October 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Aimee Christian
Memoirists often ask themselves, Would anyone actually want to read my story?
David Mura says, “I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.”
I wrote an entire draft of my memoir and when I was done, I felt great. I submitted it to my writing group, who reflected back to me something I could not see myself. My first draft was not just shitty, it was ugly. Angry. Fury, all over the page. A 90,000-word vent. As Allison K Williams calls it in Seven Drafts, it was the vomit draft. But as I continued to revise and revise, I let go of so much wrath. As I cut the ugliness away from the narrative, I found that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need unpleasant words to describe other characters not only because I wanted the readers to draw their own conclusions—but because I didn’t feel that way anymore.
Just by writing it out.
Which is great. But was not enough to make the story the truth.
I’m not suggesting my memoir wasn’t true, or that your memoir isn’t true. But what is truth?
After you’ve edited for factual correctness; reckoned with what you remember versus what you don’t and how you plan to address the differences; and carefully crafted an acknowledgement that your book is your version of the truth, what comes next?
Melissa Febos put it so beautifully in her essay collection Abandon Me that when I listened to the audiobook in the car, I had to pull over to rewind again and again, writing down her words like it was the 1980s and I was trying to decipher The Cure’s lyrics from a tape. Stop. Listen. Stop. Scribble. Rewind. Repeat.
We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you.
I wanted to tattoo these words on my eyelids, on my fingertips, so that I would remember them with every single word I typed. I suddenly understood why I’d grown bored of my own manuscript. I’d written detailed accounts of all the stories I’d told over the years, of the smoothings over, the ironings out of truths. The stories I’d told myself that made my pain points a little less sharp, that made my shame a little easier to hold at night, that made my life a little easier to live. But in doing so, I’d left out all the parts that were not genuine. The pieces that made truly interesting memoir worth reading were just not there.
How would I begin to unravel the layers, peel back the covers, get at the rawer truths?
I did it and am still doing it painstakingly. Poring over a paragraph at a time, asking myself questions through a series of writing prompts, about sentences, dialogue, exchanges, actions. Why, why, why, okay and why, great but why, and why, no but why? Why did I do this? What did I mean? What did I really want? Why did I behave this way? What would this scene look like from the other person’s perspective? What if I wrote this scene in five sentences? What if I wrote it again, and again, and again?
Here’s an example: I know my mother, and I know how my mother behaves. So when I did that thing all those years ago, was I really so surprised when she behaved exactly as she always did? Or was I just looking for another excuse to feel wronged? Why did I do what I did? What did I think would really happen?
Getting this honest with myself, I didn’t like what I saw. But it was a much realer picture. And even I had to admit, the story that was unfolding on the page was much more interesting than the one I’d set out to write. I began to feel better about who I was. David Mura was right. I was becoming the person I wanted to be when I sat down to write the book. She was waiting for me.
If you’re going through the pain and vulnerability of writing a memoir at all, write the real one. Not the curated one. The one you don’t want people to see. The one you’ve tucked away all this time.
Dig it out. Dust it off. Get reacquainted with it. Learn to embrace it and maybe even love it.
Because that’s the story people want to read.
Join Aimee Christian for three Wednesday evening writing sessions beginning December 1st to get to the truer version of your story, looking at those parts that Melissa Febos says need to hurt, not flatter, and not comfort. “Let’s meet our own gaze and see what’s really looking back.” Includes readings, writing, and one workshop. Info and registration here.
Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net.
October 25, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
Nature: There’s inspiration for you. Everyone says so.
But what part of nature? The natural world writ large is too immense to tell me a story. White puffy clouds are too changeable, their reversion to gray disappointing. Tall firs are aloof, reliant on intimidation. I cannot be inspired by the fragile bowl of the sky; I cannot be inspired by something too mysteriously beautiful to understand. If I don’t understand it, how can I write it? I lose myself instead of finding myself. To be sure, losing one’s self is valuable sometimes, but for me, it rarely holds literary sway.
I consider instead the specificity of a dead fawn’s matchstick legs tangled on the roadside; of a turkey’s clucks and gobbles, tiny-brained invader of my driveway. I finger two greedy curls of wild grape vines, capturing nearby phlox an inch at a time. I go for the micro, not the macro. The variant, not the vista. I’m a sucker for wabi sabi, the beauty in nature’s imperfections, the smaller the flaw-containing object, the better.
When I’m walking the dirt road along the nature conservancy near my house in preparation for writing, I usually walk the same way, to the same place. I absorb the particularity of small changes along the route, substituting the question “What’s different?” for “What’s glorious?” I am as always amazed by nature’s editing process, the random-seeming aggregation of her sloppy mistakes with her happy accidents and her delicate precision.
Still, the question: Does nature inspire my writing? I know that nature does a poor job of inspiring me to write about nature. I once wrote about a rafter of turkeys; that piece garnered 21 rejections before it went back in the drawer. Micronature, on the other hand, does a great job of inspiring me to consider the hallowed value of detail.
