Jumping Backwards: A Writing Prompt

May 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

Santana Author Photoby Celina Marann Santana

I have been inventing quarantine games. For the purposes of this blog, let’s say I use them as writing rewards or prompts rather than procrastination from the writing itself!

One invented game is to investigate what I was doing on this day one year ago. Give it a go. Jump back through your calendar, do an email sort. As fair warning, it can be humorous, sad, curious, frustrating. Recently, I skipped forward to the summer months to see the types of adventures I’ll potentially miss this year.

I landed on June 23. Now there are many things I could have been doing on the many June 23rds of my past, at midnight. On the ones I happened to be in Puerto Rico, it was jumping backwards into the sea, seven or twelve times (depending on who I asked) in order to cleanse my sins, start anew, and get magic powers.

Noche de San Juan is celebrated every June 23 in Puerto Rico, Spain, and many other countries around the world. The original Noche de Feugo (Night of Fire) was a pagan tradition to celebrate the summer solstice but was co-opted by the Catholic Church to commemorate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist.

I managed to secure fragments of the history of the festivities while wandering the beach, weaving around bonfires, hammocks, drummers, loungers, drinkers and dreamers. There were those who had no idea why they had gathered in the dark (beyond a good party of course) and for those who knew something of this night’s origins, there were debates as to its traditions. Further research revealed some of the most common:

  • Go backward into to the sea, while watching the moon, for special powers or luck.
  • At the exact moment when the sun illuminates the dawn of the 24th, the waters of springs and streams are endowed with special powers to cure and provide protection. Bathe in the dew for protection throughout the year.
  • Sit under a fig tree with a guitar in your hands and you’ll learn to play it right away.
  • Look through the window of your home after midnight and you will see the love of your life walk by.
  • To rid yourself of things you would rather forget, throw representations of them (clothes, objects or memories written on paper) into the fire and watch them burn.

For me, the night represented change and looking back on it made me realize something new about change. Helen Keller said, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.” And Jennifer Donnelly writes about wanting “a word that describes the feeling that you get—a cold sick feeling, deep down inside—when you know something is happening that will change you.” Erica Jong advises that “accepting fear as part of life, specifically the fear of change…” allows us to “…go ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.” And finally, Jarod Kintz says, “The only thing I am for sure is unsure, and this means I’m growing, and not stagnant or shrinking.”

These strange times of social distancing and sickness means lots of changes and can induce plenty of fear, but it doesn’t have to mean stagnancy. One June night, in a few hours of darkness on the ocean’s shore, I basked in the company of a friend, released the loss of an old friend, and celebrated the meeting of a new friend. “Staying in place” makes me realize this is more how life is: no matter how great the change, there is something we can hold onto, something we can let go, and something new to find. Maybe powerful, meaningful change is what results when we have the courage to do all three.
___

Celina Marann Santana writes brief nonfiction, loves writing from prompts, and is at work on a novel. She spends her days doing all kinds of things, like starting up a PechaKucha Night because she enjoys informal gatherings where folks share their passions in a concise, engaging format. She founded Your Dreamery to encourage others to discover their best selves through writing and exploration.

Waiting and Bleeding

May 21, 2020 § 4 Comments

author headshot of a white woman with dark curly hair and tortoiseshell glasses. A lock of hair is across her face.By Lea Grover

Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.

I am sitting in a hospital waiting room. I have washed my hands more than twenty times today, almost four hours into my husband’s brain surgery. I haven’t yet heard from my grandfather, who is 86 and has almost successfully beaten Trump’s European travel ban, but will return to O’Hare where lines to go through customs are six hours long. My sister is at an Airbnb not far from this hospital, watching my children, who are not allowed into the hospital at all. Quarantine restrictions are tight. There’s a chance I will not be allowed to return to them, having had to make a choice between advocating for my husband or caring for my young kids during a pandemic.

None of this has anything to do with my essay in “Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era,” and yet it does. My story, “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump,” is about the horrific cross-section of vulnerabilities in my life both created and exacerbated by the Trump administration. Just as I am sitting to write this message in an atmosphere of justified fear, heightened risk, and borderline desperation, that is how I sat down to write my essay about gun violence and antisemitism, as a Jewish native of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and mother of three girls attending a Hebrew School that receives threats from strangers that Trump will “finish Hitler’s work.”

