Flash Lyric Essay About a Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence in Student Writing at Which Professors Become Dejected and Lament the State of the World

January 12, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Yelizaveta P. Renfro

The history professor yells “Shit!” when he sees an AI-generated sentence, and “Show us the devil!” when the presenters offer to share a whole AI-written essay, and finally, “I’m going to retire!” The medievalist retorts, “I can’t retire for twenty-three years,” and then talks about the terrifying prospect of grading essays written by machines. Then someone else quips that with machine scoring of essays, one machine might be writing and another machine might be grading—lonely robot talking to lonely robot. “Writing is supposed to be one mind communicating to another mind,” laments the communications professor, who is also close to retirement. But what is a mind, anyway? And what is writing, except capturing and rearranging words? Isn’t all of expression mimicry?

The presenters tell us to test a writing assignment in one of the free AI playgrounds, so I type flash lyric essay about a faculty meeting on artificial intelligence in student writing at which professors become dejected and lament the state of the world, and within seconds, AI has written a five-paragraph essay titled Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence: A Flash Lyric Essay, except it isn’t a lyric essay at all. From the time of Aristotle, philosophers have been worried about how humans compare to machines, AI tells me. The government is investing billions into AI research to benefit national security.

At another AI playground, I get a more disquieting result. What have we become? Has technology created its own monster? Where is the humanity? These are a few questions that I think are asked every day. They are asked by our students. They are asked by our leaders. They are asked by ourselves. The students are the most innocent ones of all. I am not afraid to admit that I am among them. To be quite frank I have even been one of them. But I don’t think the problem lies with students. I think it lies with us.

Who is this first-person narrator? In the next paragraph, he tells me:

 I am a faculty member of a liberal arts college. Recently I was asked to write a poem about the subject of artificial intelligence and this is what I wrote.

Artificial Intelligence: The Machine in the Sky

By Joseph M. Martin, Professor of English

In every way, it’s bigger than me

It’s far superior to me

I am just a man

It’s greater than me

It’s superior to me

I am just a

The text cuts off, but clicking the “more” button produces additional lines:

I am just a man

It’s bigger than me

It’s far superior to me

It has much more going for it

It has a great deal more going for it

Much more, much more than me

It’s bigger than

Clicking “more” generates more poem—the same inane lines, with slight variations. AI is savvy enough to create a professor persona, to capture something of the tenor of lyric nonfiction, and yet—poor Professor Martin has hit a wall, reaching the outermost edges of what he knows to say. Still, I keep clicking “more,” until finally, he can only repeat the same line over and over, hundreds of times, like a monomaniac. I scroll for what seems like miles.

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

The presenters have follow-up questions. How effective is the writing that was generated? Would I be able to tell it was written by AI? How would I grade it? I suddenly imagine Professor Martin enrolling in my introductory creative writing class, a tweed-coated mannequin with a pull-string on his back. I am just a man, he says, when I pull the string. It’s far superior to me. It’s far superior to me. And then I try to coax new, original thoughts out of poor Professor Martin, but he is a Chatty Kathy with only half a dozen pre-recorded phrases. 

The medievalist is somewhat relieved to discover the assignment she fed her robot did not produce a particularly coherent essay. The conversation moves on to writing as process—prewriting, brainstorming, mindmapping, outlining, workshopping, conferencing, revising—all the weapons we have against robots that can generate an essay in six seconds. But I am distracted now, because Professor Martin has taken up residence in a corner of my mind, where he sits, dejected, still trying to write his poem, hitting his head against the wall.
__

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.

Exposing My Truth

January 10, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Regina Landor

My brother once said to me when we were discussing a disagreement I had with another family member: “Being right isn’t always what matters the most.”

I understood what he meant: peace is what matters. I’ve kept his words with me for many years. They’ve helped me scramble down from the high moral ground on which I sometimes find myself waving a flag.

But it’s tricky. I’m one who feels compelled to set things right. Maybe it’s my mild case of OCD. A picture hanging crookedly on a wall? No thank you. A religious zealot who’s afraid of same-sex figurines on top of a cake? I can’t even. An inappropriate comment made in the margins of a piece of writing from a member of my writing group? Come again?

I wrote a piece recently about a time when I was 13 years old and touched by a boy for the very first time. Raw stuff. Delicate material. Not wanting to spell out the V word, I used what seemed like a compromise: a metaphor. My golden spot, I wrote. It seemed pretty darn golden when it was touched. Who knew there was so much gold down there?

Was I wrong to be angry when my fellow writer’s comment in the Google doc read: I’m not buying this? When she said: This is too sophisticated for a teenager? And even further: This is evasive and I think it would be better reworded—without offering any constructive criticism as to how she thought it should be reworded?

She also wrote, “Plus, total lack of privacy.” It was unclear to me if she meant that because the boy and I were in the backseat of a car driven by someone’s dad the scene lacked privacy (Duh) and was therefore not believable; or if she meant that she was uncomfortable with the privacy of the subject matter. Clear as mud.

The comment compelled me to write an email to our four-person group (I’d only met the writer of the comment online) to spell out feedback etiquette, namely: We’re writing our truth, and we need to be careful not to judge or criticize or impose our values on each other’s work. When starting this group, I suggested everyone read Peter Biello’s essay On Giving Feedback. And for the most part, our members have followed his advice, lending support and encouragement as well as good suggestions.

