A Universe of Context: How Research Helped Me Understand My Story

April 15, 2021 § 8 Comments

by Jennifer Berney

Seven years ago, when I began to draft my memoir The Other Mothers, I thought I understood my own story. It went like this: I wanted to build a family with my wife. I spent over a year and thousands of dollars trying to conceive using a method I thought would be quick and easy. We chose an anonymous donor from a sperm bank and paid a fertility clinic to perform the inseminations. The care I received was at best insensitive and at worst incompetent.  At our initial consultation, an embryologist mistook my partner for my mother. I wound up quitting the fertility industry with the hope that some other option might magically come through for me. It did. A friend-of-a-friend volunteered to be a donor, and my partner and I ultimately conceived via at-home DIY inseminations.

I believed that my story had value in that it illustrated how community can come through when institutions fail. I knew intuitively that the lack of care I received from my providers was not specific to me but symptomatic of the industry’s inability to adjust its model to the needs of lesbians, and a paternalistic attitude that discounted women’s experiences of their bodies.

I wrote this story down. I made these points directly. But early readers focused on other things. “What’s this book about?” a workshop leader asked a small group of readers who had read what I hoped was a near-final draft. The room was quiet for a minute. Someone finally answered, “It’s about all the things we go through to become parents.”

It was a good answer. My book is about that. But I was bewildered that no one could name the specific thing I was trying to say. Clearly, my work wasn’t done. “You might think about weaving in a little more context,” the workshop leader suggested.

She wasn’t the first to suggest that my book might gain something if I could expand beyond my own experience. Up until that point the idea had made sense, but I’d had no vision for how to implement it. But now that my own story had taken shape in chapters and scenes, I suddenly had the mental space to be curious.

I wonder if there’s a record of the first-ever assisted insemination. The thought came to me one afternoon soon after that workshop. I Googled my question and found the answer easily. The first assisted insemination took place in 1884. The procedure was kept a secret from both the recipient and her husband. The doctor told her he was going to examine her, and while she was unconscious he inseminated her with the semen of one of his assistants. In other words, the first documented assisted insemination was performed without the recipient’s consent.

I asked more questions and found more answers. Over the next months, I learned about the myriad ways that fertility medicine had been designed to preserve patriarchal interests, the ways it had invested not just in heteronormativity but also white supremacy. I learned also that queer people and allies had formed underground networks to match community donors with recipients, and that feminist collectives had facilitated home inseminations.

As it turned out, there was so much more to my story than my personal experience. There was a universe of context. When I began my research, I had hoped that I might be able to place my story on a map. By the time I had finished, the picture was vaster than what I ever could have anticipated, like one of those t-shirts that features our galaxy with an arrow that points to Earth with the caption, “You are here.” My research proved to me that my own experience with the fertility industry was more than series of subtle yet infuriating microagressions. My story was emblematic of a system that excluded me by design, not by oversight.

The process of researching my first book has, I hope, forever changed me as a writer. I’m now fascinated by the ways that our stories exist in relationship to other stories and histories, and writing nonfiction offers an opportunity to uncover these connections, to draw clear lines between the personal and the universal.  

Jennifer Berney is the author of the memoir The Other Mothers. Her essays have appeared in The Offing, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The New York Times, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington with her wife and two children.

Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments

Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:

Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…

Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…

Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…

“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?

And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?

Set clear ground rules.

Ask writers what they need.

Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.

Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”

Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?

Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.

Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”

If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:

I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?

Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?

Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.

Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.

Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!

Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

Approach it like an assignment:

This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?

I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?

Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!

Not a People Person? No Problem. Five Face-to-Face Research Tips I Gleaned From an Extrovert

April 6, 2021 § 12 Comments

Black and white author headshot of Kirsten Voris, a white woman with long dark blonde hair in a black scoopneck top and wrapped patternedscarf
Photo by: Mamta Popat

By Kirsten Voris

When I first decided to write a book about a vaudeville-era stage psychic, my research skills included visiting archives, amassing details, and wishful thinking. Years later, I’m still no professional, but I’ve earned the right to call myself an amateur pain in the rear. I had a few things going for me before I started:

I love making lists.

I love archives.

I love details.

I never tire of digging up new information.

However:

I’m not a researcher.

I’m conflict avoidant.

I’m sure I’m disturbing you.

And, I never tire of digging up new information.

