June 13, 2019 § 18 Comments
After three years of recovering from a divorce, a surgery, and a layoff that had occurred simultaneously, I joined a writing workshop. I was the first student assigned to share my work, an essay about my estrangement with a sister, and my family’s history of mental illness and alcoholism. I was concerned about revealing vulnerable information about myself, but I was even more fearful about exposing my family. I told myself I could cross the publishing bridge if and when I came to it. For now, I had to be brave enough to share the draft with my classmates.
I’ve been a part of enough writing groups to know that the disaster-scenarios novice writers often consider rarely come true. No one was going to plagiarize my work: Writers are generally too consumed with their own stories to even think about stealing someone else’s. I wouldn’t be judged for revealing personal information: mining one’s dysfunctional background for material is par for the course. I reminded myself that a workshop setting has a high level of acceptance and confidentiality, and that the masterclass I’d joined was advanced: comprised of serious writers who’d had to apply to get accepted. If anyone knew these unwritten rules, they would.
I emailed my essay to Staples. Since I hadn’t my work in many years, even placing my order felt momentous. I was afraid of sharing vulnerable information. I’d also been wondering, if in the years between workshops, I’d lost my touch, that my classmates would inform me that I sucked.
As if to intensify my foreboding, the weather was overcast and thunder roared as I drove to pick up my copies. I whisked down my raincoat’s hood as I walked through the automatic glass doors towards the print counter.
A mountain of a young man took up the space behind the desk, his long dark hair in a ponytail.
“Name?” he asked.
“Kelsey,” I said.
He nodded, smiled, and pointed his finger in the air in a gesture of recognition, and then placed a carton on a counter. The carton’s shape reminded me of a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin box. Instead of breakfast treats, it contained something far sweeter: my work. He pressed the box’s tabs to reveal 10 copies of my essay, neatly stacked and paperclipped.
As I fumbled with my wallet, he asked what I thought of the print job.
“Very nice,” I said as I whipped out my debit card.
“It was good,” he said.
The chatter of other customers, the beeping of office equipment, suddenly ceased. I looked at him, stunned. He had read my work.
“I know I probably shouldn’t have read it,” he said. “But I saw the first page, and I couldn’t stop. I had to see what’s going to happen next!”
He didn’t pick up on my clenched jaw. In fact, he smiled, expecting me to be flattered. Speechless, I concentrated on remembering my PIN. The clerk handed me the receipt and said, “I like your writing style.”
I thought of his eyes scanning certain sentences of that essay, his mind becoming acquainted with my family in ways many of my friends, and even my psychotherapist, were not. I felt as violated as if he had touched me. But it was too late to slap his hand away.
I got in my car, shut the door, and took a deep breath. Once I drove off, I gave up my attempt to make a left turn out of the parking lot: it was too complicated. Here I was, finally revealing some of my most intimate traumas, and my first reader was the Staples clerk?
I catastrophized: Would this weird guy track down a family member and share what I’d written, disrupting a tenuous peace? Would he stalk me? I’d submitted the document by email—would he publish my unedited first draft online, destroying my copyright?
The first people I usually shared my work with were friends who were also writers. In this case, though, the process was out of order: One of my first readers had been a stranger. In therapy, I’ve explored healthy boundaries: which people to let into my life, and who to keep at bay. But as someone who writes creative nonfiction, I must reach a comfort level in which I let in anyone who reads my work—whether my dearest friend or bitterest enemy.
I considered complaining to the store.
As days passed, my horror decreased. I couldn’t believe the Staples guy admitted reading my essay, but his easy confession showed guilelessness. Perhaps he was a writer, too. In his awkward way, he was just trying to connect.
From now on, I’ll make the copies myself. But the biggest takeaway came in that terrifying moment when my classmates pulled my printed essay from their folders, ready to critique. Part of me was relieved my work had already been seen by another…and that he’d been a fan.
Elizabeth Kelsey is a member of GrubStreet’s writing community in Boston. Her essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine; the Boston Globe; Eating Well; Runner’s World; and other publications. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, where she focuses on topics such as the opioid epidemic, changing marijuana laws, and mental health.
