April 25, 2018 § 4 Comments
By Lisa Witz
In Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose says to, “put every word on trial for its life.”
Writers of nonfiction have an obligation to tell the truth; this includes the facts, of course, but also the spirit of the story. Our job is to not just to make sure the craft is tightly strung, but to also make sure that the words, once threaded together like pearls on a string, hold up to the challenge of readers, especially those who are characters in or witnesses of the story. This is delicate, because everyone’s memories of a single incident differ slightly. No one remembers the same. Yet there’s some line, some place of substantial truth that can’t be questioned, and as a memoirist it’s a basic requisite for me to delineate where this line is.
I treaded near that line recently. I wrote a story called “Cutting Tails” about a typical farming chore my father asked me to do as a kid; that day my friend Julie was over at my house, so she accompanied me and shows up in the story. In a nutshell, my Dad asked us to load up some lambs in the back of the pale blue pickup and take them to the butcher. I shared the story with my writing group and they gave me all sorts of comments and constructive ideas on how to tighten the story, to craft a more polished piece. But they had no reason to question my facts, or my recollection of how the events unfolded that day. They did ask, however, about the friend, and if I am still in touch with her, and how she is doing today.
My heart started beating right there at the table in writing class. I know, as soon as someone suggested it, I knew I needed to run the story by her. Julie is a dear friend of mine; she’s read other writing of mine before, and she’s an ardent supporter. She is one of the few people that knows a substantial history of my life. I’ve known her longer than I’ve known my husband. Her family knew my family before we knew each other. That’s how it is in small towns; and both of us got out, but the memories of our childhood haunt us equally. And this story, this small snippet that I wrote, is a place where our histories intersect.
So, I should have felt safe sending off a piece of writing to her. Yet because I put words to the page about this day, something shifted. I became author of a shared memory in our lives, and not just friend; I became a tiny bit more responsible because it was my version of the truth that took to the page. I crafted an email and attached the essay, and pressed send.
I waited, in anticipation, for her response.
A week passed before her reply. And it was gut-wrenching waiting because instead of sharing writing that was mine, this writing had her as a character in the story. I was on pins and needles worried with how she would feel about how I characterized her. As soon as her response landed in my inbox I could tell she took time to craft her reaction. She diplomatically and poetically explained her experience, revisiting this moment, this day that affected her deeply. She awakened me to the fact that we are still living the story, still engaged in a relationship where our actions may influence/enlighten/hurt/ one another. She is a college English professor, and she’s excellent at communicating the bare truth even when it is a difficult truth to share. Sharing this story with her was complicated, on many levels.
It turns out I had several facts wrong. I remembered us being in high school, but she correctly pointed out that we were in college, because she left my farm that day, after seeing two lambs shot to their death at the butchers, to her waitressing job where she carried steak oozing with its red, thick juice to patrons in the restaurant. She was repulsed. She also pointed out that when we drove the lambs to the butcher, as my dad asked me to do, and as happened frequently on the sheep and cattle farm where I grew up, we carried three lambs in the back of the pickup. Not two. The butcher, as Julie recalls, had room for only two so he quickly and decisively terminated the lives of those two and spared one. Julie told me that a lamb was missing from my story, one whose life was spared, for no apparent reason, and how “seemingly random” (her words) it was that it witnessed the horror and then went on to live.
Her words propelled me deeper into the story, deeper into the memory, to a place where my heart pounded not only more quickly but much more profoundly. Why did I place this story in high school, when we were in in college? Is it because I had often driven to the butchers, and the memories of going there become jumbled? Or was I remembering a more innocent girl, a younger version of myself who couldn’t be responsible for turning her friend vegetarian?
I had to put the essay aside for several weeks. Julie’s response frightened me. It made me want to write fiction because my own truth feels more far-fetched than fiction, at times, and because I started to doubt my memories. They are difficult to open and examine; they are difficult, at times, to remember.
Julie thanked me for writing about that day; “It’s all kind of strangely haunting and beautiful all at the same time.” She went on to say, “It turned out to be one of the most defining moments of my life, and in many ways altered the entire course of my life.”
At times I feel like my memory is on trial for life. Is my version of the truth true? If it isn’t, or if it misses some facts, why did I leave them out? The eyes of the lamb who was saved, the one who drove back to the farm in the pickup truck with me, the one who witnessed the silence between Julie and I that shifted our relationship, that lamb haunts me. Why did I forget the third lamb when I wrote the original story?