Curiosity is good. That’s how stuff gets found. One more archive, I might think, then I’ll stop. Only, I can’t stop. And I don’t want to. Because the next step is synthesis. (Actual writing!) And if you never tire of digging, there’s a lot of material. In my case, archival.

I heart archives. Apart from the librarian who will ask me to open my bag and prove I’m pen-less, I don’t have to talk. If other people show up, they will be quiet people. If they’re not, they get busted.

In the early 2000s, when I began delving, my psychic was long gone and her contemporaries were old. Possibly deceased. Yes, I thought. They’re deceased.

A few years in, I was cornered at the registration desk of a magic conference. I was presenting, and this magician’s enthusiasm for my topic alarmed me. It was familiar. It was like mine.

As I signed in, he grilled me. Had I consulted the index of births and deaths, phone books, census records, court documents, newspapers? The Ask Alexander database?

Had I found the kids? The stepkids? Descendants of pallbearers and housekeepers? Had I sent letters to the current occupants of the last known residence? Had I interviewed anyone?

Nope.

As the dust settled on this second set of questions, I knew myself. I was a microfilm jockey in a sea of prestidigitators. Folks who would be rolling quarters over their knuckles at dinner that night, right up until the salad arrived. They never quit refining. They’re relentless. I’m not. I’ll quit digging as soon as I have to talk to someone.

In fact, I’d found the kids. And the stepkids. And couldn’t make myself contact them.

I had composed a sample letter in my head. Hello, it began. I am a person you’ve never heard of with no credentials. Let’s just call me a researcher. I wanted to ask a few questions about your late stepmother. The one who totaled your parents’ marriage.

My new friend, I would learn, takes it a step further. He asks whether there are publicity photos, scrap books, personal letters, props. A trunk in the attic?

It sounded crass. Like trying to hook someone on a pyramid scheme. I didn’t think I could do it.

He got me to do it. By exerting the same gentle pressure he applies to survivors of show-business families who don’t want to talk to him. (And if you’re writing a book about early radio mentalism, you’ll need what he’s dug up.) He wore me down. And normalized the practice of being a pain in the rear.

Five suggestions I profited from:

  1. Assume family members want to hear from you. Most will be curious about why you’re so interested. Others will refuse to talk to you. Or take you seriously. Or be polite. Just like in real life.
  2. Own your title. A researcher is someone who researches. That, my friend, is you.
  3. Send letters. Better yet, make phone calls. Consider the age of people you hope to contact. Not everyone can comfortably type or text or hold a pencil. The phone is your best bet. Phoning is scary. Decide how you will reward yourself.
  4. Persist. If a letter is rejected or goes unanswered wait, then send another when you have something to share, like information you found or a relevant article you’ve published. Repeat this process until you’re asked to stop.
  5. Befriend other researchers. Especially those mining the same ground. These are the folks who will call your obsession normal and propel you onward with love and goodwill when you feel defensive about the way you’re spending your time. If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would drop my fear of being scooped and collaborate more generously.

Overcoming my fear of contacting people came down to attitude and approach. In the end, the strangers I called shared scrapbooks and photos and some of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. I’ve absorbed more drama and gossip than one book can hold. And one happy day, a woman I had interviewed wrote to say she wanted to live out the rest of her life without ever hearing from me again. At last, I was too much! I’d graduated to close up magic and survived my first coin drop.

Sometimes, I actually kind of love talking to people.

But not in archives.
__

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

April 5, 2021 § 24 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.

I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.

After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.

Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling.  My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.

I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.

While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.

A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding  of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.

But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.

Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.

I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.

By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.

That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.

In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.

Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.

Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.

If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.

“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)

_________________________

Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.

On Memoir and Bearing Witness, & Warhol’s Piss Art

March 24, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Marcia Aldrich

In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.

Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.   

Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take.  A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans. 

Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions.  After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book. 

I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.

Warhol, Andy, Oxidation Painting, 1978, urine on metallic pigment, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.

It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.

Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.
___

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.

Constructing Stories

March 23, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Julie Flattery

I started writing for a building and construction magazine recently. My first assignment was to interview a painting and drywall contracting company. I can feel you yawning right now! It’s okay, I yawned too. I also rolled my eyes—a lot—and considered backing out. But I had been wanting to turn many years of ghostwriting and publishing articles for architects who couldn’t write into publishing articles with my own byline. I had to start somewhere.

