October 15, 2020 § 25 Comments
Two years ago, I lost most of my ability to taste and smell literally overnight. A stubborn sinus infection knocked me low, requiring antibiotics. I cooked up a pot of chunky chicken soup: vegetables, broth, spices, fresh garlic and onions, all the good stuff that’s supposed to help fight an illness. One day, I heated up a bowl in the microwave, anticipating a steamy, comforting meal. I took a bite and tasted nothing. The bits of potato felt like sand on my tongue; the chicken like chewy rubber between my teeth.
I wasn’t worried. It had happened before, also during a sinus infection. When the inflammation had receded and my sinuses cleared, I could smell and taste again. So I thought, I remember this. It’s okay. It’ll come back when I’m better.
It didn’t. I saw my ENT doctor, who slid a scope down my nostril and declared my sinuses healthy. He gave me a lengthy scratch-and-sniff test, tabulated the results, and looked genuinely shocked: You were right, he said, you’ve tested very low; as if I’d been exaggerating the loss. An MRI found no anomalies. The default diagnosis is nerve damage. Prognosis: my senses may, but probably won’t, return.
Now that COVID-19 has robbed so many of taste and smell, perhaps more people can understand the strange grief that accompanies this loss. I used to wonder: if I had to give up either wine or coffee, which would I choose? I couldn’t imagine it. These days, I drink quick espressos, grateful caffeine still works, though I can’t enjoy the flavor. Wine is like liquid iron on my palate, acrid and metallic. A sip of Cabernet makes me want to cry.
It’s hitting me now how much I rely on taste and smell as I write memoir. These senses ground my memories in a particular way. As the neurologist Donald Wilson explains, “The olfactory system, anatomically, is right in the middle of the part of the brain that’s very important for memory. There are strong neural connections between the two.”
Remembering the taste of the tart green apples that fell from the tree in my family’s back yard leads inevitably to my mother’s obsession with keeping the yard clean; how she sent me out to collect the good apples and claw the rotting flesh of the bad ones out of the grass and into a bucket with my bare hands. The edible ones she’d smash into a thin sauce and serve as a side dish. My lips puckered when I ate it. Those apples and my mother’s obsessive nature are inextricably linked in my memory.
Two years of this loss, though, and I’m beginning to lose some of my sense memory. I want to write how the scent of Oil of Olay—my mother’s favorite lotion—reminds me of her narcissism, of her soft body and how she’d stand too close to me, coopting my personal space, of her smothering, critical presence. It also brings to mind my childhood longing for the warmth and affection that lived only in my fantasies of her, of the mother I could make her into if I were good enough.
Struggling to write about this, I realized: I can’t remember what Oil of Olay lotion smells like. I can’t go to CVS, buy a bottle, open the cap, and take a sniff to remind myself. That particular scent is lost to me. I never thought I could forget it, but here I was, trying to remember the scent that kindled such longing and repulsion in me. Was it floral? Powdery? What does that mean anymore? They are words mostly disconnected from my reality. Perhaps my memory of smell and taste had lost its reality, too. Can I still depend on them for writing memoir? Can I trust them?
I sat with this question at my desk recently, staring at the monitor. How do I write about something I can’t remember? I closed my eyes and imagined the large pink bottle with the black cap sitting next to the bathroom sink; how every Christmas my mother would buy it for herself, wrap it, place it under the tree, then open it Christmas morning, grinning at her self-generosity. I imagined her smoothing the lotion over her face and neck, and I suddenly felt the answer: my muscles were tense. My lips curled as if I’d tasted something bad. I felt claustrophobic. And I understood that all that all I’d experienced as a result of that smell still lives in my body. The sense memory manifests in my physiological response regardless if I can remember how the lotion smells. The nerve damage is in the front of my brain. The memory, as Wilson says, is in the middle—still alive, still accessible.
My body knows, and will probably always know, how the scent of Oil of Olay makes me feel sad and suffocated. My face will always cringe when thinking of a blob of mashed up green apples on my dinner plate. I can still feel all of this, which means I can access the memory of smell and taste. Which means I can write about it with as much truth and clarity as ever.
Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her current project, Terrible Daughter, is a memoir about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.
October 14, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Molly Brewer Hoeg
My forever project. That’s what I’m now calling the work that has consumed the last four years of my life. What was I thinking when I started out to write a book, expecting that it was “The Year of my Book?” Naive as I was, I poured my heart and soul into the stories I wrote for the next year. And the year after that. Tales derived from the thousands of miles that my husband and I covered on our bicycle tours, along with the joys and the conflicts that accompanied them.
I supplemented my work with taking writing classes, reading books about craft, joining Lake Superior Writers, and networking with other writers. I grew as a writer, but knew it wasn’t enough. I decided to engage a writing coach, to get first-hand personal input on my efforts to write a book. Even as I packaged up my work to send to her, I knew what I had was just “a pile of content.” I relied on her to steer me through shaping it into a book. I spent the next six months working with her, and she delivered.
It has taken me another two years to put those learnings into practice. To whittle down my stories and turn them into a cohesive tale. One that goes well beyond pushing the pedals of my bike and explores the inner me that journeys through life. I’ve learned that the bicycle is the vehicle, not the real focus.
Less than half of what I first wrote remains in this new version. But so much more is woven in between those pages. I’ve delved into my past, dug into my innermost desires, scrutinized my motives and exposed my biggest failure. There were times when writing felt like therapy sessions. But I could see how it all began to weave together. I could feel it working. Maybe.
I feel as though I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own. I could spend months tweaking and fine tuning, but it would all be for naught if I’m not on the right track. I’m yearning for that professional guidance and tutoring specific to my writing, to my project. I’m ready for another check-in with my coach.
As I prepared for the October start to our next engagement, I looked back on the notes I sent her the first time around. Specifically, I read through an exercise focused on Why am I Writing this Book? I was amazed to find that my original reasons no longer hold true. My purpose has changed. The themes have shifted. The points I want to make are vastly different.
I think it’s progress. I hope she thinks so too.
Yesterday I took my document to the printer and came home with 320 double-spaced pages. Nearly the same size as last time, but not at all the same inside. This time I’m willing to call it a manuscript.
I’m both eager and nervous to get my coach’s reaction to the transformation. I already know she will be encouraging. But I have no illusions that I’m close to done. I trust her to guide me from here and teach me the techniques and nuances that will take this to the next level.
My coach is still the only person besides me who has read this volume. I’ll keep it that way until I’m good and ready, until it’s good and ready. I know I still have plenty of work to do. So here I go again. Coaching round 2.
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth, Minnesota whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors. She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints.
October 12, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Sonja Larsen
Here is a thing you should know about me. Sooner or later it will all come back to dogs. I don’t mean that I am dog crazy, that I have a special breed, that I wear t-shirts with puppies on them. I simply mean that every important story in my life had a dog in it. I mean that how I remember myself during those stories, if I am shamed or proud, will be captured in a moment of how I behaved towards a dog. Did I scream at them for pulling me too hard, loving me too much? Did I humbly stoop over to pick up after them on a hungover Sunday morning, grateful for the way their presence had given me an excuse to come home at all? I have to get home to my dog. I mean that all the terrible and wonderful things I know about myself I learned by how I behaved towards a dog.
In 2010 my husband and I got a small rescue dog, our first dog as a couple, our first small dog. We took a dog training class, and learned what is often called clicker training. What I discovered about using behavioural conditioning and positive reinforcement not only helped me be a more thoughtful and engaged dog owner, but a better human, and a better writer. Because, as BF Skinner himself said: “What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.”
The first thing I learned was that our brains are a kind of evolutionary hodgepodge, starting with that lizard brain and moving up into the more ‘evolved’ functions. Learning takes place across all these aspects of the brain, but it all starts with that fight flight freeze fear response. It’s hard to learn to make good choices when you’re scared. A calm learner, a trusting learner, is an engaged learner. On our walks I learn to walk wide of other dogs so my dog doesn’t have to bark in panic each time. I learn to stop being mad at him for being afraid. I accept where he’s at, not where I think he should be. In turn he learns to trust me. I reward him for all his good choices, his calmness, his attention.
