August 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Shelley Blanton-Stroud
I watch and record unobtrusively from a hard leather chair just behind them, invisible in my middle age, which I believe I have turned into an advantage.
They look like they’re thirty, like college acquaintances, graduated maybe in 2008, into the great recession, re-gathering at this brick Denver hotel for a wedding weekend, I guess, making up for lost time, re-introducing themselves. I’ve done okay. All of us have. Haven’t we?
I focus on one pair, seated awkwardly close on a low, cow-hide sofa. One is bunch-muscled, compact, thickly side-parted. I write that he is wearing a speckled ivory, v-necked sweater over a white tee and dark blue jeans, with heavy black glasses, and that he’s nodding earnestly.
I write that the man at his side is lanky, his knees jutting up higher than his belt on that sofa built more for looking at than sitting on. I record his roguish brown hair and manicured beard, his round wireless glasses, his blue, slightly western-cut, though not exactly western, shirt, buttoned to the throat. His jeans are snug—could they be tailored, I ask my notebook. A messenger bag of waxed canvas and leather sits on the floor near his artfully distressed boots. I hear the man in the v-neck say, You’re married? Congrats, man.
It gets noisy so I miss a few sentences and when I hear their voices again, they’re talking about an idea. Not people. Not an event. I’ve missed the beginning; I have no context. They say concept and arbitrary and economic and presumption and aversion. The clusters of people they know from college (are they friends, exactly?) use similar words, wearing clothes that are not the same as theirs but which might be sold on the same block as the store where Western Shirt shops, expensive stores, but casual, emphasizing conspicuously humble fabrics.
Then two women exit the elevator and cross the lobby with lowball glasses, icy brown, cherries at bottom, stopping in front of the others, saying outfit, boots, drunk. This stops the other conversations for a couple of minutes until a subgroup cracks open to fold in the fresh arrivals, and they too slowly begin using the right abstract words and begin to look uncomfortable in their not-quite-right-for-the-occasion clothes, one in a shiny backless black jumpsuit and the other in a slick skirt half an inch shorter than her Spanx control slip.
I take notes in a pink moleskin, Uniball blue marring creamy pages. I feel free, every now and then, to look up at one or another of them and then to continue recording. They don’t see me. As I said, I’m invisible. It’s my superpower.
I’m dressed for the evening in cat-burglar black. I got ready early, an hour before I was to meet my colleagues, in order to capture this time, after the work of the conference, before the work of evening networking. This is my golden hour, notebook time.
I am in the habit of using my notebook to hide in over-stimulating environments, not unlike the way I disappear into my kitchen during a party to enjoy the noise, the music, the buzz going on outside, while I’m safely cocooned, refilling a water pitcher, rinsing glasses, drinking my Pinot alone. The spot at the edge of at story is comfortable, fulfilling.
I tell myself I get out my notebook at times like this—in a hotel lobby in the break between activities at a professional conference—to stay fluent, to feed the flow. Also, I say to myself, I’m sharpening my observations, recording the words and movements of people I see in public to make sure I know how people really behave. I tell myself that.
I finish a sentence and look up to see Western Shirt staring at the notebook in my lap. I look down again and keep writing as the skin on my neck flushes, my fingers tingle. How rude, his staring.
Two minutes later, his voice rises and his words become even more abstract—privilege, dysmorphic, consciousness—his language creating a kind of contagion. The clusters of others advance the abstractness of the words they use now too—epistemological, Aristotelian, feudalistic.
Now this is boring. It’s almost time for dinner. I sigh and lay my pen down and look up to see Western Shirt register my frown. I look down and write that.
Then I hear him say in a much louder voice, I used to be so into you, which causes the others to hush. I stop recording to watch.
Jump-suit’s mouth drops open—Bullshit!
The group laughs, eyes shifting left to right.
V-neck sweater says, But you guys hooked up? Sophomore year? Right?
Only the once, Western Shirt says.
Tittering from the group.