June 11, 2019 § 5 Comments
I read Dani Shapiro’s new book, Inheritance, two weeks ago. I actually devoured it. The central questions of the book propelling me along: was she Jewish or not? Who was her father? Did her parents know?
Fascinating, I thought. But this could never happen to me.
I had done 23andMe a few years ago. The information I found aligned with the stories of my life. Surprising how DNA works. I only share 49% of my DNA with my siblings. Less than I expected considering how similar we seem. My family all have this nose. It isn’t bad but it’s distinctive.
After receiving that first set of information, I mostly ignored the emails from 23andMe. But for whatever reason last week I clicked. And then clicked to see about my relationships. And then I saw it. I have a half-brother.
I knew from Inheritance the data was correct.
Deducing that my father had another child wasn’t rocket science, since he had always been the philandering parent.
I emailed my new brother through 23andMe. And then spoke to my sister, Erica. We couldn’t tell how old our new brother was, or really anything about him, save that he shared around a quarter of our genetics. Then Montana, my youngest brother, texted, “Remember that time we found out we had a brother and weren’t really surprised?”
I texted other close friends while processing. “You’re literally the fifth person I know that this has happened to.”
A friend living in Germany was shocked that this information just popped up without any counseling.
“You are well adjusted but what about the person out there who isn’t?”
Once Erica was connected to him on Facebook we could see his age. 55.
My new brother is older than me. I have something like a big brother. I’m not the oldest. I’m still the oldest. I’m processing.
We exchanged family pictures over text. I sent a link to pictures I have on my website about my memoir. An entire book about my childhood exists for my half-brother and his wife to read.
I can see a new sale on the Amazon author page. I imagine he has bought the book.
It took me thirteen years to write that well-received book. The book is my honest attempt to document what happened, when, and when possible why. My book is clear: I loved my father deeply. He was a real asshole. And he was capable of huge love. He was both. We are all both.
But as my new half-brother is introduced to me and my siblings, I don’t want him to see the warts. I want him to see the love. This is an odd feeling. I reconsider the memoir and wonder if I had, indeed, been fair? He’s the unanticipated future reader I never contemplated as I wrote the book.
When you write memoir, there are all kinds of instruction: don’t let anyone read it, let your whole family read it but don’t change things, etc. I had to pick my own way: I sent the book to my siblings before it came out. Montana read it, loved it, and offered two line edits. Erica couldn’t get through it. She cried too much. John read it long after it was published. But they all had the option. My new brother didn’t have that. Looking back, I now feel I largely wrote the book for my siblings. I considered what they would think and I made editorial changes based on how I thought they would respond. I left stories out that would be embarrassing or hurtful. However, at the end of the day, honesty was my guiding principal.
We, my four siblings and I, are a lot to take. Even for our spouses. I thank the universe or whatever you want to call it that we were all able to find partners that love us. We are funny, kind, loyal, smart, and sarcastic, with huge personalities. I can’t imagine living without them. And I can’t believe another one of us is out there.
We don’t know what will happen next. Our half-brother has had a life without our chaos. I just hope that my honest appraisal of our childhood and father doesn’t put him off joining some part of our chaos before we get to meet him.
Nicole Harkin is the author of Tilting: A Memoir and an award winning writer and natural-light photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on a mystery set in Berlin.
June 3, 2019 § 26 Comments
By Linda C. Wisniewski
When my memoir was published, I didn’t expect everyone in my family to like it. I had written about growing up with unhappy parents, in a depressed industrial town, in a punitive church school, and as part of a Polish working-class community looked down upon by many of our neighbors. That was a lot for me to push back against as I struggled to find my best life, and I knew some people might not share my perspective. I steeled myself for criticism.
But my cousin Angela’s letter came as a complete surprise.
“Where did you get this information about my mother? And what does this have to with your childhood?” she wrote.
