August 14, 2019 § 17 Comments
By Lenore Franzen
At my writer’s group recently, we were going around the circle and checking in—giving the others an update on our own writing, perhaps raising an issue we’d been facing. One woman, when it was her turn, expressed frustration over a question she is asked often by those who know she’s working on a memoir. “When are you going to get your book published?”
When indeed. For anyone who doesn’t make a habit of wrestling with words and calling it her livelihood, let me tell you a secret. This is the question every writer dreads. It’s a question that pokes us, taunts us, by way of saying there should be a measurable outcome to everything we do and perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong thing to spend our time on.
A journalist writes to meet a deadline. An academic writes to stay relevant. A copywriter writes to sell.
The writers in my group are not the publish-or-perish type. Our work has a more subtle intent. We are trying to solve something that may not have a solution. And we won’t know that until we do.
We aren’t capitalists. We don’t keep a time sheet. We don’t have a business plan. We don’t build empires. We don’t insist on deadlines that force us to a place we don’t yet know exists.
We aren’t lion tamers. We don’t train words with a whip, making them do tricks for others. Writing must maintain its wildness. We’re just along for the ride.
This is why we don’t know how to answer these questions. They seem to be in Farsi, and we only speak English.
- How long have you been working on your book?
- When will you be done?
- How long is your book?
- What’s your next project after this one?
- Do you have a publisher yet?
As Annie Dillard writes, “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” (The Writing Life)
Let me tell you something else. I came to the end of my latest revision this week. For a quick minute I breathed. But my first thought wasn’t to begin researching literary agents or tell you how to pre-order copies on Amazon.
My first real thought was, “Now that I’m done, I can sit down and write my story.”
This is how writers think. We arrive, hoping for greater insight, a clearer path that then requires going back to the beginning, rubbing that new insight like a smooth stone.
It takes courage, believe me, and no small amount of faith, which is assailed most days when we look at our words from the day or week or year before and they’ve lost their sheen. Still we persist, sometimes taking a necessary break, sometimes diving even deeper into the murky waters we’re trying to see our way through.
Here are a few thoughts on what to say to the writer in your life:
- What feeds your writing?
- I’m interested in what you’re working on.
- How has writing changed you?
- I admire your commitment to your writing!
- Courage, my friend.
When we write, we put symbols (words) on the page. We don’t know yet what meaning they contain. We can’t because we are traveling in new territory. It is full of mystery. “Right now,” Dillard says, “your job is to hold your breath.”
Lenore Franzen has published an essay in Minnesota Women’s Press, a short story in the collection Mountains of the Moon, and eight nonfiction titles for school library series. She has written a historical novel and is currently working on a memoir. You can follow her at lenorefranzen.com.
August 13, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Hyde Stevens
In the months before becoming pregnant with my daughter, I got into a stranger’s car and drove out to the Berkshires to attend an Ayahuasca ceremony with a Columbian shaman named Taita Nelson. I was writing a novel about the possibility of psychic healing after my mother’s death from Lewy body dementia. My hope was that I might reconnect with my mother. My brother had told me I was the bravest person he knew. But the truth is that I am far from fearless.
“To my knowledge no one has discovered a gene for self-determination,” Carter Taylor Seaton writes in her essay “The Girl in the Mirror” in the literary collection Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment. “I don’t think they will, either.” Fearless, published in April by Mountain State Press, is lyrical, sprawling, and forthright, essays mostly, with the occasional microburst of fiction or poetry, all featuring women bravely making their way in the world. “Some challenges,” Seaton writes, “present themselves, like coping with an alcoholic husband or ending life support for your oldest son, and you grapple to overcome them. Others you willingly accept.” After playing the Virgin Mary as a pregnant high school junior and having four children before she was twenty-three, at fifty, Seaton willingly took on the challenge to become a writer and marathoner.
With over thirty formidable writers contributing, Fearless creates a celestial-chorus-like effect, like reading #YesAllWomen tweets or Scary Mommy Confessionals. Yet, unlike the fragmentary moments of online confessions, Fearless provides the context, intelligence, poise, and perspective that only literary explorations can give. The works are short—two or three can be read in the time it takes to read a novel chapter—but long enough to show ongoing-ness of women’s badassery. Brimming with rebellion, duty, loss, fear, motherhood, divorce, poverty, hedonism, hope, and faith, the stories show women as intrepid, infragile, heroic, each writer mounting the audacity to become the hero in her own life.
