October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Mary Volmer
The obsessions of writers and athletes begin the same way, as play. In his memoir, Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman explains that his basketball obsession began, “as messing around…throw a ball through a hoop, a fun silly kind of trick at first, until you decide you want to do it better.” He might as well have been speaking about storytelling and writing.
Writing starts as novelty, as messing around, until you decide you want to do it better, and become willing, as Wideman says, to “learn the game’s ABC’s. Learn what it costs to play.” What follows is a period of joyful mimicry. Not yet aware of the limits of your ability, you are burdened only by your own evolving expectations. Try and fail and try again, until the ball begins to fall through the hoop with regularity–until the writing, once derivative, takes on its own life, and you become capable of original expression.
Because ultimately, expression is what athletes and authors crave. They live for those moments when body, soul, and mind operate in perfect unity, a kind of spiritual transcendence. Sports psychologists have named this transcendent experience “the Zone,” or, “The Zone of Optimal Performance.” Their perspective alters, so that nothing of consequence exists outside of the immediate action. Awareness expands to fill the moment. The game seems to slow, the goal grows wider and the body responds with uncalculated inventiveness to each unpredictable event.
Writers share similar experiences of altered time and heightened awareness. They, too, understand that discipline precedes transcendence. They, too, must be willing to show up and endure discomfort and labor every day, even on bad days. They, too, must find satisfaction in small daily victories, adapt to setbacks as the season or story progresses, and maintain faith in their purpose even when they have cause to doubt their abilities.
Writers and athletes recognize their pursuits to be, as Chad Hubbach writes so elegantly, an “apparently pointless affair…which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
Although at times marred by ego and that false god, glory, the desire to observe beauty and to have a hand in its creation, remains the noble center of both pursuits.
Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Mutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.
October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Piasecki
I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.
I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.
My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.
I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.
A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.
During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.
I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.
I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.
As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”
Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:
I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.
Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.
Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.
When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.
But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.
October 4, 2017 § 28 Comments
By Dheepa R. Maturi
Long ago, my grandmother peeled oranges for me — and by peeled, I mean stripped bare of rind, fascia, fibers and membranes until the bulbous cells underneath lay exposed and quivering. When I began to submit my writing to journals, I, too, felt stripped and offered for casual consumption.
I’d been writing my whole life, but in unpredictable bursts recorded on post-it notes and backs of shopping lists and even paper plates — little releases of a pressure cooker valve allowing me to function again when my throat felt too tight, my stomach, too constricted. And then, the pressure would rebuild.
The gradual movement of my writing from disposable dinnerware into computer files and a daily practice challenged and provoked me, but also allowed me to choose proactively where in my life and mind to dig and explore, where to shine light and hope as I wrote. At long last, I felt I was occupying myself, stepping into integrity and knowingness.
While I felt wonderment at all this road granted me, a side path continued to catch my eye and beckon darkly. I disregarded it. I ignored it again and again.
But I knew what it called me to do: submit my work.
* * *
Did I really have to cross the line I’d circumscribed around my writing life? The very idea filled me with dread, conjured up tentacular beasts in my psyche and foretold bloody battles. But instinct told me the process would be worth it — if I could survive it.
At first, the lessons were benign, even universal. As I received my initial feedback, I began to comprehend the enormity of my learning curve with respect to the craft of writing. I began to understand the practice was more demanding and exhausting than I’d anticipated. I would need more endurance. More tenacity. A much, much thicker skin. I also found reserves of energy and optimism (not to mention skin) that I’d never known existed.
But then, more personal battles commenced. As rejections rapidly accumulated, I experienced a feeling of perpetual internal scrubbing. The act of submitting my work seemed to be wrestling my numerous neuroses simultaneously — I envisioned hundreds of nanites released into my brain, methodically correcting misfiring systems as they crawled. My head, my whole body, hurt all the time.
I saw my desperation for affirmation, realized that my sense of self-worth was dependent almost entirely on the approval of others — approval that was not forthcoming. Each rejection felt personal, visceral, like a judgment rendered upon me. I had to learn, for survival’s sake, that, despite my plethora of flaws, despite any dearth of talent and skill, I was nevertheless worthy of occupying space, of expressing what I needed to express.
