August 7, 2020 § 28 Comments
By Sarah Terez Rosenblum
I’ve always been a commitaphobe when it comes to identity. From sexual orientation to avocation; I’m unwilling to claim one facet as the whole. Even with MFA in hand, and my first novel published, when Tinder dates asked, I never said “I write.” Yet in front of my students, I gave lip-service to commitment. “The work will come; just grant yourself permission to be who you are.”
Eventually, desperation, not dedication changed my relationship to writing. What I mean is, the man I was dating went back to his wife. I’m not sure why I found this change destabilizing. I’d weathered more consequential breakups—long term relationships, requiring the dividing of CDs and shared custody of dogs. I came to men late, but he wasn’t the first man I’d dated. And even that shift hadn’t shattered me. I’d never been one of those rainbow flag girls. The ones who start every sentence with “as a lesbian,” who wear their queerness on their tattooed sleeves. I’d faced no loss of self, so I figured my refusal to let one aspect eclipse my identity had paid off. But now, in the aftermath of this particular breakup, I felt formless; no matter I’d held back—same way I did with all my passions; afraid to dive in and find the water only two feet deep.
At first I wrote to imagine alternate endings; to linger longer with the man who had left. I wrote to muffle time until I could bear the ice-pick tick of minutes. Over time, my frenzy grew a thicket of fiction; eventually, I cared more about the character I’d based on the man than about the blurry past. Soon, I’d streamlined my teaching and quit scrabbling to live on internet Think Pieces. I gave up my apartment, moving in with my mother in Wisconsin. Less strapped for money, I blocked off more days to write. Meanwhile, my hours of writing built an infrastructure which supported my process. First, an inner wall to encircle my creativity. Protecting me from myself, it held my Critical Mind just outside. Next, an outer wall to shelter me from external forces. It kept me insulated from other writer’s voices and the whims of culture and commerce. These walls created space for me to invest in myself. It was true then, the smooth inspiration I’d soft-served my students: Once I committed to my craft, I was free to perfect it. After three years, I emerged from self-imposed isolation a writer. Finally I’d allowed myself to become who I was.
So, I’m forty-one, and what began as moony self-soothing has become a compact literary thriller. On the east coast, my agent has her sights set on the Big Five publishers. In the Midwest, I’m messing with some speculative fiction. Picture the writer, smug in her identity. She’s wearing tie-dyed leggings, drinking coffee out of a unicorn mug. She’s writing a story about a genie when the pandemic hits.
The first thing to go was the internal wall around my creativity. My Critical Mind rose above in a cherry picker. “Your mom is immunosuppressed, and you don’t know if your exhale could kill her! Hospitals are filling with victims! How can you write a story about a genie (Even if the genie represents the undervaluing of art)?”
Next, outside voices punched through the outer wall that shielded my sense of uniqueness. All around me I saw writers shifting their panic into Think Pieces. My Critical Mind found a megaphone. “How can these people write so fast about toilet paper? How can they think through their angle on Zoom exhaustion? What does any single point of view matter when we’re all having the same experience? Except also we’re not having the same experience! How is yours worth uplifting when the virus is highlighting systemic inequality, and the people hardest hit are disproportionally black?
Slog forward several months, and the genie story sits unopened on my desktop. I’ve heard from my agent sporadically. At first, sheltered at home in New York, she couldn’t find a hand scanner for my edits. Now. she’s watching the publishing situation with caution. Editors are being laid off and she expects more personnel changes across the board. In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court has long struck down the stay at home order and Covid cases are rising. My daily practice looks less like writing, more like trying not to check my phone. And God I miss the deep dives; distant sunlight making wavery shapes on the surface, while I’m alone in my depths below.
“I warned you,” my Critical Mind blares. “Making something your identity is dangerous. When it shifts, you don’t know who you are.”
I know what you’re thinking—my Critical Mind already thought it. There are worse things than writer’s block and a stalled career. I’m lucky I have savings. I’m lucky my employer transitioned classes to Zoom. But my concern here is identity, and vocation is just one part of that. The way we conceive of ourselves creates us. Identity is bound up in the constitution. It’s what we fight for in civil rights movements—whether Black Lives Matter or For God Sake Let Trans People Pee.
We are not all the same in what we’ve lost to this virus— it spreads unequally. Shannon Doherty is live on Instagram cooking kale in her kitchen, meanwhile with schools closed, many of the nation’s poorest kids spent spring with no access to lunch. Still, it would be condescending to claim that only the elite have the wherewithal to grapple with a loss of identity. I might have time to (slowly, painfully) write about it— and that is a luxury—but the sense of lost self crosses income levels and race.
Recently, when I should have been writing, I listened to a Daily podcast about Achut Deng who contracted Covid-19 after an outbreak at her Idaho meat packing plant.