Was I wrong to be angry by her comments? I may have been wrong in my response, which I made in the margins of my piece after sending my email. As to the “evasive” remark, my husband suggested I tell her I wasn’t talking about my elbow. But I didn’t want to be sarcastic. Instead, I chose edgy. And then I did spell out the V word, just to seal it.

She replied in the comments that she only meant the scene didn’t ring true to her, not that she didn’t believe me. Truthfully, it is one of the most truthful scenes I’ve ever written. Another member of the group wrote in response to the scene: “So powerful.”

Who am I to believe? That the scene doesn’t ring true, or that the scene is so powerful?

I wrote her another email, apologizing for being edgy in my comments, but also saying that her remark about it being “too sophisticated for a teenager” implied that she doubted my experience.

I didn’t receive a reply. At least, not right away.

This exchange took up days of headspace. It also made me wonder whom I could trust with my work. I’m a writer here. I have a nasty habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I was born a sensitive soul. Flippant remarks tend to have the opposite effect on me: they don’t flit away. I like criticism, I want criticism, but what does “I would reword this” do for me except cause me to doubt what I’m doing?

It’s a two-way street: if people offer comments, they should at least be as thoughtful as the writer of the piece. I know it’s all a learning process. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. But sometimes it’s necessary to push restart and remind ourselves and others what we’re doing here. Our goal is to be supportive and kind. Feedback can help the writing process and it can thwart it.

I got over it. I hadn’t been wounded, only mad. In fact, it spurred me to write a little piece about Pandora’s box. (What was in the box, you ask? You guessed it—vaginas.) I deleted the comment thread and wondered if she’d remain in our group.

Fortunately, after what seemed like weeks (it was only half a week) the writer of the comment responded to my apology email. With grace. She apologized herself. And she closed her email by signing off with one of my favorite words: Onward!

The exchange may have given us both pause. She acknowledged that she “missed the mark” with her comments; I had the opportunity to think about my own sensitivity and how she wasn’t intentionally trying to upset me. I’m glad it’s all behind us and we can get on with the business of writing our truth, however private it may be. As to whose comment I should believe about my delicate scene: I concluded that the one person I need to believe is me.

___

Regina Landor, preschool teacher, is the lucky recipient of daily hugs from four-year-olds. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas with the Foreign Service, living in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. While in Dhaka, she wrote the book Marry Me Stop about her mother’s extraordinary life and lapse into dementia. Her first book, Forever Traveling Home, chronicles the experience of moving overseas with toddlers. Examples of Regina’s recent writing appear in the literary magazines Coalesce Community and Black Fork Review. She and her family live in Maryland.

How My Vaudevillian Great-Grandparents Taught Me to Love Shameless Self-Promotion

January 9, 2023 § 24 Comments

Hap Hazard

By Melissa Hart

I started writing when social media meant word-of-mouth, an article in the newspaper, or if you were lucky, a minute on the radio to plug your project. Before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and all the rest, “shameless self-promotion” ranked up there with the F-word. Somehow, readers were supposed to find out about your work without your input. And so, I blushed at the audacity of the poet I met at a writing conference wandering the halls with a wagon full of paperbacks and a t-shirt that read “ASK ME ABOUT MY BOOK!”

My own first memoir, picked up by a small press, came and went without fanfare. I barely publicized it, and the publisher didn’t, either. When a different editor purchased my second memoir, my mother—a veteran public relations manager—stepped in.

She’d learned from the best; my great-grandparents had been comic performers in circus and vaudeville, and their success depended on their ability to promote their act in surprising ways. Mom sat me down at her favorite coffeehouse in Ojai and proceeded to teach me everything they’d taught her.

“Honey,” she began, “You need to get this story out there. Figure out how it’s of use to people, then come up with fun ways to promote it.”

“Of use to people?” I repeated. “How is a memoir of use to people?”

She pointed her omnipresent purple marker at me. “Is your book inspiring, educational, or entertaining?” she asked, and answered for me. “All three. You mention Frito Boats in the second chapter—you could make a mock cooking video with your book strategically placed.”

I cringed. “Too in-your-face,” I groaned.

She pursed her lips. “You want this thing to sell? Then figure out a way to promote it.” Then she intoned my great-grandmother’s favorite line. “And make it a spectacle.”

My great-grandmother, Mary, met my great-grandfather in the early 1900s circus when she was a bareback rider, and he was a wirewalker. They developed a comedy juggling act for vaudeville and U.S.O.. She loved to recount how they flew from theater to theater in a biplane with my great-grandfather’s stage name—Hap Hazard—painted on the wings. When he neared a city, he flipped the plane upside down so people could read his words. . . the ultimate self-promotion.

Hap Hazard and Mary Hart

“Comedy was crucial back then,” my great-grandmother said more than once. Audiences reeling after World War I and struggling during the Great Depression craved entertainment. Even more so after the second World War. Audiences needed what my great-grandparents were selling.

Mary curated their decades of glossy black-and-white headshots, their posters and newspaper reviews. None of this embarrassed her. You had a product, and you figured out a way to get it into people’s hands. If that product was a circus bareback and juggling act, you literally paraded it through the streets of town alongside elephants and acrobats. If you had a vaudeville act, you flew into cities upside down. The idea of spending years perfecting one’s art and then not creating a spectacle, seemed to Mary–and to my mother–ridiculous.

