes of writing, others’ writing both scholarly and literary, various epistemological primers, and of course, your own musings and felt experiences.
On the first page, in the first chapter called “Map of Home,” you write, “Where did one town start and the other end? Was there an unnamed part between the two that was up for grabs? I wanted to conquer that yellow land and write myself all over it: this part, this swath of land right here, belongs to a girl.”
Later, after having left Indiana for Vermont, and regarding efforts for you and your husband Mike to claim your own place/ identity, you write about the “One Square Inch” project and about your own search for silence, the silence you find in the mountains:
I believe I fear actual silence—the far edge of quietude. In Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Total Eclipse,’ she describes leaving the site of an eclipse viewing before it is over because the experience is too all-consuming. She plunges into a meditation on existence, barely emerging before the eclipse’s shadow sweeps her under and away for good: ‘It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold had risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the Strata again.’ Silence strikes me as a kind of total eclipse, and this lawn of Frost’s may be just as risky. It could overtake me if I let it. Pure silence, pure freedom, would somehow reveal me to myself too starkly, too soon. The lighting would be wrong, the picture unsettling, distorted further than I expected in every direction. I want only to see a little bit more at a time, to mine very carefully through the layers of sediment below my feet. To lose water by drops and not by gushes. To fly and return. I want some sense of clarity about the buried alluvial beds, to hold as precious goods the names of its materials, to walk across them and experience the malleability of the middle, before it’s pressed so hard from above and below that it metalizes. (197-198)
Both of these passages illustrate not only of the artistry of the book, but also, its larger themes—especially the searching the narrator undertakes and the friction she seems to crave between safety and risk, between self-determination and self-immolation, between a desire for something-ness and nothingness. The narrator is drawn to risk—to the “far edges” in many instances, most notably in her relationship with Corey, which is both completely natural and somehow also taboo; he is just a boy and she just a girl, but he is also a convict, and she a writer, a mom, a wife. There are so many triumphs of this book, but one I especially admire is your navigation of larger cultural tropes, the way you push into and through, and ultimately beyond, the ready-made clichés of bad boy and good girl, for example. The twin portraits that anchor the book– both you and Corey—are utterly human and empathetic and raw and whole. What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with Corey—and perhaps your relationships with danger and desire while writing this? What did you learn, ultimately, about the thorny business of being a girl, then woman, in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America?
PALM: My relationship with Corey allowed me to do that rare thing—openly consider the alternate routes my life might have taken. It taught me a great deal about compassion and forgiveness and the confounding paradoxes of being human. It also taught me that I can’t predict where I’ll find support, or a friend, or something true about the world or myself. Being a girl, then woman, in the rural Midwest in my particular family very much asked me to do and be what was expected of me, which had a pretty narrow definition. All the attendant clichés. Be smart, but cross your legs at the ankle. Have opinions, but only if they’re like ours. Go to college, but marry the nice guy with the good job. Mind your manners, don’t speak up. A kind of half-assed, half-informed feminism that rendered much of what felt natural to me—those edges toward the fringe, that desire to engage with the questions or longings in the back of my head fraught with tension and discord. Just being me became an act of rebellion. In some ways, decisions about what to do with my life, my body, my mind, were hardly decisions at all but a fulfilling of other people’s expectations, I now realize. The truest thing about being female–in the life I’ve had–is everyone has a different idea about what that ought to look like and you’re constantly preserving or negotiating yourself in situations in which your being female is a factor in how you’re treated or thought of. And worst of all, sometimes that can get uncomfortable and even unsafe. What I say to myself now, as a mantra, is I’m not at your disposal. Not my kindness, not my smile, not my compliance, not my time, not my body. I decide when to offer these things now. And I no longer value other people’s ideas of how I should act or who I should love or what kind of mother I should be and so forth. As for edges, Dillard’s scene in “Total Eclipse”—getting out of dodge before the total darkness overtakes her—is how I feel when I look at pictures of Earth, or think of the galaxy, or even in fleeting moments of human freedom that I happen to find on the fringe. There’s a danger in that darkness, in the shucking away of every manmade thing, but a thrilling pureness too.