Well there’s always the reception, Jumpsuit says, pink-cheeked, head tilted.
The group laughs, relieved. This is a joke. They reshape into new tiny formulations, invigorated for more concrete talk—who did what, when, with whom.
I’m still watching when Western Shirt turns away from them, toward me. He salutes, two fingers flicking out from his forehead, head nodding in a tiny dip.
I drop my pen.
The observer effect—I learned it in college for a test, quantum mechanics. Observing a situation changes it. Instruments of observation always alter the state of what they measure. If you check the pressure of your car tires, you can’t help letting out some of the air. You change the pressure of the tires whose pressure you aim to check.
Tonight the object of my observation has seen my pen, my notebook, and has chosen to perform for me, improving on reality for the benefit of my notes. What will happen to him this weekend because of that? What will happen to his wife at home?
I am not invisible. I have no superpower.
I do not see the world as it is. My recording it changes it. My Uniball turns everything blue. I do not record reality. I create it.
Shelley Blanton-Stroud teaches college composition at California State University, Sacramento, coaches workplace writing, and labors over an infinite revision of her first novel and the first draft of a second. Her essay, “The Bourbon Cure,” appeared last year in the Brevity Blog. Other work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Eunoia Review, Mamalode and Soundings Review. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Northern California, where she serves on the writers’ advisory board for the Belize Writers’ Conference and on the Slow Food Sacramento board of directors.
August 16, 2017 § 25 Comments
By Shanon Lee
Sometime after having a baby, and making a fateful decision to ditch grad school to pursue a writing career, I had this notion that writing while mothering would be easy. I imagined working from home would be orderly, convenient and efficient. It was simple. I would write in the quiet moments before our hectic morning routine got underway, during the baby’s naptime and after everyone had gone to sleep at night.
I had to learn the truth the hard way.
That some day’s the muse doesn’t come, or if it does – I may not be prepared. That writing requires mental and emotional labor I am not always equipped to manage. That great writing rarely happens when you are sleep deprived. That writing while mothering is draining.
I am consumed with guilt when I choose writing over spending time with my children, and racked with anxiety when I ignore my impulse to write. By now I understand, as much as I adore my children, I need dedicated time and space to artfully compose the stories I am called to write. New challenges emerge while trying to accomplish this.
Reading Black, White and Jewish, was my first glimpse into a writing motherhood – albeit bad one. In the book, Rebecca Walker detailed the neglect she suffered while being raised by a writer for a mother. While literary icon Alice Walker attended writing residencies for long stretches, she left her daughter alone at home – prematurely forcing her to become independent.
In one heart-breaking passage, Walker described how her mother paid a neighbor to take her back-to-school shopping in her absence. Without parental guidance, she experimented with drugs, became sexually active at a young age and had an abortion at age 14. As raw as the stories in Walker’s memoir are, I know it will never be my children’s reality. My compulsion to write will never drive me to neglect them.
Yet, even though I could not identify with her mothers choices, I understood the impulse to retreat into isolation to create. I have often fantasized about what might happen if I could focus on writing without the demands of rearing children, working and managing a household.
Women like Alice Walker knew there were options for writers who did not forgo motherhood to pursue a writing career. They knew extended solitude was necessary to create their best work and set out to find it. They understood the benefits of immersing themselves in the world of writing, surrounded by their peers, if only for a moment in time.
They knew there was a space for us.
Alice Walker worked on her first novel during her residency at MacDowell. At some point, she attended Yaddo too. Susan Cheever, Mona Simpson and Susan Minot have children and are also among Yaddo alumni. Writing mothers including Jane Hamilton, Karyn Kusama, Dani Shapiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have all attended Hedgebrook. These women honored their passion by negotiating time to devote to their writing and other moms can too.
I am convinced that attending a writer’s residency does not have to disrupt our entire life, or permanently scar our children. Writer-in-residence programs now offer short stays and even virtual options for those who need it. Weekend writing seminars and workshops are an alternative for those who cannot commit to a full residency.