I ended up making the Frito Boat video, channeling my comedic relatives to teach viewers, with mock gravitas, how to cut bags of corn chips along one side and spoon in chili and cheese. The film resonated. Directors of writing conferences saw it and invited me to present. Booksellers asked me visit their stores. I got an agent and another book deal. Mary and my mother were right.

These days, shameless self-promotion is the rule rather than the exception. Even venerable Broadway stars have taken to twerking on TikTok. My great-grandparents would approve. Social media gives us permission to celebrate our creations, to acknowledge our work and our sacrifice. It’s allowed us to give generously of our knowledge.

I’m thinking of Caseen Gaines, author of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way; he makes TikTok videos about Black history and popular culture. His recent post about two Black psychologists who helped to desegregate schools has—to date—27.5K views.

I’m thinking of queer Dominican American author Claribel Ortega whose forthright, witty social media posts helped turn her into a New York Times bestseller. I’m thinking of the fans who, like vaudeville audiences long ago, help their favorite entertainers succeed with word-of-mouth. My great-grandparents would have put their biplane up on TikTok in a hot minute and reveled in their success because they knew they had a value-adding product.

My mother and my great-grandparents are gone now, up in that happy vaudeville theater in the sky. But I sense their presence every time I launch a piece of writing or teach others to do the same.

Last summer, I taught at a writing conference, and a lovely silver-haired woman raised her hand. “I’ve got a novel coming out next month,” she told me. “I want it to find readers, but I find self-promotion vulgar.”

Melissa Hart

Around the room, other writers nodded in agreement.

Up at the podium, I suggested gently that she reframe her thinking. “Is your book inspiring, educational, or entertaining?” I asked, recalling helium balloons and trolleys and painted biplanes and circus parades. “Figure out how your book adds value to the world,” I told her. “Then come up with a way to promote it.”

“And one more thing,” I added. “Make it a spectacle.”

___

Melissa Hart is an Oregonian journalist and the author, most recently, of two middle-grade novels—Daisy Woodworm Changes the World and Avenging the Owl, as well as Better with Books:500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, CNN, Longreads, and numerous other publications. www.melissahart.com and social media @WildMelissaHart .

A Whole Life: Essay Collection as Miscellany

January 6, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Steven Harvey

The beech tree rising in our bow window finds its own shape without any help from me. It is a gift from my friend, the artist and naturalist Dale Cochran, who walked the woods with me before I built my house spotting which trees to keep. “Definitely that one,” he said pointing to the healthy beech sapling with a split trunk, each one about as wide as my arm, that I have watched bulk up mightily over the years. He was right. In the summer it sprouts lovely, light-green leaves that turn coppery in the winter and rattle in the wind, and the bark is a smooth gray with scars that mark any blow it has taken. The word “book” can be traced back to beech tablets where the ancients carved sacred texts in runes, and in German and other modern European languages the word for book and beech are the same. As I wrote the essays that eventually filled the collection called The Beloved Republic, the tree inspired me.

The Beloved Republic began as separate essays that over a quarter century of writing became a book. While I worked on it, I raised four children and enjoyed five grandchildren with one more on the way, taught at one college, played in one musical group with whom I still perform, and lived with my wife in this house where I have spent nearly half of my life. The book had no predetermined focus. While I wrote it, I became who I am, and it tagged along, and in the shadow of the tree that looms overhead, I slowly discovered what it was about. The essay as a form began in this desultory way, as a loose collection on random subjects that Michel de Montaigne called essais, the French word for attempts. Some of the finest collections in the past likewise grew organically out of the author’s life finding their shape over time. Many, like mine, began as magazine pieces and later, almost as an afterthought, were collected in books. This kind of nonfiction miscellany has fallen out of fashion, I fear. Contemporary readers and publishers apparently prefer a focused book that drives home one idea, predetermined or discovered early by the writer. These focused collections take the shape that the author consciously gives them in advance. Thoreau’s Walden with its theme of living deliberately boldly announced in its first essay is an example.

What I admire about the miscellany is that it is held together not by a vision, discovered early and pursued single-mindedly, but by a whole life. As essayists put together such collections written over decades, they do not explore a concept or a set of related concepts; rather, they reveal who they are, and, perhaps, why they are here. Like the beech, they grow into themselves over time. It is not easy going for the reader who has to begin anew with each essay and in this the miscellany is much like a book of poems, meant to be read slowly, but as in poetry, the rewards can be great as reader joins writer on a quest to discover willy-nilly what one life is about. There is an intimacy in this method, a sense that the parts are cherished, glowing by their own light without ulterior motive.

But if the writer is lucky, the sum is greater than its parts, and a vision, as well as a life, can emerge, and that is what happened for me in my book. The glue, the ultimately unifying discovery of The Beloved Republic, is the old idea that creativity is valuable in itself, a view that goes in and out of favor. In an age when the planet and its people face unthinkable, unspeakable horrors, the need for social relevance is obvious, but as I wrote, I discovered that art generates meaning and offers beauty to a troubled planet, and in its very freshness, is profoundly spiritual and political. It generally brings out the best in us and helps us weather evil. Those who do this work form the “Beloved Republic,” a phrase E. M. Forster coined for the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. He described it as “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” They are “sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.” They form an invincible army of losers in the service of love. My book slowly opening in surprises over decades can be read as dispatches from this beleaguered land. It grew into the idea and, like the beech, took its own, sweet time.
__

Steven Harvey is the author The Beloved Republic which won The Wandering Aengus Press Award and will be published in early 2023. His books include a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a book-length essay, Folly Beach, and three collections of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove.  He is a founding faculty member at the Ashland University MFA, a Contributing Editor at River Teeth, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website. He lives in the north Georgia mountains with his wife, Barbara.