It feels like I am on the verge of burning into flames, and the Trump administration is throwing matches at me everywhere I step. Dismantling disability access, disbanding the pandemic response team, appointing white supremacists to the national security council, bending over backwards to the gun lobby, cozying up to genocidal dictators, assaulting and attacking the free press. As a woman, a Jew, a writer, a mother, a wife, a person living with mental illness, a rape survivor, and somebody with a family deeply vulnerable when it comes to access to healthcare, it never stops for me. Not a week has gone by of this administration when I haven’t felt the weight of some existential threat, when those threats have mostly existed in the background of my life. There is no background noise, now. There is only waiting for the next horror.

The light on the board listing my husband as a number instead of a name (a convention designed for his privacy but with the unintended side effect of terrorizing anyone with family who were lost in the Holocaust) has changed from green to pink- the surgery is ending. Also ending, the hospital’s policy of letting more than one family member stay in the hospital with their loved one. I am facing the reality of having to choose—stay with my husband in the aftermath of his brain surgery, or be with my children during a pandemic?

I am constantly making these choices, and an astounding number of them come down to the disastrous presidency of a single person.

In my essay I ask myself, is it better to be safe and silent, or to make yourself heard and empowered? Today I ask myself, whose safety is my primary duty? How am I supposed to justify any choice in these conditions? When asked, “Your husband or your children,” who am I supposed to choose?

There is no right answer, of course, aside from to have never put the reins of a fractured and divided global superpower into the hands of… well… we’ll let history decide what to call him.

There is an oft-misattributed quote I live by, which goes, “Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed.” As somebody who has been living in the shadow of brain cancer my entire adult life, I am used to bleeding. I am comfortable sitting in front of my keyboard and spilling out everything I have, ugly or beautiful. In the last three-and-a-half years, I have permitted myself to bleed into Google Docs, Scrivener, WordPress, and a constantly rotating stack of paper journals. But bleeding doesn’t always equate death. We also bleed when we bring new life into the world.

The future, the newness of things, the constant shifts in the stories we are all telling as we sit alone in our homes, these are things I cannot bring myself to speculate about. All I can do today is tell my story, scream into the void, and wait for a better moment to be born.

*

From “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump”

I realized I had spent the weekend teaching my children the two things they have to know to survive a Trump presidency. The first, to stand up and be seen, to demand to be treated with dignity and respect; and the second, that they must learn to hide, to be safe when the white nationalist tide Trump attempted to ride comes flooding toward our doors.

______________________________

Lea Grover is a writer and speaker in Chicagoland. She freelances for a variety of parenting, women’s, and social issue magazines. She is the winner of numerous awards in writing and is a vocal activist for healthcare rights. She is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, devoted wife and mother, and de-facto caretaker of two cats. Her essay, “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump,” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era, now available from Regal House.

 

We Write to Taste Life Twice

May 20, 2020 § 10 Comments

RUMINBy Anna Rumin

For the past five years I have been designing and teaching memoir-based writing courses at our local university.  Once a week, for a period of five weeks, participants arrive with a memoir based story that they have prepared to share with the group. During the week, they commit to writing for 15-20 minutes a day using prompts.

Writing is a lot like anything else – the more you do it, the stronger and more comfortable you become as a writer.  In the final week, participants arrive with a story of up to 1000 words that they want to share with friends or family or a publication – it is the one and only class in which I ask them to think about giving and sharing their story as a gift, as a piece of writing that plays tribute to what we don’t want to forget.

My focus as a teacher is to give the participants enough prompts and enough writing exercises that they are never without a story to write.  And let me assure you, that almost every single participant who has sat around that table has had a story that we have carried with us long after the class is over.

We write to taste life twice ~ Anais Nin

We’re cocooning now.  If you have a quiet place to write, be it on paper or on a computer, you too can begin recording and collecting the stories from your life. To get you going here are some prompts – remember, write with abandon, don’t stop to edit and don’t overthink anything.