In November of 2016, I attended a weekend writing seminar in St. Petersburg, FL. It was the first time I travelled away from home alone to write. Their dad held down the fort and our kids had a blast while I was gone. At times, it felt as if I missed them more than they missed me. Most importantly, attending the seminar allowed me to bond with my peers and learn skills that took my writing in a new direction.
This year, I completed a summer writing residency that did not require travel, but offered one week of private accommodations to write in peace during the day. I will continue to submit applications to notable residency programs like Hedgebrook, in hopes of being able to completely break away from my daily obligations and just write for two weeks.
My definition of being a great mother has expanded to include being someone that protects her identity as a writer and satisfies her impulse to create. By carving out space in my schedule for dedicated writing time, I am honoring my purpose and the legacy of writing mothers that came before me.
Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel’s SCANDAL MADE ME FAMOUS. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of Marital Rape Is Real. Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.
August 14, 2017 § 36 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Rejection came this morning, a personal note after being short-listed, and it’s the usual thing. Most writing is rejected. I thought about why—not why the story was rejected, because that’s fair. Editors don’t owe me an explanation. It’s the other whys:
Why write? Why submit?
Perhaps thirty years ago, my children were both in school and I was sweating my way through the new outdoor exercise park in Seaside. Neat wooden signs directed me to complete jumping jacks and then move to the next station and follow instructions to do sit-ups or chin-ups.
I do not recall all the activities I was asked to do, only that I did each one until I came to a wooden vault near the end of the circuit. On every side of me, greenery and expectation. I was just about to take a run at the apparatus, familiar from my school days, when I thought: I will hurt myself doing this, and it will take days or weeks before I am mended. I chose not to jump and deliberately turned aside to the next station.
It was about that time I understood I was never going to be wealthy and that I had become invisible because I was no longer young and pretty. (I had not noticed I was young and pretty when I was those things, so the realization that my time had past struck me as funny. I give myself credit for amusement.)
About that time, I also began writing seriously every day, and I can tell you I fell again for the delusion that one day I would be famous and maybe wealthy?—this time as a writer. I had always written, of course, but regarded my art as visual, composed of metal and fiber, the weaving and repoussé I studied as an undergrad. Nevertheless, in mid-life I found I must write, and that has commanded my attention for a long time. I cannot set it aside. I can leave Facebook and shutter my blog, but I still write in order to remain healthy. Like my daily walk keeps my heart healthy, I cannot stop writing without losing my soul.
Maybe everyone does not imagine fame, the book published to acclaim, the interviews and literary prizes and readings before an admiring public. Maybe most people are more realistic about their prospects. I was not. Even now, with novels, a memoir and a series of essays, creative nonfiction, poetry, and stories only a few want to read, I sometimes indulge the fantasy of a major publication. I waste hours sending work out. I check Submittable and Duotrope online before dawn. I check again. And again before shutting my computer for the night. I visit websites and I toy with querying agents, something I have done before with little success. All of this a bother and distraction from actually writing.
It would be easy to think I have wasted my time with words. I have written so much that I threw away, so much I have forgotten. I scroll through my computer files and wonder about the subject of a short story begun in 2005 called “Without, Still Night” that my computer assures me cannot be opened. There are twenty-three drafts of this piece in a folder labeled “New Stories” that can no longer be opened. No one will ever again read it or the others saved here, not even me. Instead, there is this.
No writing retreat waits in my immediate future, no workshop, no writing vacation free of responsibilities, but I am writing anyway. I have applied for several residencies recently and failed to win one, but I am writing. Bad luck or other, better writers? Forgive me for not caring. In truth I do care, I care very much, but I write regardless. Waiting for a journal’s response to my work is painful and I require time to recover from letters containing curt rejection, but still. I write most days and sometimes for entire days without ceasing and without expectation of reward, simply for the glory of putting words on the page.
I am, therefore I write.