Detail is the beat. Detail tells the story. Detail is more than what something or someone looks like.
Sound is a detail. The maddening insistence of a loon on the river channel inspires me to include the low, anguished cry of a widow in my description of her mourning, and to compare it to a loon.
Texture is a detail. A grouping of overgrown perennial grasses next to a neighbor’s house reminds me to describe the feeling of smooth legs brushing against the sharp edges of tall grasses.
Color is a detail. The beaten-in side of a small boat on the river helps me envision the precise color of red lipstick a clerk wore in Dollar General, the rust and creases in the metal reminding me that her mouth had a battered quality I need to describe.
Movement is a detail. The red-winged blackbirds that attack my feeder in late Spring have a single-minded way of dive-bombing from a tall hemlock to the feeder’s platform. I summon their urgency to describe someone rushing to the scene of an accident.
Smell is a detail. I have examples from the natural world, but the best example is from the world of spirits. It occurred while I was writing a memoirish essay about my mother. I happened to crack open a bottle of bourbon one night to accompany my efforts. Writing that evening about a formative time in my adolescence, I described my mother as smelling of bourbon and sleep, and knew it was right.
Whether these examples work for you or leave you cold, I urge you to consider how small details, even imperfections, in the natural world can be a fruitful place to begin your musings. Look down, not up. Holding something from your backyard in your hand may remind you how often small things lead us to bigger things. Micronature may cause you to register wonder at a manageable scale, jump-starting imagination and metaphorical thinking. And it may be that the small imperfections in nature assist us as we characterize the human imperfections that make our work true and convincing.
Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.
October 18, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Julie Lambert
I’ve thought about you for so long. I’m a little scared of you. What will happen when I release you? What story do you want to tell? Am I seeing you clearly? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do this correctly, in the way that I want you to be created. I’m stuck right now. I don’t know what you want me to do. Where you want me to go? I think I know the way, but I’m open and listening. Can you whisper to me? I promise I’ll do my best to let you lead the way. I trust you. I really do. Do you trust me? I know it’s hard. I know you’ve wanted to hide. To keep this secret between us. Why do we have to let everybody in on it? I feel that way, too, sometimes. I want to go back to just living a normal life, doing things that normal everyday people do. But I know I wouldn’t be happy. Would you? Do you want to be permanently affixed to the bulletin board, always as a notecard? I mean, what happens to a notecard? It gets thrown away in the trash when it’s no longer relevant, no longer serves a purpose. Or do you want to be pages? Pages in a book? Yes, books are sometimes thrown out, too, but not as often as notecards. I hope people value books more.
Okay, now what do you want to say to me? I know, I haven’t heard your voice in awhile, I’ve been distracted, running after the quick fix, the sparkly trappings of a writer’s life— writing residencies, more classes, more books to read— but I swear I did some of that to develop my relationship with you. So that I could understand you better. You know this is my first time, right? I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what’s required of me. I don’t know what’s at stake. What’s that? Right, I’m talking again. Sorry. I said it was your turn. Okay, I’ll shut up, but one last thing. Could you just drop me some clues every so often, just to let me know if I’m going the wrong way or moving in the right direction? It would really help me to keep going. Not a lot, just a few crumbs. Right, okay, I’ll stop.
You’ve asked me so many questions I don’t know where to begin. I’m fine hanging out here on the bulletin board. I’m not in any rush. What I’m saying will have as much relevance today as it will tomorrow. Remember what I said to you earlier today, “hold it lightly?” I know you’ve got so much going on in your life. So many things you’re trying to tune into. I appreciate that you almost always commit Tuesdays and Thursdays to visiting with me. No one else does that you know. You’re the only one who comes up in the attic to talk to me. But I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I’m okay and I kind of like my time alone, but I want you to be ready. I want you to be prepared for when I’m ready to talk because once I begin, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop. Have you set aside some time for me before the kids are out of school? Before this summer? Because we’re going to need it. I need to get off this bulletin board before the summer. I’m kinda tired of being vertical and I can’t hold myself up any longer. I want to behave and lay down on the page. Not for too long, though, because I know once the readers come, I want to be in their heads. I want to dance and play in their minds. Don’t you think that’s the place I belong? I’ve been in your head for so long, I’m finally getting some air and I like it, but we both know the only way I can stay alive is to be passed on to other people. Not in a bad, contagious kinda way, but in an ever expanding sort of way, a continuous conversation. That’s what I want to be. Can you help me?