“Did you consider just staying home from work?” A reporter asks her. Deng’s voice cracks. “To be honest, I did not. I was just thinking… I need to keep working so I can support my family. Thinking about it now, it hurts.” It seems Deng means that her own health had not been her priority. An orphan and immigrant, her focus had been on remaining the person who made a better life for her sons. Obviously, survival is key here; you can’t self-actualize till your basic needs are met. Still, tied up in Deng’s answer are self-esteem and personal integrity. When she was sent home from work, she felt some essential part of her was gone.
Being told the local watering hole is closed is not comparable. Still you hear the fear in those who flocked to bars in Milwaukee when they opened. Cloaked in complaints of boredom were deeper questions. Who am I if I can’t blow off steam over brews with my buddies? For better or for worse, we ground our sense of self in what we commit to. We become who we are through the things we do. And those people with guns, shouting about masks and haircuts? They’re angry because they feel threatened by outside forces. I’m not saying “there are very fine people on both sides,” but anger covers fear, and beneath their indefensible politics and disregard for the collective health of the country, just like me, it’s a sense of self they’re afraid they’ve let slip.
Over these months of uncertainty I’ve wondered: Do I regret committing to my writing? Would I feel less threatened if I had less self to lose? Maybe the right answer is identity is ever-evolving. A healthy ego can incorporate new information. In the end we’ll grow stronger from this momentary loss of self.
But I’m not ready for peaceful acceptance. It’s like that Think Piece says (The one written, pitched and shared across Facebook, while I was deleting twenty different first sentences); right now we’re grieving. As individuals and as a country, we are removed from the daily ways we define ourselves: as churchgoers; as stand-up comics; as gym-rats; as physically demonstrative friends. A sense of identity and selfhood are made manifest through a number of factors, and like so many, more than stylish hair, more than community, my sense of who I am is what, for now, I’ve lost.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Third Coast, Underground Voices, Carve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.
July 31, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Rick Brown
We writers can be anxious types, prone to obsessing over distractions—both real and imagined—which can stall us creatively or shut us down altogether.
And it only takes a thought. Something disturbs the tall grasses of our mental landscape, and we are captivated. We feel disquiet in our bellies, our breath shortens. We watch, ready to bolt or fight. In that moment, the elements that comprise our everyday world— relationships, responsibilities, pleasures—vanish from our awareness, leaving only us and whatever it is that’s making the grass move.
But wait, this is a rather broad claim, isn’t it? We writers? Our awareness? Surely some creative folks possess what it takes to disregard those scary whatchamacallits in the grass. There must be at least several who embody the resolve of Joan of Arc, or the imperturbable serenity of a Buddha. Right?
Well, probably so. And for those of you who fit this description, my hat is off to you. As for the rest, who, like me, often experience anxiety to the point where it interferes with our writing life, read on.
I’ve been a worry wart all my life. I can lock onto a thought, usually something unpleasant or portentous, and cling to it with everything I’ve got. Once I do that, I’ll live with it during the day, and at night it will drive the plotlines of my dreams. Not only that, but I will stretch and distort the notion of my obsession until it resembles the images that I used to lift off the comic page with Silly Putty.
It doesn’t happen like this all the time; but under the right circumstances, anxiety will interfere mightily with the normal activities of my life—not the least of which includes my chosen avocation of creative writing.
Why is this so? Well I’m no psychologist, but I am convinced that deep in the folds of my brain there lurks a fearful specter: perhaps the subconscious recollection of a giant cave bear that once scared the bejesus out of some evolutionary ancestor, and quite possibly ate his cousin, too.
Normally, this primal “memory” is not a problem for me; in fact, on a conscious level I’m not even aware it exists. But when the right external stimulus presents itself—a late bill, the odd turn of a loved one’s voice, a writerly deadline—my sense of reason gives way, intellect goes into hiding, and that dreaded creature of old saunters out from his lair, with noisome, matted fur and steak-knife-sharp teeth dripping with goo.
But maybe that’s too specific. Instead, I’ll offer up a different analogy, really more of a cliché: Anxiety leads me to make mountains out of molehills. Under its spell, I can take the smallest concern and magnify it to the point where I can barely function. For years I assumed that this was normal. Thankfully, I’ve since discovered it is not. Through therapy, mindfulness practice, and the help of medication I am fortunate to have experienced a lessening in the frequency and severity of undue anxiety. Not that I don’t still encounter it from time to time, but the disorder no longer exerts quite the same hold over me. These days, I can function in spite of it.
