The Power of Listening to What Your Practice Demands

January 6, 2017 § 13 Comments

franz.pngby Beth Franz

“What do you want to achieve by sending your work out?” Allison K Williams asks this of us in her book, Get Published in Literary Magazines, offering three possibilities for consideration: publication (the reward of seeing your name in print), payment (the reward of money in your pocket), and prestige (the reward of being “taken seriously” by virtue of having made it into a publication of some repute).  As Williams explains, “Thinking about your ultimate big-picture goal helps you choose where to submit.”

I struggled to make it past Williams’s three choices, none of which seemed to quite fit my situation.  Even now, my mind continues to search for my answer to that important question: “What do you want?”  (To make things a little more challenging for myself, I decided to stay with Williams’s preoccupation with the letter P.)  Here are the answers I’ve arrived at:

  • Participation – While writing has always been (and will always be) a way for me to “see” what I am trying to “see,” I want more than that now. I want to find a way to participate in the conversations I see going on around me.  I feel as though I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for years – decades, now – watching the other children around me jumping rope, double Dutch to be specific.  I’ve been studying when children jump in, how they jump in, how they stay in there, when and how they jump out.  I want to take my turn.  I want to jump in.
  • Put it out there! – Of course, in order to participate, I have to first find the courage needed to do so. That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  The longer one waits to take one’s turn when it comes to just jumping in there, the scarier the prospect becomes.  I didn’t know that.  For the longest time, I believed that waiting was making me more prepared.  Perhaps it was . . . to a point.  But there came a point– maybe it was 10 years ago, maybe it was 20 or 30 years ago – a point beyond which the waiting only led to diminishing returns, for I eventually lost my courage to jump in there at all!  To make matters worse, instead of jumping in back in the 1980s or 1990s, when publishing involved primarily printed materials, I kept waiting.  And while I waited, the world changed around me.  I find myself in a new world today, when any piece that is put out there is subject to being responded to right away, in this digital age we now live in, making me even more hesitant to take a position on anything, for fear of the avalanche of responses my writing might trigger!  I have become paralyzed with this fear.  Or, equally paralyzing, I encounter a much more powerful piece that’s already out there, beside which my measly piece pales.  And again, I lose my courage.  I want to find my courage.  I know that the only way I can do that is to put out there what I have, warts and all.
  • Practice – I have long viewed writing as a practice, something that I engage in the way others engage in prayer or meditation or physical exercise. It is a “practice” in that the doing of it is its own reward.  And as is the case with prayer or meditation or physical exercise, the practice of writing also offers collateral benefits that spill over into real life, altering the way I go about the rest of the day’s activities.  But my son has recently made me aware of a facet of “practice” I was not aware of.

My son, who was born a full decade and a half after I started my practice as a writer and who will soon turn 23 is a practicing personal trainer.  He spent four years in college learning about how the body works and what people can do to increase their physical well being.  He recently explained to me that because of the body’s ability to “adapt” to what it is being called on to do, it is important to regularly “adjust” one’s workout.  Otherwise, the body – in its wisdom – adapts so well to what the muscles are being asked to do that they no longer benefit in the same way.  It is as though the body is “too smart for its own good.”  That’s where the personal trainer can help.

My son’s words got me to thinking.  A lot has been written about the practice of writing.  I have been a disciple of both Natalie Goldberg’s “The Rules of Writing Practice” and Julia Cameron’s “The Morning Pages” at different times over the last several decades.  There have even been times when I find myself agreeing with those who claim that the best practice is NOT one in which the writer feels obligated to write every day; rather, the best practice is the one in which the writer learns to listen, deeply, to herself:  to write when she has something to say and to stay silent when she does not.

But what my son’s words helped me realize is that the most beneficial constant in any practice is the practitioner’s willingness to be ever-changing in her approach to her practice.  The dedication has to be to the practice itself, not to the specific form the practice takes at any given time.

Just as the personal trainer must find ways to outsmart the body that knows so well how to “adapt” to the exercises it is being put through, so too must I find ways to outsmart my own writer within, who knows so well how to “play” whatever game she believes I am playing with her.  My practice demands that I find ways to participate, to put out there what writing has enabled me to “see” for myself.

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Beth Franz is a practicing writer and sculptor; a parent, partner, and educator; closer to the age of 60 than she can believe.  She plans on doing everything in her power to become a published writer in 2017.

Post-MFA: Nothing (and Everything) Changes

January 4, 2017 § 19 Comments

raebwBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’m so heartened to join the conversation with Paige Sullivan about what she so deftly calls “life on the other side of the dash.” Not only because much of my life exists there, but because I want those who are nearing the completion of their own MFAs to realize that there are so many paths that writing can involve, and even enrich – and none of them have “writer” in the title.

I’ve spent the last six years learning about nonprofit development – the bag of tricks one needs to separate folks from their wallets in support of a service-based organization. The truth is, this career path combines my love of words with my need to improve the world around me, in however small a way. Let’s be clear – I’m not saving lives or rewriting history, but for each dollar I raise from individuals, corporations, and foundations, more people can access our services, and maybe a few of them will have better luck out there in the world. And being a good writer is a huge, integral part of that work.

I started my MFA and my current job within months of each other, and many people I spoke to had the same reaction – That’s a hell of a way to work your way through school. But I wasn’t working my way through, I was continuing a career that I had committed to, at least for the time being. Work wasn’t my conduit to an education – and to be fair, the reverse isn’t true either. Getting my MFA was an emotional insurance policy – a way to remember that while my work was important, it wasn’t everything and didn’t hold the key to my identity. My business card said “Development Officer,” but my heart said – writer.

The conversation got complicated when I graduated. The question on everyone’s lips was, What’s next? For much of my cohort, it was time to write CV’s, email program directors, and try to break into the adjuncting world. It was tough to see the marked look of deflation on people’s faces when I told them, I’m going to keep working at my job and see what comes next. There was this underlying assumption that upon receiving the MFA, everything would shift – my job, my professional identity, my reason for waking up in the morning. So how could I explain that even though no material aspect of my life was changing, my heart would never be the same?

I tried to preach the gospel of the non-traditional writing job to my colleagues, to varied levels of success. But it’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. In order to excel at anything – marketing, fundraising, program development, administrative support, customer service – one must be able to manipulate language in so many ways. The ability to tell a story, to create a narrative arc, to sketch a profile of someone influential, to explain why a single monetary donation will make a difference – these tasks require all the skills that an MFA provides.

So for me, it might look like nothing changed at all. I’m still here, working in the same place, doing the same things. But thanks to my degree, I am doing those things better. I am telling richer, more interesting stories in grant proposals and direct appeals. I am the go-to editor on staff, responsible for proofing almost any communication that goes out the door. I am more valuable to my team, and more attractive to any employer I might one day work for. I am supported and held accountable to keep up with my personal writing, thanks for the amazing network of people I met over the last three years. I am armed with the skills and qualifications that might one day turn my random smattering of publications into a creative nonfiction workshop, residency, or maybe even a book proposal. And best of all, I am comforted and fulfilled knowing that no matter what I am doing on the outside, inside I will always be a writer first.
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Rae Pagliarulo
received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her poems and essays have been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories. By day, she works in resource development at a nonprofit, and by night, serves on the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Rae is also the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Port Richmond with her cat and yes, they can both help you find the best pierogies in the city.

Write Like You’re Giving Birth

January 2, 2017 § 27 Comments

sandramillerBy Sandra A. Miller

“Write from your guts,” I told my creative nonfiction students on the last day of class. “Don’t ignore the pain. Don’t act like it isn’t there and try tiptoeing around it. You have to write your way through your own dark woods.”

I recalled the excruciating experience of back labor when giving birth to my son. His head was positioned against my lower spine as opposed to the normal, on-top-of-the-cervix way, so whenever a contraction came, instead of him pounding down to open said cervix, his head struck my spinal cord, igniting the nerve center in a ripple of unmitigated agony. After twelve hours of useless back labor, I accepted a drug. “Yes-fucking-please.”

Bam! Ka-Pow!

My cervix went into overdrive and, in one hellish, body-wracking hour, blew open to the requisite ten centimeters, which meant it was time to push the baby out.

But instead of pushing, I stopped. I resisted. I clenched at every contraction, stealing myself against the pain that felt like a reckless trucker was driving his semi through my uterus.

“Push into the pain,” the British midwife urged in a high, clipped I know best voice that left no room for compromise. “When it feels the worst, Sandra, that’s when you must push the hardest.” She had Birkenstocks and long gray hair that would have loved a little Miss Clairol. She was kind, smart, and sensible; I wanted to kick her in the face.

“I don’t know what that even means,” I cried between gasps. “How do I push into the pain?” I actually thought that if I argued enough, I could altogether avoid having the baby.

“It means,” she explained, “that when the contraction is at its worst then you must push the hardest. Don’t shirk from the pain.”

I’ll shirk you! I thought as I felt the onset of a killer contraction and longed to rail against it. How to do this? How do you leave your fingers on the burning stove, or step more deeply onto the tack? How does a person embrace her worst fears and invite more? How does she choose a life of writing pain?

“Now!” the midwife, urged. “Push now!”

I shut my eyes and swallowed back my resistance. With my jaw locked, I pushed my hardest—or so I thought—screaming until tears streaked my face. I did that five more times through five more contractions, the pain so unrelenting that I feared I might die. I pushed as if my life depended on it.

When the baby still didn’t come, the midwife, her face betraying alarm as she watched the monitor, reached for a pair of surgical scissors. “We have to get the baby out now!” she announced. No time to numb me, just the sharp snip of raw flesh like an electric shock on my perineum. My child was in danger. His heart rate had plummeted, and, at that point, only I could save him.

And then, my boy.

Write into the pain, I tell my students. Just when you want to write around the Catholic pretense that hides the abuse, or the sight of your mother in a pink bathrobe dead on her bedroom floor, and how that day, for the first time ever, you touched her cheek and forgave everything; just when you want to ignore the acrid taste of blood, the colorless gray of loss, or the married lover whose forbidden lips, if for only a few minutes in the back of his beat-up Honda Civic, answered every prayer you ever whispered from your lonely bed; just when you want to skip a part because it’s too shameful to remember, then you absolutely have to remember it. You have to feel it wracking your body like a baby that will die if you don’t push now. Sit with each scene until it spins through every pain receptor and is ready to pull you down and drag you back and forth through your longest night, again and again and again.

Because I promise you this: if it doesn’t hurt at least a little, you will never birth your best writing.

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Sandra Miller‘s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film called “Wait” based on one of her personal essays. Kerry Washington starred.

True Stories, Podcasts, and Cult Music

December 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

truestory-issue1-coverMatt Tullis has hosted 49 episodes of Gangrey: The Podcast so far, focusing on literary journalism, and how it is reported, written, edited, and revised.  In a recent installment, Tullis talks with Steven Kurutz, features reporter for the New York Times, about “Fruitland,” the story that launched Creative Nonfiction magazine’s new series, True Story.

“Fruitland” explores the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, “two brothers … who as teenagers in the late 1970s self-recorded an album in a log-cabin studio their father built for them on the family farm. The album, Dreamin’ Wild, flopped upon its release but was rediscovered in a junk shop in 2008 and reissued by Light in the Attic records to critical and cult acclaim–but not without bringing out ghosts from the past and taking an emotional toll and the brothers and their family.”

Also joining the podcast on this episode is Hattie Fletcher. Fletcher is the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction, and is editing each installment of True Story.

Give it a listen.

 

Our Nights Before Christmas

December 21, 2016 § 5 Comments

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William and Emily

Essayist William Bradley updates an earlier holiday blog post, with more lasagna, continuing challenges, and enduring prayer, hope, and love:

Two years ago, in a short essay published here on the Brevity blog, I acknowledged that I wasn’t always a perfect husband but promised “my New Year’s resolution is to make you smile at least once a day.” I wonder sometimes if I was successful? Now more than ever, I worry that you married an utterly selfish man. That my love for you isn’t quite enough to make me the husband you deserve. And you do deserve an amazing and thoughtful husband, because you are so amazing and thoughtful yourself.

I will make us a lasagna again this year, though not on Christmas Eve, the way I usually do. My first chemotherapy treatment to attack the cancer that has caused all of the recent drama is on December 22, and I’m told I won’t have much of an appetite in the days that follow. So we’ll do Christmas on the 20th instead. I won’t be able to drink wine, the way I usually do, but I won’t judge you if you decide to have some. I’ll even help put you to bed, if you get a little drunk. Because you deserve a relaxing evening just as you deserve a husband who is better than I sometimes am.

A month and a half ago, as we sat on the front porch and discussed our days at work, I had a seizure that I don’t really remember, but that terrified you as I began speaking gibberish and started referring to myself in the third person. You called the ambulance and followed me to the local hospital, then followed me to the bigger hospital in the city 45 minutes away when they realized my problems were more serious than they could treat here in town. You spent the night before my brain surgery in the hospital room so that I could see you before they wheeled me to the operating room the next morning.

In the days that followed, you corrected my vocabulary, reminded me of my friends’ names, and washed my hair for me. And in the weeks since, you have reminded me of what doctors have told me, insisted that I needed to be optimistic even at times that I have somehow convinced myself—erroneously—that I will die soon. You know so much more than me about what has happened and is happening, which empowers you to soothe my damaged, frantic mind when it gets out of control.

All this during the last weeks of the literature classes you teach, as you covered the last act of King Lear, even. “Pray you, undo my confusion,” I might as well be asking of you. I’m not the intellectual and thoughtful man you married. Not right now. But even though that must be frustrating—how could it not be frustrating?—you never criticize me or express exasperation. You just take my hand, or rub my arm and say, “Remember, Dr. Alkalili said the plan is to have all of the growths in complete remission within 18 weeks.” Never uttering to yourself, “Break, heart; I prithee, break,” though you have every right to do so.

My brain slowly heals. If things go according to plan—the way I pray every night, after you go to sleep, that they will—the tiny glowing growths in my chest will be destroyed soon as well. I very much want this to happen, not just because I fear death—sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, to be honest—but because I want to spend more years with you. I want to recommit myself to my promise to make you smile at least once a day. I want to make you as happy as you make me. I want you to know how wonderful it is, how lucky one can feel, with a spouse as unbelievably amazing as you.

As David Bowie sang 39 years ago this Christmas, I pray my wish will come true.

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William Bradley is the author of the essay collection Fractals, published earlier this year by Lavender Ink. He became aware of his health problems at the beginning of November, but honestly believes he has a lot to be thankful for nevertheless.

 

Mood Rooms and Mary Cappello

December 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Mary Cappello

Julija Šukys continues her interview series “CNF Conversations” this month talking with Mary Cappello about her new book, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Šukys and Cappello discuss day breaks and breaking into song, breaking of a silence, slow reading, meandering, the almanack as literary form, readerly inclinations, the slow reveal, Ben Franklin and Djuna Barnes, non-knowledge, useless knowledge, contemporary affectlessness, hiding in full light, feelingful faces, ASMRs, minimalism and excess, mood disorders or attention shifts, moods as residues of familial feeling, mood and essaying, reading rooms, the universal mood room, anger rooms, hallucinogens, South Philly picture windows, and walnut dioramas.

Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to the complete interview:

Early in the book, I ask that we “consider a relation between moods and rooms as reciprocal: we experience moods as containers of ourselves and we create rooms in their image at the same time that we create rooms to alter our sense of those invisible containers: our moods.” I believe that if we were asked to think about it, we’d each be able to identify the rooms—significant architectures—that helped to constitute us as feeling subjects in the world; each of us has our own repertoire of rooms that have shaped the sort of feeling beings we have become.

Mood rooms are there for the asking, and they are definitely something to seek out and to create, alone and together. Since writing the book, my partner and I or friends and I will find ourselves somewhere and suddenly remark, “That’s a mood room!” or we’ll understand a place retrospectively now as a mood room. Now, I feel like I’m always on the look out for them, and there are so many I didn’t even try to write about in the book, from an unusual cemetery in Berlin to a an opera house the size of a trailer in Munich.

Recently, post-election, this week, at least, I’ve found myself desiring a very dark, cove-like, cave-like room in a library where I can do nothing but read, read, and read. In solitude. And without a computer screen. Books, not brightly-shining digital files. But I’d also love to be with people and engage in real discussion about what’s going on—again, over and against FB chatting and web surfing.

Just today I read an article in the New York Times about the phenomenon of “anger rooms,” and I wondered if the Times thought reporting on such rooms was timely given the combination fear of and predictions of Americans’ anger, past, present, and still-to-come—the anger that was the supposed motivator of the outcome of the election; and the anger that the outcome is fueling; and the anger that will erupt when none of the president-elect’s more benign promises comes to pass. Anger rooms, by the way, are businesses that have sprung up that offer a consumer the chance to smash objects—often enough computer parts, but not only—with things like baseball bats for a nominal fee. I want to say that such places are the opposite of mood rooms and more like impulse management padded cells. The idea of them scares the shit out of me, but this could be because my father smashed things in our house constantly and it never put him in a better mood. Once objects fail to do the trick, people who find release by assaulting the physical world eventually move onto living things. Jerk-off rooms like this are not the sort of mood rooms I’m interested in cultivating.

You can read the full interview at http://julijasukys.com/?p=4405

A Review of Joel Peckham’s Body Memory

December 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

By Kelly Sundberg

“Without the emotional connection to pain, pain is still experienced, but not as pain.