Julie Lambert is a nonfiction writer, poet, and women’s health and wellness activist, currently working on her debut memoir, Shed 1,000 Bodies. For twenty years she’s worked with organizations and individuals to improve women’s and children’s lives through education, health and wellness. In the past five years, she’s studied creative nonfiction and poetry with some of the most well-known and respected writers working in these genres. Her personal essay, “Mother’s Day,” about postpartum depression and psychosis was awarded 2nd place in Hypertext Review’s Spring/Summer 2020 Nonfiction contest. She is a graduate of The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop 2021 with T. Kira Madden, and The Writer’s Hotel 2019 with Meghan Daum. The Illinois Arts Council Agency awarded her an Individual Artist Support grant of $1,500 in 2019, and she’s been an invited storyteller at the KGB Bar in NYC, and the de Maat Studio, Second City in Chicago. She has a BA in English Language and Literature from Smith College, and a Master’s in English Language and Literature from Loyola University Chicago. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and four children.
October 15, 2021 § 35 Comments
By Mary Ann McSweeny
It was one of those writing workshops after which you go home asking yourself why in Heaven’s name you ever thought you could write.
My submission to the workshop was a much-revised essay that a highly respected author had told me needed just a few tweaks to be publishable. The tweaks were made, and I was open to any final polishing suggestions that my fellow writers might propose.
The leader of the workshop said to me, “What’s it about?”
“It’s about compassion,” I said. There may have been a “duh” undertone to my words.
“Even though no one in it is compassionate?” he said. There was definitely a “gotcha” undertone to his words.
“Exactly!” I said. Because that was the whole point of the essay and I was surprised he had to ask. He sat back in his chair. The raised eyebrows revealed his judgment of me as a writer.
One of the other participants jumped in. She tapped a page of my manuscript with a glossy red fingernail. “You’ve broken form,” she said.
My head tilted. My eyebrows did their own thing: drew together in puzzlement.
“You can’t break form,” she said.
Now my head tilted a little more and my mouth dropped open.
“You. Can’t. Break. Form,” she enunciated, as if the grey in my hair also indicated a hearing loss.
Several years later, I still don’t understand what she meant about my essay, but I have reached a verdict about her emphatic, unequivocal statement. My conclusion—and it’s not an original idea—is:
Form is meant to be broken.
The Beatles. From “Love Me Do” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a matter of three years. Tell me about breaking form.
Bob Dylan. Who broke form by giving a pop music artist the Nobel Prize for Literature? The poet or the Nobel Committee for Literature?
Jo Ann Beard. The Fourth State of Matter breaks form by working creative nonfiction to the point where I had to look up the events to be sure they really took place. One of the most brilliant aspects of the piece is the insertion of the narrator’s imagination as a detached witness-character to relate the horrific details that didn’t happen in the writer’s physical presence.
Instinctive innovation is how I would describe breaking form. It’s as if something—perhaps Lorca’s duende, the unstoppable creative power that commands an artist—tells you the words aren’t flowing together or don’t quite express what you want to say, and so you dare to work them in a different way, your way, not a way that imitates, but a way that releases the deepest energy of your narrative.
You have to start with the basics. You have to know how to write a sentence. A simple sentence. Compound sentence. Complex sentence. Know where to place a paragraph break. Learn about tenses and points of view. Now you can break form and write run-on sentences or a stream of consciousness story or mix up tenses or switch between viewpoints, or, like Virginia Woolf, write with sympathetic understanding from the inside of a mentally unstable person’s mind, or, like Baron Wormser, intersperse quatrains with prose in a novel—on purpose.
And you have to know language. You have to understand nuances and connotations and sounds. Carlos Fuentes described Spanish as “a language that can be kidnapped, impoverished, sometimes jailed, sometimes murdered” to make the point that language cannot be separated from the people who speak it or the experiences they endure. Learn to use language as a dynamic event on the page.
When John Lennon wrote a song based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he probably didn’t have a notion that this song would influence the path of electronic music. He had a compulsion to turn a vision of a soul-longing into words and music. The vision and the longing and what he created from them is what I would call breaking form.
When Joan Wickersham turned the chapters of her memoir into the entries of an index as she looked for the solution to her father’s death, her willingness to break form not only avoided a predictable chronological narration, but also underscored a desperate need to bring order to the never-ending repercussions of the family tragedy of suicide. Read The Suicide Index.
When James Baldwin worked with a variety of voices—meditative, preaching, journalistic—in The Fire Next Time, each voice became a servant to his prophetic teaching. Breaking form is hardly an adequate description of his genius.
My writing tends to be pretty conventional. Subject, verb, object. But I also listen to that inner urge that sometimes presses me to take my love affair with words beyond flirtation. So here’s what I’m saying: If the experience you’re on fire to put into an essay, story, or poem demands it, ignore the reproving fingernails and the skeptical eyebrows.
Mary Ann McSweeny is an educator and instructional designer. Her essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Brevity, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, and So It Goes literary journal. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.
October 14, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Lisa K. Buchanan
Workshops, writing groups, classes, and conferences can all be lifelines for writers. It is only as a grateful beneficiary of such bounty that I’ve also come to know when it’s important to work alone.
