Angel Talk

August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments

A guest post by Melissa Ballard:

I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.

Translation: I’m checking Facebook.

I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.

“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”

“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”

She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”

“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”

Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”

“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”

“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”

“Well, right now, I’m composting.”

Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”

“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”

Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”

Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”

I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.

It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.

I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”

Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”

I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.

“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”

Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.

Perhaps I imagined her.

As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:

Forget expectations.

Just write.

And, finally, I do.

_______________________________________________

Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/

The Peace of Observation

July 31, 2018 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Marcia Krause Bilyk:

Morning light floods the Infusion Center’s waiting room through the fourteenth-floor windows that overlook Manhattan. It’s 9:30 and nearly all the room’s chairs and benches are occupied. My husband Ed and I stand online at the registration desk behind a man in his twenties whose half-shaved head bears an angry scar.

It’s likely most people are waiting for chemotherapy. I see hats, lots and lots of hats, headwraps, and scarves. An Orthodox Jew with an oxygen cannula pulls a portable tank behind him. A surgical mask covers an African American woman’s nose and mouth. Diversity abounds. Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and bi-racial couples sit side-by-side. Caregivers, in agency scrubs, tend to elderly clients in wheelchairs.

Infusees, and those who wait with them, are engrossed in books, magazines, newspapers, cell phone and iPad screens. Others listen through earbuds, doze, or stare into space, arms crossed, legs or feet restless. It’s remarkably quiet until a nurse or patient advocate wanders through, calling out names. No one looks you in the eye.

Ed is here for an Ocrevus infusion, a new drug treatment for MS. He and I have sat in so many waiting rooms since he was first diagnosed, I’ve learned to come equipped: with a book, Kindle, or cell phone, just like the men and women seated around me. Today I’ve brought along Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I use the blank pages that appear—mercifully—between the glossary and back cover to document what I see as I sit and wait. It keeps me centered, in the moment.

Paying attention, gathering data, recording yields the raw material necessary for our task as writers. It also offers peace amidst the emotionally charged environment in which we observe. As long as I stay focused on such physical details as the tiny library nook (where I once scored a publisher’s copy of an engaging novel), the artwork drawn by children hospitalized next door, or the spinner luggage, plastic carry-out bags, and canes placed at people’s feet, I won’t be envisioning metastasizing cells, or wondering if the man with a damaged liver’s yellow coloring is in his final months, or worrying about how much our insurance will pay toward Ed’s bi-annual, $65,000 infusion. It can get messy and maudlin inside my head. It can also be a waste of time.

When Ed’s name is called, we’re buzzed through a set of metal doors to the treatment area. We follow a hallway that dead-ends into Area D, a cluster of seven curtained cubicles around a nurses’ desk. We know from previous visits that each cubicle contains a window, an infusion chair, a pole for IV bags, a plasma TV, and a chair. A built-in cupboard contains a pillow, blanket, and space to hang outerwear. Restrooms are nearby. There are sixty treatment cubicles on this floor.

A ginger-haired nurse with an Irish accent introduces herself and administers steroids and Benadryl as a precautionary measure before starting Ed’s IV. The infusion will take about six hours. Once the Ocrevus begins to flow, I’ll step out and head for the nearby Starbucks where I’ll fetch a medium, iced caramel macchiato for Ed. Little, tangible things like that make a difference.

Writing creative nonfiction can involve digging deep into our memory, our journals, our past. But it also requires being open to the details of life as it presents itself, in the here and now, in moments we miss if we’re daydreaming or have our noses in a book.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you enter deeply into the moment, you see the nature of reality, and this insight liberates you from suffering and confusion. Peace is already there.”

The desire to be a writer, to write about the reality of my everyday life experiences, has opened me to the peace of observation, and the details of waiting.

______________________________________________

Marcia Krause Bilyk works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term residential treatment center for substance abusers in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Compose Journal, The Upper Room, Wanderlust Journal, Drunken Monkeys, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. She and her 125 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog Wally visit local hospitals and schools.