PAIGE: Vivan Gornick’s landmark craft book, The Situation and The Story, distinguishes the situation, the events of the narrative, from the story, “the thing one has come to say.” I don’t quite want to ask what you think your story is (though you’re welcome to answer!) for fear of sounding like an agent who has trapped you in an elevator, but I do wonder if there’s one place in the book that you would identify as especially emblematic of your story—that thing you came to say? If you had to star or circle just one section—perhaps a scene or a series of paragraphs or one metaphor or thread that runs through the book—what would that moment be?
PALM: There’s a paragraph early in the book, page 20, that begins, “Like rivers, people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” That paragraph anchors the river as metaphor and holds every truth about this book. It contains the meanings behind the different narrative events selected to tell the story: the pull of the past on the present, the bittersweet experience of leaving and returning home, the power of nature’s natural course nurture’s fight against it, the tug of our public selves on our private selves, the impact a single person or event can have on the course of a life. It holds all of that, as the banks of a river might hold water, and more.
PAIGE: : In the process of revision or editing, can you describe a particular challenge—whether in terms of craft or in terms of steeling yourself emotionally for the task? And what did you learn from dealing with the challenge?
PALM: Right away we decided to restructure the book chronologically and add focus to my relationship with Corey, which was originally a more minor thread. A cohesive narrative arc was stitched across what were originally self-contained essays, and then the book shifted into memoir territory. So, adding anecdotes and memories to essays where they weren’t already organically occurring was a challenge. There was, for me, risk in implying that my whole life could be defined by this person. Which of course isn’t true. Yes, I thought of him and considered reaching out over the years, but the book could easily suggest, by virtue of its balance of inclusion and exclusion of experiences, that I was perhaps obsessed with him or dwelling constantly on the past. I am an obsessive thinker, but I didn’t want to be boxed in by that. I came to terms with this risk by reframing my idea of how modern memoir handles time and subject matter: it’s not one’s whole life, told blow by blow. There are a hundred ways to tell the stories of a single life. This isn’t the only version I get to tell. It’s one version. It’s my thoughts about a certain series of events.
PAIGE: Here’s an obligatory memoir question: what has the response been from those people who are subjects in the book and/ or from your hometown? Has any of the response surprised you? And how and in what ways did you consider your subjects and how they might react as you were writing?
PALM: I thought my family would be less accepting, but they’ve been wonderful, supportive champions. I suppose that was the biggest surprise. Corey has been gracious, and is proud of me. For him, it matters that someone remembered him as having good qualities, not just as a monster. It’s encouraged him to do good works from prison, in the small ways that he can. Most other folks have been enthusiastic and some have told me they’re glad someone else saw life in this small town the way they did. Only a few have complained vocally about how certain people or aspects of the area are portrayed. A few people were put off by my depiction of rural Indiana—they feel it doesn’t represent their experience—the 4H clubs, the fairs, the values of their rural Midwest while others said it is spot on. Many folks have had a privileged experienced of Indiana. And I think it’s a mistake to privilege that experience over another. I didn’t set out to write what is already known. I intended to portray the fringe—those are my people. And let me tell you—there are far more troubling scenes in Indiana than all this. I wanted to bring as much humanity to my portrayal of place and of the people in this book as I could while still preserving its difficult truths. The earlier drafts were tinged with attitude. As I drafted, the attitude fell away and the nuggets of human complexity remained. I suppose my biggest worry about its reception was that no one would understand my compassion for a person who is rather indefensible. Not a single person has failed to see that. It gives me great hope for this world.
PAIGE: What are you working on now, and how does it draw from and/ or depart from the work you did in Riverine?
