October 11, 2016 § 17 Comments
By Irene Hoge Smith
I spent much of the summer revising a memoir about my poet mother—what I remember of her, how she left, what it was like after she was gone, how pretending she didn’t exist ended up costing me more than I could afford. One little story after another—a few sweet memories of her good qualities, some darkly humorous episodes, and many painful accounts. And now the revisions are done and I’m pitching the project and the question of what’s so special about me and my story is right in my face. I’m not famous, never got abducted by aliens, didn’t even manage to spend 87 days in jail in a million little pieces. I’m not special and this is not the part of the writing life I like.
But fall is here and I’m ready for a fresh start. Ready for the New Year, in fact. I attend the Rosh Hashanah service of the Interfaith Families Project with my Jewish husband, and feel part of the gathering despite not reading Hebrew and not being Jewish myself. We all belong here, for each of us it is the beginning of a new year, and I settle into the cadences of prayer and song and the pleasure of a good story:
Back in the old country, two boys were studying with their teacher, learning the blessings that are part of an observant life—blessings during services and at home, upon waking and before sleep, when lighting candles and while preparing food. A blessing for everything? Their teacher did not disagree. But of course, as is the way of such boys, they enjoyed asking questions more than anything. “Oh, teacher,” one asked, “what is the blessing for misfortune?”
They had him there. For that answer, he said, they must seek out Reb Zushya. And of course, like all good stories, this one proceeds to the quest. The two boys walked and walked, through brambles and along a stony path. By the time they found a humble hut deep in the woods they were scratched and bruised but still curious. Why would a learned man of such distinction be living in poverty?
As the story is told, it seems things had not gone well in Reb Zushya’s life. But when the two young seekers showed up looking for answers he asked them in. “I would invite you to sit, but as you see I only have this tree stump. But, please, come in.” They entered, bowing their heads with respect.
“I would offer you a cup of wine,” he continued. “But alas, all I have is water. But, please, take.”
“I would give you some cake as a mark of hospitality, but as you can there is only this crust of bread.” Reb Zushya broke the remains of a loaf into three small pieces.
The boys accepted with gratitude and respect the little there was to share, wondering all the while what had brought Reb Zushya’s life to such an impoverished state.
“So, tell me,” the Rabbi beamed at the boys. “What can I do for you?” They tell them of their lessons, their teacher, the unanswered question.
Reb Zushya burst out laughing.
He did not tell them the blessing for misfortune. He’s the wrong person to ask, he exclaimed, “For you see, I’ve had no misfortune!”
That’s something to contemplate. What might it be like, entering these days of awe, to consider that one has had no misfortune? For that is the lesson, I see, that our Rabbi has come to teach today.
That’s a hard one in any case. And a hard one for this writer, for whom themes of loss seem unavoidable and trauma sometimes the black hole of memory. No misfortune? How would that work?
Like this: The wise man did not say his life had been without loss. He did not claim to have escaped suffering. I still cannot imagine his losses but have a new thought about my own. They were and are real. They haunt me. But they were not misfortune, curses, or evidence of the universe gone wrong. No, not the runaway mother or the damaging father or the lost sisters or even a young husband gone in a heartbeat. Suffering, yes. Grief. Wondering how to go on, more than once. But not out of line. Not special.
That’s what I’m getting at. Yes, these are and may always be the things I write about. I write to find meaning in events not because they are extraordinary, but because they are all too ordinary.
Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. She is completing a memoir about her lost-and-found mother, the poet FrancEyE (also known, in the early 1960s, as Charles Bukowski’s mistress and muse). Her essays have appeared in New Directions Journal, Amsterdam Quarterly and Prick of the Spindle. (She is one of the four founding mothers of the Interfaith Families Project.)
October 10, 2016 § 22 Comments
We’re on the air! The brand-new Brevity Podcast is now available here and on Soundcloud. We hope you’ll enjoy our first episode, featuring interviews and readings from New York Times-bestselling author and noted memoirist Dani Shapiro, and Brevity author and Pushcart Prize nominee Thaddeus Gunn.
