A Life In Progress: Writing My Last Eight-Thousand Days

October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:

DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?

LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.

The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.

As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.

One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.

DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again? 

LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.

DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?

LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.

More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
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Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.

When You See Who I Am: On Writing Personal Essays

October 19, 2020 § 11 Comments

By Trish Cantillon

‘Writing the Personal Essay’ was the first formal writing class I’d taken since college. It was also the first nonfiction writing I’d done outside my diary. At the end of the first session, in an effort to provide inspiration for future essays, the instructor gave us ten minutes to write about anything we wanted. No prompt, just a free-write to see what developed.

Without much thought, I jotted down broad strokes of a personal story. It wasn’t anything that had been burning inside me to tell, it just appeared, and I let it out. When the timer went off, he asked who wanted to share. Many hands shot up, including mine. I had shared my fiction writing in workshops over the years and I liked reading my work aloud. I was excited to introduce myself in this way to my fellow writers. The instructor signaled for me to begin. “I was twelve when I had electrodes strapped to my arm to administer shock as part of the Schick weight loss program my parents signed me up for.”

I could see the words I was reading on the paper I’d torn from my notebook. I could hear myself reading them. But all I could feel was the swell of heat moving up my body and the shaking that had taken hold of my hands. This wasn’t some dark, closely held secret I’d finally set free. This story was just another part of a long, complicated diet resume that stretched from childhood to young adulthood. It bore no more significance to me than The Beverly Hills Diet or The Scarsdale Diet, so my physical reaction to recounting it puzzled me.

When I finished reading, a flutter of “Whoa’s” and “Oh my God’s” rose from the class. These reactions surprised me. I thought I was telling a story about what it was like to be a fat twelve-year-old in ten minutes or less, completely comfortable with my identity in that story as the one with the problem. What I revealed was a pitiful episode foisted upon a young girl by her well-meaning parents and her willingness to accept it as a normal response to her being overweight. I had been eager to share what I’d written; to share what I felt were my talents as a writer but wound up exposing the pain beneath a seemingly benign personal anecdote.

A mixture of pride and embarrassment flushed my cheeks. My fellow writers didn’t know how that moment felt for me; a strange mix of pride and sadness. I was glad that I had impressed them and my instructor with my work, but I felt a bitter sting with their sincere pity. I smiled as we shuffled out of the classroom, quickly averting their eyes so as not to invite conversation. I didn’t know what I should say.

For my entire life, including and up until that point, I carried the mantle of the fat girl. It was the part of my personal story I most identified with. It was my problem that I struggled with. That, at times, I triumphed over and, at others, was beaten down by, but all the while it was the thing that defined me. It was who I was even as I grew into a young adult and finally did find freedom from its grip. But in ten minutes that had all been upended. I experienced my story through others’ eyes and instead of it being shameful or sorrowful, I saw that I was no longer the villain.  My compulsive overeating, my ill-fitting clothes, the rolls on my stomach were no longer the bad guys. But if that was really true then who was I? Who could I be?

The woman who had sat next to me in class followed me out, she was dressed in a stylish pant suit and high heels. “You’re so brave to tell that story. Ugh. Why are parents so stupid sometimes?” she said as she shook her head and passed me on her way to the elevator. I smiled back and shrugged, resisting the urge to elaborate and tell her that my parents were just trying to help. That I was desperate and so were they. That they meant well. All of that was true, of course, but I knew that it wasn’t the point anymore.

I had never thought of myself as brave or my writing as brave. For most of my life writing was just a thing I knew I liked to do. Aside from assignments in school, it was something I kept to myself; secrets stowed away in my diaries, short stories written in the late nights of summer vacation, or an occasional workshop. Until ‘Writing the Personal Essay’ I had never really considered how my writing made other people feel; or how their feelings could influence mine.

As I walked back to my car, I realized that I wasn’t just telling a story about myself. I had invited people in, and in they came with their thoughts and opinions about me and diets and parenting. It was uncomfortable and awkward to have unwittingly exposed myself that way. I didn’t like thinking about my classmates pitying me. But then my feelings of vulnerability gave way to excitement. I felt surprisingly empowered. There’s a new me that I suddenly discovered because someone else saw it. And it was time to tell her story.
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Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Manifest Station, The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review. She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults.