I took the job…and ultimately fell in love with the assignment. Not just because I had the privilege of getting to know a small, personable firm full of people who love what they do and have held on through many ups and downs in order to continue doing it (something writers know a lot about) but because it taught me two valuable lessons that I could use for my other byline aspiration: writing and publishing creative nonfiction. I will share these lessons with you now, and if you’re reading them here on the Brevity Blog, I guess they worked!

Lesson One: Find the nugget.

Lately, everything in my own life that I had been excited to write about—things that had truly seemed like fun and interesting stories—had started to sound boring and trite. How many more stories about cancer or a kooky aunt or the death of a relative could the world handle? Hadn’t we heard it all before? And yet, there those stories were every time I picked up a literary journal. Why? Because the writer found the nugget—the small speck of gold that instead made the cancer story about a mild-mannered person finding gumption after being diagnosed, or the aunt’s kooky habits as a way to avoid her deep fear of sadness. Because in the end, the cancer or the kookiness were just the catalysts for much more interesting stories.

Likewise, no one would have wanted to read my article about the painting and drywall company if I had written about painting and drywall. As I prepped to interview them, wise words from past CNF workshops fluttered around my brain like helpful fairies.

Why would anyone care about this story?

What is this story about?

What’s interesting about the characters?

I jotted down some questions to ask the owners at the interview, but more importantly I armed myself with the best tool of all: my ears. We all have ears and they’re free. Even if, as writers, we sometimes only have our own voices to listen to, the same rules apply.

Lesson Two: Listen. Listening is how you find the nugget in the first place.

I do actually have a kooky aunt, kooky in a good way and one of the funniest people I know. What I love most about her is her knack for brilliant storytelling. She can come home from the grocery store or the doctor’s office or my grandmother’s house with a story that will bring you to your knees laughing. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if she wanted to, she could have had her own version of Prairie Home Companion or given David Sedaris a run for his money. She is able to do this because she listens. Intently. To everything around her. Then she latches onto the tiniest but most interesting detail and that becomes her story.

I took that lesson to the interview, and a common thread emerged about this tiny company’s ability to survive for the past 18 years. By remaining nimble and flexible, they’d kept the company afloat in changing times. I gathered up their best anecdotes and most interesting quotes and wrote “Small but Mighty.” The company was thrilled with the article and the editors were too. I quickly received three more assignments before the magazine finished out the season: a story about a road safety and traffic signage business, one about a construction company, and finally, one about an awning manufacturer that I titled, “The Creative, Colorful World of Awnings”—because when the owner told me his story, beaming with enthusiasm for the work he did, I discovered it truly was such a world.

We all have creative colorful stories to tell, despite the ruts we sometimes encounter. So, the next time you’re thinking that you’ve got nothing interesting to say, stop yawning and remember lessons one and two. When you listen, you find the nugget—and even painting, drywall and the awning guy become fascinating stories to tell.

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Julie Flattery is a playwright, filmmaker, and author of creative nonfiction essays. Her story, “Mighty Mouse” was recently accepted for publication in Meat for Tea and six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM Theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design.

Ripping the Seams: On Writing and Quilting

March 15, 2021 § 40 Comments

By Morgan Baker

I looked over the quilt on my sewing table and sighed. Just as I thought. The rows of squares and rectangles didn’t line up. Time for the seam ripper. With the quilt in my lap, I tore out the stitches I had carefully made a few minutes earlier.

I had designed this quilt for my 25-year-old daughter who moved in with her father and me this past year, with its purples, teals, greens and blues. Ellie has had a terrible pandemic year with a break up and a stalled acting career, and then her grandfather died of Covid. But she’s coming through the other side and to show her how proud I am, I created this quilt. I adapted the pattern from one called “Trip to Kauai,” because I had recently spent almost a year in Hawaii and Ellie had visited frequently. But without clear directions on the adaption, it had been challenging.

Quilting, I’m beginning to see, is a lot like writing. I get excited about a new pattern or essay and I jump in, sometimes too fast, and then invariably, I make mistakes. The corners don’t meet or the sentences don’t follow logically. I sew back to front instead of front to front or I need to take summary and develop into scene. The seams need to be ripped out, or the sentences and paragraphs need to be rewritten and, in some cases, tossed.

Don’t rush your writing, my husband Matt reminds me. Easier said than done. Sometimes I want to finish a project sooner than it’s ready. My enthusiasm gets the better of me, whether it’s a new quilt or section of the memoir, which I think I’ll be working on forever.