PALM: I’m working on two new manuscripts—an essay collection and a novel. The essay collection springs from the final chapter of Riverine in that it looks more closely at how I continue to shape my idea of family, and contemplate the utility of the nuclear family in our modern era—its shifting purposes, its commercialization, and so forth. It’s not as narratively focused on my personal life as Riverine, though, and instead draws on political and social and historical and environmental contexts here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The novel deals with that core human truth of our not ever being able to really know another person, but it looks at it through the lens of how our internet habits distort our relationships and our legacies of self. I confess that I’ve found it very difficult to write since the election, since the ongoing trauma occurring in Aleppo. It’s hard to find a reason to prioritize one’s own stories or thoughts with so much else that requires our attention and our energy and our care. Still, art is necessary. Still, the smaller wrinkles in the vast cloth of human experience are worth ironing out.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com
February 27, 2017 § 90 Comments
Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, author of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring Brooks’ conversations with Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others about how they tackle the most painful subjects:
MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?
BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.
MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma. Would you agree with that?
BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.
MOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?
BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.
MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?
BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”
Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.
February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
From January through July, my fingers flew. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter. Thanks to my final MFA mentor at graduate school, I saw the road clear ahead of me and raced. Pumped and proud and a new graduate, I hired an editor to take my first draft and fine tune it. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. What was over- and underwritten. Where I needed more or less scene, or not at all. Mostly, I hired a complete stranger unfamiliar with the content—Israel and Judaism—to tell me if the story of my marriage to my French husband Philippe held her interest.
Six weeks later, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she responded with nine pages of evaluation and my manuscript all marked up in brilliant red. She answered my questions and then some, telling me I had succeeded in creating a narrator who is utterly human and flawed (as all believable narrators should be, her words) and that the conflict is clear, perhaps too clear, on almost every page, in the reader’s face. I read, nodding my head even though she couldn’t see me. I sighed every so often because she was spot on.
Then, everything changed on page six. Under the headline “Related: develop Philippe’s character more,” she wrote: You’ll need to find other ways to make his feelings, thoughts, and unspoken wishes known more; sometimes through physical gestures and facial expressions, actions, etc. Bring Philippe alive more on the page in other ways too. Make him a full person. I gulped. I continued reading. Next heading: “Other Characters.” She wrote: Let the children develop into characters as well, not just names on the pages with attached ages and order of birth.
By then I was holding my breath. My shoulders clenched. A visceral reaction to her words on my page.
After I reached the end of the evaluation, I heeded her advice: read the comments several times over the next few days, let them sink in, sleep, read them again, refrain from opening the document and diving in head first.
I agreed with everything she suggested: consider changing the structure, show other aspects of our life and not just the core issue of religious diversity and place, and add backstory and more scenes. But I tripped over the same few lines on page six every time I read them. Sure, I’m writing a memoir about my complicated marriage, but what more can I reveal about my husband? Super sure, my kids figure into the story because they’re ours, a result of our union, but how much do I have to reveal about them?
I have been writing about Philippe for years. Further, I’ve been writing about my children since they were born. I have used their names without second guessing myself. I have written and published stories about my youngest daughter’s hording tendencies during her elementary school years, about my oldest son’s reaction to visiting an elderly, homebound woman in middle school, and about all of their negative reactions to relocating to Israel for a semi-sabbatical year ten years ago.
Aside from using their names, I’ve recreated dialogue and described their appearances. I’ve brought their characters to life in 500-, 1000-, 2000-, even 3000-word essays.
But now, in a book, what I call my book, I’m being asked to make them come alive, to let the reader hear and see and understand and align or disagree with them—my husband of twenty-six years; my children who are now twenty-three, soon twenty, and almost eighteen.
How can I write about my husband as a full-fledged character, sharing his strengths and exposing his weaknesses while I bare my soul about our marriage, questioning in the memoir if I will even stay, in Israel, the land he’ll likely never leave? How can I write about my kids as full-fledged characters, sharing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses just as they leave home to carve out separate identities as adults in the world without mortifying them? Without them pointing an accusatory finger at me? Without them asking what have I done? What kind of permission do I have to ask of them, and of myself, if any?