  1. Make a list of the things you have learned to do: tie your shoes, dive, break into a car, drive standard while smoking a cigarette and drinking a coffee, milk a cow, ski, bake a cake, play the violin, build an outhouse, ice-fish, make bread, make wine, make beer, speak a third language, sew, knot pearls, build a stair-case, sail, skin a fish, catch a fish, train a dog, train a toddler, pluck a chicken, get along with an in-law – now write the story.
  2. How about all the stuff in your house that has a story but nobody wants? Take photos of the teeth-marks on the dining room table, the Royal Doulton figurines your mother collected, the paintings your great Aunt Margaret gave you, the stamp collection left to you by your grandfather, the maroon velvet footstool found in the attic of your house, the collection of beer bottles, the old clock… What is the story of that table and who has sat around it, and what are its happiest memories? Write the story – and even if nobody wants that old table, tell the story of what you know from having kept it for so long.
  3. How about your clothes and jewelry? Tell us about your scarf collection and why you have so many shoes and why you insist on keeping that damn bathrobe? What are the stories hidden there?
  4. Put a photo of your mother in front of you. Make a list of the things your mother held in her hands – choose one thing each day from the list and write the story. Do the same for your father, for yourself.
  5. What animals have played a role in your life? What do you know from having had a pet that you didn’t know before? What do you know from having watched wild animals – write about that raccoon you found hiding under the kitchen sink, the fox that waited outside your door, the crows that wake you up every moving.
  6. Where and from whom did you hide when you were little? When were you most scared? Most excited? Most in love?
  7. Have a look at your library – the one you have and had – what are the books that have played a role in our life?
  8. Make a list of strangers you have encountered. Now write the story.
  9. Look out the window, go down memory lane and write about the first time your heart was broken.
  10. Look out another window, go down memory lane and write about the first time you experienced loss.

The key is to recognize that even the smallest of things can carry huge stories; things like the stuffed animal you still have, the letters from your first love, and the wooden spoon your grandmother used to stir the applesauce in the years before she forgot what applesauce was.  If you’re cocooning and thinking about writing, just start and remember: keep everything, honour every single story you write.  And remember to pay attention to the stories that you want to give as gifts – gifts that you created during that time Mother Nature demanded us all to cocoon.
___

Anna Rumin is a native Montrealer whose identity has been shaped by the political landscape of her home province, her Russian roots, a passion for life-long learning that has been woven both formally in academia and informally through travel, voracious reading and writing, and a love for the stories hidden in our natural world. Her interest in narrative inquiry stems from her belief that not only do we all have a story to tell, but that our stories help us to better understand who we were, who we are and who we are becoming. She has now designed twelve memoir-based writing courses that invite participants to think of themselves as the narrators of their life as seen and written through a particular lens. Regardless of who she is working with, Anna is committed to supporting those she leads, by providing them with opportunities to set and meet their goals. In her spare time Anna writes short fiction and has been the recipient of numerous awards.

 

The Words Between Us: A Covid-19 Diary

May 18, 2020 § 3 Comments

Armen Bacon Phyllis Brotherton picBy Armen Bacon and Phyllis Brotherton

It started with the memory of a children’s book we both love, The Cloth Lullaby by Amy Novesky, its message feeling especially timely and poignant during this pandemic:

Rentrayage – to reweave across the cut. To make whole.”

While cleaning closets, tossing expired spices, repurposing drawers, updating photo albums, and experimenting with Bundt cake recipes certainly offer a degree of satisfaction, we both agree we need more.

To chronicle life in this strange pandemic world where dinner plans, birthday parties, graduations and even funerals remain on hold, in suspended animation, both of us sense writing might offer solace in the wake of disaster, mitigate knots in our stomachs. Phantom fevers and coughs arrive without invitation. Our “to do” lists are suddenly blank – all commitments cancelled or postponed until further notice.

But writers write. We are masters of social distancing – often at our best when under self-quarantine, self-isolation. So why not translate fears, anxieties, reflections and revelations into a mix of musings and forms – create a docu-memory of life during Covid-19.

And so began the daily exchange of words between us.

Armen writes –

One minute I am ok. The next moment I am not. This afternoon I found refuge in the quiet loft where my books gather. Here, life feels safe. Predictable. Sometimes even normal. At this hour of day, sufficient light shines through the glass pane of windows – offering bursts of hope for whatever awaits us on the other side of this monster. I inhale words as if they are oxygen. For now, they help me find my footing.

~

You could say we did this to avoid “The Crack-Up.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s devastatingly prophetic 1936 essay notwithstanding, we needed a path and a practice to harness the mood swings, the ups and downs, find some silver lining to all the scary headlines. Forced to stop every gym visit or yoga class, every meeting, every celebration, every gal pal cocktail hour, in other words, every routine that kept us connected to the social and physical world, we were suddenly forced to STOP.

With newfound time on our hands (let’s face it you can only cook and eat so many scrumptious new dishes or bake so much bread), we decide to channel all the excess energy into a collaborative, creative pursuit guaranteed to light our brains on fire. First and foremost, we wanted to play and have fun, with the overarching rule: “No Rules!”

Then, of course, being the organized, Type A (for anal) women that we are, we establish a few rules, a structure, a timeline and a tentative plan. Suddenly, we’ve launched ourselves into the creative nonfiction stratosphere, with a book as promising to us as the pot of gold at the end of this dark and difficult time.

We reflect, we vent, we confess, we remember. We share, we contemplate, we revise. We write more, with breaks for those “down in the dump” days few of us can avoid, and FaceTime check-ins to discuss progress and problems, sip wine and laugh, heal a little, plan next steps.

Phyllis writes –

A nasty new virus has stopped us in our tracks. We ponder its origin. Maybe a bat or a conspiracy. The latter, though despicable, would be somewhat understandable, more predictable. We have no stomach or capacity for comprehending Mother Nature seemingly out to get us. Our man-made vaccines cannot, in the end, outsmart her. In the meantime, as we stand outside our houses, careful not to venture further into the street without a mask, the sun says bask in my rays, soak up my warmth. The moon says, remember me?

~

“This pandemic truly has a way of shifting priorities. Let’s FaceTime soon.”

“The projected statistics of virus deaths is terrifying. Think I’ll bake banana nut bread, re-org and write.”

“I wanted to talk to you about a collaborative writing project experiment we could play with. We could commit to a certain number of words per week. Maybe an Exquisite Corpse.”

“I’m in! Making soup with leftover veggies, then heading upstairs to write.”

“We’re cleaning the house.”

“My mind was on fire in the shower…thx for igniting the spark!”

“Honestly, it gives me a daily practice to focus on besides the apocalyptic next two weeks. I’ll keep sending you words.”

“Do you want subtitles? This is better than Xanax.”

[Picture of zucchini and onions sautéing]…”My Xanax at the moment.”

“I am happy to write ____, working on _____, also will review ______ and send tonight or tomorrow.”

“Two Type A chics!”

“I may have to start over, switch out the sections.”

“Will we ever emerge ‘vomiting rainbows’ from this nightmare?”

“I’m running out of paper with this F-word assignment.”

“We are either brilliant or insane.”

“After a 4-hour stint, I’m feeling unmasked, uncensored, unafraid.”

“FYI, with regard to footnotes, these are just for me to know where I found stuff, in case I need to find sources.”

“You mean like when it becomes a bestseller?”

~

Thus, our day-to-day experiences, life during lockdown, takes shape on the page. In other words, we write in the dark. Together, we write towards light.
___

Armen Bacon is an op ed columnist and the author of three books: Griefland – An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship, and My Name is Armen”(Volumes I & II). An artisan alum of CSU Summer Arts, she has studied memoir, poetic prose, creative writing and flash fiction – crediting the program for igniting/fueling her writing passion. Her essays have appeared in Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change, Entropy, Brevity Blog, Hybred Magazine, and The Fresno Bee. Follow her journey on Twitter @ArmenBacon, Instagram @ArmenBacon and Facebook: Armen D. Bacon.

Phyllis Brotherton, memoirist and essayist, holds an MA and MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her work has been published in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Anomaly, Brevity Blog and elsewhere, with her essay, “Ashes and File Cabinets,” nominated for Best of the Net. She is currently sheltering-in-place with her wife, Denise, eating far too much and binge-watching “The Restaurant.” Follow her on Twitter @phyllisbwrites, Instagram @phyllis_brotherton and Facebook: Phyllis Brotherton.

When the Muse Doesn’t Come

May 13, 2020 § 7 Comments

EshelmanBy Sarah Eshleman 

When you’re a writer, people consider you a clerk of happenstance, an amanuensis of both the marvelous and the mundane. When a coworker sloshes her cup of tea, she grins like Mr. Bean and implores, “Please don’t write about that.” As a storm rolls in, your grandmother shivers and—as if you find intrinsic drama in the thunder—hints, “I think I see a story coming on.” In writing classes, professors adjure, “Write what you know.” In other words, the world is your obliging oyster, stuffed with pearls of inspiration. Start shucking.

Propelled by these voices, we begin to believe the universe owes us ideas and insight. Then, perhaps inevitably, we assume that our commentary validates the world’s existence. We become self-important, impatient, entitled, and maybe a bit more—desperate. If we have nothing to say, what does that say of us?

Last fall, my best friend, Laura, and I visited Mackinac Island, Michigan, a destination accessible only by ferry and free of automobiles. History and horses, fudge and ferries, a grand hotel and glorious scenery—the island sounded like the sort of place to fire my writing senses, a place where the Muse might live in a hillside cottage. I felt giddy wondering what transcendent gift the muse would bequeath me upon my arrival.

On the island Laura and I strolled through a butterfly house, letting the creatures light on our arms. We sipped tea at Fort Mackinac, ensconced in the British, American, and French history all bleeding together in a smear of red, white, and blue. We biked eight miles around the island’s perimeter on a tandem bike, our friendship teetering between trust and tumble. We chatted with a fudge maker who recounted his pilgrimage from listlessly making car parts in Detroit to selling his possessions and finding peace on the island folding frames of gooey confection with a long paddle.

Bereft of car engines, truck horns, and sirens, the island’s stillness was broken only by the clop of horse hooves on concrete, the water slapping the pilings, a bike bell shrilling on the breeze.

But despite the place’s deviant enchantment, so far, the Muse had whispered nothing to me, not a line of poetry or image for an essay.

Her silence terrified me.

I’d been spoiled by other places eager to give up their message. Only months earlier, at the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, the words to an essay formed as I stepped from the car. But I had context then, unmined emotion lingering from the day the towers fell.

Mackinac stood alone, an island isolated without context to other land, and so were my thoughts to it—disconnected from any previous experience.

On our final day, as we stepped off the ferry, the notebook I had intended to fill remained empty. We tightened our scarves against the lake breeze and strolled down Main Street. We ducked into a small gift shop that we’d passed our first day. In the back of the store, we found two armchairs facing a window. I sat and pulled out the notebook to show the Muse I meant business. But I was distracted by the scene overlooking the docks.

Gulls swooped to meet the waves, undulating like kites in the wind. A duck bobbed in time to the current. Two draft horses plodded down the pier, bearing slouched workers atop a flatbed cart. The rhythm and movement swayed me into a trance, each moment the only moment in the universe, disconnected from my past or from a future, leaching me of my panic and worry. The world just was, with me its lone spectator.

As the trance evaporated, I sensed the hum of customers behind me, heard Jack Johnson on the intercom, felt my fingers wrapped around the hovering pencil, saw again the empty page. And I understood, then, that she wasn’t coming. The Muse had abandoned me in that backroom on the island with nothing to say. Later that day, I boarded the ferry, carrying that experience like a souvenir of bottled air—nothing and something at the same time.

When we returned to our home in Cincinnati, I resumed my writing projects, but I didn’t write about Mackinac Island.

Not until now.

Often I revisit my photos of the island, delighting in the pebbly beaches and hilltop panoramas. But the photo of that backroom view spellbinds me until I’ve come to think of it as the point of my trip—to find that place that stripped my entitlement, forcing me to humbly face the silence and in that silence to acknowledge my inability to derive meaning from a moment without the connection of time and experience.

In the Muse’s absence, I learned to listen rather than report, to realize the world simply is, with or without my commentary, for sometimes I have nothing yet to say.