I didn’t know I had exposed a family secret until I read those words. Angela’s Aunt Lucille was my mother, a woman who believed the Church’s promise that suffering would lead to everlasting life. I learned to suffer from her, and my memoir is about my lifelong struggle to create my own happiness. To show her self-centered pain, I used a story she told me when I was small:
“My mother said that soon after they returned [from their honeymoon], Dad walked in the door with a strange look on his face. ‘My sister tried to kill herself,’ he blurted. ‘They don’t know if she’ll make it.’ She had planned to run away with her married lover, but the man backed out at the last minute. In despair, Dad’s sister took an overdose of pills. For weeks, her hold on life was tenuous. When she finally pulled through, the whole extended family was still reeling. It didn’t seem right to be going off to Hawaii.” (excerpt from Off Kilter, Pearlsong Press)
I didn’t use the name of my dad’s sister, who was Angela’s mother. But to my surprise and horror, her letter seemed to say she never knew her mother had been unfaithful to her dad. She was now in her seventies and I in my sixties. We weren’t close but I still felt terrible.
The letter was otherwise kind and supportive. “I wish I had known what you were going through as a child,” she wrote. “I would have helped you cope.”
I felt bad for hurting her, but I also remembered Angela criticizing her own daughter-in-law for a suicide attempt. I hoped she’d now be more supportive, knowing what she knew.
I wrote back, apologizing for hurting her. I explained my purpose in including the story in my memoir was to illustrate my mother’s bitterness. I wrote her twice but never got a response. At the next family gathering, she didn’t come near me, and didn’t make eye contact. It could have been worse. To my great relief, her husband gave me a big hug.
Another cousin was pretty harsh when I told her what happened. “It wasn’t your secret to tell,” she wrote in an email.
I didn’t know it was a secret, and never suspected it could still hurt anyone. It happened in the 1930s and all the people had passed on long ago. Angela is in her eighties now, and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see her again. We were never close. My mother told me she was a spoiled child. But I wonder now if that’s true, along with the other stories she told me.
If I had it to do over, I’d leave that story out. Though I didn’t use my aunt’s name, the family who read my book knew who it was. My dad had only one sister. My hope is that they’ll think twice about judging others after reading it.
No matter how careful we are to avoid hurting people with our writing, sometimes we make mistakes. Just like we do when we interact with people off the page. When we do, we can ask forgiveness. And we can also forgive ourselves. For writers, just like everyone else, are human. And that has to be okay.
Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Bucks County, PA, where she teaches memoir writing and volunteers as a docent at the historic home of author Pearl S. Buck. Her memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage has been published by Pearlsong Press.
May 30, 2019 § 9 Comments
By Thomas Larson
In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.
This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.
And second, considering the 1500-year gap between Augustine and Merton, leaving out for the moment Tolstoy and Thérèse who are late 1800s, other writers were either censored by the church as dogmatically unsuitable or by the individual author as nakedly over-personal. Yes, during this time, there’s The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, famous Christian tracts. But these testaments are wholly mystical (without the “I”) or wholly prescriptive (with the “I” as Everyman). Neither explores the unsteady, vulnerable self, de rigueur to memoir.
Something happened 70 years ago that accounts for a change in how we view the landscape of liminal writing. Authors moved from nonpersonal expression of religious community to personal expression of unchurched experience, trading religious authority for personal authority. The religious text—an ordained, mythic, creation story, written or inspired by a God with enough moral injunctions to make a courtesan blush—gave way to, perhaps birthed, the spiritual text—a self-creation story, an inquiry about how the self has been spiritualized. The latter required one to have lived and to have written a book with consummate literary value, daring and eloquent, bemused by or surrendering to purpose.
Removed from the religious text was the author’s loyalty or faith in its founding principles: primal sin, priestly clubbishness, resurrection and salvation through Christ. Once the fundamentalist injunctions lost their molten, magnetic core, the writer was free to use the artistic forms of personal narrative and meditative essay as new ways to engage her enigmatic moments of the inexplicable or the numinous.
With Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, a spring Jonquil emerges: the spiritual author pushes away from the idea that the writer is reflecting what has already happened in her religious/spiritual experience and pushes toward enacting that experience through the writing itself. Yes, one goes on a quest, walks El Camino in Spain, or fasts for enlightenment at the Abbey of Gethsemani. But the real quest for the writer is the writing, the endurance of mind it takes to produce, sustain, and communicate the deepest of insights. If the writing of the book becomes a spiritual quest as well, then the evocation of spirit becomes an aesthetic pursuit.
Thus, the appeal of spirituality in our time is less expressive of an allegiance to a faith and more expressive of a learned, adaptive behavior, often away from faith and toward a restoration of ambiguity, a treasuring of doubt. What else is art but enacting our existential enigmas when, as is often the case, meaning dictated by institutions and “patented wisdom” is as out of touch with the times as a landline.
I don’t think “spiritual but not religious” (no one says the opposite, religious but not spiritual) means to replace “religious” mysteries with New Age hocus-pocus: See, for example, the missionary guidance of spiritual dog-walking or spiritual tidying-up (each subject with its author-and-book brand). Spirituality is not about settling down, is not about institutionalization, and is not a do-over of religious meetinghouses and commodities—refurbished warehouses as Zendos, catechistic travel books about the Vatican.
The spiritual is supposed to engage our lost selves, not our found ones. That for every authentic memoir about the inner life of the wounded, scarred postmodern pilgrim, there are one hundred how-to guides by professionalized self-seekers is part and parcel of what’s been unleashed by the abandonment of religion in the millennial era. I am highly suspect of this rush to codify the New Age into bullet-points.
If there are other ways to explore the mysteries of the self, of chance, of dreams, of alternate spatial and temporal dimensions, of mortality—and these pursuits are outside traditional churches, their communities and texts—then the question is invited: How do we search? The operable verb here is to explore. I often wonder how people can explore anything about themselves and the dark intractability of their lives, in a post-religious world, without an expressive means (writing, art, sculpture, video, film, dance, music), let alone communicate to others what they may and may not have discovered.
I think critics have pressed art and the artist to sit too close to representation. Though it may, art does not represent experience, not primarily. Art enacts experience. And, preferentially, not the experience of the past but of the present—action painting, live video, improvised music, the author writing the self into surprising being. All these explorations to me are what I would call part of a spiritual aesthetic. Because these voyages into the unknown are based on no ageless canon or chiseled commandments but, rather, materialize in the artist something he or she had no idea was there—because it wasn’t there, until the artist invented it.
Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, Swallow Press, 2019.
May 28, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Phyllis Brotherton
My adult son and I, at this chapter in our lives, have a “texting only” relationship. A few months ago, I completed the Afterword to my book using a series of our recent texts, both quoted and cryptic, with plenty of white space and ellipses. The underlying message of the Afterword: Things are not good between us.
The book manuscript finally concluded (once again), after years of writing, revising, restructuring, essays in/essays out, I celebrated; the Afterword somehow a “window out” for the reader and possibly for me. Along with celebrating the book’s completion, I also internally grieved, from the state of the estranged relationship with my son, a deeply intense saga encircling the globe, decades in the making, and far too complex to easily summarize. Hence, my book, Creating Artifacts, but also hence the rub. While abundant with actual requisite tension, I also had strived to write, as NPR once put it: a memoir that won’t make you want to slit your wrists. The Afterword, while definitely not a happy ending, helped accomplish this, I thought.
My despondency over that text exchange reverted my brain to analog, leading me to a favorite quiet tea house, with ten sharpened pencils and a lined, blank notebook in hand. Here in one sitting, I wrote a twenty page serial poem to my son, as raw and real as a hurt mother can be, full of self-acknowledgement for my failings, as well as a few of his. Did this poem belong in the book? I counted the sections, I counted my lyric essays. Maybe I’d insert these poetry sections between the essays as interludes – a sort of breather for the reader. Yes. No. Yes. No.
