March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Maybe you’ve been able to get some writing done this past week, even focus. If so, I applaud you. I certainly haven’t. The situation, as we all know, changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute. What seemed unthinkable yesterday is the new normal; what seemed unthinkable last week—well, last week was a different era entirely.
I teach at Bowdoin College, which was and is on spring break, and which, when classes do resume next week, will switch to online-only for the remainder of the school year. With only a few necessary exceptions for those who don’t have anywhere else to go or have visa issues, students will not be returning to campus. I feel for them, especially the seniors whose college lives have evaporated with no chance at in-person goodbyes, and those whose home lives are unwelcoming or abusive. And I feel for them even more as they, and all of us, are subsumed into this whirl of uncertainty.
As an epidemiologist friend of mine put it, if the situation feels unprecedented in our lifetimes, it’s because it’s unprecedented in our lifetimes.
There is, in other words, plenty for us to think about. And so I will admit: I haven’t been thinking about writing.
When I emailed my students to check in, asking how they were and what I could do, I assumed they hadn’t been, either. But the responses came back: they’d like a writing prompt, please. A prompt like the kind I usually start each class with, a place for us to practice the making of art together, practice putting whatever is in our hearts and our minds and our memories to the page. And right now, a place for us to put all this uncertainty.
So for them, and for me, and all of us right now who could use a short assignment, a brief encouragement to acknowledge and feel this moment and turn it into art, here’s a writing exercise we can do together.
You’ve seen the handwashing diagrams, the ones intended to give us something—anything—else to sing beyond yet another rendition of Happy Birthday, many of them made through Wash Your Lyrics, a website created by 17-year-old William Gibson, using a poster from Britain’s National Health Service. Here’s one for Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” which I fully remember dancing to when I was my students’ age and 9/11 was still two years away, and we hadn’t yet had our worlds as disrupted as these kids just have:
Good, right? Makes you smile, keeps time while you keep safe. Gives you, in other words, a short assignment to keep your anxiety at bay.
Now try this:
I wish I knew whom to credit for turning Lucile Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” into a handwashing diagram—it was making the rounds on Twitter—but when I saw it, something unlocked. It made me wonder: what if we treated the handwashing diagram as inspiration for a hermit crab essay?
In Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant, they define a hermit crab essay as one in which the essayist borrows the form—the hard, hermit crab shell—from elsewhere in the world, and treats it as the container to shelter some deeply personal thing to be explored. “It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace,” they write. “[M]aterial that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.”
Soft, exposed, and tender—sound like anyone you know right now?
So for a prompt, try writing into the handwashing diagram, seeing what text you can pair with each step. (The Wash Your Lyrics website has a place for you to enter your own text.) What memories come up for you, as you write? What do the instructions suggest to your subconscious? And how can their orderly progression of steps shelter the disorderly progression of your thoughts in this time?
And—important, too—is there anywhere you want your essay to become less orderly? For the words to overspill the diagram? If that starts to happen, let it. Write into that uncertainty, and explore. What tension have you uncovered? What is at stake in your refusal, now, to be contained by the form? (For inspiration, here, try checking out Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing,” in which the narrator’s life and anxieties gradually overspill the hermit crab form of a syllabus.)
Then take it further, beyond handwashing. Are there other found or hermit crab forms you can see in the world around you, in its response to the virus? Other forms you might use as inspiration for an essay? Perhaps one of those ubiquitous sales emails from a company talking about its virus response; or a text chain as you try to convince your loved ones to stay inside; or even instructions for a Zoom cocktail hour?
Have fun with it. Explore. A different form—a different short assignment—for each day.
I hope it becomes something that shelters you, as art must for all of us.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College and the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir. Their most recent piece was “Body Language” in the December 2019 Harper’s.
Author Photo by Greta Rybus
March 20, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione
On December 14, 2012, a group of five and six year olds might have come to my desk with clipboards and pencils and surveys. They would have asked me questions such as do I prefer ice cream or cookies? Baseball or soccer? At the time I was working as an assistant to a Head of School at an independent school in Manhattan. The year prior to this position, I worked as the school’s receptionist behind a wall of glass doors. My office was catty corner to my boss’s office at the start of the hallway on the same floor as the classrooms that held the five and six-year-olds. I don’t remember if December 14th was a day when students from one of the classes learning about polls included me in their survey. I don’t remember if it was a day when my boss’s own grandson who attended the school, stopped by my desk to ask if he could just say hello to his grandmother. I don’t remember if it was a day when I stepped into a classroom to observe learning in action and to make notes and take photographs for a school newsletter. But I do remember having a break in responding to my emails and opening a news website and seeing the first headlines and images to come out of Newtown, Connecticut. I do remember texting a friend to see if her sister, an administrative assistant at a school in Connecticut, worked at Sandy Hook Elementary. She did not. I do remember my boss standing at my desk and me uttering the words, “There’s been a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut” and her eyebrows lifting. I do remember the heaviness of horror and grief that fell over my school, my community, and the nation as we learned the details of that day. I remember watching President Obama cry on national television. The images that shook loose from the Sandy Hook massacre are etched into my bones, deepened over time with the advent of becoming a preschool teacher, a mother, a US American who has also been touched directly by the effects of gun violence on my family.