In an online writing group awhile back, I received the happy news that a short piece of mine was chosen as a finalist in a competition. Savoring the treat, I kept it to myself, grinning stupidly. Meanwhile, a fellow writer in the group announced her own finalist win—but with exasperation. Her piece had “finalisted” many times already. Always the bridesmaid… Accordingly, colleagues’ congratulations were more sympathetic than celebratory. Finalist again? Aww, sucks! Next time, for sure! I stifled an impulse to post a bumper sticker: Cartwheels Not Condolences. I knew my own finalist win would help counteract rejection and boost my stamina for subsequent revisions and submissions. Ultimately, both my piece and the piece by the disappointed finalist were published. At the time, however, I cherished the award, but kept my cartwheels private, sidestepping the risk of group sympathy.
In addition to online communities, I’ve also enjoyed destination workshops, a two-year MFA program, and, more than one enriching run of monthly meetings in the living rooms of fellow wordmakers. Most of my colleagues in these groups nurtured and respected and celebrated and commiserated in just the right way. In one particular constellation, though each of us had published shorter forms exclusively, I received thoughtful responses to scenes from a novella I’d been writing. My colleagues were helpful and astute, but the piece decided to stop, butt-to-concrete, mid-sidewalk like a tired toddler. Long after the group had amicably disbanded, I was traveling in Ireland, and asked a bookseller for a reading recommendation. When he asked for a title that had recently thrilled or disappointed me, I cited a thick novel I’d eagerly begun; after a gripping thirty pages, however, I’d irrevocably lost my connection to it. The bookseller had too, calling it “a novel that should have been a short story.” The impact was swift and startling; the recognition, absolute. The bookseller’s comment only reminded me that I had suspected as much for my tired toddler. On the ten-hour flight home, I began condensing my novella into a story. I also began to see that my writing-group hadn’t been well positioned to assess the arc and momentum of a longer work. I’d shared only individual scenes, out of order and separated by weeks or months. By design, we didn’t sit with each other’s work in advance, but usually read aloud and discussed our excerpts or flash pieces in-progress. Though my colleagues had been kind and encouraging, I’d benefitted greatly as well from a stranger who didn’t know my novella existed. Additionally, the bookseller pointed me toward Foster by Claire Keegan, a powerful work that had been published both as a long story and a short novel.
Lastly, I find that pain often begets writing, and colleagues often beget comfort—which can, in turn, blunt the pain that drives the writing. In an elevator at an AWP conference, I overheard one writer explaining the plot of his novel to another writer. They seemed to have only just met. The listener was kind, the novelist was stuck, and as the plot summary had a well-rehearsed sound, I doubted the novel would be finished anytime soon. Had the writer inadvertently transferred too much energy from the page to the (possibly numerous) confidantes? Or perhaps, I had it all wrong, and it was this very telling, whether the fifth or the fifty-fifth, that enabled the novelist to work out a literary problem. In contrast, I often find that the less I say about a work in progress, the stronger the writing. When I witnessed a stranger’s suicide a few years ago, I knew I wanted to write about it. I also knew I needed to keep my shock and sorrow intact. By taking notes and denying myself the relief of conversation, the emotional pressure continued to build until the words were finally ready to find a form. I worked on the piece quietly and sporadically for about four years. A writers’ group might have sped and smoothed the process, but then I might not have ended up with the published piece as it is, potent and still sore to the touch.
I recently heard a journal editor cite “community” as one of three essential components of writerly success. While I wholly embrace the first two components, (reading in and about one’s chosen genre), I initially bristled when I heard the third, that of participating in the exchange of writerly feedback. I suspect the editor’s intention was to caution against insularity or isolation; hard to argue with that. But when I’m lucky enough to be immersed in words—from both reading and writing—I’m usually engaged and rarely lonely. When I next feel the need for community, I won’t hesitate to embrace it. For now, however, I’ll keep cartwheeling alone, just a little while longer.
Lisa K. Buchanan’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus, New Letters, Narrative, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Awards include the Sweet 2020 Flash Nonfiction Contest (winner), The Bristol Short Story Prize (shortlist), and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (honorary mention). She likes The Charleston, black rice with butternut squash, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three. She lives in San Francisco. Find her at www.lisakbuchanan.com
October 11, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Amy Beth Sisson
My sister recently sent me a photograph of a piece of paper that had hung on my parents’ bulletin board for decades. It was a poem I had written at age nine, and my current, much older self could not resist revising the words of my child self. Common advice to writers is to let a manuscript sit in between writing and revision, but my example is extreme—most don’t contemplate a fifty-year timespan. This experience made me question the relationship between writing, revision, and the self.
Maybe the passage of time works to allow us to revise because of the nature of the self. Maybe the gap in time between writing and revision works because the passage of time allows for new facets of the self to come into focus; facets who can stand in more strongly for the reader rather than for the creator.