Go Into the World and Listen

January 5, 2023 § 26 Comments

By Margaret Hawkins

Simone Weil supposedly said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. We speak of paying attention, as if this gift is a currency. Writers certainly want to be paid in this currency (as well as in others, let me go on record as saying), but attention is also what writers pay to the world. Annie Dillard advises us to “admire the world for never ending on you – as you would an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.”

How to begin, though? I have various tricks, but here’s my favorite.

Listen.

Go into the world and listen to what people are saying to each other. I used to tell students to eavesdrop but that’s the wrong word. You don’t have to stand under someone’s window or break any code of etiquette. All you need do is get in line at the post office, walk your dog, get a coffee. Everywhere, people are talking, often shouting into phones. Just tune in. Or maybe you’ll “overhear” words on a handmade sign or a t-shirt or tattooed on the tender inside of a girl’s forearm.

Go home and write it down. It belongs to you now. Let it steep for a few days, or years. Then give yourself ten minutes, or years, and write about it. It stuck in your memory, why? Who said it or don’t you know because it floated as a scream out of an upstairs window? Do you mind that you find yourself wondering if that person who said it is stupendously wrong? Or maybe she’s right. Which is worse? Write about that. Why did what you heard make vomit rise in your throat and your day go dark? Write about that if you dare.

What I usually find when I do this, and for me it’s more an addiction than an exercise, is some mystery at the heart of the overheard thing, or some secret, or a portrait of some pure emotion I recognize, but never recognized other people also felt. If I overhear someone yelling about politics while I’m walking my dog, the words slip away. I’ve heard it all before, this side and that in the same tired phrases. It’s the weird stuff in between—the infinite, subtle fractions of human experience that appear between the plodding integers that are our official opinions—that stop me in my tracks. I collect these bits like a treasure hunter and take them home to fondle in private.

There was the man who, when his male dining companion ordered a glass of wine, said, “My mother says men who drink wine are philanderers.” I still hear his voice, like Marlon Brando, and see him butter his steak the way you’d butter a stack of pancakes. Why did he bring his mother into it? I can’t stop thinking about him, or about the woman behind the counter at the jewelry store back when you had to go to such a place to replace your watch battery. She was wearing enormous, jewel-encrusted engagement and wedding rings, which I noticed when she gestured to the curled and faded snapshots of two King Charles spaniels taped to the cabinet behind her and said to the man in front of me, “They were the loves of my life.” And what’s up with the two signs posted side by side that I saw on a back road: “No Dumping Animal Carcasses” and “House for Sale”?

It’s these glimpses into private places that move me, like the weirdly excited feeling I got as a child when I would make myself think about the fact that every other person around me had an inside that was just as deep and unknown to me as I was to them. It was like thinking about the ocean or outer space or the Sunday School promise of eternal life or the infinity mirrors in the YMCA locker-room where I took swimming lessons that reflected me back to myself forever, a sight that kept me awake at night, terrified. Everything’s so much deeper than we want to believe.

I use this exercise in my classes. I tell students to go out and listen, then follow a quote and let it lead them exactly where they need to go in their writing that day. As for me, I don’t listen to help myself write; I listen because I can’t stop myself, and if this compulsion to know what’s going in other people’s lives ever goes away, I will not only no longer be a writer, I will no longer be alive.

So, if you want to jumpstart your daily writing practice, walk your dog. Or sit on a train or go get a haircut. Unless you live in a remote place, you will soon encounter other human beings, most of whom are on their phones ignoring the scenery and you. They are talking about their children, their parents, their spouses, other people’s salaries and sex lives and sometimes their own. Love and disappointment, and what’s for dinner. I have eavesdropped recipes and tried to recreate them. This is how I learned to put radishes in potato salad. All you need is one good quote to keep your keyboard busy all day.

___

Margaret Hawkins’ third novel, Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her memoir about family schizophrenia, How We Got Barb Back, came out in 2011. She writes essays and short fiction; “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” appeared in The Missouri Review in January 2022. Her column about art ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, and she now writes criticism for Visual Art Source and essays for The Democracy Chain. Margaret teaches at Loyola University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when she’s not writing or teaching, can be found walking her dog, Willem. She can be reached on her website.

Writing Despite the Odds

January 4, 2023 § 3 Comments

By Sarah Fawn Montgomery

We write nonfiction to witness the world. We write nonfiction because we believe in its power to reflect reality, and so we hold up our observations to readers like an offering. But chronicling contemporary culture is difficult when the world no longer makes sense.

I began writing my latest book, Halfway from Home, at the start of what seemed like the end of the world. When the pandemic began, time stretched on but also seemed to be running out. The environment was on the verge of collapse, as was my emotional state. Like the climate, my family back on the West Coast was in crisis, but I could not help them from my place on the East Coast. Existing in my real life—to say nothing of writing about it!—sometimes seemed hopeless.