On another day, the editor of a respected literary press suggested lengthening the book. In roughly the same timeframe, a writer’s morning Facebook post stared up at me from my iPhone, a quote from Annie Dillard, “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book: give it, give it all, give it now.” I followed these two pieces of advice and added essays I’d originally thought would be good for a follow-up book, lengthening my manuscript. Was it now too long? Did the essays really fit? Should I take this advice? Yes. No. Yes. No.
Though I continued to question myself, I knew I needed to move forward with a query letter and submissions. My book had been rejected a few times, but I had also made it into the final rounds of a few contests. Warm rejections fueled my fire to step up the pace and redouble my efforts to gain acceptance from a publisher.
Just before my son’s birthday on May 1, while I assemble a list of open reading periods and submission deadlines for my book, he texts me after a long silence. He apologizes for the previous texts. We dialogue. We exchange emoji hearts – well, I did. He’s not an emoji heart sort of guy.
Textual healing. It’s not seeing him or hugging him. But, I’ll take it.
My next thought: The Afterword! It’s not the ending. Is there such a thing as an After-Afterword?
Phyllis Brotherton received her MFA in Creating Writing from Fresno State University. Her work appears in Under the Gum Tree, Shark Reef, Entropy, Brevity Blog and elsewhere. She is currently marketing her book, Creating Artifacts, for publication. She can be contacted through Facebook, Instagram or by email, email@example.com.
May 24, 2019 § 19 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe,” wrote Nikola Tesla, “think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
Tesla was talking about physics. But because I believe that energy, frequency, and vibration are integral to the writing process as well, doesn’t it follow that writing can help us get closer to understanding the secrets of the universe?
It may not look like it when we’re sitting in a café, laptop or notepad on the table, coffee mug in hand, and our mind lost in thought, but writing is a physical activity. Energy is harnessed from our head through our heart and into our hands and into letters placed on a keyboard or page. The tap-tapping of fingertips or scratch-scratching of lead or ink across paper is the frequency, no matter how regular or irregular the rhythm. And a mix of concentrated thought with repeated contact of fingertips to a keyboard or page can make the writer’s whole body vibrate, literally or metaphorically.
A visual will help. Take a look at this 3-minute video of salt responding to changes in energy, frequency and vibration. Salt is randomly shaken onto a flat, black metal surface and subjected to different vibrations. The salt shape-shifts into distinct, beautiful patterns. When the frequency and vibration are increased, the salt rearranges into even more intricate designs that boggle the mind and dazzle the eye.
After I saw the video, I thought, yes! Scientific proof that chaos wants to be art. If we define chaos as something that throws us out of whack, forcing us to face big questions – loss, illness, pain, accident, healing, joy or mystery – natural laws can rouse its expression. And that expression has the potential to be magnificently beautiful. Resonant. Memorable. That’s what so many of us who read, write, edit and teach personal narrative look for in an essay or memoir.
Writing shakes the salt loose inside of us. Sometimes that salt finds its way into old wounds. It activates our memory and we feel it again, which sets the art making in motion. That writers choose to go back and feel old pain – on purpose – reflects our deep curiosity (or neurosis, but I speak for myself.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos and art lately as I have been writing a memoir about the aftermath of a car-and-truck collision I experienced as a young girl. I’ve been working on it for so long now that it feels like I’ve given myself an endless, writing prompt. There’s so much material to draw from, so many directions I can go. But when I return to the page, I discover some new facet of the story. Gain some new insight. Sometimes there’s even some healing. I’ve tried to stop writing it more than once. But I find myself compelled to continue, as if the chaos itself yearns to become art. To make meaning from its experience.
Like Tesla, Carl Jung also thought about chaos. But he wasn’t talking about physics when he wrote, “In all chaos, there is a cosmos. In all disorder, a secret order. ” Jung was talking about chaos as a way to encounter one’s own soul. The descent is perilous, he wrote, but it yielded great rewards. “If one opens up chaos,” wrote Jung, “magic also arises.”