And so, while I grapple with the core issue of memoir—writing about my life and my family—I keep the hardcopy of my marked-up manuscript, to my left, on my desk, as a quiet reminder of what I have accomplished so far.
And, a believer in signs, I wait to see if any of my applications to writing residencies with the stated goal of finishing this book are accepted. If yes, then I’ll go, manuscript in hand, questions to ask, computer in bag, and I’ll proceed and propel myself forward. Because, as my mother said repeatedly throughout my childhood when reaching difficult crossroads, perhaps taking finals, trying out for cheerleading, or applying to college, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.
Jennifer Lang‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serve as Editorial Fellow for Proximity magazine and occasionally contributes to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat column. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been working on her first memoir. She resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com
February 23, 2017 § 30 Comments
By Annie L. Scholl
I’m not sure how I got the message that I had to write every day to be a “real” writer, but I’ll blame it on Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way. I read it when it came out in 1992. Cameron suggests a daily practice of “Morning Pages:” Three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing you do first thing in the morning.
To be fair, Cameron makes it clear that your Morning Pages don’t have to be “high art.” You can rant, write your shopping list over and over, whatever you want. She does insist, though, that you fill three pages—every day.
I did Morning Pages religiously—for about a week-and-a-half. Over the years, I’ve tried again and again. Although the daily practice of Morning Pages didn’t stick, the idea that I had to write every day to be successful did. After all, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White and Maya Angelou did.
To actually write daily, I knew I had to do it first thing in the morning, before the day got away from me. But to write “at first light,” as Hemingway did, actually requires getting your ass out of bed at first light.
Only one problem with that: I didn’t want to.
Now and then, though, I willed myself out of bed at the crack of dawn. With hands on the keyboard or pen in hand, words mostly landed on the page. “This is easy!” I’d think. “I’ll do this again tomorrow!”
But like the promises I made to myself about getting on the treadmill, “tomorrow” never consistently came.
That year I attended a memoir-writing workshop in Colorado with author Abigail Thomas. After that workshop, I was on fire. Fueled by the workshop and a writing group that grew out of it, I wrote nearly every day—until 2016. One day of not writing turned into another and another—and then I was out of the routine.
Nine months into 2016, my writing software gave me the cold, hard facts: I had worked on my manuscript exactly seven times.
That little voice—the one that said I had to write daily—was now screaming at me. But instead of believing it, I decided to question it: Was it really true that I had to write daily to be a successful writer?
Writers like Khaled Hosseini say yes. In a 2012 interview with Noah Charney in The Daily Beast, the international best-selling author of The Kite Runner said: “To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.”
Cue the self-flogging.
One especially grumbly not-writing day, I reached out to author Beth Kephart, who I’d studied memoir writing with last fall.
“Annie, I go months and months without writing,” the award-winning author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir told me. “And so when I do write, it all feels brand new—again.”
Kephart said she has never had the time to write daily.
“What I believe in is the power of holding one scene or moment in your head for a long time, before writing. I believe in urgency—that urgency must fuel the process and the page.”
To hell, she said, with writing an hour a day. “Go with fervor once a week or once a month, or whatever your life yields.”
Buoyed by Kephart’s response, I contacted Abigail Thomas, whose writing workshop had fueled my five-year, near-daily writing practice.
Do you write every day, I asked?
“Not unless I’m already engaged in something, then I write all the time,” said Thomas, whose most recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, was published in 2015 by Scribner.
“Mostly I’ve no self-discipline unless I’m already in gear. Then it’s all I do,” she said. “It has nothing to do with discipline then. It’s a hunger.”
Bar Scott, author of the memoir The Present Giver, said she only writes daily “when I’m writing something that I’m on fire about and that my whole body needs and wants to express.”
“When I get like that, whether I’m writing a song, a book or a blog, I write non-stop,” she said.
But most days, Scott doesn’t feel like writing. So she doesn’t.
Kephart’s good friend, author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, doesn’t write daily or weekly either.
“I wish I did,” said Rizzuto, whose memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. But instead, she said, “writing comes in waves—in and out.”