I wrote memoir to replace harsh reality with sweet nostalgia. I wrote about the many places I’d called home—California coasts where tidepools were full of starfish, Nebraska prairies with roots so deep they could survive fires—because I could not go back to visit. I wrote about a natural world that was full of abundance—monarchs gathering together for warmth each winter near my childhood home, my family fed on fields full of tart berries—because everything was on the verge of extinction. I wrote about my many adventures with my father—digging in my childhood treasure hole, polishing ordinary rocks to shine like gems—because I did not know when I would see him again, or, after he was diagnosed with cancer, if I would at all.

The memories of the past soothed me, but they also supported me. The fears and frustrations I felt during my daily doomscroll were augmented with memories of kindness, compassion, and community. The anger I felt over humanity’s apathy was replaced with agency as I chose what stories I wanted to share. As I crafted the narrative of my life, my feelings of hopelessness were replaced with a deep appreciation.

Soon I felt strong enough to reflect on the present. I wrote about the collective grief Americans faced watching our natural and national landscapes under attack. I wrote about how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. This writing helped me to process the pain and understand my anger, but it also helped me to develop compassion. Much of my grief came from feeling alone, but nonfiction requires us to broaden beyond the personal to create something akin to universal meaning, and by doing so, I regained the kinship I’d been missing.

Writing memoir about the past and present also prepared me for the future. This is not to say that writing prevented painful realities. The pandemic continues, along with new threats. National and natural landscapes grow increasingly hostile, and we collectively ache for what is lost. Human connection is disappearing even as our yearning for it increases, and we bear the burdens of so much grief. We have lost our sense of safety, our ability to pay bills, our hope that things will get better. Many of us have lost the ones we love.

Now when I feel helpless, I sit down to write because this gives me the power to shape the world on the page. Nonfiction puts us in the role of the observer and this practice invites us to not only witness and record, but to acquire agency through the act of writing. As humans, we often feel whittled down by the world, but as writers, we are the ones who shape creation with our stories.

When I feel lonely and afraid and full of grief for the things I cannot control, I turn to witness. I watch a red fox find sustenance in the dead of a winter that seems like it will never end. As the spring bursts forth in fragrant bloom, I watch bees busy at the clover and a million shoots unfurling themselves from the frozen ground. In summer, I spy deer wandering through the yard with their wobbly fawns. By fall, they are grown, another year almost gone.

Noticing this way inspires the wonder of my childhood and takes me back to a time before the world changed and the chaotic news cycle began. A time before so many of us were separated from our families and even our country seemed a stranger. A time before we were on the edge of environmental and emotional collapse.

If I can observe beauty and joy in the world, I can share this with others through my craft. No longer is memoir a means to escape, but instead a moment to memorialize.

So even as the earth aches, I notice a great blue heron swooping low through my Massachusetts yard on its way to roost. This takes me back many years and a lifetime ago to when I lived in Nebraska and the sandhill cranes that did the same, returning to the same nesting ground for thousands of years to hatch their young, to ensure their survival despite the world’s many dangers.

And I recall the robins my father showed me during my California childhood, back when he was still alive. The creatures were open-mouthed and wailing, determined to fly even though they did not seem ready for what the world would offer. Their shells were blue jewels, small as a thimble, as a whispered prayer. It was easy to miss the cracked halves, if you weren’t careful. If you didn’t pay attention. Witness requires guidance, and my father taught me to watch.

How the birds flew, took to the sky despite the odds.
____

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Go Figure: A Year’s End Accounting

January 3, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

Were someone to quickly scroll through my Submittable account dashboard and see the overwhelming number of asphalt grey and pencil lead black boxes, they’d probably assume I was a Loser, in need of new tactics or in the wrong profession. Not one beloved, coveted shamrock green box since November 2, 2021, for a story that cascaded out of me in hours and was snatched within a few days by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

Between January 5 and December 31, 2022, my folder looks like this:

RECEIVED                9

IN-PROGRESS          8

WITHDRAWN          7

DECLINED               53

ACCEPTED               0

To my non-statistician brain, Loser isn’t strong enough; these numbers scream failure, shitty writer, shoddy stories. To my been-around-the-block brain, Loser’s too harsh; I know better. It’s less about what I submitted and more about where I submitted (does the journal publish only pop culture stories or have a penchant for more meditational?), who is reading (what are the backgrounds and ages of editors and readers?), what else have they read lately (an abundance of second person, flash, CNF pieces or empty nester women’s woes of sleepless nights?), and what they’re looking for in submissions (traditional prose, hybrid, stories of childhood, research based?). Most of these questions, of course, I cannot answer.

If this would have been the sum total of my writing year, I might have stopped submitting, enrolled in a class, hired a coach, consulted a developmental editor. But these numbers are deceiving. They don’t tell the full story. They don’t show the two signed book contracts, one in March and the other in September, with Vine Leaves Press. They don’t reveal the love letters from the editors who read my manuscripts and highlighted everything they admired and asked me to sign on the dotted lines to make my dreams come true and turn my words into books.

Still, as the year comes to a close, I am baffled. How can I succeed at the one and bomb the other to such an extent? How can I continue to teach creative writing if I have no recent publications to show for myself? How am I supposed to feel confident with my book if I cannot master the shorter submissions? How can I close the crazy gap between book publication and the submission process?