We may feel as if we are using every ounce of force – our own as well as what we can grab – to shake chaos loose enough from our psyches, spirit, body and mind to transform it into words onto the screen or page. But what magic when the words land and they are just right! When the words open a window or a door and for a moment, we may feel as if we have, indeed, come to understand some small secret of the universe.
Beyond the beautifully strung together words we leave on the page, we also leave behind concrete proof that we survived. Those lines, curves, dots and squiggles in the letters and punctuation that make up our sentences are the visible marks of chaos’s imprint on us.
Ellen Blum Barish is editor and publisher of Thread and Stitch. Her essays have been published in The Chicago Tribune, Literary Mama, Tablet, Full Grown People, Brevity Blog and have aired on WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and StoryStudio Chicago and privately. Ellen is author of the essay collection, Views from the Home Office Window and is completing a memoir. She blogs at EBB&FLOW.
May 21, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Rebecca Gummere
It goes like this. In December, seeing a miraculous remnant of green nestled beside your house, you rescue the tiny idea of a plant and bring it inside, placing it among the thirsty coleus and trailing tradescantia and the shy pink geranium. You tend it all through the winter, uncertain of what it will become. You think you know, though, what manner of vine it is, already excited for how the leaves will unfurl and the tendrils will trail around your living room, all grace and beauty and color and light.
Then one day as it is taking shape you see the thing, really see it, and you realize it is not what you believed it to be at all. It is not the elegant vine you thought, with smooth leaves of many shades of green. But, okay, you make a deal. You recognize it now as a fragrant wild-growing herb many consider a weed. You adjust your expectations. In the summer it will offer tiny yellow flowers, and you can put a sprig of it in your iced tea.
Some weeks later you look more closely. The leaves, now covered with hair-like spikes, give off no aroma at all when crushed. Not the wild herb, then? What the hell? And now comes a sense of betrayal, the effort you’ve put into caring for this thing, bringing water, freshening with rich soil, moving it from window to window to chase the sunlight, and all of it coming to naught. It is as if you fell madly in love, only to waken one morning next to an ogre.
You should toss the whole mess into the weeds, let it go back to the earth. And yet…this living thing, and your investment of time and hope while cold winds howled, does that count for nothing?
You grudgingly decide to keep it, see what happens next. After all, the days are lengthening, the snow has melted, and your sudden better mood has stirred a dormant curiosity. Winter ends, you move all the plants out onto the front porch, and when you water them, you eye with mingled suspicion and wonder the messy tangle in the small clay pot set apart from the others.
One morning, while examining the plant, a bruised leaf gives off the familiar scent, and you realize, it is the wild herb after all! And now you begin to see, you think you get it – in its infant state, not yet fully developed, the plant could not look, or seem, or feel, or smell like what it would become. Patience, you remind yourself, is a virtue. You repot the plant in a larger container with fresh new soil, and set it beside the other growing things, ready, even eager to see what the next phase of development will bring.
The plant is teaching you that you are only partly in charge of its final form. You are moving toward acceptance of the mysteries surrounding the development of living matter, most of which happens while you are not looking, most of which happens in dimming and darkness.
All of this is to say: Writers, do not give up. (I say this as one who recently did but found I could not fully take to it.)
The propagation of living, growing things, which our stories most surely are, often means a lot will happen without our permission. Keep going anyway. Just because you don’t yet know exactly what the work will become does not mean its future is not already woven into its secret architecture, which you will uncover through your faithful tending. (Is this not the very definition of organic?)
I have come to believe there are no wasted efforts in gardening or writing. All is useful, even if only for the momentary peace that comes with turning over good soil or unearthing a hidden bone of your own story. And keep in mind, cuttings that seem unsuccessful on their own can be trimmed, rooted, repotted, grafted.
Keep writing, using the tools of your craft – rake, hoe, trowel, tiller, fertilizer, pruner – and trust you can go from idealized version to unexpected wildness to mystery and revelation.
Just don’t quit.
Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, the Masters Review Anthology, Vol. VII, and other publications. She is currently working on a memoir about a recent nine-month solo cross-country journey, Chasing Light. She blogs at www.rebeccagummere.com.