Writing Toward Freedom

August 9, 2017 § 20 Comments

By Varda Meyers Epstein

zz vardaFor years I struggled to put pen to paper. How to say what was so perfect in my heart and mind? I’d write it this way and that. But it would be no good.

Then the baby would cry and I’d put the writing aside. I’d tell myself that time was the problem; my excuse for not writing. Because time wasn’t something I was going to have with a baby at home. I’d traded my time, my words, for motherhood.

That’s what I told myself when the words wouldn’t come. And I waited for time. Enough time to write.

When I thought about having time to write I imagined this clean white space: a block of time large enough for that creative spark to take hold. The one that would light a fire under my inner writer. But I both yearned for and feared time. Because sometimes I told myself the truth: that time was my excuse. That I didn’t really know if I could write.

And then time arrived. My youngest turned six and started school. With almost no warning, suddenly there were blocks of time, scads of time. Time to think. Time to write.

I had only to begin.

I stared at the white space on the screen. A space large enough for words to form. A blinking cursor showing me where to begin.

I tapped a key and a letter appeared on the screen, in the center of that wide open white field. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding in. Here it was: time to be a writer.

There were no more excuses. Just me and enough time and the words.

It was time to get to work.

And so I typed another letter and soon there was a word staring at me there on the screen.

It was both easier and harder than I’d thought it would be. Easier because I had a lot to say after all those years of excuses. Harder because of that second voice, in addition to the one that liked to blame time.

The second voice was the one that said I was the problem. That I didn’t have it in me to be a writer, that if I kept having babies, I wouldn’t have to prove myself as a writer. That I could keep on blaming time.

It was tempting to give in to that voice. It was frightening to be sitting here typing on a keyboard after years of not knowing whether I was good enough. But I’d learned from having babies that life is about letting go, about getting free from the fear that keeps us from taking that first step.

And so I took a deep breath and typed some more, knowing that with each word I was setting myself free. Free from self-doubt and fear. And that getting free was the main reason I was sitting here in front of a keyboard.

Putting in the time.

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12 children and a parenting expert and writer at the Kars4Kids Educational Blog for Parents. Her work has been published in KvellerTablet, and the Washington Post. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Worst Book Openings Ever

August 8, 2017 § 5 Comments

kale-nutrition-facts“Here I was, flat broke, standing outside a sketchy hipster bar in Brooklyn, and a bearded young man in skinny jeans and a lumberjack’s red plaid shirt was pointing a gun at my head demanding my Uber password. ‘Move a muscle and I’ll make a kale salad out of your brains,’ he snarled.”

Brevity founding editor Dinty W. Moore offers the brilliant literary gem above along with five other horrible book openings this week over on Psychology Today blog.

See if you can tell which ones are made up and which one was penned by none other than Thomas Wolfe.

 

Opening Lines

August 8, 2017 § 10 Comments

So, you’re going to a writing conference! Workshops! Readings! Panels! Networking! Networking! Lots of networking! Mingling! Socializing! Bonding! Casual chatting through which lifelong writer friendships are forged! INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION AUGHLH JHJKGJKFGHFDGHAKJ–

Hang on, let me just breathe for a minute, and get off this ledge.

OK. Whew.

Perhaps, like me, you are a mewling, soft-skinned introvert hiding in a shiny I-talk-to-people-professionally-and-I’m-great-at-it shell. But somehow, our work has been found adequate, our check has been cashed, and we are at a writing conference. With group meals. Receptions. Post-reading cocktail hours. Casual gatherings. Late-night lounge time. A few days or a week full of priceless opportunities to open our mouths only to alternate feet.

Fear not. Brevity is here for you. Simply print this handy list of conference conversation openers, tuck it in the back of your name tag, and you’re ready for any writing-related exchange between humans. Just approach any writer or writers, and begin.

  1. “Wow…that reading…what did you think?”
  2. “Gosh, isn’t (insert name of workshop leader) just fantastic?”
  3. “Whose workshop are you in? Oh, they’re great! Tell me all about it!”
  4. “What are you working on? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
  5. “Is it me or are all these rooms freezing/boiling/too dark/blindingly bright?”
  6. “How about that box wine!”
  7. “Where did you come in from? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
  8. “Is it me or is your dorm room mattress horrible, too? Tell me all about your back problems!”
  9. “Have you seen the book sale yet? I have no idea how I’m going to get them all in my bag.”
  10. “Box wine! Look, there’s box wine!”

Please note that #6, 9 and 10 can also be used for exiting conversations as needed.

Enjoy your new writing friends, and remember, soon you’ll be home again and can return to communicating with them only through keyboards.

Happy conferencing!

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Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams is at conferences the next few weeks. Please come talk to her about box wine, lumbar issues and your writing.