The Names of Flame

October 16, 2020 § 30 Comments

by Jan Priddy

Five years ago, I created a folder on my computer titled COLORbook. My intention was to complete a series of essays about my personal and cultural understanding of color. The idea had been stirring in my head for a long time. I had written about orange ten years before. It is the color of a dying ancient cedar tree my friend Ann mourns. And old word tracing its lineage from fourteenth century English, back to Old French or perhaps Spanish through the Arabic naranj, the Persian narang, and eventually to the Sanskrit naranga, meaning orange tree, a word that might derive from an even earlier term meaning fragrant. Our word for the color orange and the fruit have an ancient co-existence, but the citrus fruit came first.

I had completed several chapters—blue sky and hot pink, color blindness and little black dresses—and had begun thinking about sending them out when I learned of the book On Color by David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing. It is a handsome book and makes me cross because I wish I’d written it.

It’s probably for that reason that I am arguing with it. There are marvelous lines like “The sensation of color is physical; the perception of color is cultural.” The book does a nice job of explaining color as wound into perception and culture. Homer’s “wine dark sea” seems to trouble a lot of people including these authors who desperately want Homer to have said the sea was blue. Maybe saying the sea was blue seemed entirely unnecessary?

I look at the ocean every day, for hours at a time. Perhaps the wine reference refers not to hue, but purely to darkness, richness. The ocean’s surface is various, it glisters and gleams, lies flat and dull, is blue or green or gray or purple. I have seen the water’s surface appear both dark and the color of wine.

But then another sort of confusion: “Not many things are orange” the book states by way of explaining why there was no word for the color “orange” in English until the fruit arrived in England. It was unnecessary, they suggest. Chaucer refers to a color “betwixe yelow and reed.” The author knew how to mix colors.

The skill is not so obvious as the authors claim. I have taught small children and older ones how to combine yellow and red to make orange—most do not immediately know. But the authors make a gigantic leap in claiming there was no need for the color name because “Not many things are orange . . .” Only autumn leaves, chickens and foxes, sunrise and sunset, rust and hair we call “red.” Fire. Apparently the word was necessary in India for millennia before it reached the British isles.

Fewer things are purple, but that word is very old in English, from the Old English word purpul, from Latin purpura, from the Greek porphura, the name of the Tyrian purple dye made from a Mediterranean shellfish. Homer mentions fabrics dyed purple but not orange sunsets.

Perhaps that is because so many things are orange?

Most afternoons I have watched the sky change color, the darkening sky blue overhead and shifting to orange on the horizon without passing either purple or green. Amazing. “How we are named and what we are called” is a phrase that runs around my head. The paradox of naming and valuing what we name, of naming and of un-naming as Ursula K. Le Guin imagines in her story “She Unnames Them” where Woman lifts the burden that names place upon living creatures.

We might be mistaken in what we assume about color—that white is the color of wedding dresses rather than of mourning, that “flesh” is a Crayola crayon, that what we trouble to name is the same now as then.

On the September morning that I write this, the sky is yellow, the sun blood-red, the sea a peculiar mix of gray and sooty orange. Not wine dark, but burnt toast. The West is ablaze and America seems to be the only people in the world who refuse to name climate change. I do not have all the names for this fire.

Orange is one of the oldest because so many things are orange.
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Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she shelters in place in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, writes, weaves, walks, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.

What the Body Remembers

October 15, 2020 § 22 Comments

By Amy Grier

Two years ago, I lost most of my ability to taste and smell literally overnight. A stubborn sinus infection knocked me low, requiring antibiotics. I cooked up a pot of chunky chicken soup: vegetables, broth, spices, fresh garlic and onions, all the good stuff that’s supposed to help fight an illness. One day, I heated up a bowl in the microwave, anticipating a steamy, comforting meal. I took a bite and tasted nothing. The bits of potato felt like sand on my tongue; the chicken like chewy rubber between my teeth.

I wasn’t worried. It had happened before, also during a sinus infection.  When the inflammation had receded and my sinuses cleared, I could smell and taste again. So I thought, I remember this. It’s okay. It’ll come back when I’m better.

It didn’t. I saw my ENT doctor, who slid a scope down my nostril and declared my sinuses healthy. He gave me a lengthy scratch-and-sniff test, tabulated the results, and looked genuinely shocked: You were right, he said, you’ve tested very low; as if I’d been exaggerating the loss. An MRI found no anomalies. The default diagnosis is nerve damage. Prognosis: my senses may, but probably won’t, return.