As we start yet another cycle around the sun, I’d like to offer the following takeaways:

  • Know nothing about this process is personal. Everyone says it but I’ll say it again. As an assistant editor for Brevity, I read 10 submissions a week for a large chunk of the year. When I read, I am looking for story. For words that make me feel something. For good writing, well-constructed sentences, sentence variation, va-va-voom writing. For logic. For new, often overlooked points of views and perspectives. For an immersive experience where I lose track of time.
  • Keep going. Step into Frosty the Snowman’s shoes and put one foot in front of the other. Memorize this word and its definition like a mantra: perseverance (noun) = steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
  • Trust your gut. While rejections were piling up for my book manuscripts, I started feeling desperate and antsy (this precedes/bleeds straight into the Year of Submittable Rejections). What if these thousands of words never became real books? Then, two small presses said yes. The catch? Neither had actually read my work. One offered me a contract within hours of sending my proposal and filling out the publisher’s questionnaire. The other expressed her enthusiasm for my work based on fill-in-the-blank: what I’d previously published, who I connected to, how I presented myself. But it didn’t feel right. Being published without being read, not to mention edited, was one huge red flag. I asked writer friends who had already published books what they thought as well as writer friends who were in similar stages of submission. In the end, I dug deep inside myself, turned down the offers, and rolled the dice.
  • Believe in yourself. My biggest struggle. It doesn’t matter how many people cheer me on and tell me they love my writing. I doubt myself. My beginnings. My endings. The what-I’m-Trying-To-Say parts. But with time and maturity, age and experience, I am working on it. On myself. On believing.

May 2023 be full of the three-letter Y word: YES!

___


Jennifer Lang was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, lives in Tel Aviv, and runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-shorts and Landed: a yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses will both be published by Vine Leaves Press (September 2023 and October 2024). A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serve as Assistant Editor for Brevity. You can learn more about Jennifer Lang at www.israelwriterstudio.com or find her on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.

36 Hours in Cobblestonia

January 2, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Russell Frank

*By early 2020, The New York Times’s 36 Hours column had been running for nearly two decades. The series — one of the Travel section’s longest-running — offers readers a recommended itinerary for a weekend trip in a bustling location…Now, 36 Hours is finally back. – New York Times, Oct. 7, 2022

**With apologies to Stan Mack’s “Real Life Funnies,” every word is guaranteed verbatim from The New York Times, except the name of the town.

With its inventive food scene, excellent beaches and “Night of the Iguana” mystique, Cobblestonia makes the perfect weekend getaway.[1] This urban jewel offers innovative restaurants, gorgeous parks and gardens, and museums that celebrate the area’s many cultures.[2] The many cobblestone, pedestrians-only streets in the town’s historic center give the city an intimacy that belies its population of over 60,000.[3]

In some ways Cobblestonia seems like a city frozen in time: cobblestone streets and clay-tile roofs, men and women in indigenous garb selling fruits and vegetables, and meticulously preserved traditions and relics dating back centuries.[4] Now, thanks to a blossoming creative scene, there are also new, ambitious restaurants and plenty of contemporary art and design to complement the old.[5] A new Cobblestonia is taking shape, and palpable energy is flowing to downtown areas.[6]

In this famously diverse city you’ll find an energetic food scene, vibrant street culture and cocktail wizardry.[7] This scenic city offers quirky museums, outdoor markets, great shopping and a creative food scene.[8] There are also outlying neighborhoods to explore, along with natural wine bars, street art and pop-up markets.[9] Just a 15-minute walk from the cobblestone alleys of the Old City, trendy restaurants and boutiques — even coffee bars that double as late-night performance venues — have blossomed.[10]

The city offers a dynamic cultural landscape, with world-class chefs, design-forward shops and energy to spare.[11] But you’ll also find a rich cultural heritage reflected in traditional temples and shrines, street food and homegrown art.[12] Compact and easy to navigate, Cobblestonia remains underrated despite its picturesque center of cobblestone streets lined with medieval pink-hued buildings, well-preserved Roman sites and dozens of churches.[13]

Beneath the grit, there’s a kinetic urban energy that can be savored in Cobblestonia’s street art, restaurants, music clubs and markets.[14] The cobblestoned district — often compared with Paris’s Montmartre, and where your hotel will likely suggest that you have dinner — is filled with traditional taverns, where bands of five to six musicians move from table to table singing folk songs and taking requests.[15]

This multicultural hub is known for its mild climate, rich culinary and craft traditions, and complex history.[16] The city is filled with art and stunning architecture, but nature, too, is an integral part of urban life.[17] Cobblestonia is laid-back and outdoorsy, but its sophistication shines in its expanding art scene, thriving fashion industry and a new generation of chefs embracing native ingredients.[18]

The city has its own distinctive culinary, wine and cultural scene.[19] There are enough old and new flavors to keep visitors satisfied for a weekend.[20] We found ourselves snapping pictures of the stray (but evidently well-fed) cats that stalk the cobblestone plazas and nap on stone staircases.[21]

Cobblestonia is emerging as a proud city, known for its progressive start-ups, energetic art scene and great dining and coffee.[22] A new generation of chefs is championing locally sourced menus, and a relaxation of liquor production laws has led to a boom in microbreweries.[23] The city, with its cobblestone streets and complex history, has become a cultural hotbed and gastro-magnet.[24]

Explore the city’s innumerable charms — ruin-studded gardens, a growing contemporary art scene, diverse regional cuisines.[25] A short walk will take you to the boutique- and gallery-lined cobblestone streets.[26] With chaotic yet charming cobblestone streets, bathhouses steaming with sulfuric waters, and crumbling Soviet factories repurposed as hipster hotels, Cobblestonia is a study in contrasts.[27]

Cobblestones? Check.[28]

___

Russell Frank is a folklorist by training and a journalist by trade. He worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State, where he has been teaching since 1998. He has visited Cobblestonia.