Lisa Witz grew up the youngest of nine children on a sprawling cattle and sheep farm north of San Francisco. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, living in Japan, Spain and the Pacific Northwest. She now lives near San Diego with her husband and three children, and they often visit the farm to hike the trails of her childhood. Visit http://www.lisareginawitz.com/ for more of her writing.
April 18, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Sandy Smith
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’re acquainted with the chilly dread of staring at a blank page and coming up dry. So how do you catch yourself a muse? In the old days, you could summon the Muses by traveling to Mount Helicon and performing supplications or having a god intercede on your behalf. Thankfully, modern-day muses (having dropped the pretentious uppercase) are more accessible. They are notoriously picky though, so everything in your arsenal has to be on point if you want to successfully enlist a muse in your battle against writer’s block.
Ideally, your writing will take place in an area with sufficient privacy. You should optimally have an office of your own. If you can’t have an office of your own, have a closet. If you can’t have a closet, sit in your car. If you don’t have a car, sit at your kitchen table, but wear an afghan over your head to discourage interruptions.
You will need a Mac, particularly if you ever venture out to write in public. (Note: appearances matter, especially if you are courting the muse at Starbucks.) If you cannot have a Mac, you can get by with a Windows-based device, but for the love of God, get a laptop. Towers are for accountants. You want to be ready to write in a coffee shop at a moment’s notice. You could get by with a notebook, but then you run the risk of looking like a hobbyist writing in a journal and the muse might not recognize you as a Serious Writer.
At some point, though, you will need to put words down on paper instead of typing them into a computer. This can happen if you write conspicuously (and of course you do) and find yourself somewhere laptops would be considered gauche, e.g., your kid’s ballet studio, a fancy restaurant, church. The muse will not take kindly to waiting, so be prepared with a quality notebook and a very expensive pen. Do not show up with a ninety-nine-cent composition notebook (unless you have decoupaged the cover with attractive vintage postcards, say) or a single-subject spiral-bound pad. If you must choose something with a spiral binding, stick to a 6×8-inch trim or, better yet, choose a steno pad.
Regarding pens, you may have a nostalgic preference for the retro Bic Crystal that you used to scribble down your tenth-grade poetic angst; the muse will not. Woo her instead with a Montblanc or a Waterman. If you really want to make your muse swoon, you’ll need a fountain pen. If you fancy pencils, it’s okay. Just, please, either spend some money on a decent mechanical pencil or get the Blackwing 602, like Steinbeck (a guy the muses clearly dug).
It’s common knowledge that muses love office supplies—have plenty on hand. Stock up on index cards and Post-It notes in all sizes and colors. Buy legal pads large and small, Sharpies bold and fine, and gel pens in every color. If you’re fortunate enough to have a home workspace, decorate it with wall-sized white boards and corkboards. Crowd the corkboards with multicolored index cards featuring pithy writing quotes. Remember, a whiteboard filled with convoluted diagrams of a story outline is like a roadmap that will lead the muse directly to you.
Don’t skimp on arty curios. Station them on bookshelves, on the windowsill over your desk, on your actual desk. Make sure you curate an exhibit of these talismans that is blatantly writer themed. Pencil boxes, antique typewriters, and vintage spectacles do nicely.
Get a cat. Consider what Muriel Spark had to say about this: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk…” The muse is a cat lady.
If all the above fail to coax and retain a muse, secure a writing assignment with a deadline. That usually does the trick.
Sandy Smith is a New York transplant living in Las Vegas with her family. She’s a freelance editor specializing in YA, and she’s currently working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at UCR/Palm Desert. Her short stories have appeared in The Offbeat, Gravel magazine, and the MacGuffin.
April 11, 2018 § 30 Comments
By Laura Gilkey
These are the first words I am typing on my brand new laptop computer. I bought the laptop, I told myself, so I can write when I need to write, where I need to write. An investment, I said.
My husband went to the techy store with me, wholeheartedly supporting my investment. He believes in me, the poor guy. We chose a middle-of-the-road laptop, no bells or whistles, not a huge amount of memory and a three-digit price tag, not four. I just need it to be fast, I said. I need it to keep up with me. With all of this writing I’m going to do.