In my creative life I learned to stop and recognize the berating voice who yelled about the quality or slow pace of my writing, or all the things I should and should not be afraid of. I’d spent a lifetime trying to bully my creativity, make it sit, make it do tricks, or just make it shut up. What if I instead I asked it what it wanted? What it needed? What if success didn’t look like a body cowed in submission, but rather a creature that was perked up, excited, ready for what came next? If my art was a dog, how would I treat it?
Lesson two was to start a little hungry. For years I had dabbled between writing and craft but when I decided to write a book I gave up nearly all of my other creative projects. In the same way that my little dog didn’t find the learning game as fun on a full stomach, I didn’t have the same urgency for my writing if I’d spent the day playing with a glue gun. I had to recognize that, like my little dog, I had limited attention and I needed to use it wisely.
“How did you ever train him how to do that?” My friends ask when my dog jumps through my arms, or turns on a light with his paw. “I just showed him the YouTube video!” I joke, but really, each of these was the result of many small sessions.
The third lesson was to break it down. In dog training, you learn to work one skill at a time, sometimes one movement at a time. What is my one ask for this moment? The first ask, the basic skill I wanted to teach myself was writing at consistent times each week. For the first little while, being there was all that really mattered. Reward the behaviour you want, ignore the behaviour you don’t. My other asks since then have varied between word counts, submissions, a project goal. I like short bursts of time writing for retreats or where stretches of unstructured time feels a bit scary or I’m really trying to brainstorm. I have an accountability group where we talk about things like goals, how our commitments to ourselves can be honoured and measured. The bonus is when you break it down, there’s lots of chances to earn cookies.
My little dog Ralphie still does not love big dogs and there are still days when writing creative nonfiction is hard emotional work. But when I hear that old choke-collar voice of shame or judgment, I remind myself that if my art was a dog, I would be gentler. I would be more analytical, trying to understand what parts of the brain and body are reacting in this moment. And I would remember to love it not only for the tricks it can do, but because of the companionship it brings me. Because sometimes your dog is a good dog just because it’s yours.
It took a ten pound mutt to show me the importance of taking tiny steps, rewarding the behavior I want, measuring progress, guiding without punishment or anger. And all of these insights have been a big help in all areas of my life, but perhaps my writing most of all. In learning a kinder way to train my dog, my own creative animal learned how to respond more joyfully, more consistently, when called.
Sonja Larsen is the award-winning author of Red Star Tattoo: My Life As A Girl Revolutionary (Random House Canada) Her work has also appeared in literary publications in the US, Canada, and the UK. She lives in Vancouver British Columbia and when she is not playing with her dog Ralphie she is working on a book about her experiences running a computer lab in an inner-city community centre.