Patience doesn’t suit me, but hurrying through a project doesn’t work. Taking short cuts isn’t the best idea. When I brought Ellie’s quilt to the fabric store to find material for the borders, I pointed out to Lynn, one of the generous owners, that the rows weren’t even at the bottom. “Did you pin them before you sewed?” “No,” I answered meekly. Thus, the error of my ways. The fabric had shifted and stretched without the pins. The uneven bottom was payback.

Occasionally, you need to rest and let something sit and set. I might need to leave a quilt laid on the table for a few days while I figure out how to make the new pattern work, or my writing needs to stew in my brain. To my dismay, I may have to admit I really do need to rip the seams apart or rewrite the sentences on which I worked so hard. My pride can’t get in the way. I’ll wait until the quilt is on Ellie’s bed to take joy in my work.

After returning from the quilt store, I pinned the quilt back together and sewed the rows that screamed out at me before. The pinning worked, just like when I replace a weak word with a stronger one, or rewrite a sentence so it has more pop, or maybe replace the passive voice with the active.

Ellie and I spread the quilt on the living room floor, the purples and turquoise greeting us. We tried to even the bottom by trimming. Despite all the work, I wasn’t completely confident of what it would look like when I put on the borders.

Days later, the front of the quilt was finished. After I trimmed and altered, I sewed the borders on while Ellie was at work. She was astonished to see it when she came home. It’s ready for the next step –the batting and back. Then it will be quilted.

My memoir isn’t close to being finished, but I can see more clearly now where different sections fit and how to get from one to the other. I have to take my time and write with intention and even when I think I’ve done a great job, I may have to rip a sentence or two apart and start over. I have to work harder on scenes and less on summary. That’s okay, because the edited version will line up better with the material already there.
___

Morgan Baker lives, writes and quilts in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. She most recently took part in a Rebirth Your Writing Retreat, where her writing got a dusting off. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about her time in Hawaii.

Word Doulas

March 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

Pregnant at 31 with my first child, I was so excited to wear maternity clothes. I’d been loaned an entire wardrobe by my husband’s cousin’s generous wife. Though my normal, unpregnant weight was creeping up, the scale still topped out at 115 pounds. I really didn’t need those stretchy panels in the pants just yet. The tent-like tops and dresses were like nothing I’d worn before. I paraded around the grocery store, so proud. Look what we’ve done! Our miracle. I couldn’t, after all, take all the credit.

Writing can be a lonely thing. Introspective and sometimes obsessive. Self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating depending on the subject, the daily news, the weather, my mood, my husband’s mood, our old dog’s state of health. Once written, scribbled late night in a coffee-spattered journal, lost in a jumble of disorganized computer files, or deleted with a single keystroke, the words may never be seen again. But a personal essay becomes not so personal once it’s found a home outside the protective covers of the journal or files. Once it’s left the womb.

I wanted to wear my words like those too-big clothes. To hide under the fabric of them while still parading them around. Look what I’ve done. This time there was no sharing the credit. The words were mine. All mine.

My daughter was born in an out-of-hospital birthing center. I’d packed my Joni Mitchell albums along with lavender oil and a favorite tattered volume of Mary Oliver’s poems. That bag went untouched. At one point I told the midwife I’d changed my mind and I was going to go home. Rather than argue, she climbed into the queen-size bed with me. She held my face in her strong, capable hands and looked me in the eye.

“Eileen, you’re in transition.”

That made all the difference. I knew I was close. I decided to stick it out. What choice did I have?

I wrote a very personal essay about my failed interfaith marriage after my secular Jewish husband fell in love with Orthodoxy and out of love with me. It was filled with rancor and I needed to write it.

My two critique partners pointed out the many phrases that were ugly. That could be offensive. What did they know? Neither had lived that life. I’d ignore their concerns. I needed to keep my authentic voice. My snarky, angry, authentic voice.

I reached out to a FB group and asked for readers who were or had been observant Jewish women. I received the generosity of their time and thoughtful comments. While opinions had a wide range, all comments were helpful in seeing the work through the reader’s eyes. Still, I didn’t change much in the essay. If I omitted everything that might be offensive there’d be nothing left. I put it aside—to let it roil and fester. To breathe. To rise like the challah I used to bake.