In Carol Ann Davis’s forthcoming collection The Nail In The Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood she writes into the surreal of being an artist and a mother raising two boys in Newtown, Connecticut in the shadow of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. She writes about the ethics of image, “how a narrative sometimes detaches the image from its surroundings.” She writes this in response to a fight her two boys are having with neighborhood children inside her home, wasting one of the last warm days to play outside before winter tucks children away for months. She also writes this in response to a poem of Paul Celan and a painting by Arshile Gorky. She writes in response to art, violence, and childhood. She writes not to make connections with the abstract expressionist painters she admires, but to leave “loose threads” in her essays, daring not to pull tight in favor of a tidy narrative.
Davis’s strength lies not only in her poetic prose but what she chooses to shine a light on, including the works of the artists and writers and poets she chooses to dissect. It is what Davis notices that gives this collection of essays its other-worldliness and yet universality. In a gift shop in her town, she observes, “I have watched a full basket of silver mantra bracelets dwindle over five years. All the ones that have sayings such as ‘choose love’ or ‘you are home’ are gone. Two identical ones remain, and both say everything happens for a reason.” With the use of art theory and her own experiences that capture something close to her reality, it is how she argues “image and meaning need not connect” that is most effective, this absence of reason. That in fact, to impose one on the other—image and meaning—would deny the truth of this surreal existence where children are killed in their classrooms and her boys will go through their educational journey sandwiched between a haunting of missing children.
When writing “On The Relationship of Art to the Body” through the framework of artists such as Pablo Picasso and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, Davis attempts to articulate the limitations she feels as both artist and mother in trying to separate her existence and experiences from her children’s and the impossibility of this effort. In quoting Cixous and then responding, she writes, “There is an outside of me. These six words describe the paradox of love. In the moment of knowing that one’s own happiness is tied to another, that one’s own well-being is no longer the most important thing, a door should open to an inside. Instead, one realizes that there is an outside of me, something I can’t protect. Something likely to suffer or even die. This is the terrifying and somewhat unthinkable truth: we are not outside ourselves but rather stuck inside, watching parts that are outside-of-us walk around, jump too high, cross the street without looking, enter their classroom.”
The Nail in the Tree is a collection of essays that reads like a folding of art theory into memoir, a churning of thought and emotion grounded in the terrifying reality of modern day parenthood and the violence of childhood. It is Davis’s conviction that, like the surrealists, to try to create art without acknowledgment of these truths would be “fundamentally dishonest.” In an examination of Eva Hesse’s Chain Polymers, she quotes the late artist, “It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.” Carol Ann Davis’s essays live in this space in between, a creation of necessary loose threads. Much like Arshile Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother, The Nail in the Tree leaves “the seams showing.” Davis equates this deliberate “unmaking” of art as imperative to honoring the full trauma of one’s experience. In terms of Gorky, she explains how “’meaningful’ connections would have sealed away whole parts of his (and his mother’s) experience in a sort of non-existence.” If “broken parts shine truest,” as Davis suggests, The Nail in the Tree is more than a collection of essays but a linguistic portrait of what it is to be an artist and a mother in the United States, a blueprint for how to keep creating in defiance of fear, grief, and meaning.
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione is a MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her most recent prose essay can be found in About Place Journal: Roots & Resistance issue.
March 18, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Brenda Ridley
Assuming that you are up and about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could view this period of social distancing as an unexpected gift to your writing life. That’s the attitude I’ve adopted as I decide how to use my time while exiled from my job for two weeks.