Now that COVID-19 has robbed so many of taste and smell, perhaps more people can understand the strange grief that accompanies this loss. I used to wonder: if I had to give up either wine or coffee, which would I choose? I couldn’t imagine it. These days, I drink quick espressos, grateful caffeine still works, though I can’t enjoy the flavor. Wine is like liquid iron on my palate, acrid and metallic. A sip of Cabernet makes me want to cry.

It’s hitting me now how much I rely on taste and smell as I write memoir. These senses ground my memories in a particular way. As the neurologist Donald Wilson explains, “The olfactory system, anatomically, is right in the middle of the part of the brain that’s very important for memory. There are strong neural connections between the two.”

Remembering the taste of the tart green apples that fell from the tree in my family’s back yard leads inevitably to my mother’s obsession with keeping the yard clean; how she sent me out to collect the good apples and claw the rotting flesh of the bad ones out of the grass and into a bucket with my bare hands. The edible ones she’d smash into a thin sauce and serve as a side dish. My lips puckered when I ate it. Those apples and my mother’s obsessive nature are inextricably linked in my memory.

Two years of this loss, though, and I’m beginning to lose some of my sense memory. I want to write how the scent of Oil of Olay—my mother’s favorite lotion—reminds me of her narcissism, of her soft body and how she’d stand too close to me, coopting my personal space, of her smothering, critical presence. It also brings to mind my childhood longing for the warmth and affection that lived only in my fantasies of her, of the mother I could make her into if I were good enough.

Struggling to write about this, I realized: I can’t remember what Oil of Olay lotion smells like. I can’t go to CVS, buy a bottle, open the cap, and take a sniff to remind myself. That particular scent is lost to me. I never thought I could forget it, but here I was, trying to remember the scent that kindled such longing and repulsion in me. Was it floral? Powdery? What does that mean anymore? They are words mostly disconnected from my reality. Perhaps my memory of smell and taste had lost its reality, too. Can I still depend on them for writing memoir? Can I trust them?

I sat with this question at my desk recently, staring at the monitor. How do I write about something I can’t remember? I closed my eyes and imagined the large pink bottle with the black cap sitting next to the bathroom sink; how every Christmas my mother would buy it for herself, wrap it, place it under the tree, then open it Christmas morning, grinning at her self-generosity.  I imagined her smoothing the lotion over her face and neck, and I suddenly felt the answer: my muscles were tense. My lips curled as if I’d tasted something bad. I felt claustrophobic. And I understood that all that all I’d experienced as a result of that smell still lives in my body. The sense memory manifests in my physiological response regardless if I can remember how the lotion smells. The nerve damage is in the front of my brain. The memory, as Wilson says, is in the middle—still alive, still accessible.

My body knows, and will probably always know, how the scent of Oil of Olay makes me feel sad and suffocated. My face will always cringe when thinking of a blob of mashed up green apples on my dinner plate. I can still feel all of this, which means I can access the memory of smell and taste. Which means I can write about it with as much truth and clarity as ever.

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Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her current project, Terrible Daughter, is a memoir about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.

Here I Go Again: On Working with a Writing Coach

October 14, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Molly Brewer Hoeg

My forever project. That’s what I’m now calling the work that has consumed the last four years of my life. What was I thinking when I started out to write a book, expecting that it was “The Year of my Book?” Naive as I was, I poured my heart and soul into the stories I wrote for the next year. And the year after that. Tales derived from the thousands of miles that my husband and I covered on our bicycle tours, along with the joys and the conflicts that accompanied them.

I supplemented my work with taking writing classes, reading books about craft, joining Lake Superior Writers, and networking with other writers. I grew as a writer, but knew it wasn’t enough. I decided to engage a writing coach, to get first-hand personal input on my efforts to write a book. Even as I packaged up my work to send to her, I knew what I had was just “a pile of content.” I relied on her to steer me through shaping it into a book. I spent the next six months working with her, and she delivered.

It has taken me another two years to put those learnings into practice. To whittle down my stories and turn them into a cohesive tale. One that goes well beyond pushing the pedals of my bike and explores the inner me that journeys through life. I’ve learned that the bicycle is the vehicle, not the real focus.

Less than half of what I first wrote remains in this new version. But so much more is woven in between those pages. I’ve delved into my past, dug into my innermost desires, scrutinized my motives and exposed my biggest failure. There were times when writing felt like therapy sessions. But I could see how it all began to weave together. I could feel it working. Maybe.