This investment came just two weeks after I invested in attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa, an hour’s drive north of where I live. I was so proud of myself for committing to it, despite a near-crippling case of Imposter Syndrome. I catered the conference to my own particular palette these days: memoir, grief, research, trauma. I was riveted by three full days of panel discussions with incredible voices who tell incredible stories. I filled a legal pad with emphatic notes. My mind was brimming with words like intersectional and liminal and narrative arc. I couldn’t wait to get home and write. Of course, first, I made a list of more than twenty books referenced during the conference, books I clearly must read before attempting to properly tell my story.
Three months before the conference, I invested in a writing coach. She is someone whose work I greatly admire and whose opinion I value implicitly. I chose her because six months ago I invested in her online workshop for mothers who write, and it was exceptional. I produced good work during those ten weeks, and I learned a lot from her, and from the other mothers taking the class. So I hired her. Which is so great. Except that I’m not giving her anything to work with. Since our agreement, I have sent her fewer than twenty-five pages of manuscript. And that was two months ago.
But hey, I haven’t been procrastinating, I tell myself. I’ve been doing field work. I’ve been studying the barred owls that will play so indelibly into this story. I’ve been keeping a detailed journal of their behavior and of my experience observing them. And I’ve been writing the letters to my son. I have to write those. More than a hundred now.
I am completely procrastinating. Jesus. The laptop, the conference, the owls. This essay. As much as his story burns in my chest, as much as I know I cannot live with myself if I do not write it, I don’t want to. What is my problem? I wrote for 772 consecutive days when Benjamin was sick. I shared my writing with a blog audience that grew to several hundred per evening. I didn’t edit myself, and I certainly didn’t care who was reading what I wrote. I wrote because I had to. I wrote to survive.
I know I need to write now. There is something so big at stake here. But I don’t want to recount the chronology of my son’s death last February. I don’t want to go deeply into the pain Benjamin felt when his liver and his spleen grew to twice their normal size. I don’t want to smell that occult blood again or feel the unwelcome shift in the alternating pressure mattress or watch him try to push away the inevitable. He was nine years old.
I do want to convey the joy he brought to our family, though. To the world. That was a big fat note I wrote on my legal pad at the conference, and starred: to capture the magnitude of the loss, you must capture the magnitude of the joy. And I need—need—to delve into the unmistakably divine events that have happened since his death. I have no idea what will come out of those pages. That’s why I need to write them.
One of the AWP Conference panelists I saw—twice, actually—offered readings of her “craft essays” as accompaniments to each literary piece she read. These were breakdowns of her observations, not about the subject matter, but about the process of writing it. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand why she felt the need to write them, let alone share them with other writers, but now I do. This procrastination of mine, this series of investments, this anguish is just another layer of the storytelling experience. It helps me understand the importance of the knowledge I hold, because of Benjamin. It tells me to be brave, like he was. To go into the pain. I will tell his story and I will do it right here on this laptop, so help me God, and I’ll do the best job I possibly can.
Laura Gilkey is the mother of two sons: Banyan, a healthy, rugby-playing adolescent, and Benjamin, who died of leukemia in February 2017. Laura’s writing through Benjamin’s cancer treatment is archived at BenjamintheBrave.com. Additional work has been published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Mommy Magazine, and Pulse Voices for Medicine. Laura co-produced Maternally Yours, a weekly community radio program, for five years. Guests included CNN Hero Robin Lim, Right Livelihood Laureate Ina May Gaskin, and Dr. Maya Angelou.
April 9, 2018 § 24 Comments
By Nancy Slavin
“I write because writing helps bring life into clearer focus and give shape to what I might otherwise experience as disconnected shards.” – Joyce Thomas
I read the Joyce Thomas quote above in a 2011 issue of Poets & Writers and practically hummed out loud in my attraction to it. The urge to write for me is a primordial need to make sense of experiences that often happen in pieces. The way I make sense of the pieces is by creating the story, which hopefully turns out whole. Certainly in the case my daughter’s birth, the pieces of a fifty-four hour labor are disconnected, fragmenting more and more with each passing year, making me wonder which pieces are important enough to keep? And yet, long as the labor was and as bloody the outcome, I don’t use warfare metaphors to discuss that birth or write about my body as a battlefield, or even discuss the experience in sharp-termed images like shards. I have a choice in how to name that experience; I get to write my own story.
Being cut open crosswise below my belly button has made me feel at times like I have two parts of a body, and writing about that experience, even after therapy for post-partum depression, has actually been the best work I’ve done to connect the two parts, to make a new whole. As a former writing mentor once said, “if you write it down, it can’t own you.” For me, writing about the difficult parts helps me own that experience, rather than it owning me.
People often ask, when they hear I’m a writer, “what do you write?” I answer I write words. But I write in many forms – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I’ve taught all of those genres, too, and love thinking about the different elements between each form because I’m a believer in form follows function. Each story demands its own structure, and each story, eventually, will tell you in what form to write it if you’re willing to listen.
I also believe: the greater the pain behind the experience, the greater the need for precision within the form. Joyce Thomas, in her Poets & Writers essay, tells us that after she was raped at gunpoint, she wrote her very first poem. She wonders why she turned to poetry at that moment, but I don’t wonder, I know: the greater the pain, the greater the need for poetry, the most precise of forms, to connect the shards. For the same reason, the first time I wrote about birthing my daughter, I wrote a poem in rhyming heroic couplets, an exacting form that helped me stitch together our dual experience.
The other question people ask when hearing I’m a writer is “what do you write about?” That question is quite a bit more complicated and I’m sure there’s not one answer any writer could give, although at least one famous writer claimed each writer writes the same story over and over. But finding out what you need to write about is important. Find your themes. When I teach writing classes, one of the first exercises I do with students is to have them write a one or two word “top ten” list of topics they think are important to write about, topics that would excite them and get their engines greased. They come up with weighty subjects like the environment, God, being a mother or father, daughter or son, and sometimes less weighty subjects like cars or video games. Still, every subject has potential for deeper exploration, and certainly can be crafted into a story. When I do that exercise, I often write “human relationships” as my number one topic, but I think the bigger truth is I write about “healing in human relationships.”
Writing, in the form of essays, fiction, and poems, has helped me figure out and heal disparate swatches of myself, swatches torn from the whole due to traumas or losses or disappointments. Writing literally helped me stitch together the initial frayed pieces of motherhood, and continues to do so as my child grows. I’ve also written about family, partners, therapists, and friends. All the writing allows me to connect pieces of my life and figure out my constant thread within my life. I’m grateful not only that I have this primordial need to write, but also that I have the wherewithal to abide to that need and act accordingly. I wish the same wherewithal for you, for we all have a need to express our “top ten” list. May the disconnected shards of your experiences be assembled into a whole.
Nancy Slavin is a freelance writer and editor. She was longtime community college writing and English literature instructor and a violence-prevention educator. Her work has been published in Oregon Humanities Magazine, The Manifest Station, Barrelhouse, Literary Mama, Hip Mama, among others. She’s the author of Moorings a novel, and Oregon Pacific, a collection of poems.
April 6, 2018 § 7 Comments
Author and workshop leader Susan Tiberghien offers writing exercises from her new book, Writing Toward Wholeness, Lessons Inspired by C.G. Jung, which uses excerpts from Jung’s writings, and writers such as Etty Hillesum, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, and Thich Nhat Hahn, to bring together psychology, spirituality and the arts:
The first lesson in Writing Toward Wholeness ─ “Keeping Your Own Red Books” ─ suggests journaling as a way toward uncovering our soul, toward uncovering our connectedness, our oneness. Journaling is a practice, like meditation, leading us to deeper writing, to deeper living. When we journal, when we write about what we see, feel, touch, we discover its meaning, linking together the visible and the invisible worlds.
If I journal about a walk on the beach and picking up a small white shell, the white shell is no longer one amidst hundreds in the sand, but it is unique, its jagged edges cupped in my hand. It has suffered, from being tossed about by waves, currents, and eddies. But here it is in my hand, opening the door in my imagination to my own jagged edges.
To illustrate this, here is a writing suggestion from the second lesson in my book, “Pursuing Images.” Open your journal, close your eyes, what experience comes to you, what image comes to you? Something you did, something you saw. Hold on to the image, look at it, and describe it. Take a moment and write a few lines to give it life.
I give the following example from my own journal: “A tree with fall foliage appeared, like the one outside my kitchen window last fall. Its rust-colored leaves were falling sporadically to the ground.” To learn from the image, from my tree, I spoke to it, asked it why it came to me. I wrote down my question and the tree’s response in the form of a dialogue. Jung calls this active imagination.