Soon, we’ll be invading the world of iTunes, Stitcher, iCatcher, and other podcast services, but for right now, we’re right here, and downloadable for listening on the go. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. If you’re on Soundcloud, please do follow us.
Let us know what you think—and we’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests!
Show Notes: Episode #1 People, Books and Places
Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Brevity, Literary Orphans, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He has over twenty years of experience of writing for print, Web, and broadcast. He currently works for his own advertising and branding company, Goldyn Gunn, co-founded alongside Kevin Golden. Find him on Twitter @thaddeusgunn, and enjoy his Dear Gregory blog.
Thaddeus’s essay for Brevity, Slapstick
The writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 is Michael Arndt.
The Hemingway app (Hemingway Editor)
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of the memoirs Devotion, Slow Motion, and Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. Her five novels include Black & White and Family History. Dani’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Elle, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times, and has been read on NPR’s This American Life. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University, and is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Dani is a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveler.
Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes de Mille
Philip Roth’s Patrimony
Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
October 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
By Hannah Koerner
Over the past month I’ve been on a binge of queer nonfiction, devouring Eileen Myles’ Cool for You and Inferno and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, annotating the latter until ink from my pen took up more space per page than printer ink. The attraction isn’t just the quality of the writing—though stunning—or the presence of queer female writers—though still, disappointingly, too rare—but that those works deal in constant, staggering revelations. What I mean is that Eileen Myles’ and Maggie Nelson’s writings live and glory in excavating ambiguities: including, but not limited to, the ambiguity of being queer—what does queerness mean? and what does it mean for my art?
As a queer writer, both questions exist close to my heart. What I come across again and again in my own writing is a frustration with form; surely, one wants to do more than regurgitate heterosexual stories and gender-swap the love interest. At the same time, writing—or at least, writing with an eye towards publication—cannot be entirely free from the pressure for universal appeal. Nor can it be free from the structure of everything that came before it, a structure which is overwhelmingly heterosexual.
Both Myles and Nelson wrote glowing blurbs for Michelle Tea’s new book Black Wave, which meant I pre-ordered it a week in advance of publication. When I got to read it, I found Tea dealing with that same frustration, those same structures and traditions, in an immensely satisfying way: she throws up her hands, and destroys them, ending her memoir in a pre-millennial, all-consuming apocalypse.
Black Wave opens on familiar territory for Tea: 90s San Francisco, drug-swept and drowning under the high-tech takeover of Silicon Valley. It remains a straightforward account of the author’s sex and drug fueled twenties until, during her move to Los Angeles midway through the book, Michelle turns to her then-lover, Quinn, and declares,
“This [. . .] Is My Memoir.
Memoirs are true, Quinn, also a writer, pointed out.
This One Is Part True And Part False. All That Stuff I Just Said, About When We Dated, Is True.”
But, it turns out, it won’t be strictly true for over a decade past the book’s setting: Tea did not in actuality meet Quinn until long after the move to Los Angeles. Black Wave, she reveals, is her attempt at catharsis after an eight year relationship’s messy end—the catch being that her ex-girlfriend requested not to be written about.
In working around its subject, replacing the ex-girlfriend with a series of stand-ins ranging from Quinn to actor Matt Dillon, Black Wave disintegrates in its own hurtle towards conclusion; like the dream collapsing around Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, Michelle-the-character’s world self-destructs as Michelle-the-author realizes the limitations of her memoir. The once-familiar Californian landscape decays beyond the effects of pollution and poverty, rushing towards the end of the world.
Perhaps equally impossibly, Black Wave remains, at heart, a memoir. It is poetic nonfiction in the style of Myles’ Inferno, riding on the surge and crash of drugs, alcohol, and doomed relationships. In keeping with that tradition it excavates its own ambiguity: a nonfiction account which edges closer to the truth the more absurdist it turns.
Michelle—both the character and the author—finds that the story she wants to tell will not fit into a traditional pattern. That’s not only out of respect for her ex, but because the content itself is profoundly marginalized. “If Michelle had gone to college she was certain she’d have been taught how to write from the perspective of a straight, white, middle-class man,” Tea writes. Hers is not a universal voice. She must do something different for appeal.