Still, Rizzuto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont and conducts writing workshops, recommends her students engage in daily writing practice.
“When you write every day, you do capture more of those stray ideas that are waiting to be used, and you avoid the fear—writer’s block is fear after all—that you can’t write, that you won’t be able to write ever again, or at least not anything as good as what you have written.”
Rizzuto nails what’s been my greatest fear: That if I don’t write every day, the words won’t come when I do sit down. But I’ve learned over the past several months of non-daily writing practice that the words actually do show up. Especially if I don’t chase them down.
Annie Scholl is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Huffington Post, Unity Magazine, Daily Word, and unity.org. A native Iowan who graduated from the University of Iowa, she moved to North Carolina in 2013 with her wife, Michelle. Annie is finishing her first memoir. She blogs at www.anniescholl.com.
February 22, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Alice Lowe
You hate writing from prompts, because you’re no good at it, because despite the human brain’s instantaneous capacity to absorb new input and coordinate an appropriate response, you cannot put pencil to paper with any degree of intelligence or coherence. Within seconds of hearing a prompt—prompts like “write about saying goodbye” or “riding the all-night train” or “a pool of blue water”—all potentially interesting and challenging topics—you’re at a loss, stammering internally, increasingly anxious as a fleeting memory or opening line evades you, as any possible direction remains out of reach.
You look around the table—prompt-writing usually takes place in a small group around a table—you look around as the prompt is being read, and at the dropped voice, the sound of the concluding period (or ellipsis) ending the prompt, it’s as if a starting shot has been fired, heads down, pens and pencils moving in notebooks with seeming constancy, confidence and speed. “Keep your pen on the paper,” you’re told, keep writing, don’t stop to deliberate or, god forbid, to edit, to scratch out a word and replace it with another; be spontaneous, let your hand be the channel for the words flowing unobstructed from your mind like water over the falls.
It doesn’t work that way for you, how well you know this, but you came here to write, to get past this impasse or phobia or whatever you want to call it, and so you grasp the prompt with both hands and hold it vise-like to keep it steady as you wrestle it to the table and firmly secure it with your left elbow, while with your right hand you grasp at the effluvia that looses itself from your mind until you have something in your fist, something soft and flabby but something nevertheless, and then, after more hesitation, after staring at the dark water stains like Rorschach blots on the ceiling, you start to write, and then lo and behold, you get on a roll of sorts, you write in fits and starts, but you write until “Time” says the timekeeper, and you stop abruptly, mid-sentence, mid-word, it’s like taking the GRE, pencils down or you’ll be disqualified.
Participants are encouraged though not required to read what they’ve fashioned, and the rules are reiterated—no comments or critique, as these spontaneous efforts rightfully fall into the category of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” accepted and forgiven no matter how abysmal, received with half smiles of concealed scorn or pity or envy—and you listen and think, jeez how’d she do that off the cuff, or what crap and here I thought I was bad, and then it’s your turn and you know you could pass but you think come on now, this is part of the discipline, what you came for, and you read, knowing as you do that it’s a heap of excrement, you’ve written business letters with crisper verbs and better development, but you read, your handwriting getting increasingly indecipherable as you go, so you skip a word here, a phrase there, until you finish and look up and smile wanly without making eye contact with anyone as the next person takes up the baton, and then it’s all over, and you pack up your stuff and say your goodbyes, and you go down the stairs and out the door and head for home, an hour-long walk, and wouldn’t you know it, about a third of the way there you’re struck with the big “aha”—this is what I could have, should have written to that prompt, and you beat yourself up a bit for not thinking of it earlier, but you’re excited, and you start composing in your mind, and you walk faster and faster to get home and get to your computer to spew out these finely crafted sentences, the spot-on metaphors, the brilliant stream of prose.