Any experienced writer will warn that if that is not enough, if the goal is merely to seek fame or to become a “writer” rather than to write, it would be wise to seek fame elsewhere and to become something else.
That truth is hard to accept and easy as leaping into darkness. There is no set of instructions about how to do this or when or even if I should. Only I can choose for myself. I write. Sometimes I might submit. Do I risk the jump?
The alternative is to live mute in the universe.
Jan Priddy’s work is found in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she is lately writing nonfiction and fiction about pink, grief, and children who turn into owls. She lives in her great grand aunts’ home on the Oregon coast.
August 9, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Varda Meyers Epstein
For years I struggled to put pen to paper. How to say what was so perfect in my heart and mind? I’d write it this way and that. But it would be no good.
Then the baby would cry and I’d put the writing aside. I’d tell myself that time was the problem; my excuse for not writing. Because time wasn’t something I was going to have with a baby at home. I’d traded my time, my words, for motherhood.
That’s what I told myself when the words wouldn’t come. And I waited for time. Enough time to write.
When I thought about having time to write I imagined this clean white space: a block of time large enough for that creative spark to take hold. The one that would light a fire under my inner writer. But I both yearned for and feared time. Because sometimes I told myself the truth: that time was my excuse. That I didn’t really know if I could write.
And then time arrived. My youngest turned six and started school. With almost no warning, suddenly there were blocks of time, scads of time. Time to think. Time to write.
I had only to begin.
I stared at the white space on the screen. A space large enough for words to form. A blinking cursor showing me where to begin.
I tapped a key and a letter appeared on the screen, in the center of that wide open white field. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding in. Here it was: time to be a writer.
There were no more excuses. Just me and enough time and the words.
It was time to get to work.
And so I typed another letter and soon there was a word staring at me there on the screen.
It was both easier and harder than I’d thought it would be. Easier because I had a lot to say after all those years of excuses. Harder because of that second voice, in addition to the one that liked to blame time.
The second voice was the one that said I was the problem. That I didn’t have it in me to be a writer, that if I kept having babies, I wouldn’t have to prove myself as a writer. That I could keep on blaming time.
It was tempting to give in to that voice. It was frightening to be sitting here typing on a keyboard after years of not knowing whether I was good enough. But I’d learned from having babies that life is about letting go, about getting free from the fear that keeps us from taking that first step.
And so I took a deep breath and typed some more, knowing that with each word I was setting myself free. Free from self-doubt and fear. And that getting free was the main reason I was sitting here in front of a keyboard.
Putting in the time.
Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12 children and a parenting expert and writer at the Kars4Kids Educational Blog for Parents. Her work has been published in Kveller, Tablet, and the Washington Post. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
August 2, 2017 § 13 Comments
By Carla Sameth
Sunlight sings birds float
Splatting against my window
Draw curtain, no more
Me: stare computer
Like moth drawn to blinking light
Nothing found inbox
Green giants sway languid
Bold trees unafraid sweep sky
Writer waits for “yes”
Sorry not for us
Wonder: then who am I for?
”No” writer splats hard
Lives for burst of “yes”
Sad wish for public reward
Facebook posts Twitter tweets
Trees stand still waiting
You love me as is
Breeze soothes your warm hands
Writer doesn’t need label
But words need a home
Striving for answer
Claim we are worth something more
Write: I am enough
Carla Sameth has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Longreads, Narratively; Tikkun; Angels Flight Literary West; Pasadena Weekly; Entropy, Hometown Pasadena and La Bloga. Carla was selected as fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and was recently awarded a Poet Fellowship with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. She teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP), Secondary Writing Institute at CSULA. She also teaches creative writing to incarcerated youth through WriteGirl. She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, and presented as part of their first annual “Poetry Within Reach” series via an NEA grant in summer 2016. Previously she “brought home the oatmeal” as a single mom, running her PR firm, iMinds PR.
July 26, 2017 § 8 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
On the outside, especially to my friends who commute to an office, I have an ideal set-up. I plop my butt on a chair in the office adjacent to my bedroom and simply write. And write. And write some more. The house is husband-free, kid-free, and so quiet it hurts my ears.
