June 4, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
This is not yet the essay on why I write. This is the foreword, in which I draw back a metaphorical curtain to reveal how this particular piece of writing came into being. It’s the part where I tell you that the form of my piece is as meaningful to me as its substance. It’s the part where I tell you that its simple structure reflects two major influences in my life.
The first is the religion I was raised in, which includes in its services “The Petitions of the Faithful.” That prayer embodies both supplication and yearning, each petition ending in the repeated sentence, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I’m no longer part of that church, but I’m interested in that prayer as writing. Repeated lines can mesmerize. They can relate elements in a piece of writing to each other, or they can contrast them. They can summon urgency.
Like the repeated sentence in the prayer, messages of supplication and yearning are the echoes in every writer’s chapel. We venerate the written word, and we yearn for our writing to transcend our imperfect selves. The hope that it will, the belief that it can, is a reason to write.
(But I’m not talking yet about why I write. I don’t mean to build the suspense, but this is still the foreword.)
The second influence on my essay’s structure is my large, extended family, bursting with cousins who begat more cousins who are now begetting even more, probably as I speak. When one of us turns 60, someone surveys the cousins to create “60 Reasons we Love John,” or Marjorie, or whoever is having the birthday.
Each of the 60 reasons starts with the word “because.” Reasons can be as universal as “Because she’s fun” or as particular as “Because when we were 12 and I stole a dollar from his mom’s purse, he told her he took it.” “Because” is a subordinating conjunction, if you’re curious about its grammatical place in the universe. I think of it as a word of enlightenment, linking a question to its answer. If I were offering a reason for why we write, I’d say that it’s a longing to finish the part of a sentence after “because.”
But this was just the foreword, not the actual essay on why I write. Here is the actual essay: “21 Reasons Why I Write.”
- Because writing is the way I enter the world.
- Because writing is the way I leave the world behind.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
- Because writing is how I try to change the world.
- Because writing is how I try to preserve the world.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
- Because writing is how I confront things in my life that persist.
- Because when I’m in the midst of doing that, I usually don’t know it.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
- Because writing allows me to imprint myself onto fictional Others.
- Because writing allows credible claims that my characters aren’t me at all.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
- Because writing is a gloriously solitary sport.
- Because writing demands a trusted writing community.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
- Because writing begins with listening.
- Because writing requires earplugs.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
- Because writing is prayer.
- Because writing is play.
- Because writing can embrace that contradiction.
Mary Hannah Terzino resides in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and won first prize in Fiction Factory‘s 2021 flash fiction competition.
June 3, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Alizabeth Worley
The atmosphere in which I fell in love with writing—and with essays—was toxic.
My high school English teacher was a ghost writer, literally sitting down at the computer where a student had been working, then writing or rewriting a whole poem or essay or story. Every year, he won dozens of awards under his students’ names.
As a high school student, this literary surrogacy was debilitating. I did not feel like I was a good writer, not really, because he had overwritten so much of what I worked on. I do not believe that my classmates felt confidence in their writing either.
One of my classmates had won an award for her poem, and she was invited to read it at an award banquet. This teacher, the same who had overwritten so many of her words, was helping her rehearse it out loud. It was painful; they said lines back and forth over and over, he in his way, she in hers, while he became more and more frustrated.
Finally, he paused, reading the poem silently and looking into himself, as if to gather his frustration and smooth it out. Then he repeated one line of her poem—I still remember it, one arm hangs like a broken wing—and said, “Such a good line.”
She said, “That’s because you wrote it.”
He said, “I know.”
Now, I can’t believe that I was so blind to his quiet contempt, that I said and felt nothing for her at the time.
The atmosphere in which I fell in love with writing was toxic, and invasive. He read my journals: some of my friends had given him their journals to read, and when I finally did, he said to me, “It’s about time.”
We played games like “The Line Game,” where students were told to step up to a line taped to the carpet if they had been through certain life experiences: therapy, eating disorders, bullying. When he asked if anyone had done drugs, he put his toe on the line. He said, “I think I’d have to say yes to this.” But he was talking about pornography, not drugs. We just didn’t know that.
I told him everything: about the older boy who touched me when I was younger, about the classmates who called me stinky and freak in elementary school, about the turmoil that led to my parents separation and the divorce that had just come through my junior year. It was everything I never knew I wanted, to let out the secrets and shames I had never thought to share.
It was everything I wanted, but it was also everything he wanted: to be serenaded with the remains and reshapings of pain.
One of my classmates once said to me, he makes me wish I had a drinking problem, as if that was the best gift she could offer, the surest way to sustain his engagement.
For a while, it was everything he wanted.
The atmosphere in which I learned to love writing was toxic and invasive and ultimately abusive. The first time he hugged me, I wrote about it in my journal, which he read and then asked me to pen over or shred finely enough that no one else could see—people will get the wrong idea, he said, he said exactly that, and I really believed him.
Soon enough, I discovered the easiest way to erase my records: soak the paper in water, then let the words pill off as I scrubbed two folds together. Soon enough, I stopped writing about my life.
One day, he said, maybe I’d write about all this—the phone calls and trips to hotels and nights in empty parking lots—when there was less at stake. He believed that I wanted his burning, really believed it in his heart, as if he had no other choice. But even then, when he said I might write about all this, as if I would defend it, I remember thinking: no.
I had fallen in love with writing, not him, and he had mistaken the two.
I had fallen in love with words by Galway Kinnel and Toni Morrison, and then so many others. There, in his classroom, long before he said he loved me, I had pulled a freshly printed sheet off a stack of papers sitting on a desk and read “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. Reading it, I was as moved as I had ever been, and though I would revise my desires in time, right then I thought: if I could do only one thing with my life, this would be it.
Don’t let him rob you twice.
So much of what I love was bound up in that situation: writing, yes, but also theater and film and art and school itself. There are streets and freeway exits I avoid because of their association with that time in my life. There are songs I don’t listen to, and movies I don’t watch.
But when it comes to the core tenets of who I am, I tell myself, over and over again:
Don’t let him rob you twice.
And so, I write.
Alizabeth Worley has an MFA in nonfiction from BYU and was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals Project. Her essays, poetry and illustrated works have been published or are forthcoming in Guernica, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Tar River Poetry, Hobart, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alizabethworley.com.
June 2, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Meg Keeshan McGovern
A handwritten letter from an old friend came in the mail along with a hand-blown glass paper weight housing a decoupage of bachelor buttons. It was packed in a beautiful box with a purple ribbon. This friend knew my love for letters and flowers in an old-fashioned sort of way. The first line of her letter said, “I felt that such an auspicious event deserved an actual handwritten note.” She expressed the reality that handwritten notes are not as common as they once were. Seeing my friend’s scrawling script, brought back memories of our younger days when writing a letter was considered etiquette.
The handwritten letter is an art. It takes inspiration and thought. What stationery should I use, the one with the flowers or my initials? Which pen should I write with, my calligraphy pen or my silky, black felt tip? Which stamp should I place on the envelope, the one with LOVE or the one with the United States flag? The answers depend upon the person you are writing to—a spouse, relative, friend, or colleague. It depends upon the event—a wedding, new baby, death of a loved one, get-well, thinking of you, or holiday. The art of letter writing using a pen and paper has become less traditional. Birthdays are recognized on Facebook and through texts instead of birthday cards handpicked specifically for that person. I have been guilty of this myself but growing up it was different. My sisters and I were required to write thank you notes every time we received a gift. We mailed family and friends birthday cards. I expected the same of my sons.
The drawer of my night table is filled with cherished handwritten letters from my father, my mother, my sons, those who have touched my heart with their words. Occasionally, I will sit on my bed, the drawer in front of me, and get sucked in for hours reading each letter. Memories, the stories of my life, are resuscitated, and suddenly, I am reliving moments I had tucked away or forgotten. Recently, I reread a letter my father wrote me in 1997. Written on his standard off-white stationary, his full name embossed in dark blue, my dad wrote that were like soulmates, something he had never said to me in person. His handwriting brought him back to life. I could hear his voice saying the words as if we were sitting on a couch together. While reading his letter, a few years after he died of lung cancer, I was brought to tears, seeing his cursive longhand, the way he wrote my name with the ornate M, the way he wrote the number seven backwards with a slash through the middle, the way he always signed his letters with “Love, Your Dad,” was a warm embrace.