Finally, after a few weeks, I opened the essay again, I was able to step back and see what the others had seen. The parts that meant the most to me were buried under the anger. Tainted with resentment. Although that was part of the story, it was not the story I wanted to tell. At this stage of my life, I was ready for another transition. Ready to let go of some of the hurt. Some of the anger.

It took the strong, capable hands of another kind of midwife—my trusted critique partners, to ease this story into the world. I am humbled and grateful and most happy to once again, share the credit. Because without these gentle word doulas, I could not have held this story in my hands, feeling proud of what we’d created. Wanting to say Look what we’ve done.

_____________________

Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction.  the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.

Not a Memoir But a Mystery

March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments

One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.

These memoirs don’t work.

They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.

Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.

But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.

Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.

Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?

  • If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
  • After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
  • Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.

See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.

______________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.

Humor and Trauma, Bathtub Bacon, and Writing While Parenting

March 8, 2021 § Leave a comment

Heather Frese and Keema Waterfield release their debut books, a novel and a memoir, respectively, this spring. They met while commiserating over launching a book while parenting during a pandemic and bonded over the element of humor in both their debuts, and below, they interview one another about those experiences.

Keema’s synopsis of Heather’s book:

In The Baddest Girl on the Planet bad girl Evie Austin of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, is in a pickle. She’s made choices. Like marrying Stephen Oden and having a baby instead of finishing her first year of college. Like wondering if an affair in adulthood redeems the affair her parents suffered through during her childhood. And before that, letting a boy kiss her under the bleachers at school. But now “Easy Evie” has to figure out what to make of where those choices left her.

Heather’s synopsis of Keema’s book:

Inside Passage is a memoir about the flow of a family constantly on the move. The book opens with the narrator’s birth at a weed-fogged party attended by hippies and musicians, including at least one future stepfather. She was lucky to survive, and this applies to the whole of her childhood, spent traversing the watery passageways of Alaska and the tumult of poverty, abuse, divorce, and uprootedness. This coming-of-age memoir is a love letter to coastal Southeast Alaska, music, and the connection between family that binds even through the roughest of seas.

Keema Waterfield

Heather: I loved Inside Passage. Bad stuff goes down, though. How did you decide to keep the tone humorous when talking about traumatic events?

Keema: This is a huge question that gets to the dark heart of comedy for me. *Spoiler* The first time I heard sarcasm was at gunpoint, at three years old. I’ve had a relentless fight-or-flight response to even the gentlest teasing since then. But I saw how jokes and laughter were a bonding experience for other kids and I pined to understand it. In my 20’s a boyfriend said, “You’re not funny and you make people uncomfortable when you try.” So, I studied it. I studied humor in literature, trying to find the meter. I watched comedy to learn the body language, even though most famous male comics still make me panic. I have a hard story, but I didn’t want to write a trauma memoir. I even tried to leave the trauma out, but then I didn’t make sense on the page. I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am. In the end, I decided to let my nature guide me. I figure if laughter is medicine, then the people who laugh with you when you hurt are an all-out cure.

Evie, your narrator, also goes through some stuff. A family that breaks apart in childhood, postpartum depression, some epically bad romantic choices. How did you decide to tell her story humorously?

Heather: The first thing that drew me to Evie’s voice was that it was so funny. I let her go off on tangents. Her marriage is falling apart but she’s scrubbing the shower and having this drawn-out interior monologue about soap scum. How do you clean it? You can’t use soap; that’ll just make more scum. I found as I went that the funny parts ended up carrying metaphorical weight. In the soap scum rant, she says something like, “How can something clean be dirty and something dirty be clean?” which played into the theme of a girl who gets a bad reputation. And then I used things like the sex lives of lobsters to explore Evie’s evolving feelings on romance. In a funeral scene Evie thinks that laughter and tears exist on the same continuum, which is something I believe, too.

You mention formally studying comedy. That’s fascinating because the funny parts in Inside Passage feel so natural. Was there a lot of wit in your family while growing up?

Keema: My sister and I were incredibly giddy, wild kids, but we were bookish. We rarely had a television and our social life outside of school was fairly non-existent. I had Tekla, and Tekla had me. We had our secret sister-language and no one else to practice jokes on but each other, so our humor grew up in a vacuum. Tekla was really little during our shared trauma and it didn’t scar her in the same way. She hasn’t struggled with humiliation and shame like me, so it was easier to naturally mature into her sense of humor as a social animal. I’m still more comfortable jotting down a humorous observation than trying to get the timing right in a face-to-face conversation with my rabbit heart thumping away at my brain.