Many writers, such as Anne Lamott, talk about this from the perspective of the creation of work. The idea that the revising self is different from the writing self is useful when sitting down to write a first draft. They recommend finding a way to turn off your inner critic. Various techniques are useful for getting into the creative and generative mindset such as free-writing, walking, and meditation. But how do you go about turning the critic back on when revising?
The word critic can mean a lot of different things. I don’t think it’s ever useful to summon the stereotypical teacher with a red pen. I prefer to think of my inner critic as a stand-in for my ideal imagined reader, the person I am trying to connect with. When revising, how can you shift your mind from the wildly creative to the place where you have empathy for the reader’s needs. What do the readers need to know, what might resonate with their experience, what will raise useful ideas and questions for them? When revising, I am striving to access deep empathy for the person interacting with my words.
So, if you can, put the manuscript in a virtual drawer for a time. Think about what the optimal length would be for you. Too long and the revising self might be too far from the material. Stephen King recommends taking a six-week break between drafting and revising. If you take this tack, be accepting of the vicissitudes of life that can interfere with connecting to the revision. Are any of us the same self as we were before the upheavals of 2020? And, of course, if you have a deadline all bets are off.
Here are some things that have worked for me to get out of my head and into the reader’s. Most of these can be useful regardless of the genre.
- Move to another room. (I’d say go to a coffee shop if it were not for the Delta variant.) Have you ever gone into a room to do something only to find that you don’t know why you are there? Use this phenomenon to get in touch with your revising self.
- Try rewriting from a different point of view. When you drafted you consciously or unconsciously selected a point of view to tell the tale. Thinking about the story from another point of view can break you out of assumptions and bring you closer to the reader’s experience. Even if you don’t keep the revision’s point of view, it can inform the work.
- Try rewriting in a different tense. Changing tenses is a way to achieve a similar effect. If you switch from the present tense to the past tense you may give the reader more scope to understand the context of the events. If you switch from the past to the present tense you may give the reader more of a sense of immediacy. Again, you don’t have to keep this change, but it can be a useful exercise to help you have a new vision.
- Color code the piece in some way that helps you to see the structure of the work. Play with it. Some people will highlight specific parts of speech. In longer works some people highlight themes or characters. This can give you a sense of the balance.
- Work on another genre. One of my critique partners, a short story writer, recently started revising a draft of a children’s book. She found that she was energized when she went back to revising her short story. Working on something for a very different audience helped her break out of her assumptions about her readers.
The next strategies I use help because they allow you to hear as well as see your words. I’m listing them in the order of my preference.
- Read it out loud. This is very helpful but sometimes I read what I think is on the page rather than what is really on the page and don’t even realize it.
- Have the computer read it to you. This is slightly better for me because the computer will never fill in missing words, but the electric voice can be hard for me to focus on.
- Read it to someone. Having an actual person as my audience forces me to attend in a way that I don’t do when I’m alone.
- Have someone read it to you. This, for me, is the most effective strategy. I follow along on the page while my generous friend reads my words. I hear where they trip up. I hear where they feel awkward voicing something I wrote. If I can’t find a willing reader, Sometimes I will read something into a recording device on my phone and play back the recording.
Experiment with the ideas above to see what works for you to shift your perspective.
Amy Beth Sisson is struggling to emerge, toad-like, from the mud in a small town outside of Philly. Her poetry has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and The Night Heron Barks. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021, Enchanted Conversation and Sweet Tree Review. This fall, she left her day job in software development and started an MFA in Poetry at Rutgers Camden. You can follow her work at amybethsisson.com
October 7, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Brian Watson
In 1994, I was in love for the first time. I glowed with an ecstatic radiance, visible from space. Newfound amorous happiness flipped a writing switch in me. Every night I sat down at my Macintosh Plus, with the massive forty-five-megabyte hard drive atop my desk, and I wrote. Disparate memories of my youth flowed together in a story that inexorably concluded in that ne plus ultra of human endeavors: true love!
But it wasn’t a memoir.
I was certain of one thing: it was right and fair to cast it all as fiction. I believed that my family and friends would prefer a veneer of invention separating them from my realities.
I secretly printed the book at my office in Tōkyō, and mailed it to a college friend in New York. She sent back corrections and marginalia, and I revised. I sent it on to my high-school English teacher and received a kind-yet-disappointing reply: An author’s first work is never their best work. Write something else.
Dreams of bestsellers waned. I packed away the printed manuscript, and as my love and I moved from Tōkyō to Kirkland, from Kirkland to Bellevue, from Bellevue to New Westminster, from New Westminster to Burnaby, and Burnaby to Kent, I lost the manuscript.
Misplacing the manuscript was not intentional. Important boxes were always opened after each move, but we’d amassed a small set of boxes with nondescript labels like textbooks and Brian’s things, and we ignored them. I wondered sometimes where the manuscript went, but never enough to mount a search.
In September of 2020 I began writing again. This time it was unabashed. A true memoir. Nothing changed. Nothing veneered.