Although I’ve been writing since the late nineties when I freelanced for websites and magazines, I only became a committed writer—one who has the capacity to spend hours with fingers poised on the keyboard, one who is plagued with self-doubt, one who receives inordinate amounts of rejections—during the first semester of my MFA. By second semester, I noticed when the writing took over and I went out less and less—for errands, with friends, even to see family. By the third semester, I realized my phone hardly rang. By the time I graduated, I noted how limited my world had become. Some days I didn’t leave the house, and a torrent of loneliness began to cloak me like volcanic lava. The more I worked at home alone, which I loved, the more I retreated inward, which worried me.
My write-from-home conundrum was clear: I was fortunate to have the freedom and time to pursue my passion but had to find ways to get out in the world as a writer. Living in a non-English speaking country meant I had to be resourceful.
In the autumn after graduation, I used social media to network, to see who connected to the Bar Ilan University English-language creative writing program, the only one of its kind in this country; I followed links to its friends’ and followers’ pages. I contacted two veteran writers—one fiction, one creative nonfiction—requesting to meet and pick their brains, asking how I could get involved in the small, spread-out writing community, who they would suggest that I call. Then I reached out to some of the people they mentioned: a British poet in Tel Aviv and a fiction writer in Jerusalem. The poet asked if I knew another American (poet) who had recently completed her MFA at Pacific University’s low-residency program; I followed up and called. We’ve still never met in person but bounce ideas off each other occasionally.
I called the Bar Ilan office and put my name on a list to receive email updates and stay abreast of their goings-on. Aside from a two-day literary event in memory of the program’s founder every spring, they sporadically host speakers and panels open to the public. I attended a conversation with Scott Turow on campus and a reading by recent graduates at a quaint Hebrew bookstore in Tel Aviv. Every time I arrive at a function knowing no one and force myself to mingle.
When one of the women I met mentioned forming a writing group in Tel Aviv and invited me, I jumped. As the sole CNFer (with seven fiction writers), I’m not a perfect fit. But I go. To get out. To dissect text. To discuss sentences. To surround myself with like-minded people.
Eventually, I formed a virtual community, participating in a semester-long monthly packet exchange with another VCFA alum, submitting my stories to one person and critiquing stories for another. I approached three writers asking if they’d like to exchange essays on a regular basis and became more active on Facebook, joining various writers’ groups and reading and responding to a wider variety of writing to create dialogue and show support.
Lastly, I applied to and was accepted as an editorial fellow for a literary magazine, a one-issue gig that lasted for three, spread out almost one year. As it neared its end, I asked a writer-friend who created her own publication if she had heard of any openings with other journals. When she asked if I wanted to hop on board and work with her and her partner, I accepted.
This summer marks one year since my MFA graduation. Sometimes I miss it terribly. The structure and the deadlines, the intense learning at residencies and the unconditional support of mentors. But I’m slowly realizing that I’m okay as a writer on my own, challenging myself to learn new networking skills and accept learning and getting feedback in different ways. I get it now: building a writing life isn’t just about the writing.
A Pushcart Prize nominee, Jennifer Lang has been published in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serves as CNF Editor for the Flexible Persona literary magazine. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she has been obsessing over every word in her first memoir.
July 19, 2017 § 22 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
How much do I really want to write this summer?
In early June, I finish an amazing on-line course with the incomparable Joelle Fraser in which I write faithfully every single day for ten weeks. The content of my memoir grows substantially. I write about my family’s century-long love affair with a tiny resort community in the Allegheny Mountains. I write about losing my brother one summer long ago, about creating a summer theatre program with my husband and then ending that program in that same time. I write about my mom’s death and how I still expect her to be on the porch when I arrive. I write and write. I struggle some with tension and conflict, try to set up more obstacles. Once school finishes, I’m going to take a stab at a real first draft; I’m going to use index cards to arrange what I have—three years plus a lifetime of material. I will write every day. By the end of the summer, which for the Head of a school means the first week of August, I’ll have a draft. I tell my teacher and my classmates as if by voicing my intention I will make it so.
Late one June afternoon, I return home from school. My son, twelve for another few weeks, says, “Mom, by accident, I spilled some iced coffee on your laptop this morning, but I cleaned it up.”
“Okay,” I answer, distracted by my father-in-law’s ill health, my husband at his bedside in another state. I am preoccupied with schoolwork still undone, by what to make for dinner. It is several hours before I open the laptop. The keyboard is sticky. I wipe it with a damp cloth. A moment later, I discover the shift key on the left doesn’t make a capital letter. Puzzled, I tap repeatedly. The letters cavort in a lowercase kick line. Like a trapped animal, gnawing on its own paw, I shift and over and over again, as if the act of repetition will suddenly remedy the problem.
I can’t make an appointment at the Apple store because I can’t shift in order to enter the capital letters of my laptop’s identification number. Suddenly, I discover there is another shift key on the right. Jubilation. I make an appointment. My son, worried now, accompanies me. A few nights ago, I had dropped his phone on flagstones, shattering the screen. The fast-talking young man warned us of dire possibilities; my son might lose all his pictures of his cat, might lose his high scores on various games, but in the end, the repair was uneventful. Everything was fine. With this in mind, I take my place at the genius bar feeling hopeful. My kind tech helper appears.
Coffee in the keyboard? His smile dims. He offers to send it away for days and days; it will cost $500. I might need a new computer; moisture isn’t a good thing. A new computer is only $1200. He smiles again, encouraging.
“I’m a writer,” I think. “I’m traveling. I can’t be without my laptop. This is my month! $500? $1200? At a moment when our expenses are already too high? No way.” I droop. We leave the shiny store.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” says my son.
I vanquish glum self-pity, reassure him that accidents happen. I phone my husband, guilty about bothering him with something as dumb as my keyboard while his father drifts in and out of consciousness.
He recommends rice, so we immerse the whole laptop in a rice soak, burying it deep in a baking dish. In the morning, the left shift key remains broken, as is the control key. I head to Pennsylvania to drop my son off at my sister’s, then drive back to Cleveland and fly to Washington, D.C. for a conference. My father-in-law grows weaker, slips away. I focus on how irritated I am with my computer.
In a bland hotel room in D.C., “I like writing by hand,” I tell myself, knowing it’s a lie. I cry. The shift key and grief. I can’t untangle them.
I try to teach my fingers how to shift on the right. It is the summer of 1975, and I am in Mrs. Romanofsky’s typing class at Lower Merion High School: “A-S-D-F-space; J-K-L-semi-colon-space,” she intones, blonde hair curled tightly and sprayed in a bouffant up-do, an imposing creature towering over minions at typewriters. My brother died later that summer, so I never finished the class, but I learned enough to trust my fingers without thinking about where they needed to go on a keyboard. I am fast and mostly accurate. I crank out emails, letters to families, notes, first drafts quickly. But now, clumsy, I fumble, impatient with my errors, tense.
I ask my husband, home again, to look at the offending key. He who can fix anything, especially computers, removes the key, cleans underneath with a toothpick, gets it to work, briefly, then declares it still broken. Some things can’t be mended. He offers ideas to try once get to Pennsylvania, to the house that is the center of my memoir.
For the past several years, in the middle of the night, my father-in-law would sometimes phone, frantic: “Seth, Seth—“ he would cry, oblivious to the hour. My patient husband would, long distance, soothe his dad, and solve the problem. My broken key is not a desperate situation, merely an annoyance.
I adapt, revise my practice. My computer automatically capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and almost always makes ‘I’ capital, so that’s a gift. It is tempting to hold a grudge against the shift key, but this is my month.
Finally arriving in Pennsylvania for our fleeting summer, I take my laptop to the porch and begin.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night. Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats. She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.