A Review of Jennifer Sinor’s Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir

August 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

ordinarytraumaBy Jennifer Ochstein

At a writing conference I recently attended, a panelist fielded a question from an attendee about what makes a good memoir. I’m intimately fascinated by this question since I devour memoirs and am writing my own. The panelist told this story: a creative writing professor he knows was asked by a student why she received a B rather than an A on the piece she submitted. The professor told the girl that her experiences just weren’t that interesting. While the panelist said he’d never tell a student such a thing, he believed that was the crux of it: some people just have more interesting experiences than others.

While I understand the impulse to say such a thing, I bristled, particularly since I’d just finished reading Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor for the second time. In my mind, the oxymoronic nature of Sinor’s title alone demolishes that misconception.

On a deeper level, juxtapositions and structure, metaphors and language prime readers. What the writer does with the experiences, how she crafts and renders them, causes the particularity of a lived life to universally reverberate with readers, making them feel as if the memoir helps them make sense of their own experiences. At least, that’s how Sinor’s memoir resonates with me. For Sinor, trauma becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it defines the life of her family, but how she renders those traumas makes her memoir. Sometimes the ordinary is the most heart-rending.

Sinor’s father seems to know and accept this so he trains his daughter, Jennifer, to act accordingly. He instructs Jennifer to never let her emotions get in the way of acting rational. Beneath the surface of his lesson is a personal edict he seems to live by: bury trauma. Her father, a career Navy man and maritime law expert, gives her practical advice on how to do this:

When something bad happens to you, Jennifer … you simply think of your mind like a dresser … A dresser full of drawers. And you take the bad thing, the memory, the loss, whatever it is, and you put it in the drawer of the dresser. Envision yourself doing this, like you were packing clothes in there. Then you shut the drawer and lock it. You lock it. Do you hear me?

Jennifer falls in line, lockstep.

Sinor sets Ordinary Trauma against the backdrop of the early 1970s and 1980s Cold War to illustrate the unacknowledged tensions and traumas that submerge families in their own cold wars, taking them to the brink of destruction. On top of that, she juxtaposes incidents that reveal how her family’s cold war escalates and how she consistently must lock away her feelings in order to keep those escalations from erupting and blowing her to smithereens. She does this by creating an internal order, fixating on counting pennies, for example, or listening to a Christmas song over and over. Later she develops anorexia. Fixating keeps her from emotionally marking the traumatic experiences, including her own near-death as an infant, sexual abuse, the scalding of her newborn younger brother, and later accidents that nearly caused his death. All of it is neatly tucked away so that she can hardly figure a way to deal with her own emotive reactions when they arise unexpectedly. She writes, “I cannot sort them, cannot label them, cannot explain my actions.”

Survival over pain and loss becomes a kind of liturgy that her father also teaches her. Just as she fixates on counting pennies, he teaches her how to count ocean waves during one of the family’s stints living in Hawaii. He wants her to master them rather than fear them, to dive beneath them rather than be drowned:

Waves arrive in sets of seven, he explains, and within each set of seven the waves increase in size, the next always bigger than the last. In addition, each set of waves also increases through seven sets of seven, the forty-ninth wave, then, being the largest of the series … The rules of the sea. At the seventh wave, like magic, the waves subside, a tiny ripple wandering up the sand.

It’s as if by mastering the rules, she’ll somehow never be pummeled and dragged out to sea. What she needs to watch out for is the rogue wave, the kahuna, “the one that will take you down,” her father tells her.

It’s the juxtaposition of her father’s advice to lock away her hurts and his lessons in diving deeply beneath the ocean’s waves that reveals the real oxymoron and packs the most powerful punch. She learns well from his lessons. On the one hand, because she locks away that which hurts her the most, she can hardly understand her own actions and emotions, but when she’s confronted with a kahuna, a life circumstance she suspects will surely drown her, she realizes the gift her father gave her: “the strength to do the hard thing” and the ability to “save herself.”

Sinor not only schools us in the art of the memoir, but also in the art of survival.

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Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.

 

 

 

 

Anxiety and Public Reading

August 4, 2017 § 20 Comments

Profile_KOBy Katrina Otuonye

I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”

The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before, that voice was usually buried deep, deep down and now she’s emerged. This is bad, because she’s a bitch. This is also very good because now she’s shown herself, so I can crush her.

All of this is happening while I’m reading my work, which I’m rather proud of. I’m proud of my ridiculous memory and that I get to write about my experiences. I’m proud that I’m a damn good writer, that I got to read my work. I plan to keep sending out my writing and publish my book.