October 7, 2020 § 18 Comments
by Rick Brown
The first thing I do is open all of my unfinished Word documents, read a line or two of each piece, declare them irreparably flawed, question my ability to ever write anything worth returning to or completing, and decide instead to take pictures of my table top here at the café. One of them might make a good banner shot for my Facebook page. It has the right touches, after all: The coffee cup casting its shadow on the warm, worn, blond-wood table top. My new, red-covered spiral notebook reflecting the morning sunshine. Art in the commonplace. Some of the best images in the history of visual art depict stuff like this. Maybe I should start a blog for my best cellphone photos. But I digress. Back to writing. Maybe I could start a new piece? I open a new Word document, and, while I’m at it, shoot a pic of the blank screen to document the terror of starting/not starting something new. It will make a good Facebook post about writerly angst. What’s more, people will know that I’m at least trying to get some work done. That matters. Speaking of Facebook, I should probably check it while I have my phone in hand. Who knows who might’ve liked one of my many posts from earlier this morning? Got to keep up on that stuff. Those “likes” are life-affirming. Crap—nothing. A tug of emptiness ensues. Let’s see, what else is going on? Well, I’ve chewed at the skin on my fingertips in the last few minutes, picked at my nails, gulped away the lukewarm dregs of my coffee (not great coffee, by the way, though I like this café and the fact that it’s relatively unpopulated in the early morning). And now that I’ve brought to mind the café, I’m locking on the employees’ conversation. Damn. I’m okay if it’s just an incomprehensible din—like in a crowded restaurant or, more specifically, the student union of my college years (Oh, the stuff I accomplished in that place!)—but if I hear individual voices speaking in English, I have trouble tuning it out. I’m not sure how I’d do in a roomful of people speaking a language I don’t understand, but I’m guessing it would be easier. Comprehension is the rub in this case. Hey, that’s not a bad line. I can use it somewhere. Or not. Sometimes it seems like my whole writing life consists of discovering good lines but never using them. But do I really need to go down that road? No. Forget I brought it up. Now to that blank screen. I’m feeling ready. Okay, they’re still talking, comparing sucky roommate tales. I might have to pack up and head out. Maybe one more shot—just a simple opening sentence to get things flowing. That’s pretty much what Hemingway said is key, right? And he was no slouch. Okay, here goes. Oh wait, a text message…
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
October 6, 2020 § 23 Comments
By Eileen Vorbach Collins
I met them at a writer’s conference, my first ever. They have become my muses. The people I go to for inspiration, validation, celebration.
There were 12 of us in a memoir workshop led by Ann Hood. Each of our 25-page submissions were dispatched by group email weeks ahead of time, providing ample opportunity for intimidation. I read bios filled with MFAs, published books, impressive university teaching credentials and a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts. I looked for a reason not to go. There was the cost. Then I won an award for an essay that covered it and decided it was fate. I’d go, be humiliated, and finally give up this writing that’s taken too much of my time. My garden, choked by weeds, applauded this idea.
To trust another person—much less a group of 12 strangers—with your writing is practically a sacred act. Much of my writing is about my fifteen-year-old daughter’s suicide. It’s hard to write and harder to share. In a memoir workshop you can’t help but forge some relationships while strangers read and discuss the words you hemorrhaged and sweated, cried, laughed, and scrabbled onto a manuscript that somehow got you in.
I kept in touch with two women who’d stayed at the same hotel. Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask one if she’d like to share our work, one excerpt a week, for feedback.
At first, I thought of it as a temporary substitute for my local writing group, no longer able to meet due to the pandemic. When we started, we were cautious, not wanting to offend. There were a lot of “I like…” and “So powerful” comments. To make it easier, we started using LT! (love this) and SP (So powerful). We began to email outside our Sunday Google Doc, sharing writing we’d come across. Things we loved, some that we hated. We invited another woman we’d both gotten to know from the workshop and hotel. She joined us and quickly became an essential member of our little group, offering astute observations, gentle suggestions and years of experience in academia. We share submission opportunities. We champion one another’s successes on our tiny social media platforms. Every few weeks, we Zoom.
As our trust in one another grew, we came to incorporate IMHO (in my humble opinion) and “I’m channeling Ann here.” We all signed up for Dinty Moore’s webinar, The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay , For the next few weeks we referenced his “Invisible Magnetic River” metaphor. “Take me to the river.” “I’m not seeing the river.” “Should I toss this one in the river?”
Recently, I sent an essay that was very difficult to write. They picked at it. Looking back at the first draft, I count twenty comments. “I think this moves too fast.” “IMHO it’s more than one essay.” “Need to go deeper here.”
Oh, hell no, you sadistic bitches! I’m not going deeper. Just that much scraped my skin off. I can’t look at that any closer, it will affect my heart. My spleen. My liver.
I put that one on a back burner. Nevertheless, they persisted. I revised and re-sent. Still, they weren’t satisfied. The hell with them. What do they know? I left it to fester and roil for another couple of weeks. Then, I took ten giant steps backward and reread their comments. I made a few more revisions. IMHO, it turned into my best piece yet.
My muses agreed.
Before that memoir workshop, before I found my muses, my essays tended to have Hallmark endings. I wanted to fix things. But what I needed to write wasn’t fixable. I didn’t want to sound whiny. I didn’t want sympathy. But there were no happy endings to be tied up in a pretty bow. Because I learned to trust these women, my writing has improved and I am not so much afraid of putting it out into the world—even when it’s ugly.
Despite the isolation of the pandemic, and also because of it, there are many opportunities for writers to make connections. Find your tribe, even if it’s a tribe of one. Send out that smoke signal. Put that message in the bottle. Scroll through Tweets and posts until you find your kindred and reach out to them. Search for the support you need to write the things that need to be written. The stories that it hurts to tell. Be that support for other writers. Get by with a little help from your friends.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide.
October 2, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Margaret Moore
The book is not done yet because there is a certain process that goes into successfully crafting a book, and the process, which I intend to follow, maintains that I must produce several drafts, moving my memoir from a really rough, unfocused sketch of a portion of my life to a pointed, purposeful plot that demonstrates a very specific idea about life, and, to achieve this, I must create outlines with proposed content, angles, and approaches, and then I must write drafts based on those outlines, and there are days where I open the draft I wrote the previous day only to realize that the narrative does not work from a craft standpoint, so I cut paragraphs and even entire pages as I hold my breath and try to remember that I can always go back to it if whatever I write in its place doesn’t work, and then I work up new drafts, and I eventually come to be enthralled with one or perhaps a few of those drafts and I work on fine-tuning and polishing those pages, and then I get to the point of satisfaction with them, so I submit them to my faculty mentors, fellow students, and writer friends, and they give me in-depth feedback on what could be clearer, elaborated on, and added to make the piece stronger, and that inspires me to make more outlines and new versions of the piece, and then the process repeats a few times as I develop new pages and revisions, and, by the way, I only just started my MFA in Creative Writing and this is really the first time ever that I have been able to work on writing and the memoir full-time without having other disciplines to attend to, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting somewhere serious with it, and, hopefully, in about two years, I will have a manuscript that I can submit to gurus in editing and publishing, but then I will have to take their suggestions into consideration and go through more rounds of revisions until it is publication-ready, and, I have not looked too far into this stage yet—I’m taking it one step at a time—but I expect that I will work with my publishers to proof galleys to make sure the memoir looks the way it should before it goes to print, and there might be marketing details to attend to, and whatever else, and then the book will eventually be released, and, yes, this is an extremely long process—definitely lengthier than I expect it to be for future books simply because this is my first book—but I assure you, it has been tried and proven effective by many established authors and, in the end, you will have a high-quality book authored by me in your hands.
Margaret Moore graduated Fairfield University Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing in May of 2020. Her work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and Independent Catholic News among other publications. She is now working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University.
September 29, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Adam Hubrig
Under a thin cotton sheet, my face is illuminated by the dull glow of my smartphone. It’s 11:57 pm on a Thursday night during a global pandemic. I can see another midnight writing deadline come and go unfinished and I feel trapped in a cycle of doomscrolling on Twitter. Yet another day has passed and I’ve nothing to show for it.
I don’t know if I’m comforted or depressed to know I’m not alone: My email inbox is saturated with a particular genre of email I’m calling the “sorry, I’m exhausted” message. This genre, largely from my beloved circle of disabled friends, expresses guilt that they have been unable to write, that we often do not submit writing to our online group when we had planned. Even amidst a global pandemic and an economic crash that has unequally harmed disabled people and particularly multiply marginalized disabled people, we feel guilty for not writing.
Like my disabled friends, I want to write. I sorely want to write.
But I’m overwhelmed by uncertainty, which was already staggering before the pandemic. Already precarious access to mental health resources has been further strained. Like many disabled people, I am being asked to put off medical procedures because of the demand on medical resources caused by Covid.
It’s clear–in this time of upheaval–I simply cannot produce at the same rate. Of course, our worth has nothing to do with what or how much we produce. As Shayda Kafai reminds us, “productivity is how our capitalist-ableist culture regulates us, makes us feel less than.” Still, as disabled writers, it’s so easy to feel guilt for not responding to every opportunity, for taking a day off (or weeks or however long you need) from writing without feeling guilty. I know my own feelings of guilt are often manifestations of internalized ableism.