I saw my pathological need for control. I wanted to hold each editor by the shoulders and explain what each line, each sentence meant and what incidents from my past had informed it. Eventually, I had to accept that my words might be disliked, brutally misinterpreted, or not understood at all, yet they needed to be released to the universe anyway.
I saw how well justified many of the rejections were. My own judgments upon others, my many and varied jealousies, my inability to achieve complete authenticity: all prevented me from translating my thoughts adequately into words, from harnessing and conveying truth.
Now, in the face of all of these beasts (whose heads are lopped off, only to grow back just when I believe them conquered), I feel a continuous impulse to close down and protect all of my vulnerable parts. The mother of all battles is to stay open, open, open in the face of all the defeats, to continue to submit, submit, submit.
Slowly, I have come to understand. To submit is not necessarily to surrender, tasting dust and defeat. Rather, it is an offering of one’s own particular concoction of shame and valor and pain and insight to others, as an act of love. I am not the orange, sacrificed to appease monsters unknown. Instead, I am the grandmother, offering all that I am capable of, in the best way I know, with hands open.
Dheepa R. Maturi is the director of an education grant program in Indianapolis and a graduate of the University of Michigan (A.B. English Literature) and the University of Chicago (J.D.). Her work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Every Day Poems, Tweetspeak Poetry, A Tea Reader, Mothers Always Write, Here Comes Everyone, Flying Island, Branches, Corium, and The Indianapolis Review. Her short story “Three Days” is a finalist in the Tiferet 2017 Writing Contest.
October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop. In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.
“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave. A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long. The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast. I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated…. It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”
“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar. But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic? Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for. Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain. While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois. Strain through cheese cloth. Strain one more time for good measure.” Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning. And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay. How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?
As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt. Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics. What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images. As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.
After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc. Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item. Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item. For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay. As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements. This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.
reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
September 30, 2017 § 21 Comments
By Irene Hoge Smith
The Jewish High Holy Days mark a season of endings and beginnings, atonement and forgiveness. Alongside my Jewish husband and with our interfaith community, I am able to partake in this precious opportunity for contemplation. One of my endings (and perhaps a new beginning) is that, after more than five years, I seem finally to have finished writing about my mother. This month I sent Snaggletooth’s Daughter: A Memoir out to find its way in the world. (I’d thought it finished this time last year, but in the way of these things it needed one more rewrite to be the best I could make it.)
The book is about my lost-and-found mother. She was a poet, my father an engineer, and their marriage was chaotic and destructive. When they finally split up, my father got custody of me and my three sisters (aged six to sixteen) and my mother moved to California, where she picked up the life of poetry she’d set aside for the decade and a half she was with us. She became Charles Bukowski’s Snaggletooth, mother of his only child, and francEyE, a respected poet in her own right.
From fourteen to thirty, I did my best to pretend I’d never had a mother. When that coping strategy inevitably outlived its usefulness, I took up the task of trying to form some kind of relationship with the woman who had been, but no longer was, my mother. She was a writer, and I respected that, but was still shocked when I discovered she’d left out of her own memoir anything about me and my sisters or her marriage to our father. When I received an invitation to her book launch party, I wrote what became my first published essay, instead of an RSVP. Then I decided to make another visit, to ask her directly to talk about the years she’d been our mother, and begin to understand more completely what her life had been. By the time she died, I was able to speak at her funeral, filling in the missing parts of her life story in words that were, I hoped, not untrue and not unkind.
Yet when a fellow writer asks me after a group reading—well-meaning, insistent, and in obvious distress—if I have forgiven my mother, I feel put on the spot. I want to say, “Forgive her? Interesting question. You know, she never asked!” Or, since tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner, I might point out that I’ve spent most of a decade (or my whole life) on the work of understanding my mother. My defensiveness makes me wonder if there’s something I’ve neglected. Have I not forgiven her?
I think my friend, pained by the sad litany of loss, hoped that “forgiveness” would be the thing that could wrap the story up with a happy bow, so that I could stop writing about the things that happened and their long-lasting effects. Maybe the problem is that I’d so much love to be able to do something like that—to say the magic word “forgive,” and thus bring into being a sweet, uncomplicated, mother-daughter love, and make everything all okay. I wish I could do that, but that’s not what forgiveness is.
In order to forgive, we must give up the desire for revenge, any claim to get something back in compensation for having been hurt, and in that regard I feel on solid ground. I don’t recall ever trying to make my mother suffer, or even wishing that she would. I wanted to tell my own story, but I didn’t do it to hurt her or anyone else.
Forgiveness also requires that we acknowledge the humanity of the person who has caused hurt. I might easily have written my mother as a caricature—a foolish, self-involved woman, more attached to her writing and political beliefs than to her children, whose abandonment of those children defined her. I knew from the perspective of writing, emotional health, and maybe even the good of my soul, whatever that might be, how important it was not to fall into that trap.
Finally, to forgive someone we have to be able to wish them well despite our own pain. My mother’s gone now, but I’m glad she got to publish her poems, (even if there are still a few I don’t get) and that she felt loved by the one daughter she was able to mother. I’m sad that I was not a beneficiary of that late-developed capacity, but if it were up to me I’d want that relationship to have existed rather than not. I’m glad she died free of pain and fear, and that she was not wracked by guilt. I hope that, if she is somewhere now, she is at peace.
For our own sake, and perhaps for the sake of the world, we are enjoined to give up thoughts of revenge, relinquish enduring resentment, grant to the person who has hurt us their own essential humanity, and practice compassion to them and to ourselves.
We are not required to write a book about them. I did that for myself.
Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in New Directions Journal, Amsterdam Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, and Vine Leaves Literary Review, and she was a 2016 AWP Writer-to Writer Mentee. (One of the founding mothers of IFFP, she is observing Yom Kippur today with her interfaith community.)
September 29, 2017 § 12 Comments
By Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
I confess that I first turned to flash nonfiction because I needed a way to organize twenty undergraduate students, and I needed it in a week.
Based on the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, and supplemental readings from Brevity, I devised this repeating course schedule: 1) Mondays and Wednesdays would consist of a combination of reading discussion, prompts, and craft lecture, while 2) Fridays would be for small group workshops of four, where I rotated through the groups.
Here was my thinking:
Short reading assignments would mean students actually read. Short essays for workshop eliminated the need for distributing work ahead of time. That everyone was up for workshop every week eliminated the need for a rotating schedule. Grading would be based on participation, which took care of attendance issues. So many logistical problems, solved!
This course structure helped me successfully navigate the usual undergraduate workshop obstacles, such as grandmother genocide, wayward printers, dastardly roommates, and even the dreaded “Thirsty Thursday.” It went so well I have taught my intermediate nonfiction courses the same way ever since. And while practical considerations are not to be minimized, given time to reflect, I’ve uncovered legitimate pedagogical benefits:
- Students establish the habit of reader and writer.
- Rapid turnaround means lower stakes. Students are freer to risk, and I am freer to risk different prompts.
- Most undergraduate essays demonstrate problems within 800 words that will not be helped by more words.
- Flash forces students to eliminate throat-clearing passages, pushes them to reach the point. (I generally notice a turn about the third or fourth essay in.)
- Over the semester, students get to experience a depth and breadth of creative nonfiction.
- By the end students have a stack of essays, which feels good.
Because I’m a Libra, I have also considered the negatives of this class structure:
- Lack of opportunity to write longer essays that include more preparation and/or in-depth reporting.
- A bias towards lyric writing over narrative (maybe).
- Inability to formulate workshop comments ahead of time.
To balance these negatives, I use the last two weeks of class for conferencing, geared towards revision strategies for the final portfolio. Students might realize that their flash essay is really a longer essay, or maybe they find a theme—pieces they could string together to create a narrative sequence. Maybe their flash piece needs to be cut even further. Maybe they’ve really written a poem or a short story. This is their chance to look back, reflect, to consider what they’ve created and where they would like to go from here.
A few publishable gems are a great find. A ream of hot mess—also fine. Either way, what I’m really hoping, is that after the course is completed, students have made a regular writing practice part of who they are, and if they are not writing, they have this weird feeling that something is wrong.
‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6.
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself (Press 53). Her other work has previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, mental_floss magazine, and other publications. After moving from Southern Louisiana to Southern Ohio back to Southern Louisiana on to Southern Utah, she has settled into red rock country, where she teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.