But in that present moment, licking my lips, reading my work, little preppy me speaks up. She says, “You’re too nervous. You’re never going to finish. This isn’t going to work. You should stop right now and walk out the door.” I actually pictured myself gathering my papers and dashing out. I didn’t speak to the voice, I know that in some twisted way, this voice is attempting to protect me. It’s just that we all so easily have these little spoken or unspoken worries circling all day every day, whether or not they’re fully acknowledged.

I keep saying little because that’s what these worries are—they’re diminutive, but powerful. They can’t take over unless you let them. I keep saying you, but really I mean I. I mean me. They are the imagined voices of the people that don’t care all that much about me, but still sort of exist in my orbit. I care way too much about those people. I’m working on it.

In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o gave a speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event, about representation and her hopes and dreams when she was younger, not of being a great actress, but of having lighter skin. Even as she started to accept herself, started to become more comfortable with who she is, she said, the hardest part was allowing herself that acceptance because, “I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.” Sometimes it seems easier to think, “woe is me” and give yourself permission to stop trying. It can feel better to place yourself in the hole first, at the very bottom, where you believe everyone else will put you anyway.

In relationships, or the confusing situations I keep finding myself in, it’s the voice that says, “Well of course he ghosted you, why did you think he would text you back, what about you made you think that he would show up?” It is a sad and dangerous hole, and I can tell you your life will be 1000 times easier—my life is easier—when I stopped trying to analyze and police the motives of others in an attempt to apply the unknowable and uninteresting to my sense of self-worth. It has no bearing. This feeling that we’re not quite good enough, that I am not enough, it keeps us in the dark. It keeps us from loving fully and honestly. It keeps us from being vulnerable, from being ourselves, from honoring our values, feelings and instincts. Listen to your better angels. They’ll always steer you in the right direction.

So while I was still reading, I had a little smile on my face as I thought, screw that, I’m not leaving. I just started. And the little me went away, because I moved forward. Because often the people who don’t have my back (real people, not my damaged subconscious) are playing small and trying to bring me down because they don’t like the sight of me striving, writing, editing, revising. At the reading, I was too focused on telling my story to pay her any mind. I was still nervous, I still tripped over a word or two and changed a couple phrases on the fly, but it was me and it was my work. I did it, and it was good, and I knew exactly what I was doing.
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Katrina Otuonye is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. Katrina’s work has appeared in publications such as Tarpaulin Sky PressLitro MagazineCrab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She’s currently retweeting to her heart’s content @katrinaotuonye, and writing a memoir and a collection of creative nonfiction. You can find more of her work at katrinaotuonye.com.

 

Rose Metal Open Reading Period

August 3, 2017 § 2 Comments

internFrom our friends at Rose Metal Press:

AUGUST OPEN READING PERIOD

From August 1 through August 31, we will be having an open reading period for full-length hybrid and cross-genre manuscripts. We are interested in short short, flash, and micro-fiction; prose poetry; novels-in-verse or book-length linked narrative poems; flash nonfiction or book-length memoirs-in-shorts; fragmentary works and book-length lyric essays; image and text collaborations and other collaborative work; and other literary works that move beyond traditional genres to find new forms of expression. The best way to see what we mean by hybrid is to take a look at our catalog. We welcome submissions in all styles and on all subjects, and encourage a broad and expansive interpretation of hybridity. Surprise us with your innovation! Manuscripts selected from this reading period will be published by Rose Metal Press in 2019 and beyond.

Manuscripts should be 48 pages or longer. Submissions will be accepted through our Submittable site only. There is a $15 reading fee.

Check out all the reading period details and guidelines here.

Please spread the word to other hybrid genre writers you know!
Submit now through Submittable.

Haiku Series: On Waiting for Acceptance

August 2, 2017 § 13 Comments

CarlaBy Carla Sameth

Sunlight sings birds float
Splatting against my window
Draw curtain, no more

Me: stare computer
Like moth drawn to blinking light
Nothing found inbox

Green giants sway languid
Bold trees unafraid sweep sky
Writer waits for “yes”

Sorry not for us
Wonder: then who am I for?
”No” writer splats hard

Lives for burst of “yes”
Sad wish for public reward
Facebook posts Twitter tweets

Trees stand still waiting
You love me as is
Breeze soothes your warm hands

Fingers remember
Writer doesn’t need label
But words need a home

Striving for answer
Claim we are worth something more
Write: I am enough
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Carla Sameth has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Longreads, Narratively; Tikkun; Angels Flight Literary West; Pasadena Weekly; Entropy, Hometown Pasadena and La Bloga. Carla was selected as fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and was recently awarded a Poet Fellowship with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. She teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP), Secondary Writing Institute at CSULA.  She also teaches creative writing to incarcerated youth through WriteGirl. She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, and presented as part of their first annual “Poetry Within Reach” series via an NEA grant in summer 2016.  Previously she “brought home the oatmeal” as a single mom, running her PR firm, iMinds PR.

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