In my own efforts to combat this ableism, I keep trying to remind myself that pandemic time is crip time.
Understanding crip time has been extraordinarily helpful to me in my own efforts to be kinder to myself and my writing habits. Alison Kafer describes in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip as an interruption of the paradigm of time. Crip time resists the notion that time is experienced that same way by different people, that the timeline of how long any given task takes cannot be standard because our bodyminds are not standard. Instead of forcing a bodymind to be “productive” by ableist, normative frameworks, crip time is a reminder that there are no universal standard timelines. And during a pandemic, we are constantly reminded that nothing is standard. Tasks like procuring groceries become logistical nightmares (or even more so, for many disabled folks), and social lives evaporate. Pandemic time is crip time.
But even understanding that we need to prioritize the needs of our bodyminds, it remains true that others will not understand. In her essay “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” Ellen Samuels describes her own complicated relationship to crip time. Samuels describes how the disabled needs expressed through crip time are often not accepted by employers or publishers, how the arithmetic of working lives is often cruelly uninterested in our own needs. This seems amplified by calls to work remotely–or worse, the employers who seem indifferent to the pandemic and are forcing their workers to risk their health and safety to keep the coffers full.
And I get that–for many of us–we want to write more out of a love of writing. Writing can bring joy in itself, and we feel a sense of loss when we can’t. Those feelings are valid, too. Crip time–and disability pride for that matter–doesn’t mean you have to be happy about that loss. Leah Lakshmi Piepza-Samarasinha writes about caring for disabled bodyminds “that for most people, the words “care” and “pleasure” can’t even be in the same sentence. We’re all soaking in ableism’s hatred of bodies that have needs.” Despite the pervasive ableism, Piepzna-Samarasina insists that our needs should be present in the room without guilt.
The capitalistic push towards productivity asks us to ignore the very fact of our bodymind. As Christina Cedillo reminds us through her experiences as a disabled woman of color, this erasure of bodies “fosters institutional oppression.” As disabled writers, sometimes crip time means we can’t write or we need to turn out attention to other tasks tied to care that are more pressing in that moment. The number of pages we write and the time it takes to write them doesn’t dictate our “value” as a writer, and we are always more than what we produce.
Adam Hubrig is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. His writing has appeared in Typehouse Magazine and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.
In conjunction with Brevity’s “Experiences of Disability” issue, I purposefully center disabled writing experiences here.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 25, 2020 § 4 Comments
by Ilana Masad
The arhythmic staccato of fingers typing fast and fluid on a keyboard has been one of the most comforting and consistent soundtracks of my life. I remember the satisfying clacks of my parents’ large mechanical keyboard, so loud the noise carried from the study all the way to my bedroom. Later, when my dad got an office job, I became intimately familiar with my mother’s typing, the short pauses that meant she was taking a drag off her cigarette, longer ones indicating she was focused on finding the right phrasing. Lately, when I visit her, I stay on the foldout bed in her office, and often read or take naps there while she’s working or answering emails, the familiar noise making me feel inexplicably, illogically safe.
Sometime in the late ‘90s, I had a computer game that taught touch-typing. I “played” it—to call such a dull educational program a game is potentially a misnomer—and gave up pretty quickly, only to try again a year or so later, and then again at some point. There was no good reason for me to learn this skill; my school rarely had us using computers, and it’s not as if I knew then that I would end up being a writer. I kept trying mostly out of envy: my best friend at the time, who was good at everything, had taught herself to, and my mother touch-typed, having learned on a typewriter years before.
I do touch-type now, having learned by trial and error and practice, but not the “right” way, the way that computer game wanted me to do it, using all five of my fingers in equal measure on each of my hands. I mostly use my forefingers, middle finger, very occasionally my ring fingers, and usually just my left thumb on the space bar. But I type fast, and—a fun party trick—I can look away from my screen entirely, at the window, say, or at my partner who’s walked into the room to tell me something, or at a friend sitting across from me at the library or coffee shop (back when we could gather to study and work together, that is), and keep typing out this full sentence without making even a single mistake.
Mirrors and I don’t always get along; they trouble me, or I them, and anyway, somewhere between the refraction of light on glass and silver and my brain processing the information given to my eyes, something is distorted. This is a symptom of my body dysmorphia, a condition that has stayed with me since whenever it developed during the long, messy years of an eating disorder I still cannot quite shake.
But my hands—I didn’t fall in love with them all at once, but bit by bit, as with a best friend who has always been there but who begins, one day, to seem appealing in a new way. It was in college that I first took notice of them, maybe because my friends kept complaining about how loudly I typed, and I wanted to see what I was doing to make so much more noise than they did. Or maybe, having a laptop for the first time, the screen and keyboard connected, my eyes were more naturally down to my hands’ movements.
Whatever the reason, I found myself enamored of my hands’ determined strength, noticing how my long, slender fingers moved with a spidery grace along the keys, the tendons on the backs of my hands arching up at unexpected moments. I became mesmerized with how my left thumb rested on its side when I was thinking, its knuckle a little swollen, and how the bony knob at the edge of my wrist seemed to shift ever so slightly when my middle finger tapped at the Backspace key. I even appreciated my translucent skin for once—normally I hate it, so see-through that vast expanses of me aren’t beige or pink but sickeningly reminiscent of hanging meat, squiggles of red, purple, and blue—and took pleasure in the three strong blue veins that disappeared between the knuckles of my right hand while, on my left, I could track one from the edge of my wrist, snaking up near my thumb, and disappearing into my pointer finger.
Three years ago, I started writing a novel, the seventh I completed, the fourth I sent to agents, the first that got picked up, sold, published. The editing process came amidst my fourth semester of graduate school and was so intense that I was left with immense pain in my right arm. I was diagnosed with tendinitis and have been doing physical therapy since—I tried cortisone shots, but once the second had no effect, I stopped—but fifteen months later, the pain hasn’t gone away. Dull or throbbing or lava hot or electrically searing, it lingers, and typing often and a lot makes it worse. I’ve tried braces, ice, heat, CBD cream, but ultimately, I likely need rest, the one thing I cannot get—I write for a living, after all.
I wish that were it, just (“just”) an acute work-related injury turning chronic due to overuse, but the truth is that my hands, the one area of my body I loved without reservation, have become sites of mourning. They’re changing shape, pinkies and pointer fingers crooking inward; pain flowering through the nerves and muscles for several days every month or so, often preceded by mornings when I wake up barely able to make a fist, hands stiff and weak. Whether early-onset osteoarthritis or seronegative rheumatoid arthritis—diagnosis pending due to pandemically postponed appointments—there’s not much to be done.
Which is worse? Depends on the day. I keep typing, hoping against hope that I will never need to stop, pushing through excruciating pain or ever-present discomfort, and try to take comfort in listening, at least, to the sounds of my fingers arrhythmically stacattoing their way through language.
Ilana Masad is a books and culture critic, host of The Other Stories podcast, and author of All My Mother’s Lovers.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
Author photo by Joshua A. Redwine
September 24, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Ruth Osorio
Write. Every. Day.
Starting two years ago, this well-intentioned advice mocked me from my inbox on a weekly basis. The emails started in my first year on the tenure track as an assistant professor. Like all writers, academics can struggle to find time to write. Women, especially women of color, are often burdened with extra diversity and mentoring work, creating additional barriers to cordoning time to reflect, brainstorm, write and revise. So the tip to protect my time, to prioritize my writing should have been a welcome one.
But it wasn’t.
Because one morning when the email popped onto my screen, I was exhausted. My two young children had been up all night throwing up. On top of that, my head felt disconnected from my body, as if I was floating through a dream. I later learned that this is called brain fog, a common symptom of an underactive thyroid, a condition I would be diagnosed with months later. I didn’t write that day. Or the next. Between the fatigue and the brain fog, the advice to write every day didn’t feel empowering: instead, the advice just made me feel like a writerly failure.
