February 13, 2019 § 10 Comments
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Step One: Write
I’ve been a writer my entire life. I still have a story penned on lined paper bound by ribbon. I’ve long since thrown away scraps of paper with bad poems, the kind of poems you need to write before you can write good poems. I wrote for my school paper and took poetry workshops in college.
When it was time to get a real job, I summarized newspaper articles for a research database before starting to freelance for my local daily, the business paper, and a women’s magazine. The work was wide ranging: I filled in for a home and garden columnist, did restaurant reviews, covered crime news, and had a column on health and another on local attractions. I took every opportunity I could find to write.
Step Two: Find Your Ground
As I wrote I got a better sense of what was important to me. When I joined the staff of the business paper, I did my best to broaden their coverage by profiling the head of a feminist women’s foundation, penning a controversial column in support of a local fairness law supporting LGBTQ rights, and writing an award-winning story on women in depression.
As I wrote my skills got sharper and what mattered most to me, social justice and making the unseen seen, became clearer. I enjoyed the buzz of having a byline appear each week. It felt productive, even if the newspaper pages might end up lining someone’s birdcage.
Step Three: Have the Courage to Follow Your Dreams
Despite the rewards of being a freelancer something was missing. I wanted to get back to where I started and write creatively, but I was afraid I’d suck at it. I was 32 when I decided to give it a real go. I started writing poems, joined a writers’ group. and began the process of honing my skills. I wrote lots of bad poems. I started reading to get a better sense of what a good poem required—the play of language, the crystalline images, and the accumulation of meaning. I submitted my work, got some published and eventually developed a chapbook, Surrender, which explores the loss of my father and coming to terms with growing older.
Step Four: Educate Yourself
When I felt strong enough, I took my writing out into the world and looked to deepen my knowledge. I attended workshops and earned an MFA, developing techniques, anchoring myself in the canon, learning about innovators, and getting feedback on my own work. I explored short stories, expanding my view to include scenes and dialog, drama, and catharsis. I trod my ground working over themes of seeing and being seen, the power of kindness and the cruelty of fate, and what we as humans can do in face of the beauty and horror that is life. I missed the thrill of a daily byline, but it was replaced with the sense that as the words filled the page, I was accumulating a greater sense of mastery over the work itself and my ability to articulate what it means to be human.
Step Five: Take Joy in the Process
I gradually succumbed to the realization that everything about writing (and life) is process. Joy is found in front of my computer in the act of writing. In the doing and redoing. In the vision and revision. There are no perfect pages, no perfect stories. Still I write. I’m working on a novel now, a task so daunting I never imagined I would take it on. I am world building, letter by letter, word by word, bird by bird (Bless you, Anne Lamott). There is no guarantee of an eventual byline. The challenges are endless and the rewards scanty. But this is my path. The only thing I’m sure of is that I will make the most of the journey.
Ellen Birkett Morris’s essays have appeared in Brevity Blog, The Butter, The Writing Group Book, The Girls’ Book of Love, The Common, The Fem and South Loop Review and on public radio. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, Inscape, and Upstreet. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.
February 11, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
I have just been humbled by how work-shopping and reading manuscripts outside of my genre—my CNF comfort zone—has been a tremendous gift and revelation. Fresh out of my MFA program’s winter residency, I am inspired by everything I’ve learned, but as usual, growth does not come without pain.
About six weeks before the residency was set to begin, in anticipation mixed with both curiosity and excitement, I clicked open the shared Google doc folder containing the seven different 40- to 60-page CNF and fiction manuscripts for the “Extreme Workshop” I’d signed up for (“extreme” because normal MS length for workshops is eighteen pages). I’d had a literary fiction project percolating in me for some time, and decided to give it a go, eager to get a feel of whether this was something I could do.
I downloaded the first MS, the page-count ticking in at fifty-eight. I took a deep breath and scanned the opening paragraph, including the author’s letter to us readers. Words like “fantasy fiction” and “sub-genre” and “LitPRG” and “video games,” jumped from the page, as my eyes glossed over. Yeah, ok. No. I’ll save this one for later, I thought as I closed the doc, and opened the next one. Then the next, and the next, only to realize that four out of the seven manuscripts were not only popular-fiction, but its subgenre fantasy-fiction, or its sub-subgenre, urban fan-fic. I recognized nothing about the characters and their worlds or conflicts. When I’m at a bookstore, I never, ever, stop at “that” table or browse “those” shelves. I noticed my fingers going numb and a prickly feeling behind my eyes, or was it along my hairline? Something like panic. Oh. My. God. I. Can’t. Even…
With a great sense of relief, I found the one CNF piece about mourning the loss of a parent, and read it in one, enchanted sitting, and then the one, literary fiction MS, where I was swept away to communist-era Hungary with all its fascinating, dark, and complex realities. Eventually, there was no way around my fate: I had to tackle the fan-fic pieces. It was not easy. After completing the first read-through of MS #1, but before writing my feedback letter to the author, I sent the workshop faculty leaders an email pleading for help. I had to be coaxed down from the ledge of despair. I felt stupid and useless, wallowing in self-doubt, unable to see the bigger picture of what I had to offer, or what the writing could give me. While waiting for the emergency intervention, I willed myself to keep calm and compose the three-page commentary, beginning by stating my uninitiated fan-fic reader status, but vowing to do my best to offer constructive suggestions on plot, character development, scenes, pacing, and the like. I sent it to my teachers, to see if I had managed to generate a reasonable response. Then something surprising happened.
About two hours after they answered my email, reiterating the advantages of reading outside our genre and telling me my feedback was thoughtful and well written, a letter ticked in to my inbox from the very author whose MS I had freaked out about. He admitted having trouble reading my CNF MS (about Jews in Norway during WWII, family secrets, and collaboration), and said he had to force himself to complete it, and feared he would be unable to provide any useful critique. He wondered if I had any suggestions, adding he was aware of the irony that he was asking for advice from the person to whom he was supposed to give counsel. I suddenly realized that reading outside of one’s customary genre isn’t just a challenge for me; that we writers are all in this together. His candid letter made me feel better, and I thanked him for his honesty, adding some guidelines I had tried to follow when I critiqued his MS.
When the ten-day residency began in middle of January, set in the wintery landscape of Freeport, Maine, I spent the first half in a CNF workshop, pouring over often-deeply intimate memoir pieces about illness, trauma, and spiritual journeys. The last day I told the lively group of writers how apprehensive I was about the second half of the residency, and all the fantasy fiction shoptalk I anticipated. I expected to feel like a fish out of water and an outsider, not able to follow the way of the current or appreciate the otherworldly lingo. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
In the Extreme Workshop, my MS was workshopped the first day, and at the end of the session, I was euphoric by all the helpful feedback and validation my fellow students had provided on my project. For four days, we gathered around a massive conference table at the Harraseeket Inn, discussing the many elements of what makes a good story, regardless of its genre; while flames flickered in the quiet gas fireplace we were lucky to have in the meeting room. Where a CNF’er pointed out the need for a fan-fic’er to go deeper into the character’s mind and motives, a fan-fic’er suggested how to improve the pace or increase the stakes in a CNF’ers piece. It was a writer’s dream for a workshop: each participant brought their unique strengths and lens, accumulated over years of honing the craft and sensibilities of their specific genre, sharing generously, and critiquing compassionately.
I don’t believe any one of us left dissatisfied, and I, for one, learned a valuable lesson: that my preconceived notions about what I am capable of as a reader, and what type of writing can be helpful to read as I develop my craft, were misinformed and needed to be shed. Instead, it is exactly by reading as widely as possible that I will optimize my understanding of what works best in storytelling and world building, regardless of genre.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 2nd semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.
February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Scott Russell Morris
I volunteered to write this book review of Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, over a year ago. It was a foolish thing to do given my schedule, but I had just read and reviewed Minna Zallman Proctor’s essay collection Landslide, and I was smitten. Also, like most graduate students, I was overly optimistic about my time constraints, especially considering that in the year following I finished writing my dissertation, my wife took on a full-time position and started graduate school, I defended my dissertation, my wife gave birth to our second child, and I graduated, all of which necessitated some celebratory traveling. Plus, surprise, I accepted a faculty position in South Korea, which meant immediately after said celebrations, we packed up the house, sold most everything we owned, and moved two small kids and eight suitcases (plus carry-ons) from Lubbock, Texas, to Incheon, Korea.
All of this I generally expected (sans a job overseas), but I didn’t foresee that immediately after submitting my dissertation I would be completely incapable of writing. I kept feeling like I should be writing, but used everything else as an excuse not to. Though writing had once been an unquenchable enthusiasm, I now felt empty. I never wanted to see my dissertation again, nor could I bring myself to review other manuscripts-in-progress, even after several nice notes from editors. And though set-backs had never slowed me before, a slew of rejection letters left me deflated, a feeling oddly compounded when I finally got around to reading These Possible Lives, this little book about writers. And the book is little, easily readable in a one afternoon, even when your thoughts are elsewhere, which mine were the day after I received the job offer, the day before we sold our car, and the day I stubbornly refused to grade papers while sipping a chocolate milkshake at a mall in Korea.
Just three essays long, only sixty pages, These Possible Lives is more of a chapbook. The essays are each biographies of famous writers—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—and its shortness, its compactness, delivers the pleasure of reading an entire book in one sitting, but its fluid and expressive prose also accentuates the rush through life from naïveté to death. Each essay ends with the subject’s demise. Both lyric and narrative, Jaeggy’s essays don’t dwell overly much on the great works of these men, but rather, on the mundane and often ethereal elements of their lives, which makes them seem both ordinary and yet, somehow, beyond our reach, touched by gods and spirits. Jaeggy frequently juxtaposes the terrestrial and heavenly, suggesting the writers’ mortal and immortal qualities: “…Keats was malnourished, of weak health, and had no family. But aren’t all poets the heralds of heaven?” These are the essays of men between worlds, conduits of some divine nature, which gives them life even in death. Of De Quincey we learn “that he been a ‘good sick man,’ and a gracious corpse; he didn’t want to trouble anyone.” Death becomes the others, too: “Death animated him in the last moment,” we read of Keats; and of Schwob, “His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold.” But the essays don’t move much beyond these expressions of life in death, seeming to suggest that after death, there is nothing. Keats’s essay ends, “They stripped the walls and floor and burned all the furniture.”
I like melancholy conclusions as much as the next essayist, but somehow these morbid endings struck too hard this time. Each of the essays felt cut short, not on Jaeggy’s part, simply because they end with death, so there was nowhere else for them to go. I could see the irony, of course, because these famous men’s lives and works live on, but still each time I finished reading an essay, I felt as though there was no point in writing—we would die, even if, like De Quincey, “a pack of Gods clutched,” or we otherwise showed signs of genius, as all these men do in Jaeggy’s portraits. And though I had often before felt that writer’s block was an imaginary thing, I didn’t believe that any more.
Exhaustion is real. I have since learned that post-partum depression is almost as common in fathers as it is in mothers, and I wonder if I felt some of that as the birth of my daughter and the conclusion of my graduate work coincided. I’ve told others about my daughter and the dissertation and the move, too, trying to explain why my current project is trying to write anything at all, even just a book review. And each time, as it does now, this list sounds like excuses, especially when the list of things preventing me from writing are all good things. Things I am privileged to have accomplished. Still, it wasn’t until I accepted the items on my Why-I-can’t-write List, not as excuses or even reasons, just as things that are, that I got the nerve to sit down and write this book review. And, as I think many people know, writing is a cure for writer’s block.
It feels self-serving to begin, middle, and end this book review with all the reasons I haven’t written it sooner, but three days ago as the baby was taking a nap, her brother at school, and my grades finally submitted, I was washing the dishes when I realized that accounting for myself was the only way forward. And so, I have written this, the first thing in over a year. I don’t know what will come next, if this will suddenly compel me back to my unfinished manuscripts, but I do know that reading Jaeggy’s essays has taught me one very important lesson: If, like Schwob, we are to “[turn] into a writer,” we cannot go around, over, or under whatever grief or mortality that might grip us, we can only move through it.
Scott Russell Morris is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah Asia Campus. He has a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, Assay, and elsewhere.
February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Emily Webber
In the summer of 2012, I attended the Tin House Summer Workshop where Ann Hood read from, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, her memoir about her daughter’s sudden death at age five. It was a hot summer night and people fidgeted endlessly to get comfortable. Hood’s words, so full of sadness but a testimony to love and hope, hushed the crowd. In the opening pages of Comfort, Hood provides rebuttals to all the well-meaning things people say to help someone deal with grief. Her friends give her other stories of loss and Hood says: “But none of them lost Grace. They do not know what it is to lose Grace.” Hood understands the power of telling one’s own story. Her new imprint, Gracie Belle, from Akashic Books focuses on stories of grief, loss, and recovery. The debut book, Catharine H. Murray’s memoir Now You See the Sky, delivers a gorgeously written memoir that burrows deep into the heart.
From the start, the reader knows that this family will suffer the loss of a child. However, the opening part of the book is about how Murray ends up in Thailand, finds love, and builds a life there. The beginning pages are filled with marriage, births, jobs worked, houses built, meals shared, prayers and rituals performed, leaving the reader feeling safe with the idea that we have complete control over our lives. Then there’s the diagnosis that Murray’s son, Chan, has terminal leukemia. It hits harder, just having read about all the life that has been conducted, and it serves as a powerful reminder that everything can change in a moment.
This is not an easy book, and not just because it concerns the death of a child, but entire sections spare no detail on the suffering and mental anguish that comes with cancer. Murray puts everything on the page—the physical suffering, the exhaustion of being a caregiver, the frustration of not knowing what to do, the ways in which siblings sacrifice, the emotional burden. It is one of the most open, honest, and raw accounts I have read, and Murray offers us her thoughts uncensored:
Because I was holding a small, crying skeleton of a boy all day, the healthy, happy boys were a double delight to me, if not to Chan, who cried when he watched little Than run joyfully as fast as his thick legs could carry him. And in some terrible way, they offered me a kind of assurance. Well, if Chan dies, I will be left with these very healthy boys.
The reality is that there is no clear, direct path when making decisions about the fate of another person, especially a child. Murray brings these struggles to light with no sugar coating. She agonizes over whether she should tell Chan that he is dying. She wonders if she should have given in to the treatment plan prescribed by the hospitals, which is to say his goodbyes and go on morphine until he dies. Murray’s courage in taking care of her child away from doctors and hospitals is tremendous. She does this to give him a chance at living with his family, on the land he loves, and to leave open the door that there is a possibility he can also heal:
Fresh, tender fiddleheads gathered from the edge of the stream below her sprawling garden; wild pennywort, glossy green faces like giant shamrocks, the plant we pressed to make the bitter juice that Chan had learned to swallow, believing what we hoped, that it might beat back the cancer; balls of sweetened sticky rice stuffed with black bean paste and coated with flakes of coconut, all raised and harvested by Tong and Cam from the land they worked and loved.
Coming from a western sensibility of how we handle terminal illness and death, there are parts of this book that initially were hard to understand. In the United States, elderly go into nursing homes, the sick go to die in hospitals and doctors oversee their last days, our funerals are structured and packaged affairs that seem to try to distance us from death. Chan dies at home in the arms of both parents. The family gathers and stays with the body for days, moving to the temple for cremation. Then they collect some of Chan’s ashes and pieces of small bones. There is a communion with the body and spirit, and intimacy with death and a recognition of what has passed that forms a natural pathway to acceptance and healing.
Dtaw and I untied the plain cotton cloth that held the ashes, poured the bone shards from the jar onto them, and covered it all with the flower petals. Cody and Tahn and Jew helped Dtaw and Cam and me lift the bundle over the side to tilt the last tangible elements of their brother into the swirling brown water. The gray dust of his ashes floated and shimmered in the sun on the surface before the water swallowed them.
Even readers who have been fortunate enough not to suffer a devastating loss like Murray will still learn much from her story. After reading, I revisited my thoughts on what is a good death, how we treat the dying, and the importance of our memories. I also learned about a sweet, little boy who lived in the mountains of Thailand and loved horses. Chan’s mother still feels his presence and remembers him. This reader now carries Chan’s story too, and it is an honor. I’m thankful that Catharine H. Murray had the courage to tell her powerful and illuminating story and that Ann Hood gave it a way to reach others.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer, Five Points, Maudlin House, Fourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.
February 6, 2019 § 21 Comments
By Gayle Brandeis
The boy who sat behind my mother in primary school dipped the tip of her braid into the inkwell carved into his desk, turned her hair into a brush slashing calligraphy across the back of her shirt, marking her with his intent. My grandmother told her to be flattered, said it meant he liked her, but did my grandmother worry about this boy, this ink, his intent? Did she scrub and scrub at her daughter’s shirt, hoping it would come clean? Did it ever come clean? Did the ink wash out of my mother’s hair, dark swirls of it disappearing down the drain, or did it seep deeply into each shaft, dyeing it until her mother trimmed off the ends, littering the floor with the intent of that boy? And where is it all now, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy, in what landfill, what house, what dust molecule? Have I breathed in flecks of it, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy?
The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, the memoir I wrote about my mother, her delusion, her suicide, was the most necessary book I’ve ever written; as hard as it was to write, I desperately had to get it out of my body, get it onto the page, start to find shape for the mess of my grief. Writing it helped me find compassion for my mom, helped me feel closer to her than I had in years, if ever. It helped me feel much clearer inside myself, more whole. Still, when it was published in late 2017 and interviewers asked how my mother would have felt about the book being in the world, shame crept over me, and I started to wonder: had I done the same thing as that boy? Had I dipped my mother’s hair in ink, too, used her as an unwitting pen? Was I as complicit as that boy, doing something without her consent, taking what was hers and making it my own? Were my hands irrevocably stained?
Trusting the urgency of the creative process is one thing; holding on to that trust after publication is another. While the book was received with overwhelmingly open arms and led to breathtakingly profound conversations, I also received Tweets like “Shame on you” after an excerpt was published, and “If I was your mother, I would kill myself, too.” Of course I am not alone in such trolling—it is sadly part and parcel of being a writer in the world these days, especially a woman writer—and I’ve received very little compared to many writers I know, but those Tweets got under my skin, fed the doubts and guilt already bubbling and growing inside me like a yeast. What had I done to my mother? Was I that boy, that ink?
The question of how my mother would have felt about my memoir came up again at a university reading last year, and the same shame started to re-percolate in my gut. Then my gracious host said he sensed my mom would have loved seeing her face on the cover of my book, and I realized, yes, that’s true—my mother always wanted to be the center of attention; she would likely be thrilled to see herself on the cover of a book. Something relaxed in me at this revelation. And I trust that at her best, truest self, my mother would understand I wrote this book from a place of love, from a sincere desire to fathom her, to connect. I may have started writing my memoir with a lot of anger and confusion, but every single word ultimately became a love letter. If I’ve plunged my mom’s hair into ink, I’ve also written her more deeply into my heart, tattooed her there, her presence now refreshed, indelible.
Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com