As I write this, the writer in me now wonders whether I might also function because of it. After all, what is anxiety but a manifestation of thought: a physical, biochemical event to which I’ve assigned specific meaning? While I’m not normally a fan of catchy acronyms, I’ve often heard it suggested that “fear” might stand for False Evidence Appearing Real. This is actually a fitting description, one that could also apply to anxiety, at least as I experience it. And how do I flesh out this false evidence to the point where it appears real? By harnessing the very same power that drives the creative spirit: my own imagination.
How strange to discover that the mental process I consider so dear and necessary to my contentment and writerly output can also awaken a 40,000-year-old cave bear.
Bearing this in mind (pun intended), I think that it may be time to reconsider the concept of anxiety and what it means to me. In fact, I might even take the step of making peace with it. Instead of recoiling in apprehension, I might take a mindful moment to breathe deeply and assess the presumed threat. Chances are the specter of the cave bear will have moved on by then, leaving me alone with a simple choice: whether to fool myself further or to continue on my own way.
And from there, with my imagination already awakened, I might put that magnificent gift to better use in the here and now, perhaps by crafting a character sketch for the perfect villain, or bringing a fitting close to some vexing, unfinished essay about one of my worst fears realized.
Then too, I might even start something new—say, the gripping tale of a prehistoric man and his hapless cousin.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He has a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville. He is a founding member and contributor to the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and has recently completed a memoir manuscript, titled My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. Brown lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
July 30, 2020 § 21 Comments
By Beth Morrow
I made a new acquaintance recently who, in his days before three kids, a job in administration, and a divorce, had been an active and productive writer. He lauded me each evening for having sat down during this pandemic to flesh out the essays in my head with a Bic pen in my spiral notebook.
I couldn’t understand why he, as a person who’d felt the pull and power of writing himself, wasn’t doing the same. I thought that’s what writing was for: to internalize and digest the suppositional inanities of the external world into concrete and rational observations. To use our words to transmute the unease and anger and hatred and uncertainty into a story with tangible relevance. Writing has been the only way I have been able to convert the painful and potentially destructive events of my life into a series of stepping stones since I was nine. It has brought me through both my brother’s and husband’s deaths when family and friends failed, clinical depression when no one listened, and panic when leadership had cowered.
Wasn’t that why other writers sat down to the page?
Sure, he said, but it was impossible to get to the point of being able to write again with all the distractions that conspire to consume his days. Besides, he added, the rejections he’d suffered in his submitting days were evidence that he probably wasn’t meant to pick up a pen and keep going.
I disagreed. To me, these were the clearest indications of why he–and we–must continue writing.
Lack of time and focus, fear of rejection, unpredictability, worry. These shadow elements, in differing proportions, conflict in the creative mind to make the path to writing in times of chaos seem insurmountable and irrelevant. When each dawn reveals a new catastrophe or devastating loss, it’s easy to believe that putting more words into the world won’t make anything better. There are too many things going wrong, too many wars waging, too little quiet, too much outrage. The virus. So little makes sense, so much is frightening.
All of these are the reasons we must dedicate ourselves to putting pen to paper. Just as the military analyst has decades of familiarity interpreting complex battle plans to the civilian and the educator possesses the gift of compelling the learner to explore uninspiring content, the writer exists to experience, filter, funnel, and transform abstract feelings and emotions into words to light the way for others. If we can name our joys and gratitude, so too can our readers. If we can grapple with our invisible dread and illuminate anxiety on the page, we can share them. If we can admit the shortcomings of our own human experience with grace, we can spark introspection in a way that fuels hope, change, and growth.
The truth of the matter is that the act of writing allows us to cement the universe’s upheaval to the human condition–the wishes and dreams, fears and failures for the future we all hold–in a way that helps others to process the changing landscape, to face the overwhelm, grief, and sadness inherent in such a time, and emerge with the knowing that no matter the struggle, beauty prevails.
Examining the pain of life through the pandemic, Civil Rights, gender equity, and other crises through words is the writer’s way to absorb the collective energy and focus it through our uniquely beautiful and personal story lens to metamorphose us all forward.
When my friend asked last night about what writing I’d done, I told him I’d drafted a few paragraphs about the importance of writing through big challenges, and how writing is the first step in healing what feels like a life spinning out of control in a world we are struggling to recognize.
“I suppose that’s your way of telling me to get back to writing?” he chuckled.
“I suppose it is,” I confirmed.
Beth Morrow is a writer and teacher from Grove City, Ohio. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and blogs on health, summer camp, language acquisition, and, of course, writing. Visit her on Twitter @Buckeye_BethM and at http://www.BethMorrow.blog
July 29, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Rosanna Staffa
As a child in Italy, my father, a successful businessman, implanted in my brothers and me a belief in the mythical power of linguistic precision. He looked at us kids like a panther in repose, ready to pounce on a misused adjective or sloppy adverb. He labeled any expression that was too generic, bambinate, childish nonsense, a weakness of the spirit that would lead to every kind of reprehensible behavior as adults. I was his devoted follower.