Seemingly at odds with the memoir form, queer art has a longstanding relationship with anonymity: for reasons of censorship, of authorial safety, and, as author Szilvia Molnar recently wrote in LitHub, of an embrace of fluidity: “the creator [. . .] can detach themselves from judgment that can be easily associated with a sex/sexuality or characteristics.” Although Black Wave is deeply personal and revealing of its author, it shares in that detachment when the emotional content of one relationship is foisted onto many, and many-gendered, other characters. It is a work that will be cathartic for any writer who struggles with the balancing act of remaining truthful while not impinging too acutely on the privacy of people they love or once loved. Tea manages to describe her breakup in all of its excruciating, frenzied, desperate emotion without mentioning the relationship itself more than a handful of times.
The result is an appropriately queerly-formed quasi-memoir, explosive and purgative, and exactly the break in form I’ve been itching for.
Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!
October 6, 2016 § 9 Comments
“Ready to submit” rarely means “doesn’t need any more revisions.” Thankfully, most literary journal editors are able to help refine accepted work until a piece is the best it can be. I’ve gone back and forth for word choices, tonal missteps, and fact-checking/legal ass-covering. Sometimes a magazine accepts a piece with tremendous potential they think is worthy of a deeper edit to become publishable.
It’s often a pleasure to dive back into a “finished” piece with the help of fresh eyes, and fix tiny moments–or even giant structural issues–holding the essay back. It’s also natural to feel defensive, even hurt, when receiving edits. Natural enough that when I send an editorial letter to an author, I always include,
Remember, you don’t have to agree with my diagnosis of a particular problem, but it’s worth examining the section to see if you think it’s a different problem or one that should be solved in a different way.
Even with my longtime editor who has massaged some of my favorite work into being, my process still includes a sulking day before begrudgingly starting the next draft. But then the feeling changes. I have moments of Yeah, I thought I’d paper over that, but I didn’t, and Oh, yes, that will be better!
It’s almost always worth sucking up hurt feelings and moving forward, even if taking a perverse pleasure in rewriting differently from the editor’s suggestions.
Sometimes it’s not worth it.
What if you think an editor doesn’t “get” your piece? If you’ve received edits that make you think, Did you agree to publish the piece I wrote, or the piece you would like me to have written? How can you distinguish wounded author feelings from genuine incongruence of vision?
Don’t be precious. Every writer will be edited someday. Editors do their best to help you realize your vision, but they also need your piece to fit their magazine. Take a day or two to breathe, and come back to revisions in a hopeful mood. You know how your friend shows you their finished essay and you can still see improvements? That’s where you are right now. Let yourself be OK with it. Writing is a process, and editing is part of it.
Weigh the benefits. Where are you in your publication career? How much money is involved? What about prestige? Where are you with this piece? If the New Yorker wants edits, I will be lining up with the scalpel or the axe, whichever they decree. If I’m being paid mass-media rates, or writing work-for-hire, fine, let’s chop and change, no skin off my nose as long as the check clears. If I’ve been submitting this piece for months, maybe this editor finally figured out what’s holding it back. Those trade-offs are harder if the journal is smaller or lesser-known, if they don’t pay even an honorarium, or if the essay is brand-new/without previous rejections.
Phone a friend. Determine your level of touchiness vs. the usefulness of the edits by showing a trusted writer friend. Where do they agree? Where do they shake their head and say hmmmm, I don’t know about that one? Do they agree where the issues are, even if not what they are?
Due diligence. Look up the editor. What have they written? Do you think it’s good? What writing have they championed on their social media? Do you like their taste? Read more of the magazine. Can you see your work fitting in, or is there a disconnect in tone, style, mood, voice, structure or content?