The writing craft books tell you to try harder, to write faster, to show up and get to work and press your shoulder against all resistance. No doubt you’ve done all this before; you should do it, at times, again.

But I’m telling you not to write about the experience you are interrogating for epiphanies—at least not yet. Loose your frenzied pursuit for immediate, transcendent inspiration. Even silence holds substance and purpose. Delay is often as necessary as momentum, and movement does not always indicate progress. We live first and divine significance later, rarely absorbing the full weight of a moment within itself.

Tuck the experience away. The Muse will reveal the words when you’ve learned what you must to unlock the meaning. For now, live fully and write other things. Listen to what is speaking to you now. You’ve experienced something before whose meaning has come.
____

Sarah Eshleman lives with her best friend, Laura, and their dachshund, Dudley, in Northern Kentucky where she works as an editor in chief. Read more of her writing at The View from Goose Hill blog. You can also find her work in Ruminate and Counterclock journal.

A Story Pulled From Storage

May 12, 2020 § 5 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.

Nonfiction writers are pack rats. Not in the “I-already-have-three-hundred-and-fifty-seven-ceramic-owl-figurines-but-I’m-going-to-go-ahead-and-get-this-one-too” kind of way (though when it comes to our books, that hoarding quality is real, and many of us have unwieldy stacks that overrun our shelves and are getting the better of our living spaces). Rather, nonfiction writers are mental pack rats. We have a certain way of being in the world—a hyper-attentiveness to what we see, hear, and experience—that compels us to collect many of the images, conversations, and stories we encounter and stack them on the shelves of our minds even if we don’t quite know what we plan to do with them. Sometimes they stay there for years, gathering dust, before we discover the shapes of their narratives and can finally bring them to the page.

This is exactly what happened with the story that became the basis for my essay, “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be” that found a home in the anthology, Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. In January of 2008, only twenty-four hours after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake had decimated the Caribbean nation of Haiti, I met Henry. He was an international student from Port-au-Prince enrolled in my Business Writing course at Northeastern University in Boston. It was the first night of class, and when he introduced himself and told us where he was from, I felt the rise and swell of the sadness that had gripped my chest all day as I’d watched one catastrophic image after another fill my television screen. Suddenly those images felt very close. “Is your family okay?” I couldn’t help but ask. And when Henry answered that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone, my chest tightened even more. After class, I asked Henry to send me updates on his family’s status, and he did. His sister was missing. His other siblings and parents were digging through the rubble of her last known location round the clock hoping beyond hope to find her alive. After five painful days of searching, they found her body.

For weeks after Henry’s last message that told me this news, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, about his family. I couldn’t let go of the mental image of what the physical toll of digging for that long through bricks and dust and twisted metal and broken glass must have been on Henry’s family. I kept picturing their hands, and I kept trying to write about them. Nothing landed. I couldn’t figure out the meaning I was trying to unravel out of this account. I couldn’t find my way in. Eventually, I gave up. But not before tucking Henry and his family into the folds of my memory, hopeful that eventually I’d find a reason to tell his story.

And in 2018, only one day before the 10th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, that reason presented itself when, in a closed-door meeting with a group of lawmakers, Donald Trump wrote off immigrants of color, specifically from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, by reportedly referring to their nations of origin as “shithole countries.” His vile and racist comments marked a new low in a presidency that regularly showcased the deep flaws in Trump’s character. I felt the same outrage that reverberated around the world in the wake of his remarks, and I felt something else—a wave of grief for the people he dismissed so callously at a time when their remembered sorrow and shared loss were so raw. People like Henry. The President’s words and that wave of grief gave me the narrative in which to locate Henry’s story. I pulled it out of storage and the words I needed to do it justice finally came.

I’ve been thinking about how the evolution of this essay—specifically the idea of stories that wait for the right time to land—feels particularly resonant for our current moment. Like many others I know, I’m struggling to see past the fog of fear and uncertainty that hangs in the air. I’m caught up in the stories of Covid-19, in the accounts of so many lives indelibly changed by illness, by economic hardships, by inconceivable personal and collective losses. As a writer, I feel an instinctive pull to share these stories, a persistent responsibility to bring the faces on the other side of the staggering numbers into view, a deep longing to make sense of my own churning emotions in the midst of it all. And yet, though I keep trying to find them, the words won’t come.