Last week, Pennsylvania’s governor ordered schools state-wide closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The small independent school where I double as admissions coordinator and office manager complied. While the risk to our students of COVID-19 exposure is probably low, we could not in good conscience remain open while 99% of the schools in Philadelphia shut down. Ours is a very small school but, luckily, one with digital resources that teachers can use for online instruction. Most of my work time is spent on the phone, making sure that teachers have the resources they need, the office runs smoothly, and performing first aid in the absence of a school nurse. I have some online tools that I can use, but only a couple projects that I think I can finish at home. That leaves some open time periods during the day that I don’t usually have for writing. Here is my plan for writing while quarantined with some suggestions that you might find helpful:
1) Keep a schedule. It is so tempting to sleep in when you get up before six o’clock every weekday morning and now don’t have to. But if you don’t set up a schedule for the week, you’ll wonder where the time went and why that essay you started three months ago still isn’t finished. I’ll set my alarm for 7 a.m. and plan to start writing at 9, after exercise, breakfast, and kitty time. I have better focus in the morning, but you should create a schedule that works for you; just schedule your writing time no matter what.
2) Limit socializing. Life as I’ve known it has temporarily shifted. Everything is closed: my yoga studio, the public library, my writing group is on hiatus, even my church is practicing social distancing. Of course you can call, text, or email friends and family, but don’t do it all day. Your pen or keyboard needs you to propel it. Block out a social hour or two when you can catch up and commiserate with everyone each day.
3) Reconnect with your partner, your kids, or your pets. I rush out of the house early on workdays and don’t usually come home until almost six. I see the kitties briefly when I feed them breakfast, but there’s no time for cuddles and chatfests. My partner is still asleep when I leave. While my schedule is more flexible I can carve out some time for canoodling when I’m not drifting off to sleep and muttering incoherently. Imagine the boost some quality time can give to our relationships.
4) Eat well and rest. I enjoy cooking but don’t like to spend all day at it. When home for the day I usually prep dinner early so that at dinner time there is less to do. Doing most of the work early in the day makes it more likely that you’ll eat better instead of grabbing fast food or ordering a pizza. And set a reasonable bedtime that ensures you get enough sleep. A poorly-fed, sleep-deprived writer might produce something, but is it something you really want others to read?
5) Get outdoors at least every other day. There is plenty of evidence that walking outdoors, forest bathing, hiking and other activities make you feel better. My attitude improves considerably when I’ve returned from a brisk walk.
6) Turn off your television. Too much news is not a good thing, and a lot of conjecture by pundits and talk show hosts isn’t news. All of the chatter about COVID-19 is increasing people’s anxiety. If you must know what’s happening with the virus on a daily basis, choose one reliable news source and limit yourself to 30 minutes of “information” per day. Your nervous system will thank you.
7) Put your writing house in order. I know I have two weeks before I return to work or am told to stay at home a little longer. I’m a writing newbie and don’t have tons of projects to work on, but I have at least three essays I’ve not been able to finish. My modest goal is to finish at least one of them and to develop a strategy for completing the other two. If I stick to the schedule I’ve set for myself, I think I can accomplish what I’ve set out to do.
8) Read. No need to say more.
9) Stay open and flexible. COVID-19 has made a fast and furious impact on everyone I know, even though none of my friends or family members have contracted it. All of the twists and turns science is taking in order to get a handle on this virus require us to think about how what we do impacts someone else. Stay flexible enough to shift with the tide of events and follow the lead of experts who know what they are talking about.
10) Finally, breathe and write; breathe and write some more. I came to writing as a late bloomer but quickly found it to be a practice that I can pour almost any emotion into. Some of those scribbles are just for me, not an audience, but writing helps me to clarify my thoughts and emotions so that I can get the junk out of the way and focus on what I want to say. So, breathe and write your way through if you’re quarantined. Appreciate the gift you’ve been given.
Brenda Ridley is a Philadelphia writer who is always looking for ways to fit writing around her job and other obligations. This essay is her first submission for publication.
March 17, 2020 § 48 Comments
“Have you ever considered writing as an act of worship?” my roommate asked two years ago. She saw me struggling to find time to write, mentally beating myself up over it. And though I am a person of faith, the answer was no.
It wasn’t until I attended a writing retreat in Italy last fall that I recalled our conversation. While overlooking the Tuscan countryside, I wrote without distraction. This was new for me, staying in a beautiful foreign country with easily accessible gelato and being able to reach my writing goals. Simultaneously, I noticed difficulty while praying; I could not focus my mind on prayer in the traditional sense. When I asked God about it (because who else would I ask?), the answer I received was, Just keep writing.
Call me crazy—and at this point, I would understand if you did—but I felt as if God enjoyed seeing me use my gifts, to me a revelatory thought: who wouldn’t want to see the gifts they’ve given someone put to good use? God is much kinder than I am; by this point, I would have spitefully taken my gift back. Instead, I spent the remainder of my week in Tuscany, and the two months that followed, in a strange euphoria, as if I’d finally figured out the secret to a writing life.