It takes two to make a bargain. As writers, we often feel powerless to influence the publication of our work, and grateful for any opportunity. But not every opportunity is the right one. If this is your dream venue, then even a heavily edited piece is a foot in the door and a nice credit. If not, and you’ve truly confronted your own reflexive defensiveness, and genuinely considered the points made, it’s OK to withdraw your piece. Send a polite note, and take the blame on yourself. You’re out of time this month for the work this journal deserves. The piece needs a bigger rewrite than you’re able to attempt right now. You’ll submit another time with a piece that’s farther along.
I got some edits recently I disagreed with. I gave it 48 hours. I showed two writer-friends for their input on what feedback seemed most useful. I went through and responded to each comment from the editor. Then I sent that back to a friend to make sure I didn’t sound snippy.
A second round of edits came. From the email, the editor had indeed found me snippy (sorry! I really did try!). I still didn’t agree with the edits. I sent the piece to a writer who didn’t know me well (less context to paper over problems) and asked her to specifically address questions the editor had. The new suggestions didn’t hit the same points–but they did give me the Oh, yes, that will be better! feeling.
Then I realized I’d spent six hours agonizing over a piece I wasn’t going to be paid for, for a magazine I didn’t know much about. That they’d seen something in my work I didn’t see, and I wasn’t able to find their point of view. They weren’t wrong, or horrible people–we just had different visions for the essay. And sending an email to withdraw felt like Oh yes, that will be better!
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
October 5, 2016 § 12 Comments
By Sarah Curtis Graziano
Recently, I was talking with a writer who told me that she’d enrolled in an MFA program years ago, when her teenage son was very small. The experience taught her a simple lesson, she said, one still applies to her life today: that she is a better mother when she writes.
“Because you’re fulfilled,” I said, nodding in solidarity. It seems like a no-brainer — happier people make better parents, right? Though in truth, her sentiment made me feel guilty because I could not fully share it. It’s not that writing doesn’t make me happier; unquestionably, it does. Returning to the page after ten years in the trenches raising my daughters has been surprisingly liberating. I find that a solid day of writing can swoop my brain up and over the muck of adult life, with all its petty schoolyard dramas, its apocalyptic news cycles, its constant thrum of low-grade phoniness that seeps into every corner of our social media feeds until it either turns us or breaks us. When I write, I don’t care about any of that.
But does writing fulfill me? The word “fulfill” denotes that a need is being met, but writing has always left me wanting more. It’s like continually taking a lover to satiate a longing, only to discover that intimacy triggers a deeper longing. Desire begets sex which begets desire. The urge to write begets the act of writing, which begets a deeper urge to write.
And therein lies the problem as it relates to my life as a mother. It’s jarring each time I have to leave my writing behind to pick up the kids from school. Hours spent spinning life into language leave me feeling hollowed-out, usually with a headache. Some days, I’m distant from my daughters, my brain still stuck on the page. Or I feel resentful — resentful that I can’t make a simple phone call to say that I’m working late, resentful that I have no support system like the one I provide for my husband — but unsure who is to blame for any of this. My husband? Myself? The Man? (Answer: D. All of the above).
Finding fulfillment in writing means giving up other fulfillments: those micro-satisfactions of having the laundry folded, the dinner bubbling on the stove, the children bathed and read to. As a feminist, I’m aware that some of those urges have been culturally threaded into my fabric since birth. But some are also the natural urges of a human who wants to see her world organized. There’s no shame in craving domestic order, only shame in genderizing its production.
On days that I write, those home comforts fall by the wayside. And what am I left with at the end? Mere words, a castle made of vapors suspended loosely in the air, visible only to myself. There is much to be said for the tangible: a spreadsheet, a meal, a paycheck.
A Gandhi quote hangs above my desk that reads, “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant. But it is very important that you do it.” And so I write, slouching towards fulfillment, chastened by stories of mothers completing novels during children’s naptimes. I struggle to write in short bursts, lacking the freedom to, as Adrienne Rich so perfectly phrased it, “enter the currents of my thought like a glider pilot.” I barely manage to get off the ground each day before the clock shocks me into action at 2:30 p.m. How can the day already be gone? I never made it to grocery store and I still can’t find the right synonym for yellow!