As the first draft neared completion in December, I converted the upstairs rumpus room to a studio of sorts. To frame prints, to store books, to work on macro photography techniques. (Yes, too many hobbies!) My husband and I opened piles of boxes there, passing on any KonMari routine. We shelved everything we found. It sparked joy anyway.
In the very last box, at the very bottom, I saw the blue binder and squealed. My manuscript’s title page greeted me as it arose from its nest: In So Many Words.
I brought it down to my office and decided I wasn’t looking at it until the memoir was complete. The fiction was a virus. I didn’t want it to infect my true memoir.
Months passed. I reworked, revised, and restructured the memoir. A friend read the first half. His notes and suggestions came as I planned a brief vacation to Oregon. On an impulse, I packed both his notes and the old manuscript.
Afternoons in Portland were spent in an Adirondack chair, my iPad beside me, the notes and the old manuscript in my lap.
I started to read In So Many Words.
My writing is terrible. And who are these people? I had no notes indicating which friends were assigned which fictional names. Wait! Did that really happen?
Between the melodrama and the navel-gazing, there were sparks, twinkling out at me. I remembered that I’d included an occupation: average housewife, on conference name tags in Japan, no doubt inspired by my own camp and chyrons from The Phil Donohue Show.
I stopped after the fifth chapter, unable to discern whether events themselves were fact or fiction. Did I really answer a personal ad in Jock magazine in 1988? I shook my head in disbelief. Jock? So off-brand.
And my writing made me cringe:
He and his family lived in an apartment house right on the river, and despite the fact that the location proved great for catching eels and crabs during summer vacation, and the added bonus that the apartment house had a pool, there was, between the apartment and Our Lade of Perpetual Sorrows Parish School, an immense hill which Matthew had to climb every morning in order to get to school.
As copy-editor extraordinaire Benjamin Dreyer might say, how very twee!
But with each cringe came a reinforcement.
I have grown as a writer since 1994.
I write better, with more confidence and clarity.
And that 1994 writer, fictionalized as Matthew, is one of the people I’m writing for.
My memoir calls my protagonist home to the me I now am. Where all of those boys — the confused boy, the angry boy, the lonely boy, and the desperate boy — I once was can find safety and acceptance.
And every time I feel the unneeded despair, at each doubting of my skill and talent, my reinforcements now await me:
You are not who you were.
You have grown, as you will continue to do.
You left a fictional life back in 1994 and the memoir is better for it. What a wise choice!
Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Their cantankerous old cat, Butters, has crossed the rainbow bridge. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com; follow him on Twitter @BMemoirist.
October 5, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Signe Myers Hovem
As a writer I face the challenge of how to stay above cliché and contriteness; how to remain relevant and original. How to be authentic. And time after time, I find the unexplored parts of myself stimulated by the works of others, my feelings of unoriginality dispelled when I pick up a book, or look at art, or listen to music.
The role of the reader need not be limited to just consumer or reviewer. Reading is an opportunity to let the content lead you in your own creativity. When I finish a particularly stimulating book, I feel like I’ve been invited to a grand garden party with every memorable character or author I’ve read. “Who would I like to introduce to each other, or to another discipline, or to my own experience?” plays out in my writing as permission to mix, integrate and create new expressions from something that preexisted.
From a young age, my creative life sampled liberally from the books I took refuge in. I and my siblings were latchkey kids with a lot of unsupervised time that quickly devolved into its own land-locked Lord of the Flies. But everything I read formed a bridge out of my perceived trapped existence towards something expansive and extraordinary. The words, images, and music of others supported my own self-awareness and acceptance, starting my journey toward the writer’s task of conveying emotion with vivid immediacy.
As a ninth-grader grappling with the aftermath of my parent’s divorce, I grabbed the Theatre Arts class exam as my mouthpiece. Our final presentation was to interpret any subject of our choice. Perhaps I foresaw the multimedia presentations of the future, but in 1979, not wanting to utter more than a few sentences myself, I created a slide show, mashing up WWII battlefield and Holocaust photos to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” I was in a lonely and painful place, and coupling an atrocity from history with an eerily succinct contemporary rock ballad helped me circulate the feelings that were stagnating and keeping me stuck.
This therapeutic outlet of sampling published bits to find my own voice continued into my journaling. I settled upon a hybrid form of being both reader and writer, blending inspiration and aspiration like an elixir that offered healing and served as an opportunity to express what felt forbidden. One entry came from borrowing two lines from The Kite Runner: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1976. I remember the precise moment, crouching down . . .” I, too, was twelve in 1976, and had a precise moment of crouching down behind a chair. After copying those sentences, I continued to describe my own precise moment in my journal, navigating into a slipstream behind Khaled Hosseini’s words, like popping the clutch in a moving car to start the engine. And once I could register the movement of my own voice coming forth, the prompt receded and what was ultimately expressed became fully my story to tell.
My process of gathering and combining passages is not unique or original, but it did manifest organically in my young mind as a way to connect and expand to something greater both inside and outside of myself. Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org refers to this fusion as networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity. Popova traces this method as far back as the 14th century when it was known as florilegia, from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.”
…florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture.
On my blog, Passages, I feature inspiring lines from books, connected with my own awareness, sensibilities, and curiosity. I’ve coupled Susan Tweit’s recent memoir of grief and loss, Bless the Birds, with interdisciplinary artist Melissa McGill’s project on collecting bird calls. Tweit’s connection to her dying husband, whose first symptoms of brain cancer appeared with a vision of thousands of birds, resembled to me the call and response of birds.
I’ve entertained poet Simon Armitage and the homeless experience of Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path in order to talk about the mystery of happenstance and how we can unknowingly be the benefactors of the prior interactions of strangers.
Other authors are also creatively primed by other works. Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers functions as a remix of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”and Ted Hughes’ “Crow.” Reading Porter’s book during the pandemic helped me examine the role of collective grief.
Explore something new in your own morning pages or journaling; play with florilegia, or erasure, or using a random sentence from a book you’re reading to prime your own expression. For me, it’s captivating and energizing to gather deep thoughts and beautiful prose, tying them together lightly with my own ponderings and experiences. Bold and fresh, like a garden bouquet.
The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide is now available.
Signe Myers Hovem has created homes on five continents over twenty years, raised four uniquely sensitive children, pursued a special education lawsuit appealed to the US Supreme Court, volunteered in a hospice in Texas and an orphanage in Azerbaijan. Signe works as a spiritual counselor, and teaches workshops and trainings in the art of being an empath and the power of language in many countries around the world. Subscribe to Signe’s monthly newsletter at www.smhovem.com, or find her on Instagram @smhovem
September 29, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Margaret Moore
“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”
I sat in my living room as U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo recited these words during the virtual 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference keynote address. I was engaged in the event, drinking up the magnificent art of Harjo’s lines as they mixed with melodies played by her band in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With the long work week catching up to me, my mind faded in its attention to detail, though, listening to the poetry as something relaxing.
“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”
I jumped when Harjo posed these questions, sitting back up from the slightly reclined position I had been lounging in my motorized wheelchair.
Harjo was describing the troubled state of the world. I’m sure her lines were intended to ponder the wisdom that will emerge from the pandemic and current societal tensions. I couldn’t help but take these words more literally, though, considering how they describe my writing process.
I have been writing my first memoir for thirteen or fourteen years.
I am 24 years old now.
Yes, I started writing my book as a fourth grader.
I still have some drafts from my early youth. With misspelled words like ‘delishus,’ lines like “Lois made me chocolate pudding and it was yummy,” and attempts to depict every detail of my school day, every friendship I had, and every story that my teachers told about the goofy stuff in their home lives—something I’m sure they would (not) appreciate—they make me laugh and inspire me on days when writing seems impossible.
I was pegged as a writer in second grade, when my teacher recognized my talents. Having almost lost my life at birth due to a prolapsed umbilical cord, I grew up as a physically disabled child with a wheelchair and communication device. My father died of cancer when I was a baby, and my brothers and I were raised by a single mother. Because of my mom’s initiatives to find the best school system and assistive technology, I have succeeded in academics and extracurricular activities. My teacher thought my story could inspire others and suggested that I write a memoir. I had loved writing since I composed my very first story in her class. Her vision became my dream.
Knowing my strengths and desire to pursue a writing career, my high school guidance counselor put me in a senior creative writing class as a freshman. I also took an advanced creative writing independent study as a senior, where my project was to draft my memoir.
“I know why this is important to you—I’ve seen you live it for three-going-on-four years,” my teacher said each time he reviewed a chapter. “But you need to show readers that don’t know you why it is. Why is it significant that you played soccer in your walker on a team and did Girl Scouts with your able-bodied friends? What is your ‘so what?’”
I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I was told that I was partaking in activities typically labeled ‘off-limits’ to people with disabilities and that I should share my experiences so others may find their way to similar endeavors. I wanted my book to help people. That’s all I knew.
Part of me wondered whether I would ever be able to adequately depict my intended ‘so what’ and that, if I was not able to, my memoir would merely seem like a collection of interesting anecdotes.
Now pursuing my MFA in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, I’m rewriting the scenes that remain major fixtures of my story—those that show me participating in activities alongside my abled-bodied peers.
One of the most influential gems I have gained from the program is that I need to provide vivid descriptions of what it physically and emotionally feels like when I move my tight muscles and use assistive equipment. I’ve learned to dissect the actions that my family, school staff, and I take to make activities accessible, giving readers an in-depth look at these accommodations.