I’ll go even further: the very advice designed to empower underrepresented writers to protect their writing time is grounded in ableist logics of productivity, normativity, and abled time. Writing every day may work for some, but for people with non-normative mindbodies and/or people who perform carework in their homes and families, writing every day is simply not possible. When that advice is framed as a mandate, the institutions and assumptions that prevent us from writing in the first place are left unchecked.
So often, we as writers—all writers, not just in academia—judge ourselves based on how many words we’ve written in a day or a week. We are taught to measure our productivity based on output. Within this model, a productive day might mean 1,000 words written or revisions to an essay submitted to a publisher. But productivity measures of writing are steeped in capitalist, and thus ableist, logic. Capitalism tells us that our worth as humans is based on what we produce and how much capital our contributions to society create. And as critical disability studies scholars tell us, when productivity is framed as a moral good, disabled people are further shunned from society, deemed unworthy because of their supposed lack of contributions to society.
Writing is not immune from capitalist logic. Disabled writers Esme Wang, Rachel Vorona Cote, and Gillian Giles, among many others, describe the shame internalized by disabled and neurodivergent folks who can’t produce consistently. We have to keep moving, keep writing, keep producing in order to have worth, multi-marginalized disabled people exponentially so. Whenever our disabilities, chronic illnesses, caregiving, or a variety of other life situations get in the way, we question our worth as not only writers but also people.
We need new models of writing, models that embrace different ways of moving, processing, and expressing. Fortunately, disabled writers offer crip models of writing to the world. I think of Audre Lorde describing the first time she wrote her name in class, how it was slanted because of her visual disability, letters sprawled across the page. Her description in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name prompts me to question the authority of lines on the page and reimagine how letters can move in space. I think of M. Remi Yergeau, an autistic writer who discusses stimming as a language act rich in meaning. I think of Ellen Forney’s graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, and her journey to embrace psychiatric medication as part of her artistic process. Neither Lorde, Yergeau, nor Forney present their writing approach as the universal, ultimate way to write. What they do show us is that we don’t have to separate disabled mindbodies and their diverse needs from the act of writing.
Does this mean we dispose of all writing advice, declaring it futile to offer any guidance since we all write so differently? I don’t think so. Writing is hard, and I am constantly seeking out advice for how to approach writing and revision, especially from neurodivergent and parenting writers (such as this golden advice by Captain Awkward about letting go of productivity during a global pandemic). Rather than disregard all writing advice, I want to see writing communities make space for more models of writing, so that disabled and/or caregiving writers don’t feel shame when their processes don’t align dominant expectations.
One way I have worked toward embracing my own writing process is reframing what even counts as writing. Reading other people’s works is writing, I tell myself. Going for a walk to tease apart a big mental roadblock is writing. Taking a nap so that I have the energy to write later is writing. Remembering to take my anxiety and thyroid medication so I can brainstorm is writing. When I think about all the acts I performed that sustain my writerly self as writing, I am able to let go of the shame of not being productive any given day.
And yet, this reframing doesn’t go far enough. Justifying self-care because it serves productivity ultimately maintains capitalist and ableist frameworks of creating. My next step, then, must be bigger, bolder, and harder: to reject the productivity mantra entirely. I am not a writer because I write a certain number of words every day. I am a writer because I use story to reimagine worlds. My value as a writer, citizen, and human is not rooted in my productivity, I tell myself on those brain foggy, exhausted days in which small humans climb on my limbs with no mercy.
Because my job, and thus my livelihood, requires that I keep up with my writing, I can’t completely disregard time. I wish I could. But I can automatically forward those weekly reminders to write every day to my trash folder. And I can use the time I would have spent reading those emails to instead plot my next nap.
Ruth Osorio is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Rhetoric at Old Dominion University. She has published academic articles, but her most meaningful writing has been access advocacy within her university and her profession. She is also a community organizer, a mom of two young kids, a wannabe yogi, a novice baker, and a lover of veggie burritos.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 16, 2020 § 3 Comments
In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.
Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!
You can read the full discussion here.