I feel like Evie and I would’ve been bosom buddies. Just a couple of kids misinterpreting the world together. I really need to know: would she have been freaked out by a bunch of drunk hippies in a big wet field passing joints and instruments while their kids ran wild in the Alaskan wilderness?

Heather: Oh, I’m 100% sure she’d have been down for kindred spirit shenanigans and festivals. She’d have run around barefoot and muddy, scamming festival food all day.

Speaking of food, I need you to tell me about bathtub bacon. I heard you read my book with bathtub bacon involved.

Keema: All I can really disclose about the bathtub bacon is this: if your partner brings you bacon and a fresh cup of coffee while you’re reading in the tub to ease the lingering pain from a breast biopsy (benign!), it might be VERY GOOD for your partnership after a year of lockdown with toddlers.

You’re deep in book release with kids, too; what does pandemic parenting + writing look like for you?

Heather Frese

Heather: I’m at pandemic pod school now, which gives me a speck of breathing room for writing. I’m typing while the two oldest are on Google class meets. One’s in orchestra, so it’s Ode to Joy over and over. The middle one is now coming over to tell me about Komodo dragons. Their drool is venomous. The little guy is sitting on a bin of bristle blocks saying, “I pooping!” I’m not entirely certain it’s pretend poop, but I’m not getting up to check. This is a productive morning. Same question for you!

Keema: I have a lot of selfies from the last five years of my kids nursing on my lap while I’m writing. Most days I login to my computer and write a sentence before I stop to make breakfast. While the kids eat, I write another sentence. Two if I’m lucky. Then I change a diaper, play dinosaurs, breakup a toddler fight, and set them up with a snack and an activity or a show while mentally revising the last two sentences. At lunch I delete both sentences. If I survive putting the little one down for nap, I might get a paragraph in. Repeat through bedtime. 

I have a new project brewing, but the last five years have taught me something very important: I can’t do this again without childcare. People are so quick to ask about your next project before your current one is even in the world. Especially given our current challenges, how does that make you feel?

Heather: I’m a slow-ish, recursive writer with lots of fallow periods of not-writing, even without pandemic parenting, so I always feel slight panic when someone asks me what I’m working on next. I recently started this little scene that surprised me and had an engine, and when a story strikes like that, I try to turn on the TV for the kids, sit on the kitchen floor, ignore the dishes, and type.

Keema: Let’s talk craft for a second. Everyone says to avoid second person, and yet we’ve both done it.

Heather: I started using second person in my book as an experiment. I thought it would be fun to write the same character in both first and second person. I love second person, though. I guess it can get old, but I don’t want to be told not to do it.

Keema: I love it too! I love the way it puts me right in the shit with the narrator.

Heather: Yes, that’s it – I wanted readers in the shit with Evie. Once I started playing with second person, I knew I wanted more than one chapter in second and to experiment with form throughout. I also thought that, especially for the chapter where Evie is dealing with postpartum depression, as well as putting you in the shit, it lets Evie distance herself from…herself. Like instead of a straight narration, she’s outside narrating her life. Despite being a really heartbreaking chapter, I still wanted it to be funny. Poor Evie is so desperate she’s writing letters to Dear Abby, and that made me laugh.

One last goofy question: where do you imagine readers reading your book?

Keema: I like to imagine my readers in a camp chair somewhere with good starshine, maybe using it to shoo squirrels out of their soap stash every few pages (squirrels were always eating our soap and it totally baffled me). Or on the deck of a ferry, or a cruise ship, with the wind in their hair.

Heather: In my imagination, someone tosses the book in their beach bag. The slather in sunscreen and start reading, the waves crashing and the sun penetrating their skin until they get that relaxed, melty-boned feeling. But if someone’s reading in the bathroom while a toddler bangs on the door, I hope the book transports them to that beachy state of mind.
___

Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem, with work appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles ReviewFront Porch, the Barely South ReviewSwitchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @Heatherkfrese.

Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, releasing from Green Writers Press in April 2021. Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her essays have appeared in Redivider and Pithead Chapel, among others, and her Brevity essay “You Will Find Me In The Starred Sky” was a Best American Essays notable. She lives with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instragram @keemasaurusrex.

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