I feel as though I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own. I could spend months tweaking and fine tuning, but it would all be for naught if I’m not on the right track. I’m yearning for that professional guidance and tutoring specific to my writing, to my project. I’m ready for another check-in with my coach.

As I prepared for the October start to our next engagement, I looked back on the notes I sent her the first time around. Specifically, I read through an exercise focused on Why am I Writing this Book? I was amazed to find that my original reasons no longer hold true. My purpose has changed. The themes have shifted. The points I want to make are vastly different.

I think it’s progress. I hope she thinks so too.

Yesterday I took my document to the printer and came home with 320 double-spaced pages. Nearly the same size as last time, but not at all the same inside. This time I’m willing to call it a manuscript.

I’m both eager and nervous to get my coach’s reaction to the transformation. I already know she will be encouraging. But I have no illusions that I’m close to done. I trust her to guide me from here and teach me the techniques and nuances that will take this to the next level.

My coach is still the only person besides me who has read this volume. I’ll keep it that way until I’m good and ready, until it’s good and ready. I know I still have plenty of work to do. So here I go again. Coaching round 2.

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Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth, Minnesota whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors. She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints.

Sit! Good Writer! What I Learned about Writing from Dog Training

October 12, 2020 § 14 Comments

By Sonja Larsen

Here is a thing you should know about me. Sooner or later it will all come back to dogs. I don’t mean that I am dog crazy, that I have a special breed, that I wear t-shirts with puppies on them. I simply mean that every important story in my life had a dog in it. I mean that how I remember myself during those stories, if I am shamed or proud, will be captured in a moment of how I behaved towards a dog. Did I scream at them for pulling me too hard, loving me too much? Did I humbly stoop over to pick up after them on a hungover Sunday morning, grateful for the way their presence had given me an excuse to come home at all? I have to get home to my dog.  I mean that all the terrible and wonderful things I know about myself I learned by how I behaved towards a dog.

In 2010 my husband and I got a small rescue dog, our first dog as a couple, our first small dog. We took a dog training class, and learned what is often called clicker training. What I discovered about using behavioural conditioning and positive reinforcement not only helped me be a more thoughtful and engaged dog owner, but a better human, and a better writer. Because, as BF Skinner himself said: “What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.”

The first thing I learned was that our brains are a kind of evolutionary hodgepodge, starting with that lizard brain and moving up into the more ‘evolved’ functions. Learning takes place across all these aspects of the brain, but it all starts with that fight flight freeze fear response. It’s hard to learn to make good choices when you’re scared. A calm learner, a trusting learner, is an engaged learner.  On our walks I learn to walk wide of other dogs so my dog doesn’t have to bark in panic each time. I learn to stop being mad at him for being afraid. I accept where he’s at, not where I think he should be. In turn he learns to trust me. I reward him for all his good choices, his calmness, his attention.

In my creative life I learned to stop and recognize the berating voice who yelled about the quality or slow pace of my writing, or all the things I should and should not be afraid of. I’d spent a lifetime trying to bully my creativity, make it sit, make it do tricks, or just make it shut up. What if I instead I asked it what it wanted? What it needed? What if success didn’t look like a body cowed in submission, but rather a creature that was perked up, excited, ready for what came next? If my art was a dog, how would I treat it?

Lesson two was to start a little hungry. For years I had dabbled between writing and craft but when I decided to write a book I gave up nearly all of my other creative projects. In the same way that my little dog didn’t find the learning game as fun on a full stomach, I didn’t have the same urgency for my writing if I’d spent the day playing with a glue gun. I had to recognize that, like my little dog, I had limited attention and I needed to use it wisely.

Ralphie

“How did you ever train him how to do that?” My friends ask when my dog jumps through my arms, or turns on a light with his paw. “I just showed him the YouTube video!” I joke, but really, each of these was the result of many small sessions.

The third lesson was to break it down. In dog training, you learn to work one skill at a time, sometimes one movement at a time. What is my one ask for this moment? The first ask, the basic skill I wanted to teach myself was writing at consistent times each week. For the first little while, being there was all that really mattered. Reward the behaviour you want, ignore the behaviour you don’t. My other asks since then have varied between word counts, submissions, a project goal. I like short bursts of time writing for retreats or where stretches of unstructured time feels a bit scary or I’m really trying to brainstorm.  I have an accountability group where we talk about things like goals, how our commitments to ourselves can be honoured and measured. The bonus is when you break it down, there’s lots of chances to earn cookies.