And when, after several drafts, after considerable editing and revision and all of the pains that go into a completed essay, you read through it a few times, and you smile and nod and say to yourself, “yes, this is it,” you submit it to several journals, and it’s accepted by one of them and published, and you look at it in print and recall that if it hadn’t been for that prompt, this sterling piece of work might never have seen the light of day—and yet you still hate writing from prompts.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, The Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and has been nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments
By William Dameron
I resigned myself to rejection several weeks before the email from The New York Times editor landed in my mailbox. This was the fourth essay in as many years I had submitted to the popular Modern Love column. The “Thanks, but no thanks,” email always arrived punctually at the six week mark. But this email came a day or two after twelve weeks. When I read the salutation, Dear William Dameron, my heart sank. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the inevitable rejection. I am interested in your essay.
I stopped breathing.
For many memoir writers, a byline in the Modern Love column is the holy grail of publication. Book deals have been struck based on those 1,500 words and the odds of being published in the column are slim. Out of 7,000 submissions annually, only 52 are accepted, less than one percent. But this one finally took and I was going to give birth to my beautiful newborn essay!
I have an unexpected opening soon and want to be assured that your family is OK with publication. Are they?
“Ok” seemed like a vague term. What exactly was his definition? I thought about my daughters’ role in the essay. In it they chat on the telephone and sleep through my goodbye. They had minor roles; sure, they would be ok with that.
What about the handful of other people in this essay: my childhood neighbor, the college girlfriend, the guy in the bar from more than thirty years ago and the man from Match.com? They were just cameos; no problems there. My mother? She was a little trickier, but I could easily edit those two sentences.
And then I considered my ex-wife.
Here is the thing about writing memoir; you can’t just scratch the surface and expect readers to care. You have to dig deep and expose the fault lines. You must jump into the abyss and then somehow claw your way back to the top. No one makes that trip alone. Sometimes we work together, often we fight each other for a toehold and sometimes we stand on each other’s shoulders. But sometimes, we let go. And this was an essay about letting go.
For the past three years I have been getting up at 5 a.m. to write a book-length memoir. Each morning I think of Anne Lamott’s quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And another one that sticks with me is Joyce Maynard’s quote: “Write as if you were an orphan.”
This essay was not vengeful. Neither was it a tribute. It was truthful and there were two paragraphs regarding my ex-wife that had never been revealed to the public. Those two paragraphs held the others together like a keystone. Without them, everything else crumbled.
I sent the essay to my ex-wife with a note explaining how our story was so important and that revealing yourself, warts and all, was incredibly liberating. Her response? “I can’t believe you even wrote those two paragraphs about me. They need to be removed immediately.” But I didn’t remove them. I modified them and sent the changes back to the editor who was quick with his own reply.
With essays like this, you can’t be coy or evasive or you lose credibility. With the change, you’re making readers fill in the gaps, to speculate, to fumble around. It’s like in trying to walk a tightrope you end up falling off both sides.
I had a sickening feeling in my gut that felt like falling. Falling back into the abyss where I had braided together 75,000 words that lay coiled like a rope on the cavern floor. They would never see the light of day.
Yes, we own everything that happened to us, but do we own everything that happened to others which in turn affected what happened to us? When can we claim someone else’s secret as germane to telling our own? While Lamott’s directive “Tell your stories,” seems clear, reality is not.
I have shared my most intimate secrets with complete strangers in writer’s workshops and received accolades for dubious life choices I have made. “Oh you abused steroids? What a perfect metaphor. You have to include that!” Through the process of writing about my life, I have become inured to the pain and hardships. But I had not allowed others to process what happened to them because of what happened to me.
I took a deep breath, crafted an email to the editor and told him that the two paragraphs must be removed. If the essay fell apart, then I had to accept the consequences.
Four days, three hours and twelve minutes later, I received an email from the editor, certain that it would be “Thanks, but no thanks.”
We’re going to run the essay short and I’ll use the space to promote our college essay contest.
When I re-read the essay I realized it didn’t fall apart, but it had shifted focus and in turn, so did I. This was an essay about love after all and so I needed to show it.
Every morning I wake up early and tell my stories. Yes, I will always write as if I am an orphan, but when I publish them, I’ll remember that I am not.