Maybe this reminder of how much time passed between the events that defined Henry’s story and my ability to fully access it can help make the judgy stares of my blank screen and blinking cursor a little more bearable. Maybe it can tell me to afford myself a little grace. Let myself simply watch, listen and gather the stories of this time, trusting that somewhere on the road ahead is the glint of understanding I’ll need to spark them into being.

*

From “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be”

My evening plan to discuss the value of good writing in the workplace seemed so unimportant in the face of this personal crisis. I wanted to stop class there. Cancel it for the night, send everybody home, and let Henry go do what he had to do. But Henry was here in this classroom, his notebook open on his desk, ready to learn. Stoic. Poised. His demeanor spoke to a kind of resilience that I’d rarely encountered. One that says, Today, this is what I have to do. A resilience I needed to honor.

_______________________________
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Creative Nonfiction, and other notable journals. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and Merrimack College in Massachusetts and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She is completing a memoir about living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995.

Writing and Worry: Wish You Were Here

May 1, 2020 § 13 Comments

m_bergmanBy Mary Bergman

I am a worrier first, a writer second. I started writing as a way to deal with my worries, to untangle them, to hold them up to the light and to see them as they truly are, not as they exist in my mind, magnified. Sometimes it works.

My usual worries have been temporarily suspended. Of all the scenarios I played out across endless hours walking along this eroding coastline–the power from the mainland being cut, a meltdown at the nuclear power plant on Cape Cod, a labor strike on the ferry, a toxic algae bloom that upended our shell-fishing, a pandemic never crossed our minds. Before early March, it was as though I could feel every part of this island as it washed away, every grain of sand as it rolled out from under the foundation of a cliff-dwelling house and into the sea.

Is it strange to say I miss my old worries? They had dwelled with me, and I dwelled on them, for so long.

I used to aim for 1,000 words a day. 10,000 steps a day. I was going to walk the 80+ miles of coastline. I woke up at five and went to the gym and wrote and worked at my day job and watched as many sunsets as I could. I remembered things. Now it is enough to follow the tidal shifts, to think six hours at a time. Some days, I feel lucky to be able to live minute-to-minute.

People ask me if I am writing these days. It isn’t easy, but it feels necessary to try. I write about memory, nature, and place. But it is surprisingly hard to write about place when you are stuck in that place. Distance, both in terms of time and miles, have allowed me to write about my childhood growing up at the edge of the world. Now I am trapped on an island with my memories, even the ones I have tried to push to the corners of my mind. The boats run infrequently now, but at least the ocean still churns and the wind still howls. The head of our hospital uses terms we understand–he speaks of the pandemic like it is a hurricane, and we are just getting hit with the outer bands. We do not know where the eye of the storm is.

My anxiety reached a fever pitch one Thursday, a few days before this part of the world began to rapidly shift. The sun was out and the tide the lowest I had ever seen it out here, the full moon and the winds conspiring. The shallows were transformed into a runway of sand, combed so by the receding waves it appeared as though tines of a giant fork had been dragged across the sea floor.

Becky and I walked along the shoreline and I could feel her shoulder as it brushed mine, as she offered me a piece of bread, ripped off with her fingers. I ate it. I have been thinking about that simple act of sharing food, and how distant it seems now. How could I have known that was the last meal I would share with a friend until who knows when?

Somehow the only thing that made sense to us both, and has made sense to me since, was dipping into the sea. The water here is about 43 degrees Fahrenheit in spring. This might sound like torture to some of you. But it is about the power inherent in having control over my body temperature in a world where there are no thermometers left. It is about being in another element for a few moments. More than anything, it is about being held by the ocean, suspended and weightless, when human touch is so fraught.

Maybe someday I will know how to write about this time. Until then, I am learning to live with these new worries and old memories, and writing postcards.
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Mary Bergman is a writer originally from Provincetown, Massachusetts who now lives on Nantucket Island. She is a regular contributor to A Cape Cod Notebook, a place-based radio essay feature, on WCAI, the Cape and Island’s NPR station. She can be found at www.marybbergman.com, on Instagram at @north_country, and in the sea.

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