I recently rewrote a scene in which I joined Girl Scouts at five years old. I describe how I did not have the muscle coordination to form the three-fingered Girl Scout sign and how, to compensate, my mother guided my hand into position and held it like that at every event. I intended for this scene simply to show my physical experience of scouting, but, after rereading it, the themes at the heart of my memoir leapt out. There were the concepts of inclusion that made all the difference in my life. There was my mother bridging the gap between my abilities and the requirements of able-bodied activities. I suddenly found my ‘so what’—that individuals coping with disabilities and adversity can overcome barriers to participate in life’s ordinary and extraordinary activities.
My scenes, I realized, needed to be just like this Girl Scout one, magnifying actions that my family, my school, and I have taken to ensure inclusion. They must have layers showing what it felt like to physically move while supported by others or assistive technology and how it felt emotionally to navigate obstacles.
My book is by no means a guide possessing all the answers for how inclusion must be implemented for every disabled person in the world, but I hope it can be a source of inspiration that offers ideas on overcoming challenges.
“What will we know when this page is done?” Joy Harjo asks. “Who will we be?”
If we delve deeply into details of our physical and emotional experiences, we will find ourselves discovering who we are as writers. At the end of the page, we will be warriors who have successfully weathered life’s most grueling terrain. We will be fierce advocates for inclusion, justice, and peace. We will be leaders guiding others to a more accessible and compassionate world.
Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.
September 28, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Lisa Mae DeMasi
“Do what you love” may be the most overused advice in the career-improvement world. Countless superstar entrepreneurs’ TEDx talks and thought leaders’ bestselling books have quoted Maya Angelou: “pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” But that’s not always possible in practice.
I know this firsthand. Once upon a time I turned my back on a half-finished MBA and a corporate job’s maddening pace and rigid hierarchy, escaping to do what I loved: writing.
The act of quitting made me subversive, and that alone fueled creative expression. I mapped out chapters, content. Figured I’d have the memoir written in six months, employ an editor, find an agent, become a bestseller, Oprah would call, the whole bit.
Four years later I found myself gazing into my monitor, not knowing whether to put a period at the end of the sentence or keep going with a comma. I’d lost my home in foreclosure, gone bankrupt, written three hundred thousand words, revised the body of work four times. And while slurping away at my eighty-seventh cosmo, I understood what I was really missing. A mentor. Someone who’d gone before, knew how to shape art into something saleable and would come with a tribe of like-minded potential collaborators. I needed someone to touch what the poet Mary Oliver called the “wild silky” part of myself and, finally, make it palatable to the world.
Hemingway had Stein, Beethoven had Neefe. We mere mortals need mentors, too—and we can hire them. But there are thousands of writing coaches out there: some are competent, some are lousy, some are soul crushers.
How do you find your coach?
- Go with the gut: does the coach’s work style and personality jibe with your own? Do her testimonials feel obligatory and ingenuine, or honest and objective? Does she “guarantee she’ll help you write a bestseller”—or provide thorough analysis and work with you to tighten up the manuscript? Listen to your intuition. There are many fantastic coaches with integrity and know-how—don’t get stuck with empty promises.
- She’s part of your tribe: if you see a potential mentor’s work in a publication you love, or discover her in a group on social media with whom you share a vibe, chances are you have similar taste. I found my coach through my Reiki teacher. My coach had helped a fellow Reiki student get an agent and a book deal with Random House.
- She has street cred and success: my coach had testimonials from people who had published, made writing careers, and gotten bylines with top media outlets. She was also successful in her own right—an internationally acclaimed author who’d made her living writing. I knew she could trailblaze a path.
- She gets you, every single part of you: my coach works in the Gateless method, which fuses creative brain science, industry-savvy skills and tools, and radical nurturing to bring domain-changing work into the world. In this methodology, a coach leans into your greatest strengths, the energy of the writing, and the power of your work in the world to manifest your singular genius in the form of a book. Through this method, my coach helps all of me rather than just the part of me working on my craft. This might not be your style at all! Some writers crave nurturing, others want firm deadlines. Make sure your coach isn’t just about deliverables, numbers, list-building, ideal clients and great gigs—unless that’s what you want.
- It doesn’t happen overnight: Anyone who promises the world in thirty days isn’t helping you make lasting change. It took me an eleven-year journey through the trials and tribulations of a writer’s life—finding the time to write in between putting food on the table—to get to the key of mentorship. Something magical did happen with my coach, and while it felt like it happened overnight, it’s too deep and long-lasting for that.
Since working with my coach I’ve been shortlisted for prizes, published in the top online media and literary journals, and polished my memoir to pitch literary agents. But more than that, I understand that often, those who fail at doing what they loved just didn’t have the guidance they needed to learn how to soar.
What will you do today to obtain the guidance you need to succeed?
Lisa Mae DeMasi is pitching Calamity Becomes Me to literary agents, her kick-in-the-ass memoir about survival, told with insight, reflection and laugh out loud moments. She also publishes essays on the writing life and women who inspire her. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s Tiny Truths, Horse Network, Writer Advice, WOW! Women on Writing!, Shark Reef, and the anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.