My little dog Ralphie still does not love big dogs and there are still days when writing creative nonfiction is hard emotional work. But when I hear that old choke-collar voice of shame or judgment, I remind myself that if my art was a dog, I would be gentler. I would be more analytical, trying to understand what parts of the brain and body are reacting in this moment. And I would remember to love it not only for the tricks it can do, but because of the companionship it brings me. Because sometimes your dog is a good dog just because it’s yours.

It took a ten pound mutt to show me the importance of taking tiny steps, rewarding the behavior I want, measuring progress, guiding without punishment or anger.  And all of these insights have been a big help in all areas of my life, but perhaps my writing most of all. In learning a kinder way to train my dog, my own creative animal learned how to respond more joyfully, more consistently, when called.
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Sonja Larsen is the award-winning author of Red Star Tattoo: My Life As A Girl Revolutionary (Random House Canada) Her work has also appeared in literary publications in the US, Canada, and the UK. She lives in Vancouver British Columbia and when she is not playing with her dog Ralphie she is working on a book about her experiences running a computer lab in an inner-city community centre.

Monkey Mind at the Café

October 7, 2020 § 18 Comments

by Rick Brown

The first thing I do is open all of my unfinished Word documents, read a line or two of each piece, declare them irreparably flawed, question my ability to ever write anything worth returning to or completing, and decide instead to take pictures of my table top here at the café. One of them might make a good banner shot for my Facebook page. It has the right touches, after all: The coffee cup casting its shadow on the warm, worn, blond-wood table top. My new, red-covered spiral notebook reflecting the morning sunshine. Art in the commonplace. Some of the best images in the history of visual art depict stuff like this. Maybe I should start a blog for my best cellphone photos. But I digress. Back to writing. Maybe I could start a new piece? I open a new Word document, and, while I’m at it, shoot a pic of the blank screen to document the terror of starting/not starting something new. It will make a good Facebook post about writerly angst. What’s more, people will know that I’m at least trying to get some work done. That matters. Speaking of Facebook, I should probably check it while I have my phone in hand. Who knows who might’ve liked one of my many posts from earlier this morning? Got to keep up on that stuff. Those “likes” are life-affirming. Crap—nothing. A tug of emptiness ensues. Let’s see, what else is going on? Well, I’ve chewed at the skin on my fingertips in the last few minutes, picked at my nails, gulped away the lukewarm dregs of my coffee (not great coffee, by the way, though I like this café and the fact that it’s relatively unpopulated in the early morning). And now that I’ve brought to mind the café, I’m locking on the employees’ conversation. Damn. I’m okay if it’s just an incomprehensible din—like in a crowded restaurant or, more specifically, the student union of my college years (Oh, the stuff I accomplished in that place!)—but if I hear individual voices speaking in English, I have trouble tuning it out. I’m not sure how I’d do in a roomful of people speaking a language I don’t understand, but I’m guessing it would be easier. Comprehension is the rub in this case. Hey, that’s not a bad line. I can use it somewhere. Or not. Sometimes it seems like my whole writing life consists of discovering good lines but never using them. But do I really need to go down that road? No. Forget I brought it up. Now to that blank screen. I’m feeling ready. Okay, they’re still talking, comparing sucky roommate tales. I might have to pack up and head out. Maybe one more shot—just a simple opening sentence to get things flowing. That’s pretty much what Hemingway said is key, right? And he was no slouch. Okay, here goes. Oh wait, a text message…

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Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

October 6, 2020 § 22 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

I met them at a writer’s conference, my first ever. They have become my muses. The people I go to for inspiration, validation, celebration.

There were 12 of us in a memoir workshop led by Ann Hood. Each of our 25-page submissions were dispatched by group email weeks ahead of time, providing ample opportunity for intimidation. I read bios filled with MFAs, published books, impressive university teaching credentials and a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts. I looked for a reason not to go. There was the cost. Then I won an award for an essay that covered it and decided it was fate. I’d go, be humiliated, and finally give up this writing that’s taken too much of my time. My garden, choked by weeds, applauded this idea.

To trust another person—much less a group of 12 strangers—with your writing is practically a sacred act. Much of my writing is about my fifteen-year-old daughter’s suicide. It’s hard to write and harder to share. In a memoir workshop you can’t help but forge some relationships while strangers read and discuss the words you hemorrhaged and sweated, cried, laughed, and scrabbled onto a manuscript that somehow got you in.