When I went to New York after college, I lost my ability to speak. I had been a top student in English literature in Milan, but American was radically different. I had no idea what people were saying. Words roared, purred, and clicked in their mouths. I reached despair one night when I urgently needed to call home. The operator kept insisting that I could not get in the Circus. I hung up and cried. Only years later, I realized that what she said was: “The circuits are busy.”
I listened to conversations in cafes and on the subway. I faithfully watched TV: commercials repeated themselves until I finally understood and jumped up screaming, “Finger licking good!” “Pearl drops!” But an authentic exchange as I knew it was impossible. I could not recognize myself when I spoke. Much to my horror, movies were always “interesting,” food was always “tasty.”
One afternoon I walked into a small Women’s Bookstore on the Upper West Side and looked around. I had missed reading too much. A title caught my attention: The Bluest Eye. I started reading the first lines. It was like listening to jazz. I could not follow each turn, but I understood in full. It affected me so profoundly that my hands shook when I bought the book. I was frightened and elated. One could be precise in a fractured way I had never known existed. I was so thrilled, I walked all the way home to the East Village.
My then-boyfriend, now my husband, said that American was a composite of many languages. It was not static in its rules. He suggested I look at a book about quilts he had. I had heard of them, but I had not seen one. The quilts were beautiful mosaics. One, a “Crazy Quilt,” had an astonishing, shattered appeal. I kept going back to it. The crazy quilt suggested movement and harmony within disorder. I loved the fragments reaching out to other pieces, and the solitude of each, even in the closeness.
“My brain,” I told my boyfriend.
I bought a bedsheet at a thrift store, a marvel of cheap treasures that did not exist in Italy, and went back daily for velvet scraps. I went to work in our small fourth floor walk up with the bathtub in the kitchen. Friends came and went. Peeked, drank coffee. It was a dancer who fully understood. He sat by me while I was silently pondering which color to use for the center piece. Somehow he knew what I was trying to express. He looked at the quilt thoughtfully then pointed at the middle.
“Grey silk,” he said. And it was perfect.
I never told my father what I truly learned in America. My words in American found each other, one snippet at a time. I learned to love the nervy intensity of American. The last time I spoke to my father before he died, I assured him of my allegiance to precision. I did not say it might be of a different kind. He was very old, and it was his birthday.
Rosanna Staffa is an Italian-born playwright and author. She is a prize winner of the 2020 TSR Nonfiction Prize and recipient of Honorable Mention for The Tiferet Journal 2019 Writing Contest Award. She is a Short Story Finalist for The Masters Review Anthology and for the 47th New Millennium Writing Awards. She is a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her plays have been seen on stages in Tokyo, New York, Seattle, and others. Her play “The Innocence of Ghosts” was seen in New York Off-Broadway at Saint Clement’s Theatre and was filmed for inclusion in the Lincoln Center Theatre on Film Library. Her plays are published by Heinemann and Smith & Kraus. She is a recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship and an AT&T/On Stage Grant. She holds a Ph.D. in Modern Foreign Languages from Statale University in Milan and an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University.
July 28, 2020 § 149 Comments
I was going to let this anniversary go unacknowledged.
I must have known it was a big deal. I wrote it in my calendar. One year out. July 26th, the day I took the decision to sit down for a specific amount of time, on specific days every week, to write. No matter how I felt or what else was going on.
For one solid year I have been sitting down, for a specific amount of time, on specific days of the week to write.
I wasn’t going to mention it. But that’s just false modesty. And feeling shy about outing yourself is counterproductive when you’re in the business of writing personal essays.
You might be wondering how I did it.
I had some help. From the Tucson Writer’s Table. What we do, is write. For two hours. Together. At a table. Every Monday. After fifteen minutes of pre-work chitchat, there is no talking allowed. That’s it.
Up until COVID our companionable silences were held amidst the roar of a busy neighborhood restaurant. Now, we Zoom—to say hi and bye. In between, I write. I’m not sure what everyone else is doing. We keep our cameras off.
I have kept this Monday night date for almost 3 years. Without fail. Nothing interfered with Writer’s Table. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I duplicate this at home? Imagine, getting even more done.
But first, I needed a hanger for my office door.
I got stuck here for a while. Writing “do not disturb” on a piece of cardboard didn’t quite do justice to the commitment I was making to myself. Three weeks and a trip to Kinko’s later I had a laminated door hanger featuring my alter ego—the tugboat.
Tugboats are slow, and their pace is steady, no matter what they’re pulling along behind them. I’m slow and it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay. I can do this. I love my door hanger.
When it’s out, I’m never disturbed.
I’m never disturbed period, because I no longer try to write in the run-up to kitty feeding time.