West Virginians abound, although the stories reach to New York, Los Angeles, Florence, and beyond. Editor Cat Pleska, a seventh-generation Appalachian, grounds Fearless in the peculiarity of the mountains, coal mines, poverty, and pickup trucks where plucky women refuse to do as they are told, and, instead, blaze their own trail: the righteous victory of rebuffing a boss’s harassment, finding the confidence to run away from home or start a global business. Many of the stories are too complex to describe in pull-quotes: the older-self-shocking confidence of a woman giving birth “the natural way.” The pain of losing the love of your life to cancer, even though you divorced him many years before.
Daleen R. Berry writes of the moment she found out—while getting an ultrasound on her right breast – that her husband died, setting off a protracted legal disaster. M. Lynne Squires writes of a rape in which she was not sure if she should hope her roommate comes home to save her or hope to avoid being found in such a shameful state, later vowing “that moment, that experience wasn’t going to define me.” In “Star Child,” editor Cat Pleska writes of the larger-than-life friend from Stitch-and-Bitch meetings who believed in magic, flew her out to Paris, and breezily brushed off the greatest marital betrayal, a tribute to a quixotic, vibrant life snuffed out in an instant.
In “Daughter,” Rajia Hassib denaturalizes and ironizes the task of “raising” a fearless woman. Wracked by mom guilt for failing her daughter, the protagonist anxiously tries to teach her graduating senior to ride a bicycle so she won’t embarrass her new friends at college. All the while, the fully capable teen girl texts friends, likely mocking her, with both thumbs. What else, the story suggests, do we forget to teach young women before they go off into the world?
In one of the rare nods to politics in Fearless, the poem “Women’s March Washington, By God, D.C.,” by Kari Gunter-Seymour, paints a picture of a mounting women’s movement in Appalachia:
Their husband’s mouths gaped,
They board the bus, middle of the night,
Cardboard signs and children in tow,
Their bodies a poem of spine
And gut and cicada music.
Some have never before left the county.
Majestically, Sheila Coleman-Castells imagines a new post-coal, post-poverty future for her chosen homeland where “expectations, stigmas, and inertia” don’t have to define our lives. Her lyrical invocations resonate for her fellow Black Affrilachian women and for women everywhere: “I have to show her, while young, that she has no need to adhere to outmoded cultural ways of being that require her to get ‘permission’ from anyone to be her authentic self. No one who ever asked permission from others would be allowed to let their talents roam free.”
Ultimately, Fearless is not about the lack of fear, but rather about writing a hope for a better future—a hope resounding right now in all parts of the nation where women reside (and vote), but perhaps nowhere as lyrically as the blooming mountains of Appalachia—the hope that, as Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri says in “In Every Dream…”: “They no longer need to imagine.”
I didn’t see my mother in the shamanic ceremony in the Berkshires, but I saw powerful internal landscape of loss that helped me let go of my biggest fears. I saw a rose bloom out of my womb. And then I saw my mother’s hair—her thick, charcoal-black, fluffy 1980s-blow-dried follicles sprouting up over mountains, fields, rivers, streams, oceans, and continents all over the earth. I will forever be grateful to have had the courage—and the bravery of women before me—to see that dream.
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of the pushcart-nominated story “Wolf Memoirs.” Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Salon, The Awl, The Millions, Rolling Stone, RogerEbert.com, and Fast Company. She is the author of the nonfiction book Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson which was praised by INC, The AV Club, Brain Pickings, WGBH, and The Boston Globe. Stevens has taught writing at many schools including MassArt, Brooklyn College, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Harvard Extension School. She currently teaches a writing and research seminar at Boston University exploring the future of video games.
August 12, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Gabriela Denise Frank
I expect nothing less than magic from summer writing workshops.
These forays, which claim a week of precious PTO, land during our best weather in the Pacific Northwest when I might otherwise skip town with family and friends to relax by the shore.
“How was your vacation?” colleagues ask upon my return.
“It wasn’t a vacation. I was at a writers workshop,” I insist—and cringe when they say, “Well, that sounds fun!”
Fun is a breezy hike followed by beers and Smores around a crackling campfire. Fun trivializes the soul-searching and social dynamics that make summer workshops spiritually invigorating and emotionally exhausting. Yes, a workshop affords escape from my job and domestic duties—a brief window of inspiration and community building that tides me over for another year—but writing (and getting better at writing) is hard work. I like to point out that these workshops, a mainstay of my DIY MFA, never involve sleeping in.
“But you enjoy writing, right?” my colleagues counter.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun,” I harrumph.
Last week, I attended the Fishtrap Summer Workshop at Wallowa Lake, Oregon. The theme: Steering the Craft, an honor to Ursula K. Le Guin. Headliners included Luis Alberto Urrea, Jamie Ford, and Oregon State Poet Laureate (and Fishtrap co-founder) Kim Stafford. I came for a generative workshop with Sharma Shields, author of The Cassandra, who led our cohort into the realm of dark fiction.
We began our daily meetings with an “entry task”—forty minutes of writing on a prompt intended to open doors into worlds of magic realism. We came back together to share what we wrote, then had time to finish that piece or work on a longer project. The goal of the workshop was to come away with several new pieces that we could develop further at home.
Though I’m primarily an essayist, I’ve found that cross-genre learning between fiction and nonfiction fuels my abilities in both. In studying the elements of craft, I’ve developed a literary approach to my nonfiction, and my fiction has become better grounded in personal experience and physical detail. Labels aside, it is all writing to me.
It may be a sign of these unsure times, our country’s daily struggle to separate fact from fiction, but I was surprised how our cohort blurred the boundary between lived experience and imagination. Though we were supposed to be writing fiction, we responded to Sharma’s prompts with rebuttal letters, revenge fantasies, and revelations from life that we had been holding onto. While what we wrote was surreal, it was based on our lives.
This class, held in the living room of a burgundy cottage tucked into the edge of the forest, became a space for us to mythologize pain, suffering, longing, and hurt as nosy deer peeked at us through the window. In response to a prompt where Sharma encouraged us to find empathy for someone who had wronged us, my experience of childhood bullying by a kid named Tom tumbled out as a myth starring the Gorgon, Medusa, pursued on a bicycle by a mob of boys.
Fishtrap was my fifth summer workshop. I always hope to “find my tribe” at these gatherings, but it never works out that way. I find myself wishing I was one of those chatty, popular camp-goers who gets everyone’s autograph in my yearbook, but in the end, I tend to forge deep bonds with a handful of writers. My experience in adult education mirrors my college days: excited twilight conversations fueled by spirits, and intimacy made with a few lovely people, many of whom I remain in contact with.
The tenor of each workshop is different. Setting and place play into the experience (Fishtrap came with a high mountain lake and plenty of forest hikes), as does the diversity of the cohort. At Fishtrap, there were many writers of a certain age—mature writers looking to play with nature and magic, people for whom writing carries an element of advocation, cause, and urgency. Very Ursula Le Guin. As a generative workshop, the point of Fishtrap is not to market oneself or jockey for agents—it’s to create community and explore new realms in writing.
Each afternoon, as I surveyed the shore of nearby Wallowa Lake where families camped and picnicked, a stone’s throw from the verdant lawn of Wallowa Lake Lodge where two hundred writers gathered beneath a tent each night in search of transformation, I found myself wondering what brought me here. Why Fishtrap? Why Eastern Oregon? Why dark fiction? Couldn’t I write something cheerful or funny for once?
In rereading the stories I started, I found a common thread: each hearkens back to old hurts that, in life, could not be cured. Essays on these subjects would have fallen flat. Sharma’s workshop helped me channel these realities into myth—into writing that empathized with monsters and misanthropes as a means of helping the hero understand her own hand in her fate and recapture her power. Something quite magical. Like listening to grownups tell stories beneath a lamplit tent at twilight, the night birds singing and swooping overhead as the sun sets behind the purple misty mountains.
Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
Maybe it’s time to admit, mostly to myself, that a summer writers workshop is my kind of fun. Maybe finding one’s tribe means clicking with “only” two or three people out of two hundred who share my chosen peculiarities. Maybe hard work can be classified as enjoyable without diminishing the effort.
Hard work is not the same as a hard heart. The joy of the work is what celebrates it, I think. When people ask how my vacation was, I’ll try to remember that.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her writing has appeared in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, South 85 Journal, Gold Man Review and The Rumpus. In 2020, she will lead a generative summer workshop in Italy. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com
August 9, 2019 § 12 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Students ask: What is creative nonfiction? Is it made up? Who got the idea first?
Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, is on the record that he did not coin the term, that the concept predates him, whatever it’s called. The genre of creative nonfiction covers a lot of ground. It is a true story, well told, not invention but truthful art in expression, exquisite perspective without deviating from fact. The creativity is in the telling, not the story. Nonfiction.
Maybe it’s whimsical or informal in tone and uses first person in greater or lesser capacity—it steps beyond objective journalism while never avoiding truth. Memoir is only one form. Robert Louis Stevenson’s first travel book in English, An Inland Voyage (1878), about boating on rivers and canals, < travel books by Ibn Battuta and Basho, Thoreau’s nature writing, Woolf’s meditations on women who write. People have been writing stories incorporating personal experiences and exploring how these experiences lead to broader insight . . . forever.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in conversation with Bill Moyers in 1995, cautions that “students, the high school students, frequently want to talk about emotion as the key to life. … I think … it’s more energy and energy comes from many kinds, it comes from juxtaposition and things coming together. … And I think that our brains are desperate for that kind of energy.”
An essay I assign suggests a more concrete approach to writing creative nonfiction: You might begin with an experience that had an impact upon you personally. Clarify the moment, what happened, ponder how it moved you, then turn around and look at the world from that vantage point. Find what matters. I warn them against writing about romantic love. They are often wrong in thinking they know what matters when they start. I force them to alter structure, reconsider verb tense and point of view. I provide models.
Diane Ackerman’s essay “Mute Dancers: How to Watch a Hummingbird” leaves personal experience behind without completely abandoning it. “A lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep”—who can resist an opening like that? The author does not know this from personal experience; it is clear she has done her research. Her presence barely registers, and most students struggle to pinpoint the instant the author says “I.” Her collection The Moon by Whale Light follows her slog through Florida’s swamps, the stink of bat guano, yet even in describing the cacophony of hearing her assigned penguin chick in a roomful of babies screaming to be fed, her epiphany concerns penguins, not herself.
That’s one way: The author is fully present but not the point.
By contrast, Zora Neale Huston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” speaks back to a particular claim of racial damage. She describes her personal pride having been raised in an all-Black township and how her individuality overcomes racial identity. “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”
Her life experience is front and center: “I am not tragically colored,” she insists. “I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
My assignment suggests personal experience as the centering tension or image, the easy part. Description is hard enough, but my students struggle to “turn around and look at the world.” How does their life experience or a moment’s perspective illuminate the world at large or even their place in it? How to find that grander view?
Students fear I am asking for wisdom, but really I want patience. What might they come to understand through sustained focus, deep thought, and messing about with words? Where does their experience lead them? If they stick with it, they hardly notice as step by step they grow more powerful on the page.
Creative nonfiction may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond. In every case the connection to poetry is significant. Experience as metaphor. Precise observation develops principle and connection, even what we like to call meaning.
Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.
It is the shock as we walk barefoot through our own house, squish on something, and realize what it is.
Jan Priddy taught art, high school English, and college writing for over forty years. Her work earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE: https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com
August 8, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Chris McGlone
I was writing on the back porch a couple of weeks ago, or, more accurately, trying to write, when a catbird perched on our roof and began running through every song and noise he knew. There may have been female catbirds in the area he was trying to impress—the size of the male’s repertoire apparently does matter to female catbirds. Or, he may have had no motivation other than pure idiotic exuberance. He imitated the songs of other birds, then switched to imitating humans with a few telephone ringtones and a doorbell. He punctuated his routine with random buzzes and beeps, the ever-popular clicking ratchet sound, and the almost-meow that gives catbirds their name. It was entertaining listening, but not all that helpful for writing.
The catbird’s performance did lead me to a useful insight, though; I realized that there’s a catbird lobe in my brain, up there in its catbird seat, watching as the rest of my brain tries feebly to string together words and doing its best to “help.”
If my catbird brain sees that I’m trying to write something original (which should always be the case, of course), it will help by imitating everything I’ve ever read—Didion, DFW, Montaigne, Danielle Steele, cereal boxes, etc. If I’m trying to think of the perfect word, it will suggest dozens of less-than-perfect words. If I’m trying to be lyrical, then it’s time for the ratchet and doorbells and ringtones. Why do you want to work so hard, the catbird asks? Why not do something fun instead, like Sudoku, or Twitter, or YouTube, or just make noises?
If I do manage to write something despite its help, the catbird ridicules it, echoing my own insecurity about the piece by repeating my internal critiques in a sarcastic tone—metaphorically crapping on it.
How does one deal with a catbird brain? One strategy is to just ignore it, but while real catbirds eventually fly away metaphorical catbirds never seem to leave. Throw a real or metaphorical rock at it? Real rocks can be dangerous and break windows; I’m not sure how to throw a metaphorical rock.
Maybe the best strategy is this: if you can’t ignore the catbird, be one. Write for the pure exuberant idiocy of it. Listen to the entire world and everything in it, mix it all up, then get up on the roof and sing it all back at the top of your lungs. Let the words pour out, then sieve out the buzzes and beeps and look at what’s left. It works for catbirds.
Chris McGlone is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at George Mason University. In his previous life as a photogrammetrist he published a number of technical papers and book chapters and co-authored a textbook. Other interests include playing Irish guitar and bluegrass banjo. He is on Twitter as chrismcglone75
August 7, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Alice Lowe
My writing buddy, Jim, is the only person to whom I confess my current impasse. To others I’m taking stock, generating ideas, planning. Whatever I can say in lieu of dried up, empty-headed, in a funk. In lieu of the inadmissible: w______ b____. I shrink from the admission and what it might say about me—that I’m a quitter, lazy, bereft of creativity—just as I would be loath to reveal a sexually-transmitted disease. The most I’m prepared to say is that “I’m struggling a bit.”
Jim and I met in a memoir class eight years ago, both of us recently retired from business careers. We still meet every two weeks and are well acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He flags my ample alliterations and excessive em-dashes. I circle his run-on sentences. We celebrated each other’s first published essay and every subsequent success. We’ve withstood times of plenitude and drought.
Me: I’m struggling a bit.
Jim: I’d suggest writing from prompts, but I know you hate it.
Me: I don’t hate it, just have difficulty getting started. I can’t generate anything on cue.
Jim: Try again—what can you lose?
Me: Mmm, maybe so.
Prompts are everywhere, I add, stirred by his challenge. I pick up a book from the end table. Sustainability: A Love Story, by Nicole Walker. I flip to a random page and read: “Everything grows more slowly in Flagstaff.”
We look at each other wide-eyed.
Jim: “Wow. That’s a good one.”
I agree, but it doesn’t help.
Me: I’m still struggling. Actually, I’m stuck.
Jim: Why don’t you write about it?
Me: Everyone writes about … writer’s block. There, I’ve said it.
Jim: And we always read them!
Me: What would I say?
Jim: How about “Everyone writes about writer’s block.”
Everyone writes about writer’s block. Every writer knows it firsthand, whatever they call it, whatever their experience. Carson McCullers was paralyzed by it. Samuel Coleridge resorted to opium. Toni Morrison rejects the term but knows the feeling. Hilary Mantel suggests getting away from your desk. John McPhee says to write your way out of it. Mind over matter. Write. Or take a break. Either way, it’s a phase. It will pass.
I wrote a craft piece several years ago, “How to Become a Writer After Sixty.” I advise: “Be patient but firm with yourself. When you’re not inspired or productive don’t call it writer’s block—bowels and sinuses get blocked, not writers.” But that was when I was flooded with ideas, when life stories queued up in my brain.
But surely I haven’t exhausted the experiences of a long and rich life, esoteric themes ripe for development. I’ve researched and written about baseball and Arctic exploration, maps, noodles, cookbooks, and obscure novelists. What else might I unearth?
I’m invigorated by beginnings, real or arbitrary—the start of the year, spring equinox, as soon as this (fill-in-the-blank) commitment is over—times of transition, of renewal, of fresh beginnings. This January began to work its magic as I made lists—to do, to read, to write. I looked at notes I’d jotted down but hadn’t followed up. Sentences, paragraphs and pages abandoned to slush files. I started with a few carry-overs; ideas began to bubble to the surface.
My creativity awakened, like a congealed sauce that needs to be stirred and heated to revive its essence.
Or like Flagstaff, where everything grows more slowly, and which, a tantalizing topic, I put at the top of the list.
Alice Lowe writes about life, literature, food and family in San Diego. Recent essays appear in Ascent, Bloom, Hobart, Stonecoast Review, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. She has been cited in the Best American Essays notables and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.