A handwritten note is part of the person, the sender. My son sent me a birthday card with “Thanks a Million” on the front. His letter traveled across the country. I felt his presence as I breathed in every word. Seeing the penmanship, I recognized from his school years, a few words crossed out, a few comments in parenthesis, then his words of proud encouragement as I was wrapping up my MFA, was the greatest gift I could ask for without being physically together. It may not seem significant, but when you live in a remote location like Alta, Utah, buying a card and sending it off in the mail so that it arrives in Connecticut on time, takes thought and planning.
This art isn’t taught in schools the way it used to be, and now with COVID, students are using chromebooks instead of physically writing in composition notebooks. Wrapping my head around creating and using digital notebooks, not passing out black composition notebooks with crisp pages and a fresh pencil with an eraser cap for Language Arts, felt insurmountable, but I had no choice. My twenty-fourth year of teaching was a first for not memorizing the handwriting of 115 students. My classroom is still empty of sharpened pencils, pens, colored pencils, and markers usually in colorful containers around the room. My shelves, usually lined with writing and drawing paper, are empty, too.
Last week, my students chose a character trait to write about in their digital notebooks. One student wrote, “I am creative. I take birthday cards and letters very seriously. I spend hours decorating cards and the envelopes to my friends and family, personalizing every inch of free space.” This student gave me hope, hope that the art of letter writing will not become a thing of the past.
Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.__
May 31, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
I’ve been thinking about the pact between a memoirist and her discerning readers, including those about whom she writes, an unspoken agreement that what is on the page comes from a genuine place of curiosity, exploration, and a valiant attempt at reflective self-awareness. Trust is at stake. Is the writer narrating her own story without a self-serving agenda? From my experience as a reader, the answer is yes in almost every case—but not always. This is not to say memoirists are ever 100% reliable narrators because memory is faulty and conveying impactful experiences effectively is hard. The key lies with intent. It’s not the writer’s job to dictate how a reader feels; it’s up to the writer to tell her emotional truth the best she can and let a reader feel how she feels. If a memoirist does her job, her actions are recounted on an equal playing field with those of the other “characters” from her life. If a writer airs dirty laundry, her clothes better make up the bulk of the load. I strive for this, but still worry I’m failing.
I have a 15-page personal essay in the upcoming summer issue of The Coachella Review that I thought I would never put on the internet. It’s an eyebrow-raising story of my six-month marriage in 2005. I started writing it when I was still emotionally invested. I finished it as a different person who has no attachment to it at all. I’m a firm believer in getting words down when events are fresh and editing them from a temporal distance. In early drafts, I struggled with how to tell my story without sharing details of my ex-husband’s childhood that fell squarely under Not My Story to Tell. As a conscientious human, I knew I had to leave it out, and ultimately I didn’t need it. Sometimes brutal honesty is just brutal, and as a mentor explained, it doesn’t matter why my ex acted the way he did, only that he did. In the end, the essay is equally about my own illicit mistakes—many to which my ex still isn’t privy (Yikes!). Sometimes, what’s noteworthy is what a writer doesn’t say—the magical white space that leaves room for the reader’s own experiences and imagination. Also important is how the author presents her life choices: the tone, the structure, the attention to detail, and the relevance of each scene to the larger picture. (What does it all mean?) Often the memoirs with the trickiest ethical questions are the most empathetic—my favorite nonfiction to read. While editing my marriage essay, if I’d still been indignant or melancholy—or my intentions had been vengeful (gasp!)—the implicit agreement with readers would crumble, and they would notice.
It’s a rare occurrence when I read nonfiction that strikes as disingenuous or includes extraneous passages that make me question the author’s intentions. In most cases, I blame the editor. (How did he let this happen?) But, as much as we’re told to read meticulously crafted, thoughtful literature to grow as writers, I also find dubious work to be an instructive reminder of what not to do. (I hope my manuscript doesn’t sound this off-putting! Does that scene really need to be in it?) One of the most reassuring aspects of having an unpublished memoir manuscript seven years in the making is knowing I can always improve it. I haven’t upset readers yet, and, when I inevitably do, it won’t be deliberate, and that’s the key.
Before the pandemic, I loved book signings, especially when I’d already read the book being signed. Having a two-minute opportunity to heap praise on a memoirist and make a connection as a fellow writer who understands the hard work that went into creating her book always feels meaningful. I want nothing more than to read a memoir and immediately tell my family, friends, and other writers, “This is so good. You have to read it!” Even better, I love when I finish a book and am so in awe of its flawlessness, it pisses me off I didn’t write it. Holding a just-read memoir to my chest, shaking my head with my eyes closed, and thinking how did she do that? is my version of going to church. My biggest hope is one day, at least one reader will have a fraction of that response when she finishes reading my memoir, and that will be a good day.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, The HerStories Project, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her latest essay will appear in the summer issue of The Coachella Review.
May 29, 2021 § 2 Comments
HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers is happening this year, and they’re offering several full scholarships, including a Writers of Color Scholarship and the Jean Snow Memorial Scholarship for a writer of color who will also be a first-time conference attendee.
Here is a link to the scholarship page for more details: https://hippocamp21.hippocampusmagazine.com/about/scholarships
May 28, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Andrea Isiminger
It’s only 50 words out of 500. Am I really going to insist? I wrestled with the question and once again reviewed the changes the editorial assistant suggested. Some edits I was grateful for; others I’d tweaked to make my own. But when she tidied up that final paragraph, my heart broke.
The last three lines of this essay were unconventional. I suppose they resembled poetry more than prose, but to me nothing appeared out of place. Each line contained a rhythm that amplified its message. The three together created a crescendo, an ending I hoped would echo in the reader’s mind long after the facts faded away.
I confess—I sometimes write sentences that would make a good grammar girl cry. I’ll begin with a conjunction if it will make the reader pay closer attention to what follows. A run-on sentence may be positioned to steal breath and increase heart rate. And a sentence fragment is an invitation for someone else to follow the thought to their own conclusion.
I try not to ignore the solid advice of style manuals often, but I honestly believe there are instances when correcting the grammar makes the magic disappear. Clean, correct structure might improve flow, but it also alters perspective, said a voice inside my head. My people-pleasing personality shuddered at the image of becoming a diva who trailed drama in her wake. I trusted this literary blog; they had published my work before. Even so, I knew what I had to do. I took a deep breath, clicked on the Google document comment section and explained why I needed those lines to remain untouched.
My essay was off to be reviewed by the senior editors. There was nothing to do but wait.
To keep occupied, I prepared my book club notes on Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase. While surfing for witty remarks on the internet, I learned that Dovlatov had the idiosyncrasy of never writing a sentence containing two words that began with the same letter. Of course, this didn’t hold true for our English translation. I wondered what Russian readers thought of his style. Did they notice a stronger structure, a more defined purpose? Or was it only Sergei who cared? Could anyone hear what he heard?
My email inbox offered up The Paris Review’s weekly newsletter. It contained a 1990 interview with Maya Angelou, who revealed why she keeps a Bible nearby when she writes. “I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.” I’d found a kindred spirit to calm my nerves. I also appreciated her comments on revising: “I know when it’s the best I can do. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.” In the distance, I heard a resounding chorus of “amens,” released by the souls of misunderstood writers throughout the centuries.
We all know how easy it is to skew information to support what we need to hear. Would it be more difficult to cherry-pick facts if I moved to a book written by a copy editor? With my Sherpa blanket and a glass of red wine for comfort, I settled on the sofa with Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. On page 52, Mary, who works at The New Yorker, recounts a tussle with an author over a dastardly dangler. The author wished to leave the sentence as is: “Over tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark.” (The clever reader certainly realizes that the mood can’t hover over the tea.) Mary changed it to: “As we drank tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark.” Later on, Mary admitted (with regret, I hoped) that there was “something more brooding about the version with the dangler.” In another example, Mary decided to let Edward St. Aubyn’s dangler squeak by because “the queasiness created by the dangler, that sense of imbalance,” produced an important sensation for the reader.