Later that afternoon, I lay down the rules for the 100th time. Please don’t disturb mommy for one hour while I write, just one hour. Barely ten minutes pass before one of them opens my office door to peek in at me, always to ask a ridiculous question. The answer doesn’t matter. She only wants a visual of this mother, so different than the one she used to know, with her hundred-yard stare, her finger repeating a tight circle on her temple as she works on something that steals her away like a boat sweeping her off toward the horizon. What is it? my child wonders, reaching out her hand to pull me back.
Sarah Curtis Graziano is a former newspaper reporter and high school English teacher who is slowly finding her way into the writing life. She grew up in the South but now lives with her family in Michigan, where she is at work on a musical biography. Her writing has recently appeared in Literary Mama, Parent.co, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
by Melissa Greenwood
A few Friday nights ago, I drove to a Burbank-area urgent care center after a week long crying jag left me reeling and in search of help. Call it what you will—emotional break, anxiety attack—but I found myself filling out my patient intake forms and thinking, of all things, of Christine Hale’s new memoir, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. As it happens, Hale and I have a lot in common, from a history of depression to a bottomless, “stinging” need that she calls “choking.”
Of course, I didn’t pick up this book expecting Hale to be my mirror or to tell me “who I was and had always been,” but part of the power of memoir lies in its ability to reflect our lives. In this, A Piece of Sky more than succeeds. I connected with the narrator’s story in spite of her being a country girl from southwest Virginia, born in the ’50s, and my being an LA city girl, young enough to be her daughter. This shows this author’s writing chops.
Hale was born into a difficult, abusive family and then finds herself marrying (a second time) and having children with a man prone to outbursts. “We’d been married just a few months, and already I feared his temper,” she writes. Even so, she stays with him until her children are five and nine. She’s reminded of her mother who would unleash “those rage-fits the family called ‘tears’…like the rending of cloth.” There’s undeniable dependency on and attachment to those who hurt her. Even in nonviolent relationships, Hale finds herself hopelessly entangled, whether it’s with her children (with whom she has a tradition of “together tattoos”) or her Tibetan Buddhist teacher or stray cats. “I have to have something to hold onto. That’s my nature,” she reflects.
We can all relate to digging ourselves out of a dark place. For Hale, that dark place includes “assessing whether and how to kill [her]self,” finding her “one and only” and clinging to him “like a barnacle” with her “big love,” and ruining everything with her “self-destructive urge.” This is an urge I understand.
Where do you fit into your life? The urgent care doctor asked me over the hum of the CA-134 freeway as I relayed stories of multiple jobs and sleepless nights. Don’t you matter here, too? I just stared at the nurses clearing off their stations and the receptionist tidying up her desk. These questions stayed with me, and I found myself thinking of Hale. Wouldn’t she have had these same thoughts when trying to extricate herself from an “irrational, vituperative” mother, and when dragging her family through the ugly divorce that left her “flattened…to a futon” and “just short of destitute,” and when stumbling at last into the Tampa Dzogchen Buddhist Center in search of solace? My aha moment came when I saw Hale’s recovery meant putting herself first:
I made a shrine room in my house and sat there on my cushion for two hours or more every day without fail. Sometimes while I did all this my heart raced and tears coursed down my face. Once in a while I felt the dawning of a measure of acceptance about the disaster I was caught in.
Like any recovery, Hale’s isn’t instantaneous. There is no quick-fix for depression or dependency—just hours of doing the work, chanting the prayers, accepting her “solitary state,” and sitting with discomfort until it yields some perspective: “My children had softened me, my miserable marriage[s] had wised me up.” The other take-away is that life is in a constant state of flux. One day, you’ve been divorced from the father of your children for ten-plus years, and the next you’re “begin[ing] love again late in mid-life” with husband number three, “not knowing what [you] have found and when [you] will lose it.”
This beautiful redemption story reminds us, there’s hope in the flux.
Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She formerly freelanced for entertainment magazines and local papers, and taught middle school English. She works now as the marketing and communications manager at a local LA private school.