— Joel Peckham, Body Memory

bodyHow do I explain what Body Memory, Joel Peckham’s most recent collection of essays, is doing? Do I say that this book is an exploration of the ramifications of physical pain? Do I say that this is not a book about conquering pain, but about learning to live with it? Do I say that this book is about physical pain’s connection to emotional pain? Do I say that this book is about summer camp? Swimming? Football? Locker room talk? Parenting? Marriage? Grief? Toxic masculinity?

Body Memory is one of the more complicated books that I have read in recent memory—both in structure and in content—but the complication pays off in nuanced examinations of pain, grief, and masculinity. Peckham is a widely published essayist and poet with publications in esteemed magazines such as The Southern Review and The Sun, in addition to another collection of essays, along with multiple books of poetry, so at the line level, this book is crafted with a poet’s precision, but what strikes me most is the ambition behind the thematic elements.

This book is not a typical collection of essays. In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish where one essay ends and the next begins. I could almost call this a memoir-in-essays, but that wouldn’t be a correct description either. Perhaps the best description of what’s happening on the pages here is meditations. Indeed, I am tempted to make connections to Marcus Aurelius. This collection is even divided into five sections: Flight / Swimming / Phys-Ed / The Shattering / Body Memory, and each section is a meditation on a different aspect of Peckham’s lived experience.

Understanding this book does not require a familiarity with Peckham’s story—particularly because that story is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book—but in 2004, Peckham was involved in an accident in Jordan (where he and his wife, Susan Atefat-Peckham were living on Fulbright Fellowships).  The accident took the lives of Susan and their son Cyrus, and Peckham sustained traumatic injuries that left him with chronic physical pain.

Peckham’s description of physical pain is mixed with grief, and the narrative voice is tinged with regret, but he skillfully avoids simplifying these difficult subjects. He admits that his marriage was troubled at the time of his wife’s death. He also admits that, in some ways, the physical pain was a relief because it distracted him from his grief at the loss of his wife and son, such as when he writes, “My family was in another world, but pain, pain was a near thing. Real. Mine. I was half in love with it. It framed me, gave me purpose.” Indeed, there is an element of this book that feels like a love letter to pain, and maybe that element stems directly from physical pain’s connection to Peckham’s own grief.

I am not a survivor of chronic pain; I have been fortunate to have spent most of my life in good health. Still, as a trauma survivor, I was startled by how familiar so much of this prose feels. He writes, “Normalcy, when understood as some sort of cultural norm, is almost always destructive. Not only does it delegitimize experiences and people who exist outside the norm and label much of what we don’t understand as deviant, it also sets up a standard profile that no one quite fits. The only useful concept of normal is an individual one. If you can find your normal and can live within it, that’s recovery.” This sentiment about normalcy is echoed later in his section, Phys-Ed, where he ruminates on masculinity.

The son of a coach and a former football player, Peckham grew up surrounded by masculine norms, and he struggled to both fit within those norms and resist them at the same time. It’s the complicated trap of gender roles, and as he finally summarizes:

“We talk about these things too, trying to find a balance between being honest with ourselves about want and need and desire while trying at the same time to avoid perpetuating damaging stereotypes. Articulating masculinity and femininity is hard, though, without falling into the most banal generalities about essential characteristics of men and women—characteristics that often don’t hold up under scrutiny.”

As a feminist writer and reader, I am relieved by Peckham’s interrogation of masculinity, but, at first, that section felt a bit off from the rest of the text—less descriptive than the other sections and more ruminative.

Still, Peckham manages to tie all of his themes together in the final section where the reader finally understands that Peckham’s experience of bodily pain is tied to his experience of performative masculinity. “We want [pain sufferers] to get better or at least to stop complaining about it,” he writes. “Sometimes we want both. We value toughness and become quickly disgusted by the weak.”

Perhaps, ultimately, that is what this book is about—performing toughness in the face of suffering. It’s the kind of performance that resonates with a broad audience. Readers of Body Memory need not be living with chronic pain, need not have lost a loved one, and need not even be all that interested in masculinity. The ideal reader of this book will be someone who has suffered, and who understands the words, “There is no exemption from trouble for any of us. But that’s not the greatest fear. Death is not the greatest fear. Neither is loss. Living is.”

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Kelly Sundberg‘s essays have been published in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the Best American series. Her memoir is forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers in 2018.

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