I asked if I too must let go of my leaves, If I must “stop checking if all is well, stop worrying about family, friends, about my work.” Yes, replied the tree, “Let things be.” I was told to trust the process. “The leaves return to their roots to rise anew.” Nothing is lost. Life is a continuum.
A continuum. A whole. Each of us writes towards this wholeness. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in her “Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times:” ─ “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, holds a BA in Literature and Philosophy and did graduate work at Grenoble University in France and the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht, Switzerland. She has published four memoirs Looking for Gold, A Year in Jungian Analysis; Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer; Side by Side: Writing Your Love Story; and Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman, and the writing handbook, One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, along with numerous essays in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. Tiberghien has been teaching Jungian inspired writing workshops for over twenty years at C.G. Jung Societies, at the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in the States and in Europe. She directs the Geneva Writers’ Group, an association of over 240 English-language writers, which she founded in 1993. Mother of six children and sixteen grandchildren, she lives with her husband in Geneva, Switzerland.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.
Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
April 3, 2018 § 24 Comments
If the road to hell is paved good intentions, there are a lot of bricks down there with my name on them. A few of the things I’ve vowed over the years: Do more yoga. Meditate. Write every day. Read better books. The list goes on. I’m sure you have one, too. Instead, my life looked more like Whack-a-Mole, with me desperately swatting at tasks, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. Most days, the alarm went off at 6AM and my husband and I snoozed till 6:30AM. I went downstairs, made coffee, checked Facebook and Twitter, and wrote in my journal if I had time before getting our boys up at 7AM.
Things changed around the new year, after my husband read Discipline Equals Freedom by a former Navy Seal, Jocko Willenk. George set our alarm an hour earlier so he could go to the gym. It was his change of routine. I could have kept sleeping. Instead, I got up too. Rather than rushing to coffee and my phone, I did a few yoga poses, then journaled in my office, instead of downstairs at the cluttered dining room table.
After a few days, something weird happened.
I didn’t quit.
I went to sleep earlier so I could get up earlier, and I started to do a little more each morning. I remembered a chant I’d learned at a yoga retreat a few years before. In my office I had a few items I rarely used: at my desk, a light therapy lamp to combat the dark Minnesota winters. On the wall, a wooden labyrinth that used to be downstairs until one of my sons used it as a maze, tracing the meditative path with a red Sharpie. On my bookshelf, memoirs and books on writing, many unread. I threw these into the mix. After yoga, I chanted. In my office, I turned on the sun lamp, took the labyrinth off the wall and traced it with my fingers. I wrote in my journal, ending the entry with a short to-do list for the day. Then I read ten pages from one of the writing books and took notes.
After a few days of this expanded routine, something weird happened.
I didn’t quit.
Instead, I looked forward to getting out of bed and into my office. It went from being something I should do to something I wanted to do. In a short time, one seemingly simple change—getting up an hour earlier—resulted in a morning routine I’ve done every day for almost three months now. I didn’t have to buy new gear or equipment, or even learn new things. I started with yoga and my journal, then glommed on things already at hand.
The whole thing fits into about an hour. I’ve done it in as little as 20 minutes on days I need to get to work early, and for over an hour on weekends. Since I started, I have only missed one morning, when my husband was sick. One of my favorite parts is the short daily list. Each morning, I look back to check off what I did the day before. Since I begin every list with the steps of my routine:
- Make bed
- Do Yoga
- Read 10 pages
I can always quickly cross off six items from the previous day’s list. Plus, I’m more consistent about the rest of the list. Sitting in my writing chair first thing warms it up; I’m eager to get back in it as soon as I can, even if it’s hours later. My writing productivity has increased significantly since the beginning of the year. After months of wandering in the middle of my memoir, I was finally able to finish the second draft.
After years of wishful thinking, I now have a morning routine that includes meditation, reading, writing, and yoga. I don’t do anything in depth, but I do a little of several things that matter to me. I leave my office energized, and not just from the sun lamp. It’s uplifting to know I’ve done all these things before my day has even officially begun. Like the Queen boasted to Alice, I’ve accomplished six impossible things before breakfast.
Kristin Boldon writes memoir, essays, and fiction. She was born in central Ohio, moved as far away as Guam, then settled in Minnesota sight unseen, where she lives with her husband and sons. Her work has been featured on the Taste Blog of Minnesota Monthly, and at Simple Good and Tasty. She blogs sporadically at girldetective.net, and is a member of too many book groups.