But, as way leads to way (or rather, as Thanksgiving led to Christmas) my schedule filled with holiday travel, shopping and social engagements, and I was knocked out of my rhythm and routine. Then I ended up in the hospital with unexplained low blood sugar, making the simple act of waking up difficult. I was trapped in a brain fog inhibiting my concentration and creativity. Once the fog lifted, my laptop was stolen. It felt as if writing—particularly the work I wanted to do on my book—had turned into a cosmic joke. I started to believe that the world would be just fine without my writing, and maybe I would be, too.
An object at rest—or a writer who has stopped writing—stays at rest. Stuck, she requires an enormous force to move again.
For me, that “force” was spiritual, an energetic push in the form of a new practice during the season of Lent. Instead of giving up sugar this year, or practicing yoga, or shutting off all devices after 10pm (all of which have helped me in the past), I kept coming back to “make more time for writing.” Not because I need to meet self-imposed deadlines. Not because I need to publish more, lest an agent ignore my proposal. Not because I need to finish this dang book (though all of those things are true). But because writing is a way I can engage with God; being made in God’s image involves tapping into a creative entity. In Greek, humankind is referred to as God’s poima, meaning poetry. We are God’s creative masterpiece—and I feel more complete when I lean into my desires to create.
As my Lenten practice, I have given up “not making time to write.” In the morning, after I’ve had coffee, read my devotions and journaled, I set the timer for 30-60 minutes and begin with a short (200-300 word) reflection over something I’ve read that morning. This is my sacrifice of first fruits—offering my first creative output, that God may continue to allow my creativity to flourish.
I’ve been successful in daily writing and reflection, and most days I’ve found the time and inspiration to continue my effort—I’ve written and submitted an essay for an anthology, and this blog post, too, feels like a tangible fruit in a short time. For accountability, one friend checks in to see if I’m writing, and I send another my morning reflections (his Lenten practice is to read something spiritual, so we are keeping each other mutually accountable).
Combining writing with a spiritual practice has been both grounding and motivating for me. My hope is that I can build a habit and learn to let go of other “necessities” that take away my time. Full disclosure: I prioritize morning gym sessions over all, so God may also be teaching me a lesson about my relationship with exercise and food.
I have a fairly consistent inability to change my behavior simply because I should. Perhaps you are similar. Can you find motivation in a power or being greater than yourself, that enables you to overcome inertia? Perhaps it’s considering the people who need to hear your story, who can benefit from your words. Perhaps there is someone you can write “to”—an imagined audience, a real-life accountability buddy who expects to receive a daily message from you (or a piece of writing) that marks your progress. Perhaps it simply the feeling of coming into your best self while writing, and recognizing this self is a gift to be shared.
There are many ways to engage in the spiritual side of writing. The most revolutionary for me has been to see my writing as an expression of a gift, an act of worship.
Jenny Currier is a freelance writer, food tour guide, and publications coordinator at Brown University. She is a finalist for the 2019 International Association of Culinary Professionals Food Writing Award. Her stories have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Sunlight Press,and Vagabond Magazine. If you’re interested in reading her reflections, message her and she’s happy to share. (Or you’ll find her work in Forward Day by Day for the entire month of July 2021.) Follow her on Instagram @travelingfoodwriter and Twitter @jennycurrier.
March 16, 2020 § 24 Comments
By Marie A Bailey
Caveat: Cinthia Ritchie, author of the memoir Malnourished: A Memoir of Sisterhood and Hunger, is my friend, and I read her memoir keenly aware of my affection for her. I don’t claim to be objective in my review, but, in all honesty, I don’t know that I’ve ever been objective when reviewing any writing. It’s the subjectivity of writing and reading that attracts me, after all.
This doesn’t mean that I would automatically give “5 stars” to Malnourished, although I will. It’s unlike any memoir I’ve read before now. Ritchie’s story of her relationship with her sister is so honest I sometimes felt I was swallowing broken glass.
Malnourished starts haltingly, as if Ritchie is trying to get into position before diving into her memoir. Knowing already that her sister died from an eating disorder, I felt hesitant about reading her story. I knew it would be painful and yet Ritchie’s acknowledgement of how “memory is a funny thing,” encouraged me to dive in with her:
“Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it, how it adds and subtracts, takes something as simple as watching a whale swim along the shore and mixes it up in your mind so that your sister is there beside you, even though she’s been dead for years.”
Richie’s conversational tone—as if we were two women sitting on a living room carpet, our backs against the couch, a bottle of wine between us, talking in the dark—kept me anchored. Even when she admitted to lying: “I lie, I’ve always lied. Growing up, we all lied, though perhaps this is common in most families, the ability and need to lie.”