[1] Puerto Vallarta

[2] Victoria

[3] Troyes

[4] Cuzco

[5] Chiang Mai

[6] Rio

[7] Toronto

[8] Geneva

[9] Montreal

[10] Jerusalem

[11] Santiago

[12] Singapore

[13] Verona

[14] Johannesburg

[15] Belgrade

[16] Oaxaca

[17] Oslo

[18] Auckland

[19] Lugano

[20] Amman

[21] Montenegro

[22] Kigali

[23] Calgary

[24] Charleston

[25] Delhi

[26] Tel Aviv

[27] Tbilisi

[28] Bucharest

Sechs on New Year’s Eve

December 30, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Heidi Croot

I was sitting across from my grandfather at the game table one New Year’s Eve as he clutched his belly in helpless laughter.

“Mein Bauch, mein Bauch!” he said, barely able to form words.

I was seventeen years old that night and learning euchre at the round pedestal table in my parents’ little brown bungalow. My German immigrant grandparents, then in their seventies, had made the two-hour train trip from Toronto to ring in the new year with us in our small bedroom community outside London, Ontario.

Opa and I were euchre partners and losing madly to Oma and my father. We were using cards as counters, but because of our losing, Opa and I had turned ours face down. When it was his turn to deal, he kept mistaking our counters for someone’s stack. Every time my Oma, my father and I shouted “No, no!” in unison, Opa’s forehead would graze the table, and our drinks would sway.

I clutch my own belly to remember it.

Precious mote of memory.

And one that may have been lost forever had I not described this New Year’s Eve in a letter to my aunt in California, and had I not saved a carbon copy of that letter, as I did with all my correspondence, and had those letters not grown into a foot-high pile of pink and yellow onionskins—an archiving habit I picked up from my mother. 

A useful habit it was, too—the archive serving as a time machine for many writing projects, including my memoir. The essential tool was carbon paper, a page coated on one side with dry ink. My mother and I would slip a sheet between our letterhead and a piece of translucent paper as flyaway frail as an onion skin, before rolling all three pages into the typewriter. She had trashed her tower of onionskins by the time I was called upon to clean out my parents’ house, a loss for me as I sought understanding of my fugitive family.

My mother does not appear in my letter. She took a dim view of card games and despite idolizing my grandfather, had probably retired early that New Year’s Eve. Yet I picture her smiling in her bed on the other side of the thin wall.

It was my dad with his dry English wit who had been the architect of that night’s hilarity. It started even before the cards came out. We’d been teasing my shy, girlish grandmother about her horrified reaction to the word “sex”—don’t ask me how sex came up in the conversation—and Oma had giggled so hysterically she wet the couch. I remember because my father snapped a photo of the spot. I still see her holding the back of her hand to her mouth, eyes streaming.

Later, while playing a round of Michigan Rummy, Oma kept turning up sixes, so whenever she said “sechs,” German for “six,” my father and I countered with “There she goes again! Can’t get sex out of her mind!”

Whereupon—according to my letter, my youthful penchant for hyperbole in full flight— “everyone would get up, lie down on the floor, and split their sides laughing.”  

“I don’t think it’s safe for me to go to bed tonight!” Opa said.

And still I squirm. A daring thing for my legendary Opa to say in front of his sheltered teenaged granddaughter. No doubt I worked hard to avoid catching Oma’s eye, even as I laughed with her in a thrill of embarrassment.

The day I found the copy of my letter describing that night, it was as if my Oma and Opa were alive again. I felt their presence rising, saw the contours of their beloved faces, heard the timbre of their voices like an old, forgotten song. Their love was warm breath on my cheek, their arms the embrace I yearned for, so safe, so tender. I knew my place in my family, not something I’ve been able to always count on.

The sensation was mostly gone by morning, but for a day and night it was mine. 

When I emailed excerpts from the New Year’s memory to my relatives, my California aunt, with whom I share a nostalgic bent, mourned the loss of letter-writing as a way for future generations to understand their past.

History will take “a mighty blow,” she said.

My heart hurts for those generations caught in the fast lane of electronic communication, unable to bring beloved people back through the portal of words in letters warmed by the hand that holds them.

They’ll think they can fill the emptiness through other means—they’ll knock their knuckles on their memory banks and wink—but memories are capricious, content in their own company, like dreams cavorting in a far-flung field.

How will the void manifest for the people standing on the porch as the shadows lengthen, hearing a distant echo, unsure of what they are longing for, missing something they can’t even name?

___

Heidi Croot is a recovering corporate writer whose creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mud Season Review, Writescape blog, Linea magazine and elsewhere. She is a member of the Brevity Blog editorial team and is gathering courage to query her memoir. She lives in Ontario’s beautiful Northumberland County. You can reach her on Twitter.

The [Panel] Art of Memoir

December 28, 2022 § 5 Comments

Promoting a Comprehensive View of a Memoir’s Purpose through Thematic Structure

By Margaret Moore

When I look at the complete manuscript of my debut memoir, I see panel art.

Panel art, formally termed a polyptych, is an image divided into sections that are depicted on separate canvases. Side by side, the canvases collectively show the entire image.

In this butterfly polyptych, for example, the side panels solely feature the wings while the center focuses on the tagmata. Viewers can see the fine details the panels offer independently along with the larger image they form together.

My memoir was not intended to be a polyptych. Originally, I envisioned employing a strict chronological arrangement. Aiming to inspire others to overcome obstacles, my book narrates my experiences growing up with Cerebral Palsy, using a wheelchair, walker, and communication device, losing my father to cancer, and being raised by a single mother who enabled my pursuit of regular education, athletics, and other activities.

Since childhood, I have aspired to author a series of memoirs about different segments of my life—a book chronicling my birth through my elementary school graduation and sequels on middle school, high school, college, and so forth. Given my focus on specific time periods, chronological structure seemed most sensical.

For my debut memoir, I planned to dedicate the opening chapters to my birth, my family’s adjustment to my disability, and my father’s death. Once my narrator entered school, each chapter would focus on a specific academic year.

Written between childhood and college, the first drafts of the book were married to this structure. In college, I became disenchanted with it—my prose felt rigid and list-like, as if I was saying, “then I did this interesting thing, and that interesting thing…” Mentors seemed to offer identical critiques—that my book came across as a collection of anecdotes that, though entertaining, possessed no articulated purpose.

Before beginning my MFA, I started reordering my scenes. I didn’t dare make drastic changes to my book structure—each chapter still narrated my childhood years in order—but I ventured as far as removing the chronological arrangement of scenes within the chapters, selecting a moment sure to capture readers’ attention at the opening and determining what followed based on the topics of other scenes and how smoothly I could transition to them.

While pursuing my MFA at Fairfield University, something still seemed to mute my book’s purpose. The solution came after working to deepen my descriptions of navigating the world with a disability. Employing embodied writing techniques, I learned to use granular levels of detail to depict my narrator’s physical, emotional, and mental experiences and to follow these with retrospective reflections on the significance of her participation in activities. In my book, embodied writing materializes as step-by-step narrations of my narrator’s actions—the juxtaposition and sensations of her body and procedures of operating assistive technology. The prose is layered, incorporating not only her movements and sensations but also a deep look at her thoughts and emotions. The in-the-moment narratives and retrospective reflections are designed to demonstrate why her story is unique and keeps the memoir pointed toward its intended purpose.

Employing this technique required substantial expansion of my prose, which seemed to make my book’s purpose more prominent. At first, I left the book structure as it was, with each chapter centered on a specific school year.

“Your structure works,” one mentor said, reviewing a chapter. “Though if you wanted to delve further into the disability experience, you could experiment with breaking these events into multiple chapters to allow space for expanding on how these moments impacted you.”

I could see the benefits, but I feared that it would require a full-blown restructure of the book.

I later found myself stumped on directions for a new chapter. This was supposed to be the last in the book, narrating my fifth-grade school year and my experience attending an intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy program. Considering how drastically these topics differed from each other and how much space I’d need for describing the therapy through embodied writing, I worried the narrative would be pulled in too many directions.

I soon realized my mentor had provided the solution before I even encountered this problem, and I divided this chapter into two. By giving the therapy experience its own chapter, I didn’t have to balance the topic with others. I now had unlimited space to craft my narrative, not only to have characteristics of embodied writing, but also to detail how my family found this program and navigated the financial implications, types of therapy I previously had, how this one differed, and benefits gained. Concentrating on the one theme ultimately allowed me to paint a more thorough picture for readers.

Pleased with this effect, I reorganized my book into a thematic structure during my thesis semester. One chapter, for example, centers on accommodations and technology that enabled my pursuit of academics. Another focuses on experiences with discrimination, how society views—and often stereotypes—people with disabilities, and how my family, educators, and I have combatted that. Identifying my narrator’s age in multiple scenes enabled me to include moments from different years in the same chapter while making clear for readers when in her life my narrator experienced them. The book still draws on her progression from birth to fifth grade, but the timeliness has faded into the background, allowing the themes to shine more brightly.

Reviewing chapters individually, I neglected to see this structure’s full effect. Examining the memoir as a whole and contemplating what to write for an introduction to my thesis, I noticed the polyptych. Each chapter functions as a panel depicting one aspect of life with a disability. The chapters work together to depict a comprehensive view of the experience—or at least my disability experience, since no two people encounter it the same way.

If purposefully employed, what impact does this polyptych structure have? Perhaps it aids in delivering more exhaustive illustrations of the narrators’ experiences and the intended purposes of memoirs.

___

Margaret Moore is a summer 2022 graduate of Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, where she earned a degree in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is an editor and the marketing coordinator at Woodhall Press and an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her debut memoir is currently at the beginning stages of its publication process, and her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications. Find her on Twitter: @mooreofawriter

%d bloggers like this: