October 5, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Karen Zey
Karen Zey is a Canadian writer with a youthful spirit and aging eyes. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Memoir Magazine, Prick of the Spindle and other places. Karen received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015. You can find her sipping tea at a Pointe-Claire neighborhood cafe, on Twitter @zippyzey or at www.karenzey.com
October 4, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Heather O’Shea
“Oh, no!” I thought. What have I done?
In recent weeks when kids were being shot at school, immigrant babies were being yanked away from their parents, and beloved icons were deciding they had had enough of life on this planet, I found myself quoting Leonard Bernstein. Specifically, a quote I found on the bulletin board in my church’s choir room: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
Yes, I thought the first time I saw it. Yes—let’s double down on art and music and prove we still believe that love wins in the end. I love making music, and I believe in its redemptive power. When I’m not writing, you’ll likely find me singing in a choir or playing my piano, mandolin, or violin. But as weeks passed and the world kept spinning through a never-ending meteor shower of violence, I started losing patience with Bernstein’s words. He wrote them right after JFK was assassinated; he was replying to a specific act of violence that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I started working on a blog post in which I argued that making music wasn’t going to cut it this time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted my musician friends to do instead, but I didn’t want them to retreat to their studios and practice rooms and leave the rest of us out here alone, trying to pick up the pieces every time something new breaks. I worked on the essay for weeks, but I couldn’t make it work. Everything I wrote sounded too cynical. I finally left that post to languish in my drafts folder and moved on.
But something else Bernstein said started haunting me. I’ve recently made some huge changes. Not only did I leave my teaching job, my husband and I sold our house and are in the middle of a cross country move from New Mexico to Florida. I’ve cleared all the decks—work, the choir I sing in, violin lessons with my granddaughter. I’m moving away from everything and everyone I’ve been saying yes to for decades. My calendar is clear.
Instead of fitting writing in around the edges, in my new plan, all those edges will radiate out from a firm core of words. In just the first few months, I’ve completed the revisions on the novel I’ve been wrestling with for the past four years, guest-posted for another blogger, added new content on my own blog, and started sending out work that’s been gathering dust for years. In other words, I’m killing the new plan.
I’ve also adjusted my relationship to money and things, as it has become necessary to live a little more lightly in the world. I purged and packed and packed and purged until 3,400 square feet of house (who needs 3,400 square feet of house?) could fit into an 18-foot truck and whatever room my husband and the golden retriever don’t take up in the Subaru. I’m dreaming of spending my life sitting on the lanai, writing words that people actually read.
I’m training myself to say lanai instead of porch or patio or stoop since I am moving to Florida. I like lanai. It makes me think of Joan Didion. If I weren’t in the middle of a move, I could go to my bookshelf and look at my Joan Didion books and figure out why lanai makes me think of her. Unfortunately, my bookshelves were built-ins, so they are holding up someone else’s books and knick-knacks now. My books, if I can believe the man who drove away with them, are stashed in a warehouse in Austin. They should join me in Florida sometime in November, when my new house and its lanai are completed.
But I digress. Why did I start this essay with an “oh, no!”? During the weeks when I was busy clearing the decks and struggling to write a blog post arguing that playing music just won’t cut it this time, I stumbled on these other words, also supposedly spoken by Leonard Bernstein. “To achieve great things, two things are needed;” he says. “…a plan…”
Check. I’ve got a plan.
“…and not quite enough time.”
I flip through the newly blank pages of my planner, empty as a night without a dream. Oh, no, I think.
What have I done?
Heather O’Shea is a freelance writer and author of the blog LiveLoveLeave.com. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame Review, Blue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. Heather left a career in business for a career in education, and just left that career to fulfill her dream of writing full-time (on or off the lanai). Any day now, she will be looking for a publisher for BookEnds, her first novel.
October 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Emily H. Freeman
On the way to write with the boys from the group home, we turn off the highway at a piece of land adjacent to Rock Creek, the pristine fly-fishing stream that attracts anglers to Montana from around the world. Mountains loom in the distance, shaded in varying grays from the 20,000-acre wildfire burning in their midst — the Sapphire Complex, it’s called, a joining of what was once three smaller fires, each with its own evocative moniker: Sliderock. Goat Creek. Little Hogback.
Lily, my partner from a local watershed restoration organization, stops the truck and unlocks the gate, and in the distance I see a vast fenced-in area of dried-out dirt surrounding a small pond. It’s a construction scar from a failed development project, Lily explains, putting two words to something I’ve seen, but never named: construction scar. A thwarted attempt at change.
A white van rolls in behind us: four teenaged boys and two staff members of the group home where they live.
We hand out notebooks and pencils at the base of an old cottonwood snag, its sides stippled with perfectly round holes where birds have made feasts of what once lived beneath its bark. My job this morning is to write with these boys, and to be as present and encouraging as I can, in the hour that we’ll spend together. After we write, we’ll take care of the land.
The boys tell me their names, their ages. One says he loves to write, is working on a novel. Another, politely unabashed, tells me he doesn’t like writing at all. A third tells me that he sometimes writes raps and poems, and the fourth, a shy redhead, mumbles something inaudible, barely meets my gaze.
A woodpecker flies to the tree above us, perches on a high branch, as though listening. Lily points it out to the group. “Pileated,” she says. “Largest woodpecker in Montana.”
One by one, the boys turn their heads to look.
We talk about wildfires, about the smoke that’s been filling the valley for weeks, and I ask the boys to write about it.
With such a short time together, and little knowledge of their backstories, I throw out my best hopes for quick and fruitful writing prompts. I tell them to use their five senses, to imagine the fire as an animal, an emotion, metaphor.
Heads bend down to notebooks; pencils start to move. It’s quiet now, save for the intermittent roar of semis in the distance, the chattering of kestrels wheeling overhead. Through the trees behind us, Rock Creek throws its voice into the song.
When it’s time to share, the boys’ voices start quiet and tentative, growing in strength as they realize they have the group’s full attention. The fire is a lion, they say, a tiger, an unnamed mythical beast. It is greed, it is violence; it is an insatiable hunger. Some of the adults share what they wrote, as well, privileging the boys with their own vulnerability.
And then: it’s time. Too short, but writing is only a part of what we’re here to do. Bodies shift and notebooks are rounded up.
We shift our attention to the construction scar, brightly colored plastic flags marking spots where young plants are growing: black cottonwood and mock orange, choke cherry and rocky mountain maple. These are the plants that will restore the soil, create habitat, and heal the land.
The boys know the drill, having worked with Lily all summer long. They walk over to her truck, its bed filled with a 150-gallon tank. She opens the valve, and water drains through a hose into a large container set on the ground. We scoop out bucketsful, then slowly walk through the warming mid-day air to pour out the contents at each flag. At some, a foot-high wild rose grows, branches prickly and resilient-looking. At others, a small red twig marks a willow, and at still others: nothing. Lily insists they be watered anyway, that roots will get established even if there’s nothing to show for it above ground.
For an hour we fill, and trudge, and tend. In the center of the pond, a duck family floats, nearly still, on the water’s surface. Two boys across the pond spot salamanders, catch frogs. Another finds a snake. The reemergence of these small and fragile creatures is a sign that the project is working.
Water gone, we circle up at the truck. Lily sits on the tailgate and pulls up a wildlife identification app on her phone.
“What kind of frog do you think you found?” she asks the boys.
“Leopard Frog?” one offers.
“More likely a Pacific Chorus Frog,” she says.
She finds the frog on the app, turns up the volume on her phone and holds it in the middle of the circle for the boys to hear. Conversations fade, and the frog’s call – a kind of guttural chuckling — fills the air.
In the next two weeks, the fire in the distance will grow to nearly twice its size, with no signs of slowing, evacuation and pre-evacuation orders in place for the houses at its borders.
In the next three weeks, the boys will start school again, moving through already complex channels with an added burden that most of their classmates will never know.
In the next few months, one of them — a high-school senior — will turn 18, and age out of the group home system entirely. He’ll have to move out on his own, and, as much as the staff of his home has done to prepare him for this inevitability, he’ll nevertheless be a not-yet-high school graduate, somebody’s still-young son, navigating the world largely on his own.
But none of that is happening right now.
Right now, we are a motley assemblage of kids and adults, standing within an ember’s throw of a fiery mountain, crowded around a phone from which emanates the call of a small amphibian.
And somewhere in the pond, another frog turns to listen.
Emily H. Freeman has taught writing in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. Her work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.
October 2, 2018 § Leave a comment
There’s nothing meek or mild in Gabe Montesanti’s evocation of being coached on a girls’ swim team, found in Brevity’s September 2018 issue.
Here’s an excerpt from Montesanti’s flash essay:
Coach decided months ago we should wear two suits. Then he decided we should all wear men’s trunks on top. Mine are black with red flames. “Good thing the boys think you’re pretty,” he tells me. “They don’t have to know how goddamn slow you were today. I could’ve gone down to the music store, gotten a piano, chucked it in the pool, and it would still kick your ass.”
Read the full essay in our new issue.
October 1, 2018 § 6 Comments
By Cat Pleska
The time had finally arrived: my first book launch. I’d worked on my memoir for fifteen years before a university press published it. I justified the long time it took to finish by saying sometimes you have to live a little longer and grow to understand what your life story is and what it means.
A few months in advance of my book’s release, I’d scheduled its launch at an independent bookstore nearby. Then a month before, I had a dream. In the dream I walked into the bookstore’s reading space. The reading table for authors was at the back of the room and there to one side of it stood my parents and my dad’s parents, shoulder to shoulder. Beaming smiles. I felt their approval for the book, their pride in me. I woke, haunted by the fact that these four people, who appeared prominently in my memoir, were all gone. They would never see me in this life-affirming moment.
The image stayed with me and an idea began to form in the back of my mind. Because I had previously portrayed historical characters, one for my state’s humanity council’s History Alive! program and another for the national Mother’s Day Foundation, I was accustomed to costumes and performances to become someone else. Two weeks before the launch, I hatched a plan.
In my local Goodwill, I found an old work shirt and in Cabela’s an orange hunting hat. From Ebay, I ordered a cigarette rolling machine identical to the one my grandfather allowed me to roll his cigarettes for him when I was a child. I borrowed my husband’s steel toe work boots. I found my old reading glasses that looked like the ones my grandmother wore and dug out one of her ashtrays. For my mother, I could find no costume items, so I decided to express her with stance and attitude.
The day came and I rounded the door to the reading space, half expecting my family to be standing as I saw them in my dream. Approaching the table, I sat a chair on either side then placed my props. It was show time!
I drew in a shaky breath and prepared to let the audience know I had not come alone. In front of them, I donned the tan work shirt over my clothes and pulled on the boots. I rolled a cigarette in the rolling machine with tobacco torn from a borrowed cigarette (since I don’t smoke) and launched into a story my grandfather always told, copying his vernacular and physical stance. I drew laughs when I changed in front of them and switched chairs to portray my grandmother tapping her “ashes” into her hand— she usually ignored her ashtrays—as she told a story about me when I was a baby. Then I switched to a flannel shirt and hunting hat, cigarette dangling from my lip as Dad told his famous “Night on Cheat Mountain” wild tale. Again I switched chairs and took off any props to sit proper, legs crossed, and told a rollicking tale of my mother’s, her cigarette flashing in the air as she gestured.
Finally, it was just me, in front of friends and strangers reading from my memoir. Stories about growing up with these giants, these people who were wonderful and wonderfully flawed, who loved me, despite my own flaws. I remembered their stories and my own like the lines of a play.
In my imagination, with each reading, they would fill the back row of the audience. Over time, I imagined them less. Then they were gone. I became the lone character.
To my utter shock, I plunged into mourning their deaths again. No one had told me this might happen when you recreate and write about long-gone loved ones.
For the next few months, as I exulted in my first published book, I also felt the heavy burden of grief. This time, all four of them at once. The truth is that to write memoir, we must visit the good, the bad, the past, the present, and resurrect ghosts to convey to our readers the lived life.
In my memoir, I wrote their story, as they had asked me to over the years, and I boldly added my own. They showed up to let me know they were proud of me and to take a final bow.
Cat Pleska is the author of Riding on Comets: a Memoir, (West Virginia University Press, 2015). Even though she lives in and writes from the heart of Appalachia, she is currently working on a collection of travel/personal essays titled The I’s Have It: Traveling in Ireland and Iceland. She teaches full time in the online Master of Liberal Studies Program, for Arizona State University.
September 28, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Ashley P. Taylor
Holding a box of stationery shut in my desk drawer is a giant rubber band. The box was never in any danger of falling open, so I don’t know why I rubber banded it, unless the purpose was simply to do something with the rather large bag of giant rubber bands that I ordered from Amazon two years ago.
I was querying an agent who asked for hard-copy submissions, and I’d heard that one of two ways to collate one’s score of sample pages was to use a rubber band (the other way being binder clips).
Of all the rookie writing questions one could ask a novelist, “What size rubber bands did you use?” has got to be one of the worst. To ask it is to be little better than the small children who, after John Updike read a kid’s book aloud, persistently questioned the author about the mechanics of using a typewriter: “Do you ever make mistakes, typing?” Updike repeated the question. “Do I ever make mistakes . . . typing?”
So instead of asking around, I went on Amazon and ordered a one-pound box of 40 Alliance-brand rubber bands, seven inches around and five-eighths of an inch wide. It’s easy, now, to look and see what I bought, but the choice of rubber band was not easy. So many things could go wrong. With a rubber band too big, the pages are loose; one too small and one’s precious leaves get crumpled or bent; one too thin and the band snaps and flies into the agent’s eyes, blinding her to your manuscript, nay, to all manuscripts, to everything!
The rubber bands I chose were way too thick. Luckily, there was an alternative: I headed to Staples. There I did indeed find a rainbow assortment of long skinny rubber bands that looked capable of restraining a manuscript, but I wasn’t tempted. Binder clip it was, and with a little help from the guy at the mailing counter, I even put the metal flaps down so that my manuscript could fit into a Priority Mail envelope.
All this to say that I’m seeking alternative uses—beyond stationery security overkill—for heavy-duty rubber bands. Slingshot component? Aid for drawing—or dyeing—smooth lines around dinosaur eggs? Giant-asparagus fastener? I throw the bag of them at the floor, and it bounces a little, so the rubber bands could make a giant rubber-band ball, although its core would have to be quite large. If I crumpled up all the pages of my manuscript . . .
I wonder what the rubber-band manufacturer imagines they will be used for. The Alliance Rubber press kit, “Holding Your World Together,” lists novel applications not necessarily for giant rubber bands but for rubber bands in general: jar opener, cutting-board securer, box-flap holder-downer, wallet altogether replacer, and, my favorite, waist extender. “Whether you’ve got one on the way or just want to breathe easy while you sit,” Alliance instructs, “simply pull a rubber band through the buttonhole on your pants. Then, put that loop around the button. It’s that simple!” A picture of unzipped black jeans, their waist flexibly expanded by a thin brown loop, accompanies this suggestion.
When I post to Facebook this bit about rubber-band-cum-waist-extender, hoping to make people laugh, a friend comments that she did the same thing with a hair elastic when she was expecting. Perhaps I am the ignorant one. Maybe if ever become pregnant, I’ll understand. But a hair elastic is one thing; a small thing, specifically. I really hope I won’t ever need to expand my waistband with a seven-inch rubber band capable of stretching to seven times its original circumference.
Alliance also says that the rubber bands they produce in a year could encircle the globe 23 times. I wonder how close my rubber bands would come to doing that. Each can theoretically stretch to 49 inches. I’m not sure what Alliance envisions, but I imagine hooking the bands together to form something like chain-link rubber. In that case, each rubber band covers 25 inches, max. Earth is 1,577,727,360 inches around, according to Google. At 40 bands per box, each box covers 1,000 inches, and I’d need a million and a half boxes, which is, oh, about a million and a half times beyond the scope of my project.
Maybe I’ll put the rubber bands in a drawer and return to the novel.
But would the world bounce? I sort of want to know.
Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.
September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
While she was writing her last memoir, Rebecca Fish Ewan discovered that sketching helped her characterize scenes she was drafting in richly worded detail. Surprisingly, the sketches made their way into the narrative itself. In this craft essay, she explains how drawing can inform the writing process and bring more nuance and texture into the narrative and maybe even become part of the finished work.
An excerpt from Ewan’s illustrated essay:
When you make marks on a blank page, you create meaning, either through words or pictures. By hybridizing these two mechanisms for creating meaning, you can explore alternative ways to communicate thoughts and stories.
Read the full essay in Brevity’s new issue.