We all lie. I think of how I might never be able to write a “true” memoir because of the lies told by my family through the years, although perhaps they’re not all truly lies. What do they call it? Selective memory? Choosing to remember some things and not others? Choosing to believe that not telling can mean it didn’t happen.
I cringed sometimes at Richie’s raw honesty as with her take-no-prisoners unearthing of her sexual use of men as she took herself farther and farther away from home, from her sister, Deena. They were close as children but grew apart during high school as Deena became anorexic.
Both of them were subjected to sexual abuse by their stepfather, although Richie never quite tells you that, except in one short paragraph, almost buried in the book. Before then, she doesn’t give you details, but she makes you feel her fear of the creaking of footsteps on stairs, the guilty relief when the door being opened is not the one to her bedroom. That one short paragraph gives you only the least of details, just enough to make your imagination explode in horror.
I cringed at her raw honesty, her (what some might call) promiscuity, her hunger and thirst for touch, just to be touched. I cringed because I recognized myself in a way I’ve never done with anyone else’s story. For once I could reflect on my own promiscuous era and believe that someone, notably Richie, would understand what drove me to that particular brand of self-destructiveness. She absolved me of guilt while she heaped it on herself.
Richie also doesn’t spare herself when describing her neglect or disregard of Deena as they grew older and resumed their relationship. Deena had become “crazy,” and Richie often didn’t want to deal with it. It was a losing battle, as such battles are with families, even those not dealing with abuse and eating disorders. Sometimes, as Ritchie notes, you just don’t have the energy. “We could barely keep ourselves together.” Again, I saw her story in myself, in the way I avoided my father as his mental health deteriorated, not wanting to deal with him when he needed me most.
Malnourished weaves back and forth, in and out of time, and at first that was a little disorienting. But Richie is a poet as well as a journalist and novelist and whatever writing -ist may be included. After awhile I read the ebb and flow of her memories as shifts between fasting and satiety, between lightheadedness and clarity, between not remembering and remembering.
Malnourished is a journey toward understanding: “It would take over fifteen years and her death before I’d understand that I’d never gotten over the closeness we shared growing up.” Malnourished is a journey I won’t soon forget.
Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com. She’s been published in Brevity, by Nightingale & Sparrow, and in various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.
March 13, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Carma Hiland
Fourth Genre is offering a $1,000 cash prize for your best nonfiction essay when you submit to the Steinberg Essay contest, and we’ve just extended the deadline until the end of the month! As excited as we are about this contest, as writers ourselves, we also understand the inherent sense of unease that comes with writing contests. There’s something unsettling about bribing authors for their art. Is money the most appealing prize? Is it enticing enough to get an author to release their personal essay into the world, especially into the hands of unfamiliar judges?
Sending an essay into the abyss of the contest system can be stressful in many different ways. All of us on the Fourth Genre editorial team, myself included, have gotten to submission pages and reconsidered whether the submission fee—in this case, $20—is worth the small chance an essay will win or get published. And there are other questions we, as essay readers and writers, tend to ask, such as, should creative writing be so easily commodified? Does exchanging your writing for money cheapen the experience? Is the grueling process of drafting, revising multiple times, and submitting after hovering over the submit button for longer than you’re willing to admit worth the time for the payout?
Joey Franklin, co-editor at Fourth Genre, writes on this system of competition in an article published in the June 2019 issue of Poets & Writers. “For many of us, the real reward for entering a creative writing contest will not be money or publication,” he writes, “but rather the invaluable education that comes with finishing a piece of writing, and the particular clarity that comes from rejection.”
The greater reward is certainly the accomplishment of completing an essay that others may connect with and enjoy. Few of us choose to write out of any monetary motivation. But a little extra cash doesn’t hurt, nor does the chance at publication. In the spirit of clarity, here is a glance into the sorting process at Fourth Genre. During our regular reading period (Aug. 30 through Nov. 30) we receive around 900 essays; however, the normal submission rate for the Steinberg Essay contest drastically drops to 250 submissions. Take advantage of this. Many readers are involved in ranking each essay. Even if you don’t come away with the cash prize, all essays submitted during the contest are eligible to be published in the following issue.
Let us celebrate your writing. Don’t let your nonfiction molder in your documents folder; gain the education that comes with finishing a piece of writing and letting it out into the world. The Steinberg Essay contest is a great opportunity to do that—and could come with monetary rewards, too.
We have extended the deadline for Steinberg contest submissions to March 31st.
Carma Hiland is assistant managing editor of Fourth Genre.