As I moved into a less sporadic writing routine I could see how I’d undermined myself in the past by, for example, waiting to sit down until I was certain to be interrupted by a starving cat.
But there is a time of day when my personal alertness peak intersects with household quiet and that’s when I write. Even if I’d rather be doing something else.
My former habit was to be seized by inspiration, crank something out, over-edit, and stop. Until my writing partner shared some amazing thing he’d composed and asked, anything new from you?
I was episodically committed. I got used to not writing for ever longer periods until, eventually, I stopped jotting down the very thoughts that ignited these “seized by inspiration” cycles in the first place.
I’m not special. What I read in books about writing is also true for me. I have to be sitting down and doing the work, so I’m available when the story arrives.
And no, I’m not going to tell you how many hours a week I’ve added. But here’s what I think: the perfect time commitment is located midway between resentment and contentment.
I have hundreds of idea files on my computer. And a book draft. I used refer to these as “unfinished projects,” a phrase that fills me with shame and anxiety.
Today, there are no unfinished projects.
There is only what’s next.
This is new.
Because I am working steadily, I know I’ll get to the ideas and drafts that I want to finish. Eventually.
More importantly, there is always something next. Which I start while I’m still editing what came before. No more work gaps.
All of this has made me more confident and less fragile in the face of rejection. Which has also increased because, hello, I have more work to submit.
I could have scheduled writing years ago, instead of lurching between production and procrastination. But I was afraid.
Fear has helped me get to jobs on time, adhere to deadlines, remember promises I’ve made–to others. In fact, it keeps me perma-stressed, lest I forget something and cause disappointment or distress or inconvenience for another person.
And fear is what kept me from writing regularly. Fear of prioritizing myself.
By taking this scheduled time for me, I’d be less available. I’d be saying no to other people. Disappointing them. And I have. I’m here to tell you it’s possible to do that and not die.
In fact, I’m happier.
Now, I’ve had a taste of discipline. I can see that it will take even more discipline to write and edit one entire book. I’m in awe of you book-writing people.
And I’m in awe of me. In the past year I’ve written amazing stuff I can’t believe I came up with. I’ve written terrible stuff. I’ve felt really stoked to be writing all of it.
I don’t wish I was writing someone else’s story anymore.
Sitting down to write on a schedule has healed even this. I’m no longer comparing myself to writers who are writing, and publishing, the beautiful things I wish I had written. But didn’t. Because I was not yet committed to being a tugboat.
Kirsten Voris is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Embodied Healing: Survivor and Facilitator Voices from the Practice of Trauma Sensitive Yoga (North Atlantic Books) and her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, Hippocampus, Superstition Review, and others. Follow her on Twitter @bubbleate.
July 22, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Vicki Lindner
In December of last year, I finished my ‘60s memoir, Baby, It’s You. (I won’t admit how long “finishing” took.) Then I placed the 300-page manuscript in a black plastic box and buried it in my walnut cabinet. Here, I thought, Baby could rest like a tulip bulb waiting to bloom —for three months.
When Alan, a writer friend, asked how “Baby” was going, (hesitantly, as if inquiring how many millimetres a melting glacier has shrunk), I said, “It’s done.”
“Wow,” Alan said, “Congratulations! Are you sending it out?” And I confessed I wasn’t, not yet. I’d come to understand that I sent my stuff to likely prospects all too soon, and only after rejections popped into my inbox, realized that the manuscript needed work—from cutting and shaping to re-imagining. And if that was true of an essay or short story it would likely be truer for the monster snoozing in the black box. Despite compulsive revisions, I told Alan, “Baby” was too vast for my limited literary vision to take in just yet.
Alan said that failure to “see” new work applied to his process too. As it does, I think, to many writers. We finish, so full of hubris, trepidation, even boredom, in such a hurry to “succeed” or to “win” that we gulp down encouraging feedback from other writers and forget the endurance that writing, the toughest extreme sport, demands. “Patient sustained labor,” Vivian Gornick called it.
That was one truth, but I faced another, more psychological: I’d been nurturing “Baby” so long that to throw the infant to sharp-toothed critics in cold publishing waters seemed like diving naked into the Arctic Ocean myself. And I admit, writing the memoir had transported me back to the ‘60s, a transformative era, more rewarding than the current one, enmeshed as it is in this global pandemic.
So I called Melissa, a wise Montana poet and essayist. She, too, asked about my memoir. I explained that “Baby” was hibernating like a Grizzly in winter. Melissa loves bears, but she didn’t exclaim, as Alan did, “Good idea.” Then I raised a painful topic—the time I refused to resubmit my short story collection to a contest, in which it had been a finalist, after the judge strongly suggested I should, assuring me that the book didn’t need more and better stories as I insisted. (No, I didn’t rush to the psychoanalyst Junot Diaz recommends for all writers.) And now, after years of kicking myself for not exploring my fear of rejection, I asked Melissa, “Am I doing what I did with the contest by putting my memoir down for a long winter’s nap?”