I welcome input. Editorial insight has saved me from embarrassment and my readers from misinformation. I’ve sat in the editor’s chair, and I agree with Mary that the job is a delicate balance “between doing too much and doing too little.” Although when I’m the writer, my job includes protecting my voice. I was brave enough to display all my imperfections (personal as well as grammatical) in order to get the reader invested in my creative nonfiction. Therefore, I need the editor to occasionally give way to my adverb-wielding, comma-splicing, em dash-loving self.
A week later I received the email confirming that my piece would be published as is—the senior editors having chosen the writing over the grammar. When the essay later ran on their Facebook site, I was thrilled when they introduced it with their favorite line, which happened to be my sentence fragment. Perhaps the magic wasn’t just in my head after all.
Andrea Isiminger lives in Madrid, Spain. While becoming fluent in the Spanish language seems to be beyond her skill set, she hasn’t given up on English or her writing. Her work has been published in print and online at Blink Ink, Stitch (flash nonfiction at Thread), Literary Mama and Mamalode to name a few.
May 27, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Amie Souza Reilly
Brian Doyle’s essay “Imagining Foxes” remembers the afternoon he and his siblings spent playing in a tiny patch of cedar forest. However, the importance of that day does not come from what they witness in the woods, but from what they don’t actually see at all. His is an essay about finding meaning in absence.
In the beginning, Doyle lists all they observed, and readers, like the Doyle children, forget that the “forest” is only twelve blocks long. This is the way he leads us into imagination, by showing us how to forget while also remembering.
And interspersed in descriptions of the birds they saw, Doyle mentions the deer they didn’t see:
although we did see mats of grass, which sure looked like places deer would nap, like uncles after big meals, sprawled on their sides with their vests unbuttoned, snoring like heroes.
Like a balancing act, he continues to write of the real and imagined—holes where mammals live, the undeniable scratch marks of bears—though of course we know there are most likely no bears in this stretch of trees hemmed in by highways.
But after these teetering lists, in the third paragraph of the essay, there is a switch. Here, Doyle steps away from recollection and addresses his readers: “…but my point here is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.” The nostalgia-laden description, the nap of remembering, is broken.
The thing the Doyle kids did not see, not really, was a fox. He says they smelled him, heard him, saw the little dabs in the dirt were his feet surely trotted. But they never actually saw the fox. And the fact that it was never actually seen is precisely what Doyle wants to talk about. This essay is a lesson in writing as much as a lesson in life.
“Imaging Foxes” reminds me of what Vivian Gornick writes about imagination and memoir in The Situation and the Story. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”
Doyle’s essay is about imagination, about experience and wonder. The forest is the place that held the event, the experience inside it is the memory. There’s a tug at nostalgia in his words. How magical, the memory of childhood afternoons spent lost.
When teaching this essay to a class full of students, most barely out of childhood themselves, I ask them to write down that Doyle sentence, and to think of it as a key that turns in a lock, opening something special. Write it down, I say, in the middle of your paper:
But my point is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.
And then I ask them to think of a childhood space, perhaps somewhere that felt wonderous then, though they may experience it differently now. After, I have them imagine what they see, smell, and feel inside that place, and write it all above the Doyle sentence. Below it, I ask them to describe what is not there. In this act of separating the memory, of turning, briefly, outside of themselves, I hope that they find the meaning of that absence.
“If you stop imagining them then they are all dead,” Doyle writes at the end of this essay, “and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?”
It is not about absence at all, but about the fullness of wonder.
Amie Souza Reilly is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University and is the Assistant Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine. Her work can be found in trampset, Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.
May 26, 2021 § 2 Comments
by Melissa Greenwood
When a former writing mentor suggested I might enjoy Cassandra Lane’s book We Are Bridges—a memoir about ancestral trauma—I bristled. What could I possibly have in common with this story? Yet, (to borrow from the title), good writing acts as a bridge, connecting writer to reader, and Lane, who won a Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, is a master with her pen.
I was ashamed of my initial resistance when it turned out that Lane and I have a great deal in common: an appreciation for tea and “big green cast-iron pot[s]”; attendance at the same MFA program, albeit during different decades; careers as reporters, then teachers (incidentally, we were both formerly teacher’s pets); Los Angeles addresses (I was born and reared here, but Lane has called LA home for twenty years now); and much more. However, the most striking similarity is that neither of us wanted children. Lane writes, “I’m never having children…Never…Never. Never. Never.” She changes her mind. I have not.
But this memoir isn’t about me, and it’s not even really about Lane. The book is about “ancestral trauma,” specifically, a “psychological need,” nagging at Lane all her life, “to get at the root of family questions” arising from her great-grandfather Burt’s lynching. It’s also about a “generational trail of broken people” and “trauma ghosting—the body’s ability to ‘remember’ a trauma that happened earlier in life or in an ancestor’s life.” It’s about “generations of trauma” and about “injuries that originate in the womb: wounds of slavery, lynching, and domestic violence.” More than anything, it’s about how Lane’s “pregnancy boomeranged [her] back to [her] family and [their] past…called [her] back to [her] ancestors.”
Lane strives to shield her future son from the “leftover trauma” passed down to her, about which she says, “My body is a river, a channel…my body knew.” She shares memories of stories recounted to her by loved ones as part of her personal narrative, as well as imagined memories from her ancestors’ perspective; for these, she uses the present tense to differentiate from her own known story. The message is this: Burt may have been killed nearly seventy years before the author’s birth, but his too-short Black life still matters in the present day. (Lane thanks the Black Lives Matter movement in her acknowledgements, noting that violence against Black bodies, especially male ones, continues.)
Lane’s pregnancy is the bridge, if you will, to Burt’s experience. She writes, “With Solomon’s birth, Burt will live again, breathe again…with a new generation growing inside me…I [am] thirsty for knowledge.” And the narrator repeats this sentiment a third time: “The decision to give birth”—the very thing she swears she’ll never do and thought she never wanted—“connects me to my past.” Here, repetition acts to reaffirm the importance of Lane’s pregnancy as a connection to Great-Grandpa Burt and early 1900s Mississippi, collapsing time in a way that blends present with past. Repetition is just one of the literary devices Lane uses. Turn to any page, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find a number of similes. These could feel forced or overwritten. Instead, Lane’s prose is lyrical and rife with descriptive figurative language. The sun is “a dim disk.” The Atlantic Ocean is “vacation green.” Burt’s skin is “the shade of hay left out in the sun.”
Lane’s tendency to draw upon the senses sharpens the violence about which she writes. There are “the white men with their guns and their pitchfork hearts, the law with its blind eye.” There is the hanging tree, an oak—an “unwilling accomplice to Burt’s murder [that]…must have moaned from deep within its belly”—a “centuries-old howl…releasing sticky tears that drip[ped] like molasses.” There are her own father’s “heavy fists” pounding into her pregnant mother’s back. There are whippings with “plum-tree” switches that sting. There are also, in her family history, other violations: merciless beatings and even molestation—wrongs that can never be righted. As Lane aptly muses: “The art of torture is a thing passed down.”
But for all of the violence, there is love for Lane’s unborn son with whom her “heart is threaded” (it was this “‘miracle’ pregnancy” that set her on the quest to uncover her past); for Lane’s “foremothers”—the fierce women who shaped her and whose names she “will always hold…in [her] heart”; and for the ancestors she carries inside her still, especially the eponymous Mr. Bridges, whom she “wrote…into existence” by saying and repeating his name—Burt Bridges, Burt Bridges, Burt Bridges—until the name became a part of her, a part of us: We are Bridges.
Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. This is her third book review for Brevity, and she has written others for Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Melissa lives in LA with her husband and works as a Pilates instructor, writing and reading CNF when she isn’t at the “studio,” which, in present pandemic-times, is actually her living room.
May 25, 2021 § 3 Comments
We’re all concerned about hurting others or getting hurt.
We all want to share our story as truthfully as possible.
What happens when these are diametrically opposed? When your ex threatens to take the kids, Aunt Mildred screams at you on the phone, and your mom says she’s “not mad…just disappointed”?
Your story matters, and you get to write it the way you remember. It’s called a memoir, not a “comprehensive review of all facts.” But you can take steps throughout your writing and publishing process to minimize fallout and family strife.
Write the book. You may discover a new story thread as you write, leaving out the worrisome scene or the touchy relative. You may discover that actually, you have five scenes showing why you became a mountain climber, Aunt Mildred saying you’d never amount to anything isn’t the strongest one, and you’re cutting it.
Seek out other perspectives. If you’re not speaking to your antagonists, ask their family members. If you are, interview like a documentarian. Don’t ask, “Why did you push six-year-old me down the stairs, Dad?” Instead, “Tell me about how we interacted when I was a kid. What were our days like?” You might cry in your car after every interaction, but you’ll get better material by starting from a neutral position.
Do as much showing as possible. Describe behavior and show its effects on those around the person. It can be very meaningful to write an antagonist’s perception of herself, giving her view serious consideration (Is Grandma an alcoholic or is she just “jolly”? Are you being judgmental?). Balance makes a more interesting book, with more for the reader to think about. Give the clues to the problem—make the reader a detective who puts it all together.
Rest the book. Every author, fiction or non, needs a resting period for their book. If you’re a category romance novelist churning out ebooks for dollars (you go!), that might be an afternoon. But for memoirists, your final-draft manuscript should sit without your attention for a minimum of six weeks, and ideally six months. Coming back to a book with fresh eyes is one of the best editorial techniques I know. When you come back, read the manuscript into your phone’s voice recorder. This will teach you where your voice is overly formal or just plain awkward, and the saying it aloud part confirms, “Yes, I really do want to say this, in this way.” Then play the recording back. Listening also shows where your book needs revision.
Get the deal. Before you tell any relatives the book is done. No point in getting everyone all fired up if it turns out you’ve written a “practice” memoir. When you’re contracted, an agent or publisher (or freelance editor, if you’re not ready to query or you’re self-publishing) can help navigate second thoughts. A supportive stranger’s perspective on your portrayal of a partner or relative can confirm your words are fair.
Step with caution if you’re in mid-divorce or a custody battle. But divorce papers get signed and custody gets solved, and your book will still be there when the time to publish is right.
Prepare for engagement. Plan and rehearse what you’ll respond to questions you’re dreading and how you’ll handle interactions with people in your book.
Tell your sibling, “Isn’t it fascinating how we can grow up in the same family and have such different experiences? I’d love to read your version of the story someday.”
Tell your parents, “You don’t have to read it, but I hope you’ll support me sorting out my own experiences on paper.” It’s not the first time you’ve hurt your parents’ feelings (we were all 13 once!) and it’s probably not going to be the last.
Most people who threaten to sue don’t, won’t or can’t. It’s not as easy as they think, and it’s not cheap.
There is no memoir-publishing without penalties. You are never going to get off scot-free. Someone you were very kind to will be unhappy anyway. Someone you didn’t even mention will be mad you left them out. People will remember things differently. Your book will sell a ton of copies and your friends will be jealous and even more people will read it and be mad. Or your book will hardly sell at all and your enemies will triumph. Cousin Mark will be mad you talked bad about his dad. Your mom will be upset you dug up that old family story. Your kid will be embarrassed you talked about changing their diaper.
You can’t stop people from feeling their feelings and having their own memories, and you will never finish your book if you are trying to please them more than you are trying to tell your story.
A memoir is, by definition, one person’s memory. Be honest with yourself, be kind when you can be, and put in a disclaimer about memory at the beginning. Write your best work and brace yourself—sharing your journey is worth it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Worried about navigating your own memory as you write? Join her this Thursday for Memoir From Memory: Telling the Right Story with Confidence. 1PM Eastern, recording available if you can’t make it live. Register now.