I kept in touch with two women who’d stayed at the same hotel. Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask one if she’d like to share our work, one excerpt a week, for feedback.

At first, I thought of it as a temporary substitute for my local writing group, no longer able to meet due to the pandemic. When we started, we were cautious, not wanting to offend. There were a lot of “I like…” and “So powerful” comments. To make it easier, we started using LT! (love this) and SP (So powerful). We began to email outside our Sunday Google Doc, sharing writing we’d come across. Things we loved, some that we hated. We invited another woman we’d both gotten to know from the workshop and hotel. She joined us and quickly became an essential member of our little group, offering astute observations, gentle suggestions and years of experience in academia. We share submission opportunities. We champion one another’s successes on our tiny social media platforms. Every few weeks, we Zoom.

As our trust in one another grew, we came to incorporate IMHO (in my humble opinion) and “I’m channeling Ann here.” We all signed up for Dinty Moore’s webinar, The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay , For the next few weeks we referenced his “Invisible Magnetic River” metaphor. “Take me to the river.” “I’m not seeing the river.” “Should I toss this one in the river?”

Recently, I sent an essay that was very difficult to write. They picked at it. Looking back at the first draft, I count twenty comments. “I think this moves too fast.” “IMHO it’s more than one essay.” “Need to go deeper here.”

Oh, hell no, you sadistic bitches! I’m not going deeper. Just that much scraped my skin off. I can’t look at that any closer, it will affect my heart. My spleen. My liver.

I put that one on a back burner. Nevertheless, they persisted. I revised and re-sent. Still, they weren’t satisfied. The hell with them. What do they know? I left it to fester and roil for another couple of weeks. Then, I took ten giant steps backward and reread their comments. I made a few more revisions. IMHO, it turned into my best piece yet.

My muses agreed.

Before that memoir workshop, before I found my muses, my essays tended to have Hallmark endings. I wanted to fix things. But what I needed to write wasn’t fixable. I didn’t want to sound whiny. I didn’t want sympathy. But there were no happy endings to be tied up in a pretty bow. Because I learned to trust these women, my writing has improved and I am not so much afraid of putting it out into the world—even when it’s ugly.

Despite the isolation of the pandemic, and also because of it, there are many opportunities for writers to make connections. Find your tribe, even if it’s a tribe of one. Send out that smoke signal. Put that message in the bottle. Scroll through Tweets and posts until you find your kindred and reach out to them. Search for the support you need to write the things that need to be written. The stories that it hurts to tell. Be that support for other writers. Get by with a little help from your friends.

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Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide.

“Is Your Book Done Yet?” A Reply to Eager Readers’ Inquiries

October 2, 2020 § 11 Comments

By Margaret Moore

The book is not done yet because there is a certain process that goes into successfully crafting a book, and the process, which I intend to follow, maintains that I must produce several drafts, moving my memoir from a really rough, unfocused sketch of a portion of my life to a pointed, purposeful plot that demonstrates a very specific idea about life, and, to achieve this, I must create outlines with proposed content, angles, and approaches, and then I must write drafts based on those outlines, and there are days where I open the draft I wrote the previous day only to realize that the narrative does not work from a craft standpoint, so I cut paragraphs and even entire pages as I hold my breath and try to remember that I can always go back to it if whatever I write in its place doesn’t work, and then I work up new drafts, and I eventually come to be enthralled with one or perhaps a few of those drafts and I work on fine-tuning and polishing those pages, and then I get to the point of satisfaction with them, so I submit them to my faculty mentors, fellow students, and writer friends, and they give me in-depth feedback on what could be clearer, elaborated on, and added to make the piece stronger, and that inspires me to make more outlines and new versions of the piece, and then the process repeats a few times as I develop new pages and revisions, and, by the way, I only just started my MFA in Creative Writing and this is really the first time ever that I have been able to work on writing and the memoir full-time without having other disciplines to attend to, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting somewhere serious with it, and, hopefully, in about two years, I will have a manuscript that I can submit to gurus in editing and publishing, but then I will have to take their suggestions into consideration and go through more rounds of revisions until it is publication-ready, and, I have not looked too far into this stage yet—I’m taking it one step at a time—but I expect that I will work with my publishers to proof galleys to make sure the memoir looks the way it should before it goes to print, and there might be marketing details to attend to, and whatever else, and then the book will eventually be released, and, yes, this is an extremely long process—definitely lengthier than I expect it to be for future books simply because this is my first book—but I assure you, it has been tried and proven effective by many established authors and, in the end, you will have a high-quality book authored by me in your hands.
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Margaret Moore graduated Fairfield University Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing in May of 2020.  Her work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and Independent Catholic News among other publications.  She is now working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University.