On Searching for a Book’s Structure

July 30, 2018 § 15 Comments

rae_pBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ve been trying to find a structure for my book. You know, the book that doesn’t exist. The one I haven’t written yet.

It’s like building a house when you don’t have any furniture yet. Wait, no – that’s a totally normal thing to do. Nobody builds a house based on what furniture they have. What a crappy metaphor.

Okay – trying to build a structure for a book you haven’t written yet is like opening a restaurant before you have any recipes. Or plates. Or silverware. Or money. I think that works. Does that work?

*

I have a folder in my Google Drive where I collect all the new things I’m writing. Not the long, meandering documents where I braindump about how I’m talentless and unmotivated and will never achieve the literary greatness I know I am destined for. No, I just put in the essay starts. The intriguing sentences. The snippets of dialogue. The scenes I can’t stop replaying in my head. The stuff that will probably turn into something.

Some of them turn into flash pieces, brief and bursting with detail and images. Some of them are long, drawn-out stories with background and context and reflection. Some are about the central narrative in my life – my relationship with my father. Some are totally unrelated – stories about my first love, jobs I’ve had, minor disasters. (Although – are they unrelated? That’s a different conversation.)

When I look at them all together, mismatched shreds of stories clashing, I wonder – how can I somehow create a cohesive thing, in which all of these pieces make sense?

*

A mosaic is defined as “a combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole.” Also, as a verb – “to combine distinct or disparate elements to form a picture or pattern.” Disparate. Diverse. Distinct. Coming together to create a pattern. More or less. Maybe that could work as an extended metaphor. I like that.*

*

Sometimes I feel like I can’t write another thing until I know what my structure is. Am I writing super-short essays with an overarching metaphor connecting them, like Beth Ann Fennelly did in Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs? Am I creating a braided narrative with four or five (or ten) distinct story lines, all with their own themes and recurring images, like Maggie Nelson did in Bluets? Am I manipulating an established form to illustrate my story through content and context like Joan Wickersham did with The Suicide Index? Or am I writing in-depth, longer essays that seamlessly merge research, personal narrative, and cultural context like Meghan Daum did in The Unspeakable? Maybe I’m meditating deeply on one core idea and creating surprising connections through a wide variety of stories from my life like Megan Stielstra did in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.

*

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never know what structure will work for me unless I keep writing, keep telling stories, keep getting it all out of me and working on it and manipulating it and rewriting it and rewriting it again. The stories will tell me what kind of house they want to live in, maybe. Are they in charge? Or am I? Who is our real estate agent? Do we want a condo or a split level?

This metaphor is not working.

*

I envy writers who can see the skeleton of their story before they’ve written it. A colleague of mine is teaching a class next semester on planning and outlining your novel. That stuns me. Is it possible for nonfiction writers to do the same thing with their essay collections and memoirs? Yes, it is. Just not for me.

*

So, I keep searching, questioning – and yes, essaying – towards a form, while trying to be comfortable with the journey. I know that, based on the way I work, and the discovery that occurs while I am working through an essay, I won’t be able to frame out the house before I’ve bought the furniture. I’ll have to keep collecting chaises and end tables, filing away scraps of vivid wallpaper and lush fabric, and I’ll have to believe that the pieces I’m compiling will eventually tell the story of a three-story townhouse near the water, with a screened-in back deck and bay windows in the front. I’ll have to keep the faith, as the dining chairs and throw pillows continue to pile up, that once I find that townhouse and fill it with all my treasures, the lot of it will make sense. Not just a house, but a home.

Huh. I guess the metaphor works after all.
___

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

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Author and editor Steven Church also tackles finding a structure for a book of essays in his 2015 Brevity Blog post “How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book.

 

Don’t Buy Your Dream

July 27, 2018 § 9 Comments

Like this, but the cheeseburgers are your trust in the literary community

You may have seen Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent investigation of Anna March in the L.A. Times. March, as she was most recently known, ripped off writers by selling phony coaching/editing packages, offers to read their work and connect them with agents, and expensive writing retreats that didn’t happen.