“YES,” she answered without missing a beat.
But though I did self-destruct by not resubmitting the story collection, I still thought I should give my memoir time to ferment. Nobody was clamoring to publish it in a pandemic. And it focused on a subject that could benefit from additional thought—a taboo relationship, which helped the teenaged girl I was in the memoir to jettison the ‘50s stifling script. Plus an agent had told me what I already knew: My first chapter sucked.
After revision I’d called that chapter “good,” but needed time and space to be sure. Another question: Had I figured out what my father—a munitions expert who’d conceptualized weapons systems for the Vietnam War—was doing in this work? After three months of thinking instead of pretending to think by re-writing compulsively, I knew.
But back to “Baby”, germinating in the cabinet. While waiting for the proverbial tulip to bloom, I wrote shorter works, a new short story, an essay, and my morning prompts — “comments” to The New York Times. And I kept reading relevant books and stuffing notes in the black box.
Then came the early spring day I’d vowed to awaken “Baby” from torpor. I duly extracted the closeted box, and forbidding myself swings between depression and elation, pencil-edited the manuscript. I’d been right to wait. How had the best chapters turned into the worst ones? With refreshed vision I saw countless passages that would shine after tightening, or in some cases, loosening; I empowered verbs and batted away pesky commas. Most important, I judiciously developed essential ideas and remodeled misshapen sentences. Then I began typing my handwritten edits into the computer, seeing more opportunities for betterment. (But when I caught myself changing new words back to the old ones I knew it was time to stop.) The governor’s stay-at-home orders, I guiltily admit, proved a gift, though some days I stared into space, immobilized by anxious inertia. Ultimately my apartment lockdown revealed that I needed to let go of the past as who could say how long my present would last.
Now I’m about to mail the manuscript to a few friends who’ve agreed to read it. Then I will write a query, the hardest part.
And when “Shelter-at-Home” turned to “Safer-at-Home,” I visited Tess, my new Jungian shrink.
Vicki Lindner writes memoir, personal essays, and short fiction in Denver, Colorado, where she also teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her essays have been published by Gastronomica, American Literary Review, In Short: An Anthology of Brief Nonfiction, Seneca Review, Shadowboxmagazine.org, New Writing, Western Humanities Review, and others She has won two Wyoming Fellowships for Creative Nonfiction, a National Endowment for the Arts for fiction, and two New York State fellowships, also for fiction.
July 20, 2020 § 56 Comments
By Abigail Thomas
Another rainy day in a long succession of rainy days and I’m bummed that the part of myself that has always kept me company seems to have disappeared. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, I haven’t left the house in five months, and can’t write a word. What’s the point of being me? I wonder. I’m so stuck. Write about what you notice when you’re stuck, I tell my students. Write about what you notice and see what happens. Nothing happens here except bugs. Oh my god, I think. I’ll write about the bugs!
For instance: I often see one large black ant wandering across the living room floor in early evening. I think there’s only one of him. He (I think of it as a he), is always headed toward the dining room but never seems to get there because the next night, and the next, there he is again, walking across the same portion of floor towards the dining room. It’s as if he’s having his own Groundhog Day. The pale brown ants, like little freckles, are everywhere and get into everything. One morning they turned up in the jug of maple syrup even though the cap was screwed on tight. My grandsons were horrified and refused to eat their french toast, although I ate mine and part of theirs.
But the most interesting thing is that once or twice a week I find a dead wasp on my bedroom floor. Their presence gets me in gear. Because where are they coming from? The windows haven’t been opened in the four years following the discovery of a spider the size of a salad plate in a basket of old yarn, and wasps are nowhere else in the house. When I find one I use my cane to nudge it behind the bedside table so I don’t step on it by mistake. It doesn’t occur to me to throw them out. They are too perfect, and too tiny to be rubbish.
It isn’t really a bedside table. It’s an old filing cabinet, empty of whatever files it once held. The drawers are now full of whatever I don’t know what else to do with when I find it in my hand. Uncomfortable earrings, a letter from somebody called William C . Estler to a woman named Mardi, apologizing for taking her to The Iceman, which she hated and asked to leave. “’I don’t like it and I want to go home,” he quotes her as saying. Not The Iceman Cometh unless he didn’t bother with the whole title. Whether it was a play or a movie I’ll never know nor do I know how it ended up in my possession. When I looked him up there were two of him, both dead, one a painter from West Virginia, the other a scientist of sorts in Palo Alto who published an article called Ion-Scattering Analyzer. There is also a silver bracelet, other scraps of paper on which various grandsons have written darling inauthentic apologies, licenses from four dead dogs I loved, and a necklace I bought because the woman who made it told me the tiny silver sword charm was supposed to cut fear. Why not? I thought.