Pandemic Time, Crip Time

September 29, 2020 § 4 Comments

By Adam Hubrig

Under a thin cotton sheet, my face is illuminated by the dull glow of my smartphone. It’s 11:57 pm on a Thursday night during a global pandemic. I can see another midnight writing deadline come and go unfinished and I feel trapped in a cycle of doomscrolling on Twitter. Yet another day has passed and I’ve nothing to show for it.

I don’t know if I’m comforted or depressed to know I’m not alone: My email inbox is saturated with a particular genre of email I’m calling the “sorry, I’m exhausted” message. This genre, largely from my beloved circle of disabled friends, expresses guilt that they have been unable to write, that we often do not submit writing to our online group when we had planned. Even amidst a global pandemic and an economic crash that has unequally harmed disabled people and particularly multiply marginalized disabled people, we feel guilty for not writing.

Like my disabled friends[1], I want to write. I sorely want to write.

But I’m overwhelmed by uncertainty, which was already staggering before the pandemic. Already precarious access to mental health resources has been further strained. Like many disabled people, I am being asked to put off medical procedures because of the demand on medical resources caused by Covid.

It’s clear–in this time of upheaval–I simply cannot produce at the same rate. Of course, our worth has nothing to do with what or how much we produce. As Shayda Kafai reminds us, “productivity is how our capitalist-ableist culture regulates us, makes us feel less than.” Still, as disabled writers, it’s so easy to feel guilt for not responding to every opportunity, for taking a day off (or weeks or however long you need) from writing without feeling guilty. I know my own feelings of guilt are often manifestations of internalized ableism.

In my own efforts to combat this ableism, I keep trying to remind myself that pandemic time is crip time.

Understanding crip time has been extraordinarily helpful to me in my own efforts to be kinder to myself and my writing habits. Alison Kafer describes in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip as an interruption of the paradigm of time. Crip time resists the notion that time is experienced that same way by different people, that the timeline of how long any given task takes cannot be standard because our bodyminds are not standard. Instead of forcing a bodymind to be “productive” by ableist, normative frameworks, crip time is a reminder that there are no universal standard timelines. And during a pandemic, we are constantly reminded that nothing is standard. Tasks like procuring groceries become logistical nightmares (or even more so, for many disabled folks), and social lives evaporate. Pandemic time is crip time.

But even understanding that we need to prioritize the needs of our bodyminds, it remains true that others will not understand. In her essay “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” Ellen Samuels describes her own complicated relationship to crip time. Samuels describes how the disabled needs expressed through crip time are often not accepted by employers or publishers, how the arithmetic of working lives is often cruelly uninterested in our own needs. This seems amplified by calls to work remotely–or worse, the employers who seem indifferent to the pandemic and are forcing their workers to risk their health and safety to keep the coffers full.

And I get that–for many of us–we want to write more out of a love of writing. Writing can bring joy in itself, and we feel a sense of loss when we can’t. Those feelings are valid, too. Crip time–and disability pride for that matter–doesn’t mean you have to be happy about that loss. Leah Lakshmi Piepza-Samarasinha writes about caring for disabled bodyminds “that for most people, the words “care” and “pleasure” can’t even be in the same sentence. We’re all soaking in ableism’s hatred of bodies that have needs.” Despite the pervasive ableism, Piepzna-Samarasina insists that our needs should be present in the room without guilt.

The capitalistic push towards productivity asks us to ignore the very fact of our bodymind. As Christina Cedillo reminds us through her experiences as a disabled woman of color, this erasure of bodies “fosters institutional oppression.” As disabled writers, sometimes crip time means we can’t write or we need to turn out attention to other tasks tied to care that are more pressing in that moment. The number of pages we write and the time it takes to write them doesn’t dictate our “value” as a writer, and we are always more than what we produce.
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Adam Hubrig is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. His writing has appeared in Typehouse Magazine and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.

[1]In conjunction with Brevity’s “Experiences of Disability” issue, I purposefully center disabled writing experiences here.

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.

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