March branded herself an intersectional feminist, sensitive to issues of race, class and LGBTQ concerns as well as gender, and also supportive of victims of trauma. She positioned herself as a connection between worlds: the published and unpublished, the successful and the hopeful.

Anna March crossed my path in a Facebook group for women memoirists. As a moderator, I messaged Anna a few times asking her to stop posting frequent, pushy ads for her services. I told her once privately, “Honestly, you might sell more coaching if you sounded a little less urgent/needy.” Finally, myself and the other moderator made a new ad policy: no more than once every two weeks. I ended up counting days for Anna. But I still tagged her in discussions about writing coaches.

Anna conned writers who took her at face value. But the literary world is all about face value. You are who you know; you are where you’ve published. Waving the “published in Modern Love” flag creates instant cred. Speak at enough conferences and you’re an expert. We’re told to overcome imposter syndrome, trumpet our own accomplishments, sell ourselves for the best price we can get.

We’re also told to invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for others so one day they’ll read for us; or hire an editor to tell us how to fix our work.

After the revelations of Anna March’s literary grifting, Roxane Gay tweeted:

and talked about learning to write (read the whole thread, it’s great):

Guys, look… there are good and great writing coaches out there, but… you do not need a writing coach. You don’t need an MFA. You do need to write and read a lot. Feedback CAN help you improve as a writer. There are virtual and real writing groups out there

Even when I was a young writer who did not know shit about shit, who did not know that you could get a degree in writing, I did not pay someone to read my writing. I just wrote, constantly. And I am not special. This is how most writers develop.

She’s right. You don’t ever have to pay anyone to read your work. I say this as a professional editor, as a writing coach who has helped people write better and get published, and charged them money for those services. But that’s not ever required.

You’re not on the outside of some magic literary community because you’re broke, or a parent, or can’t get time off. Writing’s just plain lonely. You do it by yourself. No matter how many conferences or mentors or writing buddies you have to sit down with, in the end it is you and the page. You and the story. You and the words.

It feels lonely because it is.

It feels hard because it is.

It feels like it takes forever because it does.

There is no way to get better at writing besides sitting down and doing it.

Can it help to hire someone or go to a workshop or take a class? Absolutely. It helps to have accountability and assignments and exercises. It helps to have an outside eye, whether you pay them or trade manuscripts. It helps to feel like someone is listening. It helps to bounce ideas around with someone whose creative instincts you trust.

You can protect yourself:

  • Get a sample edit and references. If you’re in a Facebooks writers’ group, ask who’s worked with this person. Usually people who feel good post publicly and people who know something shady will message you.
  • ONLY pay through PayPal’s “goods and services” option (not “friends and family”) or with a credit card. Don’t pay a lump sum; start with a couple of sessions, or a deposit or percentage.
  • Insist on accountability from people you pay. Missed deadlines should have a definite reschedule and a reason. Missed meetings should be promptly rescheduled. If you sign up for a writing workshop, email the hotel and ask about the rooms before you purchase travel.

Does it help to spend money on your writing career? Sure. But it helps like a personal trainer helps you get fit. If you’re focused and ready to work, money can help you over some speedbumps. But if you’re focused and ready to work, you can get over them alone, too.

No amount of money replaces your own hard work. Don’t try to buy your dream. You don’t have to. You can’t. But you can make it happen for free, one word at a time.

__________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg and Creative Destruction

July 25, 2018 § 8 Comments

zz_amosBy Peter Amos

I tried to read David Foster Wallace again. I also have a college friend who listens to Paganini for pleasure, a cousin who likes fried egg on his bacon cheeseburger, and a coworker who swears by the ‘cronut.’ Wallace mania is similar. I have nothing against him. It’s just a little much for me. I’m more the type for Palestrina, red onion and swiss, or sesame with butter (coffee light and sweet).

My favorite writers rotate daily, but Joan Didion and George Orwell border on obsession. I want to write like they do. I love plain language. Simple sentences sparkle with magic, no matter the complexity of the idea. Orwell never uses two words when one will do. Miles Davis moves blocks of silence around. Brevity is, in point of fact, a byproduct of vigor. The obvious problem is that I’m long-winded. The deeper problem is that I’m bad at editing.

My dad is an English teacher and suggested I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing. It’s a bizarre little book, alternately cryptic and remarkably direct. To Klinkenborg, the sentence is foundational. Creative vocabulary languishes in a shoddy sentence. Tricks of the trade bend and buckle when the glue is weak. He suggests writing only sentences; not grouping them in paragraphs, but treating each separately. He forms them mentally, editing in real time and revising out of order and context. If a sentence stumbles without its neighbor, it has no business on the page.

I’ve tried my hand at burning dinner, juggling a soccer ball, and separating the roots of baby tomato plants. The secret to getting better is often learning to enjoy the task. Enjoying it often requires getting better. It’s circular, but generally true. If I enjoy what I do, I’ll improve a bit and enjoy it more. If I grit my teeth and get better, I’ll have fun and the improvement accelerates.

I got a bit better at editing and it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I delete the painfully clever sentence that doesn’t quite fit and I never look back. As I strip out the dust and refuse, the thing changes meaning. It’s like carving the form of a bird’s nest from a block of wood and sanding it into the shape of a mockingjay. In general, it’s no surprise that a bird hides in a nest but it feels like sorcery.

Of course editing is a thing you do, and work evolves. But I’ve always thought that adding words changed meaning and removing them clarified what was already there. Maybe there’s no difference. Some critics argue that art is what it is; words are words and color is color. Klinkenborg puts it differently. Meaning can’t be separated from the words. A bird is a bird regardless of the metal that makes the cage. But writers don’t capture an idea under a crosshatch of letters and spaces. Not just any word will do. The words are the idea and when I change them, even slightly, the meaning changes too. A verbal uncertainty principle. I can’t paraphrase an idea without changing it.

It sounds like voodoo until a draft lies in scraps on the parquet floor. I pluck a word from a sentence, trade a weak clause for something compact, and shrug. Three times, five times, ten times, a hundred and I’m staring at an idea I never noticed rattling around in my head. What remains is unfamiliar.
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Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia.  The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.

Lately, There Have Been No Essays

July 23, 2018 § 8 Comments

Brame BW 300dpiBy Chelsey Clammer

Lately, I’ve been writing sentences that begin or end with “lately.” (Now with both, apparently.) Perhaps it’s my way of welcoming the reader to my words, to my present-day life, like I’m giving her a status update. Though the number of people who have read these “lately” essays is roughly zero because I have yet to finish any of them.

Lately, I’ve had a hard time final-drafting my essays. I got close to finishing “June Bugs” (opening line: “I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”), but then I ran into the problem of elocution. Within “June Bugs” is an entire narrative thread that discusses my relationship with my ex-husband by using the word “elocution” to define how we can’t resist one another, even post-divorce. But as I worked on what I thought was a close-to-final draft, I found out that I had the definition of “elocution” all wrong. This, of course, relocated my essay’s meaning from the land of This Is Brilliant to the wasteland of FML This No Longer Makes Sense.

I first came across “elocution” when it was Dictionary.com’s word of the day—a nifty notification I receive on my phone through the company’s app. This ensures that I learn a new word every morning, 8 am. When I first read elocution’s definition, I thought it was a term that meant being able to speak in a controlled and elegant way—something that doesn’t happen when I’m around my ex-husband/current boyfriend. (Yes, we’re dating because that’s just how we roll. Also, interesting side note: the morning after our first sex-rendezvous, that day’s word of the day was elocution). So I wrote a whole essay about love and how when I feel the rush of a crush brewing into something more, that mutual desire sizzling into something else, I lose my sense of elocution. That is, there isn’t anything controlled or elegant about the ways in which I love. Elocution’s actual definition, though, is that it’s simply the way in which a person controls/delivers her own speaking patterns—elegance isn’t necessarily a part of this.

Lately, especially during that last paragraph, I’ve been wondering if this essay is interesting to people who aren’t me.

I’ve also been wondering that if I were to actually finish this essay, would the reader make it to its last sentence. This is about interest. About how I’m still interested in dating my ex-husband, regardless.

I have come to realize that finishing these essays has been difficult for me because I’m writing stories I haven’t yet finished living. That is, I start essays about my narcissistic ex-husband and how terrible he was and how invisible, disrespected, and abandoned I felt in our marriage and then, during mid-essay-revisions, he and I hook up in real life and I lose my sense of elocution around him and so then my essay no longer feels totally true or fair because I guess I have my own zest of narcissism (I am, after all, an essayist), so of course I have to do revisions and explore how our marriage always felt like a battle, like we were forever competing for the top position on the priorities totem pole, and how we were both victims of disrespect. Revisions then begin to feel overwhelming, like a solid run-on sentence.

Though lately, my ex-husband has been pissing me off because he’s a self-involved ass-hat who said he has better things to do than listen to me bitch about frustrating things like roundabouts and essays that are based off of incorrect definitions. Also, when I tell him that I can tell that he’s not listening to me, he then mocks me because that’s helpful, and I’m back into that invisible space, and back to revising the essay I just revised because my ex-husband is a narcissist and terrible, and I, of course, have nothing to do with that.

Lately, things keep changing.

Or maybe things aren’t changing but I’m just questioning the true definitions and descriptions of my life’s main relationship.

Though I do have a few lines stuck in my head that stand true, regardless:

“I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”

“I lose my sense of elocution when I’m around him.”

“_________, regardless.”

Re: “_________, regardless.”

How I’ve been ending sentences with the word “regardless” because to me it sounds like that one word holds a lot of complex narrative power, regardless. Like how our love for one another is powerful and super-complex, regardless.

How I begin sentences with “lately” and am now starting to end them with “regardless.” How these are my writing patterns. How I also begin sentences with “how” if “lately” is not already in that sentence’s lead-off position. How I’ve witnessed other writers begin their sentences with “How.” How I don’t know if this irritates me or not.

Lately, as I’ve been writing this essay, I have been considering the structure of my sentences and therefore wondering about redundancy. Time and again, same thing over and over. Like all of those “lately”s. Like all those attempts to date my ex-husband.

Though I guess repetitive sentence structure is better than no sentence structure because lately I have had a hard time with not only finishing essays, but with getting past that first sentence, too. It has something to do with performance anxiety or maybe just the innate knowledge that I’ll never finish writing the essay because I won’t be done living the story for a while. Things change. Flux. Ex-husbands become boyfriends. That said, I did get myself to begin this current essay. I think it’s all about that first “lately.” How my repetitive sentence structure is my fallback when I don’t know what else to write and maybe that’s okay, like how we always return to love, regardless. At least right now I’m writing, which is perhaps only because I know that my relationship with my ex-husband can’t mess up this essay because I am now writing an essay that knows how to exist without him.

Finally.

I’ve been using the word “finally” as its own sentence lately because I need to convince myself that one day, when I write an essay about my ex-husband, that last “finally” will remain fact. How our relationship will have to eventually come to a conclusion, for better or for worse, together or apart. Either way, there will be a “finally.”

Lately, I have stopped wondering about why I begin my sentences with “lately,” and have instead been wondering about how things will end. How it is that I know I’ll eventually have to reach that final “finally” in both word and meaning, regardless.
___

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome, and won the Inaugural Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing.

 

Writing the Quiet Memoir

July 20, 2018 § 14 Comments

avk_headshot--hair_looseBy Ann V. Klotz

On the Upper West Side, over brunch, Marcia and I talk about Educated, Tara Westover’s recent memoir. We are awed by the narrator’s resilience.  We marvel at how family norms define us and ponder how much we can’t know is “normal” if we have nothing else to compare it with.  We wonder what other horrors and atrocities brilliant Westover may have omitted, what she may have blocked.  I mourn Westover’s mother’s inability to attend to her daughter, even as I acknowledge the fact that the mother couldn’t keep herself safe.

Over sausage, we talk about the coming summer—my plan to organize my memoir, by tacking the titles of scenes up under headings on the walls of a purchased, but not yet renovated, small house at the foot of the driveway of the house I still call my mother’s house, though she has been gone for eight years.  It may be years before we renovate the new, small house—other projects take precedence, so I decide I might as well use it—when else will I have an empty house to play in? I imagine carrying my coffee cup and my resolve down the driveway from our house to the new house’s empty rooms. I’m hoping a new space will help me make sense of the jumble I’ve assembled.  More than 300 pages of disconnected bits, a mish-mash.  I’m determined to finish a draft this summer.

“My book is called a quiet memoir—nothing really dramatic. It’s a bunch of scenes organized around the summer months in Eagles Mere.  About my family. Sort of a collage,” I explain.  No hurling a hiking boot down a mountain, no cruel and abusive family to flee. The energy of my story is smaller.

Do I feel inadequate that I am not Cheryl Strayed or Tara Westover?  Some days. Still, I have been working on this collection of fragments and essays for three years now.  “It’s not a memoir at all,” a writing teacher counseled.  “It’s a collection.”  First, that discouraged me, but it’s true.  More than a century is a lot to tackle in a narrative arc, especially since I missed the first forty-five years, having not yet been born.

Eagles Mere’s architecture is also a mish-mash.  Over many decades, architects fashioned houses full of whimsy. Gothic and Queen Anne homes pose, elegant, next to spacious shingle cottages. Mansard roofs, arched windows, clapboard, board and batten, steeply pitched eaves cohabit. Decorative trim serves no function but to delight and evokes another era. New houses bloom on lots, made to look old. Many original 19th century cottages expand over time. Eclectic turrets and tiny paned windows and wrap around porches make each home distinct. These are houses devoted largely to leisure, to relaxation, but houses, too, in which families expand and contract.  My computer often shares a table with a kerosene lamp, artifacts from different eras–a hodge-podge.  Right now, my memoir reminds me of this unruly architectural mélange, this mingling of old and new, lots of unrelated bits to shape into an appealing structure.

Marcia, my brunch pal, is a Broadway producer; she tells me about a theatre project in development—a story within a story that has moved her. She notes that, for her, good stories always center on the conflict the main character must negotiate.

I smile, grim:  “Loss, grief. That old stuff. It’s not lost on me that I started writing this piece after my mom died—and that I need to finish it before I can write any other big pieces of my life.”  Marcia nods.  Everyone has a family, knows the pull and the tensions, loss, fear tinged grief—what else may be lost?  I’ve built this memoir bit by bit in classes, during the spaces in between, snatching time from obligations, putting off my family with, “Just one more minute; I’m working on a piece.” I explain the generous comment Molly, an online classmate, offered about doing.  She said my prose was livelier when I described all we did in Eagles Mere, one summer to the next, generation after generation.

Marcia smiles.  “For me,” she says, “Eagles Mere isn’t about doing at all—it’s the opposite.  Eagles Mere means all these people who come together because we love you; we stumble into the kitchen, waking up over coffee.  Some go to the porch and some to the beach, and I walk around the lake—no agenda.  And we meet up again the late afternoon, and we have to make dinner all together because there isn’t any place to go. So, we cook together and we eat a great meal at the dining room table, twenty of us—it’s about community and the ways our lives cross each other’s, with you at the center.”

Her words comfort me.  The summer stretches out, weeks ahead to sift and sort through the jumble, to arrange ingredients—houses, meals, stories. My stories center on Eagles Mere—our home the center of the web, whose filaments draw us each summer.  Blue and white china is arranged on a long table. Not everything matches.  The lake stretches out beyond the front windows. An assortment of people gather around the table to eat and laugh—a summer meal in progress, a memoir to fashion.

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Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection.  Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station.  She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction.  You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog: www.annvklotz.com

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