Today I picked up a wasp by one wing and put it carefully in the cap of an old pill bottle from the drawer. The wasp is so completely dead, tidy and beautiful. Its wings are slender, themselves like tiny swords. I’m amazed that I’m not in the least worried by the intrusion. I’m not afraid that I will one day discover dozens of them flying around my bed. What’s wrong with me? It seems a natural fear, but I’m just not afraid. Maybe the necklace works whether you’re wearing it or not.
They are paper wasps, I looked them up. They chew wood or whatever else is handy and their saliva turns it into paper and they make hanging nests. Somebody had the brilliant idea of giving these wasps colored construction paper and my god, the nests they made look like beautiful misshapen rainbows. I am kind of in love. Paper wasps are also good for gardens, eating bad bugs. They aren’t ornery, like yellow jackets who’d just as soon sting you as not, but they will defend their nests. Well, who wouldn’t?
Some time ago I noticed what appeared to be a lightning bug clinging (or stuck?) to the side of my sofa, and I’ve been careful not to disturb it. It stayed fixed in place for several days without moving an inch. I wondered if it had decided to die. Then it vanished. Where was it, I wondered. Last night I saw bright blinks amongst the geraniums that climb up my front window. On, off, on, off. There you are, I thought. Oh good, there you are.
Abigail Thomas writes mostly memoir, her latest being What Comes Next and How to Like It.
July 15, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
When the pandemic shut the country down, I was preparing to release my new book. As my in-person events got cancelled one by one, I found myself sprinting, trying to catch the move-everything-to-Zoom train. I spent late March and all of April preparing for a totally different kind of launch. This also included creating a book trailer. Me! Who is not technically savvy! But lucky for me, the writer Amy Stewart has a great class on Skillshare, and I followed along. I wrote the script, learned how to turn an iPad into a teleprompter, fiddled with mics and lights and background, filmed myself (when the neighbors weren’t weed-whacking or mowing—and it seemed like one of them always was), and somehow I edited the video thingamabob and posted it online. It took me two weeks, but I did it.
In other words, I didn’t have much time to write.
And then suddenly it was May, and my book launched. I promised myself that as soon as it did, I would get back to creative writing. I’d been working from home, having long conversations with the dog (the only other one in my house from 9-5), and I decided that to help get myself back into a regular writing practice, I would take another class on Skillshare, writing-related.
Except I kept searching for drawing classes. Me! Who has never been a visual artist! I could barely draw a respectable stick figure. But I have always loved the idea of drawing—as evidenced by the big box I own of markers, colored pencils, watercolors, and sketch pads I have been carting around for over a decade (but rarely use).
I started a writing class on Skillshare, and then another. But I didn’t feel like writing—that door was shut and locked—so I turned to drawing hoping it might be the key.
I started with Mari Andrews’ class on Skillshare: Drawing as Self-Discovery: 5 Ways to Start. She doesn’t teach you how to draw—she teaches you it’s okay to draw, no matter the skill level. She starts things off easy—you have to draw a pie chart. Anyone can do that. I could do that. Another time it was a heart. I could do that, too.
I finished her class, and started some others, dabbling here and there in drawing. But any time a teacher started to show technique, I turned it off. I didn’t want to become a better visual artist and strive toward perfection. I wanted permission to just have fun.
Since then, I have been doodling. I doodle around a quote, I draw a comic, I doodle a list of things for which I am thankful. Are the doodles perfect? No way. Are they even good? Not really. But I don’t care. Did this help get me writing again? Yes, it has. I don’t know if it’s the freedom I found with doodling, or if it somehow works with one part of the brain that is tied to the writing part of the brain or if it’s all one and the same. I’m no scientist, and I haven’t done a dive into the research because why should I? All I need to know is that it’s working for me, I’m writing again and also drawing, and I sure am having fun.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is a writer of memoir, fiction, and poetry. Her latest book is A Small Thing to Want: stories (Press 53, 2020). Learn more about her at: www.shulycawood.com.
July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments
One of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.
That’s the end of the story.
The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.
Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.
Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?
If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.
Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
We get to choose that, too.
Looking for your ending?
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:
- Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
- Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
- Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.
Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.
- Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
- Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
- List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
- Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.
Yes, this is a lot like therapy.
But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?
You really do get to choose.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!
July 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
My father, age 84, is ill and for the most part, I am not writing about it.
I don’t want to write about it, beyond forcing myself to record some basic facts in my journal for the future me who may want to reconstruct how everything went so terribly wrong. For example, one morning while I was staying with my parents last month, my father woke up and said, “We were robbed last night.”
Aware this hadn’t happened, I said, “Oh really?”
And he replied with great certainty, “They were convicts.”
I jotted down the moment in my journal like you might a bad dream.
My journal entries are brief now. “One small pleasure these days? Saying the word ‘apocalypse.’ A-poc-a-lypse. Apocalyptic is even better. Not only because the bread aisle is barren, but also because the father who was intent on not going ‘gently into that dark night,’ to quote his favorite Dylan Thomas poem, may wind up going gently after all, nestled as he is under an avalanche of blankets on the couch in the living room, where he remains day and night.”
But to write much more than that would require that I acknowledge something absolutely essential has been lost, through the sudden collision of a longstanding cancer diagnosis with a freak leg injury. And it will never be recovered. It won’t be like when you search the house high and low, and ultimately find the missing object. Or how I can search the hundreds of files in my Dropbox to find a sliver of thought I had one day.
Nope. That argument he and I had over Christmas? That will probably be the last real argument we ever have.
I can imagine how crazy that sounds. Why mention an argument? But he and I have always argued. He and I argue, in part, because I am his doppelganger. I am the female version of him. I argue as homage.
Not that I don’t regret it bitterly — I do. So much time wasted sparring with him when right now, I think he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met. He’s the person I would most like to converse with – if only he were well enough to converse the way we used to.
(The way we used to – I could write a whole book about the way it used to be, except I CAN’T. That’s what I am trying to say.)
But I think about arguments because we won’t ever truly argue again. And that’s because he probably won’t ever be quite himself again so I won’t ever risk fighting with him again. We won’t argue again because on account of his ailments, which include advanced stage blood cancer and liver trouble, he won’t have the strength or inclination. And if this exacting, brilliant engineer doesn’t have his lifelong inclination to argue, to provoke, to strike a contrarian note, then it’s all over.
And that leaves me speechless. This is about as far as I can go in writing about him and “it.” To write much more than that would require that I acknowledge I’ve bungled another death (or am about to). That I’ve wound up with another body on my hands. Up until now, the death of a loved one has meant only one thing for me: regret. How could this person die before I was ready? Before I could be a big girl and lend him the attention he deserved. That’s how I would describe the feeling that remains buried inside, long after the death of an uncle and a school friend, among others.
I have tried to write about it, unsuccessfully. In one case, I have what I think of as a winning title: “Requiem for the Man I Called My Father-in-Law.”
But instead of writing about the person or the person’s death, I wind up writing about how I failed to prepare. How whatever I was planning, and whatever I hadn’t said or asked or observed no longer mattered.
And not only don’t I want to go back and examine, I most certainly don’t want to go forward. Forward into a future of what I call caretaker conversations with my father. Does he need something to drink? How is he feeling today?
By the way, don’t be fooled: All of this is surface writing. Safe writing. The more difficult examination will come when I realize that I am wholly unprepared to live in a world without him – and I have no choice but to do so. In an abstract way, I certainly understood how fixed a figure he was on my personal landscape of people and relationships (like the people who affirm God’s existence by insisting they don’t believe in Him or Her). But not in a tangible way.
Now I understand he’s a wall of my personal house. His existence forms part of my leg or maybe my right hand. How do I write about that?
The deaths of others have been enough to skew the picture I have of my world. But his absence from that landscape? I think it will look – feel! – like the surface of the moon to me. The rings of Saturn. The underworld.
Many mornings I wake up, ready to write, and as I open my laptop, I think, what should I work on? Maybe the flash nonfiction piece I am writing about my juvenile obsession with the land of my ancestors (Ireland) or another about how breastfeeding made me high.
But I don’t think to myself, I should write about Daddy. Because if I walked through fire, I don’t think my first thought would be: Let me write about how the flames singed my hair.
I’ve actually learned that some of my most urgent thoughts – the mental wallpaper that I alone see as I navigate the world each day – don’t make it into my journal. (Which makes journaling feel absurd at times. Write down what you’re thinking – but not that).
And yet in some personal anthropological vein, it’s worth documenting my father’s illness. For starters, I didn’t really realize that the man had never been sick. That I’d never seen him weak or frail or uncertain. I’d never seen him sprawled on the couch for hours, days, weeks.
There’s more. I’d never realized – wait for it – that he would die.
At Bennington, when I was studying for my MFA, one teacher harped on my clichés. If she had been a nun, she would maybe have tried to beat them out of me. But I came to believe that there was a reason clichés became clichés – that they revealed something true about the human condition over the course of decades and centuries.
I know I am only one person in a long line of humans contemplating the serious illness and eventual death of a parent. They, too, have been spooked by what feels almost like a secret – your parents are doing to die.
I certainly have nothing new to say about that spooky non-secret. But I still have to say it.
Which I guess means I need to write about what I am not writing about. Maybe this is a start.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers