A Review of Natalie Singer’s California Calling

March 8, 2018 § 2 Comments

416snBBQdtL._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_By Rebecca Fish Ewan

When I volunteered to write a review of Natalie Singer’s debut book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, I had one fear. What if I feel like the sad local girl California dumped in favor of this smarter, prettier, Canadian import? I wanted to be bigger than this. Sure, I did, but I still marked my territory by noting, in the email to her publisher, I’m fifth generation Californian.

Then the advance review copy arrived.

I’m supposed to be shopping for gifts, but instead I’m holding this gorgeous book in my hands, devouring the micro essays that stitch together a story of a young woman falling in love with my home state.

Wow, she’s brilliant, I think as I turn another page.

So, let’s consider the plot line: She pulls a book off a library shelf. She dreams of California. She has parents. Divorce. She moves to the Bay Area. Goes to college. Has boyfriends. Sometimes they go on hikes or sail. She’s a nanny for a while. Writes for newspapers. There are lizards. The radio plays.

This is the story, but it’s also not the story. California Calling is the longing to belong. It’s the struggle to feel real in a place famous for its fictions. It’s the sting of otherness. Jewishness. Loneliness. How to make people feel welcome. Or not.

I read memoirs to feel connection, to see how other writers navigate between their changing identities. I want to simultaneously occupy the author’s recalled world while inhabiting the geography of my own memories. California Calling gives me all this and much more.

I love the book’s craft, how its hybrid form brought me the story in bits. Reading each tiny chapter, I sensed how Singer stalked stories. I felt brought along to serve as witness. Some chapters are factual nuggets about Yosemite rock falls, desert pup fish or the phallic Coit Tower. (It’s a fire nozzle! I hear my firefighter spouse holler from another room.) Point of view shifts throughout. I peek over Singer’s shoulder at Her-Then. Or she turns to face me, and I become You. Other times, the You becomes an ex-boyfriend. Or she sits with me on a cozy couch handing me aphorisms like See’s Candies: “Silence is a disappearance…Interrogation is a taking possession of one’s being…your loneliness finds corroboration in nature…one of the most valuable responses to trauma is testimony.” Space contracts and expands, from discomforting intimacy (really, Natalie, this boat privy is too small for both of us while you masturbate) to a remote aerial perspective above pine forests as we look for the spot where a girl once crossed over into California. As an infrequent quilter, I admire the deftness with which Singer threads together the pieces, some just a single sentence—“I wanted to be reconstituted”—to create a cohesive picture of a woman becoming Californian.

The book is packed with delicious language, and I lost count of how many times I read simply to savor a sentence’s flavorful landscape. Long ago, I went camping in Arizona with another teacher and two carloads of teenagers. Not a mom yet but more maternal than the guy, I suggested we feed the kids after a full day of hiking around Wupatki ruins. “Who needs food?” he said, sniffing the wind that blew across the red rock terrain. “You can eat the air.” I ate the air on every page of California Calling, delightfully familiar California coastal-fog-saturated salt air. My iodine levels rose reading this book.

I love California Calling for all its references, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Bella in Twilight to Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain. They felt like safe invitations into a woman’s busy mind, a woman who built a life from her ability to connect rather than disassemble—a mind occupied with assimilation, immigration, and belonging.

I rarely read books twice. There are just too many books on earth and I’m a slow reader. With California Calling, I want to do the thing my daughter does with television shows she loves. She binge-watches every season and the moment she comes to the end, she starts from the beginning again. Like chain smoking stories, I need to finish up my gift list, maybe shower and change my clothes. Then I’ll light the beginning of this book with the hot ember of its ending. As Singer writes: “If our childhood truths were really fictions, to begin again all we must do to grow up is make more space for myth.” So, what’s this book about? Beginning again.
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Rebecca Fish Ewan, founder of Plankton Press (where small is big enough), creates Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines. She has degrees in math, landscape architecture, and creative writing and is a writer/poet/cartoonist. She teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University and lives with her family in Tempe. Her work has appeared in Bikequity, Brevity, Femme Fotale, Hip Mama, Mutha, Punctuate, Survivor Zine, and Under the Gum Tree. She has two creative nonfiction books: A Land Between, an ecocultural history of the Owens Valley, and By the Forces of Gravity, a forthcoming memoir of cartoons and verse (Books by Hippocampus, June 2018).

A Day as an Emerging Writer

March 6, 2018 § 39 Comments

A guest post from Rachel Greenley:

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. To simply sit down. Every day. And write. To learn the novice mistakes. To correct them. To learn more novice mistakes. To correct them. It’s an endless cycle.

I don’t like calling myself an “emerging” writer. Think about what emerging means…to rise up, to come into existence, to develop. Would I call myself a “developing writer?” Apply that to another career choice—a developing plumber. A developing doctor. Who wants to take a chance on a developing anything? I’d say, “Call me back when you’re developed.”

I visually see “emerging” as a butterfly bursting from a chrysalis. When is the transformation complete? When the writer is published? When I stop making rookie mistakes? Never?

A rookie writer submits her pieces too soon. My father, a self-published author who would never call himself “emerging,” but simply a writer, reminds me that work needs to sit and season like a stew. This comment brings out the teenager in me: “I know that, dad! Everyone knows that!” But I still finish a piece at 10:01 and shoot it out across Submittable at 10:02.

The emerging writer entertains many rejections. What’s more painful—The pubs that don’t reply or the ones who reply within an hour? We knew THAT quickly you weren’t good enough.

Lynda Barry’s quote is posted at my desk: “Is it good? Does this suck?” I never know the answer for sure.

I attend literary events. I meet authors. I start to better understand the writing community. But then someone says “are you going to hear Colson Whitehead’s reading next week?” and I say, “who’s Colson Whitehead?”

I tweet about a local author’s book hoping they’ll retweet it, because I feel pressure to build a platform. The author re-tweets everyone else on Twitter except me. I read a roundtable interview with agents on how to successfully publish a memoir. “A robust platform is given equal footing with voice and story.” I need ten thousand followers. I spend a week being more active on Twitter. At the end of the week I am nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two followers short.

Then there’s the question of whether I’ve suffered enough. I sit in class, writing on a Lenovo Yoga while drinking Tazo ginger tea and wearing burgundy fingerless gloves woven in Peru. Do I even have a right to be here? I’m just another progressive white woman nearing fifty, writing a sad memoir. Love stories with a spouse killed by cancer are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. My teacher, a talented poet, shares her beginnings—how she wrote into the wee hours each night while raising children alone and working two jobs. Is it my imagination, or is she looking at me?

But I’m here. I’m here because the ghost of my dead husband follows me around. I’m here because outside of raising his children and a demanding corporate job, I’ve made time for writing classes at night in the damp rooms of Seattle’s Hugo House, and the subject I always write about—for fifteen years now—has been my grief. I’m here because two years ago the pounding of a voice telling me “it’s time, it’s time, if not now, when, it’s time to write his story, it’s time to write your story” sat on my shoulder, madly distracting me from staying the corporate path. I’m here because I saved and saved and saved to keep our household running for a few years so I could focus on this project. I’m here because my current husband and extended family withheld their worries, instead saying, “go, we believe in you.” I’m here because I loved a man deeply, and his life was cut short, and we didn’t say the things we should have said because we were young and naïve, and there have been days when I’ve been stuck on the cold tile floor in fetal position heaving wet grief at the regret and guilt I carry for his death. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

And maybe you can’t hear me. Maybe I toss in an adverb too many. Or my story doesn’t have a universal point. Or the tension isn’t building. Or a sentence that should end with a clang ends with a whoosh. Or I don’t have a platform. Or my memoir is too non-traditional. Or not traditional enough.

But here’s the thing, dear reader, dear agent, dear publisher, dear author, the story is eating me alive. The. Story. Is. Eating. Me. Alive. So, lacking skill, lacking platform, lacking a through path, I keep going. I show up. I sit down. I keep writing. And by the grace of my pen, I will get out on paper the suffocating grief within me to remember a man, a good man, a simple man, a handsome man, a dead man.

Perhaps the transformation from emerging writer to writer has already happened. More likely it never ends. It’s enough that the story rises from me, and I catch it be penned. That is my metamorphosis.

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Rachel Greenley is a Seattle-based writer who would like you to follow her on Twitter.

Aiming For Rejection(s)

February 27, 2018 § 15 Comments

A guest post from Amy Braziller:

Who aims for rejections? It’s a crazy notion. Not for the fainthearted. And definitely not for those prone to negativity. But since the beginning of 2017, I’ve been aiming for rejections. This intention spurred writing, encouraged finishing, and helped me put more pieces out into the world than previous years. An original idea? Nope. In late 2016, I read a piece on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections A Year.  Sold.

Years ago, such a risk would have stopped my writing. I’d spent dollars on therapy to deal with my writing demons. I wrote pieces about quitting writing. I swore that I didn’t stand a chance in the world wide of publication. Fear. Yes.

But after years of writing workshops, sending out random pieces here and there, and on rare occasions getting an acceptance, I felt ready to commit. Ready to say I have work worthy of reading. Ready to risk rejection.

I created a writing intentions calendar, noting pieces that needed revision, listing pieces I wanted to create, placing deadlines for submissions of particular pieces complete with lists of potential homes. Each month, I crossed through what was done, and when things weren’t touched, I re-evaluated, deciding whether to move them to another month or simply remove that intention.

I began submitting. Aiming for rejections. And I received them.

Eighty-two times in one year.

In the past, I’d received rejections without much grace. Often, I’d utter nastiness at the publication, holding a fuck-you finger to the computer screen. Other times, I’d run to my faithful partner and ask her if I was wasting my time (I still occasionally do this after too many rejections in a row). But starting last year, I handled it like a business. I persevered, refusing to let external readers determine my writing life. I’d note the rejection in a list, add the number to a tally for that month, and evaluate whether the piece should be sent to other journals or put back into the revision pile.

When my rejections passed 50, I got a bit excited.

I hadn’t crumbled.

I hadn’t stopped writing.

I hadn’t submitted to fear.

There were moments I wondered if I could truly withstand 100 rejections. For years, I had worked and reworked an essay about the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s disease. Writing pals declared it ready—it would find a home. I sent it off to my dream publication, checking the box that said I wasn’t simultaneously submitting. I waited. It took only six weeks to receive a friendly, impersonal rejection wishing me “the best in placing [my] writing elsewhere.”

I submitted the essay to what I thought would be a sure shot. I’d read their issues. Read their mission. This fit. Again, it took only six weeks for the rejecter to wish me “the best finding a home for it.”

Fortunately, encouragement occasionally showed up in my rejection pile. Several pieces garnered “…we hope you will consider sending us more in the future.” Then there was the rejection that I celebrated as much as an acceptance. A hybrid piece of polyvocality, part Twitter/part narrative, had made it up to the editor’s table at another dream publication. The rejection came directly from the editor. She told me how interested they were, that it was a close call, even though my essay didn’t make the final cut. She gave me hope for a piece that was having difficulty finding a home.

My new mission of aiming for 100 rejections helped me finish pieces. After years of generating lots of starts and little finishes, I knew that in order to have enough material to aim for 100 rejections, I had to actually produce and finish work. A specific number gave me accountability.

At the end of last year’s experiment, I had four pieces published and one forthcoming. I had enough polished work that when someone solicited me for a potential submission, I actually had several pieces I cared about to send in (and one was selected for publication). It’s too early to predict this year’s outcome, but I’m into 2018’s writing intentions with a busy calendar filled with promise—and rejection.

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Amy Braziller is a former punk rocker, sometimes banjo twanging foodie, and current Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College. Publications include Front Porch, Entropy, Split Rock Review, and Hippocampus. Amy is working on a hybrid memoir related to her punk rock days in NYC. She writes about food, film, music, GLBT issues, and social media distractions at amybraziller.com.

Of Fonts, and Fate, and Marcel’s Letters

February 12, 2018 § 4 Comments

CollageBy Heidi Fettig Parton

In 2002, Carolyn Porter, a graphic artist by trade, was shopping in the picturesque downtown of historic Stillwater in Minnesota. Nestled on the banks of the St. Croix River, Stillwater is a place where antique and up-cycled-vintage stores abound. It was at one of these stores where Porter discovered a bundle of vintage letters and postcards. She didn’t know it then, but these letters would alter the course of her life.

Back when Porter purchased the letters, she wasn’t thinking about writing a book. Instead, her trained eye recognized that Marcel’s beautiful handwriting was both aesthetically and numerically complete enough to serve as a model for a font design. Porter had never before designed a font, but she was eager to try her hand at this creative use of her design skills.

Porter purchased the letters and immediately began the work of designing a font during the stolen weekends and evenings not devoted to her clients’ projects. Porter worked off scans of the letters and kept the originals pressed flat between the pages of a book she put away in her closet, not to be looked at again until 2011, when Porter found herself struggling to get a particularly difficult letter right. That’s when Porter pulled out the original letters for inspiration. In doing so, she was reminded of their beauty.

“I’d been looking at them in black and white for so many years,” Porter told me, “I’d forgotten the stripes in the background and the beautiful buttery yellow color of the paper and how some of the ink was denim blue. I’d forgotten about the ‘letters’ themselves as physical objects because I’d been looking at the words only as characters in an alphabet.”

At that point, nine years after she’d first purchased the bundle of letters, Porter still only knew that the letters had been written by someone named Marcel and that they’d been postmarked, “Berlin, Germany.” Porter decided—on a whim—to have one of the letters translated. It was like opening a Pandora’s box.

IMG_1124-web.jpg

Heidi Fettig Parton

Marcel, it turned out, was a man who had written a disarmingly affectionate letter to his three young daughters. He’d asked one daughter if she’d fetched the milk for her mother while she was away in Paris, he’d cautioned another not to pick blossoms from the trees, but to pick violets in the woods, and he’d asked the smallest daughter if she was still sucking her thumb. This was not the letter Porter had expected. She began to wonder why Marcel had been in Berlin.

Porter decided, at some expense, to have the other letters translated into English. The other letters were written to Marcel’s wife, although some included affectionate paragraphs to his daughters. Porter, however, still didn’t know why Marcel was in Berlin. An inquisitive person, she began looking for answers. Each discovery seemed to lead to another; the deeper Porter plowed, the more she felt a sense of responsibility for a story that seems to have found her.

Meanwhile, Porter continued her work on the font and in 2014, completed the design of the beautiful script font, “Marcel,” now licensed through a firm called P22. About a year after that completion, Porter was walking through a bookstore and spied her font—in the wild—on the cover of Anna Quindlen’s book, Miller’s Valley. When asked if she had any doubt whether the font was Marcel, Porter told me, “No. It’s like seeing your own child. I know every nook and cranny of those letters.”

Porter never set out to be a writer, but in 2017, Porter followed up her awarding winning font design by publishing the book, Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate. In Marcel’s Letters, recently nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Porter tells both the story of her incredible search and, ultimately, the story she would piece together about Marcel’s past. The quest led Porter on a transnational journey, looking for answers. Those answers unfold gradually, layered throughout this book in a way that mirrors Porter’s own work to excavate the man behind these beautiful letters.

When Porter and I met for brunch to discuss her experience writing Marcel’s Letters. Porter brought along a few photos. One showed Marcel and his wife on their wedding day. Marcel’s bride was dressed in black because the couple was mourning Marcel’s mother’s death. In spite of the black dress, this photo shows a hopeful young couple, ignorant of the trials that stood before them.

Before setting the photo on the table for me to see, Porter held it to her chest and ran her hand across it a few times, as if smoothing out imaginary creases. Porter’s reverence for this photo was obvious. I could see something akin to love in Porter’s eyes, like the love shining in the eyes of a mother, proudly showing off a photo of her child. Porter’s eyes remained on the photo a few moments before she looked up to take in my reaction to seeing this photo. She would have seen tears moistening my eyes. I was moved, and not just by the photo; I believe it was the sincerity of Porter’s quest that filled my heart that day. Porter had been entrusted with a unique responsibility and she said yes.

When asked about her experience with Marcel’s letters, Porter told me, “The world is bigger now; I know more about history or, I should say, feel connected to history in a way I’ve never been before. I see how people are touched by this story.” None of this, however, would have happened without Porter’s remarkable ability to embrace curiosity and act boldly.

It’s entirely possible that the letters found Porter every bit as much as she found these letters. Through her tenacity and dedication, Marcel’s beautiful handwriting has been memorialized and his incredible story has been brought to light.

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Heidi Fettig Parton holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her work can be found on Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Agate Magazine, Grown and Flown, The Manifest-Station, Topology Magazine and others. Currently, Heidi is submerged in the risky business of memoir making and often forgets to make dinner. She wishes someone would invent the equivalent of cat food for young humans: an easy meal delivered from bag to bowl, deliciously providing all the nutrients children need (no, it’s not cereal). Follow her on Instragram @heidi_fettig, where you can see way too many pictures of her writing companion, Bilbo—the almost cat.

Write What You (Want To) Know

February 8, 2018 § 12 Comments

I think my mother knows more than she’s telling…

Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”

But should you?

One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.

As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?

By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.

Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.

For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.

Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:

In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.

Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Duck, Duck, Essay

January 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

For once autocorrect was right: it’s a duck pic.

When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.

None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.

I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.

Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.

The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?

The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.

The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?

Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.

It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?

Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.

The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Do It Now

January 23, 2018 § 19 Comments

Years ago, my mother was a beauty queen. Not metaphorically–she was Miss Niagara Falls and Miss Ottawa and twice runner-up to Miss Canada. As a kid, I spent hours leafing through her scrapbook, marveling at the full-coverage swimsuits of early-1960s Ontario and thinking how much young Mom looked like Grace Kelly. But my favorite of her titles was a small, local affair–not even really a pageant.

Winter 1965, the Ottawa Jaycees, a businessmen’s club (like Kiwanis or Rotary), wanted to combat seasonal unemployment by encouraging people to fix up their homes now. Instead of waiting for spring and better weather, get out there, buy some lumber, hire a contractor and get going! In the Ottawa newspaper, my mother wears snowpants and a parka, one foot on a shovel, surrounded by workmen. There’s a construction helmet perched on her beehive hairdo. The caption? “She’s Miss Do-It-Now.”

I’m pretty sure the kids of 1965 found her title as giggly as I did in 1985.

But the message is clear. Don’t cross items off the to-do list–write now.

Don’t wait for better weather, or a better mood.

Skip the easy satisfaction of running errands, prepping dinner, running laundry, returning calls. Shut down the internet and put your phone face-down. Don’t check the news–it’s just going to make you mad or sad. You don’t need a perfect coffee shop or the right table or the right moment. Put your kid in the playpen with plenty of toys (or, depending on age, give them unfettered screen time for an hour or two, saying firmly that time will be cut short if any questions are asked or interruptions made).

If you’re stuck on the next scene, write the scene after that.

If you sit down and the words won’t come, write about what you’re going to write:

Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…

And before you know it, you’re writing the thing instead of about the thing. Or at least getting down the first draft, the one where you tell the story to yourself. The one you can fix in the second draft.

It’ll feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). It’ll feel precarious like a helmet perched on big 1950’s hair, and vaguely off-color like a beauty title that sounds a little dirty.

Do it anyway.

Don’t wait for spring, or springtime in your heart.

Do it now.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Today she’s writing through the flu, which sucks but is still words.

The Power of Failure in Memoir

January 10, 2018 § 12 Comments

zz YellowstoneBy Jacob Little

Recently I have been translating a book of poetry by the inimitable Antonio Gamoneda. I was nervous when I began, having never attempted any kind of literary translation before. During, I am enveloped in the engaging challenges, the uncommon nuances, the wordplay. And after? I am obsessed with each small failure. I can’t stop thinking about my choices:

Was I right to lean towards meaning over rhythm? I don’t think I got the diction right. I never did get all the connotations of “mosto” in there. Was it okay to translate “ácido prúsico” as “DDT”? Or “Una mentira luminosa” as “a neon lie”? Am I erasing the culture of the original? I kept Spanish in my translation—Will an English reader know that “madre” means “mother”? Will they be able to translate “dulzura” from context as a term of endearment?

These, to me, aren’t just empty obsessions. I am trying to carry the meaning to a new audience across a long distance. I am making trips back and forth, each time with a bit of water in my hands, and almost all the water keeps slipping through my fingers. My failure matters not just because I owe it to Gamoneda to get his words right. It also matters because I want to give the reader the same experience I had when I read his poems for the first time.

Of course, translating my experience for a new reader is equally impossible. But I want readers to experience what I have, to truly understand something about me, in the same way that I strive to know others. But, if I go by this high standard, then I must admit—I have never even begun to tell such a truth in an essay.

I’m not talking about lying. I’m not even talking about the inevitable hiccups of memory, or the limited space on the page, or the purposeful selection and ignoring of sensory details, people, or motivations. I’m talking about translating experience into words, life into story. I’m talking about trying to write an accurate representation of the nuances of who I was, what I was thinking about, what I believed in, what I experienced, and everything else about me, my life, and my situation that bled into the moment I’m writing about. I’m talking about inexplicable differences in biology, experiences, and environments, how language can never account for these things.

After all, I can never explain my behavior, what I ever wanted or believed. Words can only be shadowy placeholders for my real-life experience. Like when I tried to translate mosto from Spanish into English—so much gets lost in translation. Attempting to explain the nuances of what this single word means (not just in Spanish, but also what it means to me, what it meant to the author) to anyone else would eat up this whole page and still fail. Each word we put down gets somewhere near the mark, but never exactly hits it. And each little failure adds up and up and up until we are left with a final product where our failures tower over us. Where we finally start to realize the depth and breadth of what we have not accomplished, what we never will.

It’s like when I go hiking and camping in Colorado each summer. I take pictures of all the spots I love most. Places that shake through me like a thunder clap. But when I get home and look at the pictures, they’re almost unbearably two dimensional—they can’t possibly recreate that place. Even when using a wide-angle lens, or using a 360-degree feature that shows in precise detail exactly what is around me, I simply can’t make that mountain appear on the screen. No one will ever see the mountain I saw.

The picture can’t make the sky big enough, can’t make it arc over my head into infinity like the sky did for me. The picture can’t recreate the deep brown of the earth, the sharp sting of the white in my eyes. It can’t give you that inconceivable depth of silence or that smell of a hard winter melting. If you went to that exact same spot yourself, you couldn’t see it. I wouldn’t be able to see it if I went back—it would be a different mountain.

And more than that: the picture can’t tell you about my long, desperate, 18-hour drive to get to the foot of that mountain. The endless, lonely hours behind the wheel with only a vague destination. The questions running through my mind; what are you doing? Why don’t you pull over and sleep? Why isn’t anyone in the passenger seat? And a million other questions there aren’t words for. Neither the picture nor this description can hope to explain why I went there, what I was looking for, whether I found anything when I arrived. (And that’s only partially because I don’t understand it myself.)

A picture can’t reconstruct the awe I felt upon arrival. The immense gratitude, the overwhelming grief. It doesn’t show what I was experiencing behind the camera, where I was both wrecked and renewed, shattered and remade.

Instead of that recreation, that incredible, enormous truth, all I can do is produce more and more words that don’t do any of it justice.

Perhaps this is something most writers know instinctually. I might know it, too, but I have tried and tried and tried to narrow the gap. To find words that got me just a little bit closer to what it was like. But the constant collapse used to plague me. I think that this obsession might be madness, though. I think I must learn to embrace the gap. After all, as Christopher McCandless wrote in what were likely his last words, “happiness is only real when shared.” And I’m starting to think that maybe the happiness he was talking about wasn’t just about sharing company or common experience. I think that it might come from the imperfection of that sharing; our inability to ever have any common experiences; our happiness comes from our brave and continuous attempts to relate—to understand—in the face of inevitable and enormous inadequacy. I think that maybe a profound happiness is the result of our eternal failure in communicating or truly sharing our experience, even if we are all looking in the same direction.

Where my sharing fails, where everything I write and say falls short of the kind of communion and communication I seek, I must trust that my attempt, my essaying again into failure, will result in someone picking it up and filling in the gaps in ways they too could never articulate. Not even to me—not even to the person who gave them the broken words in the first place. I must trust that someone will lovingly take my failure and turn it into something that lives and breathes and, if I’m lucky, maybe even saves them in the same way that the mountain saved me.

But that’s not quite right either. What I’m trying and failing—again—to say is something like this: I don’t think the mountain saved me after all. I think I saved it. From no one making the effort to understand any part of it or grasp a piece of its immensity. From being trapped in two-dimensional photos, in half-concealed symbols, in inept approximations. And I think it’s likely that no writing has ever saved you. That you were the one doing the saving. That the very act of saving something else is the thing that saved you; those holy moments where someone tells you about a profound experience, and you nod and say, I have experienced something like that.

Maybe that’s the real secret of memoir, of literature: it will always fall short. It needs to fall short, so that a reader can take something new and real out of the hopelessly broken words. So that they can know a mountain that I will never know. So they in turn can start to share their mountain with someone new who will see their own mountain. And on and on and on.

It needs to fail so we can stand at the foot of the mountain and tell it, “I see you.” And the mountain will know we can’t, not really. But maybe it’s the attempt that will keep on saving us.
_____

Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD student at Ohio University. His recent nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee.

The Year of the Writer

December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments

Vintage sepia photo of young girl with dark curly hair sitting at desk holding a paper and looking thoughtful

Next year definitely the Booker longlist

How was 2017?

OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.

Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?

Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?

Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?

Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?

Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?

They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations.

When you’re done, look ahead. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.

Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out. Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing. Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer?  I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.

What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process.

What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.

What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.

I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.

Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.

________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018! 

I’m Not Hovering, I’m Writing

December 20, 2017 § 11 Comments

xx Family 2017By Jan McGuire

I have two teenage daughters who tell me I hover over them. If I peek my head into their bedroom door and ask if they are hungry, finished their homework or have clean underwear, I’m hovering.  So, I am back in school getting my master’s degree in English. Why not. Life slows down as you get older, and, as an educator, I have summers off. I have lots of time to get through graduate school.

I decide on my topic for my Monday night CNF class and start writing on Tuesday. I remember, in the nick of time, to run my youngest teenager to year-round soccer practice. I forget my class book and writer’s notebook as I ran out the door, but I did grab my daughter’s cleats. Good thing I’ve stopped hovering over them. I walk around the soccer complex so the muscles in my legs don’t deteriorate and turn to goo while I sit in front of the computer, writing. After a two-hour practice, my superstar complains that she is starving. Just this once has turned into more times than I can count, and I drive through a fast food joint because I haven’t been grocery shopping. Good thing I don’t hover over their eating habits.

Around 9 p.m. I begin writing. The keys feel so natural and the tapping comforts my fears about being too busy to be getting my master’s. I am satisfied with my rough draft as a once white screen is now filled with words. At 11:00 p.m. exhaustion hits. The alarm will go off much too soon.

On Wednesday my butt seems to have already molded to my writing chair, so I do butt crunches and munch on almonds and cran-raisins. I don’t want to snack on the carrot cake my aging neighbor gave me for shoveling her walk all winter. My neighbor would love me to hover since her husband died unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving.

The next few days I scramble to find time to write. I run my oldest teenager home from school after volleyball, but need to have her back to school for Driver’s Education in a few hours, then pick her up again at 8:30. I tell her to move closer to the middle of the road, as my rear-view mirror nearly slaps a parked car on the way home. She thinks I learned to drive on a horse and buggy and rolls her eyes at me hovering from the passenger seat.

At 9 p.m. I’m tired and wonder if it’s Friday yet. I get absorbed, then obsessed with writing, but make myself stop at midnight. The girls are making their own lunch now. I keep money on their school lunch accounts, but I don’t hover over their selections.

I momentarily took a break from coaching. After coaching several different sports and few undefeated seasons my daughters don’t like me to offer tips on their chosen sport. I rarely miss a soccer or softball game, show choir performance or volleyball match. I’m cheering them on from the bleachers, but I’m not hovering.

I decided the weekend will allow me to write, but one daughter wants to go to the mall to find a prom dress and the other wants me to walk with her to sell crap for a school fundraiser. If she sells the most crap she gets a limo ride with the other winners. Saturday night rolls around and I write and write until after midnight.

Sunday, I cut my right index finger opening a soup can and threaten my children with consequences if they don’t vacuum and do dishes. The slice on my finger increases the typos and interrupts my flow of creativity. I finish my assignment, but know I could have done better. I offer to help the girls with their homework, but they would rather fail than allow me, a teacher, to hover.

The girls shout from outside, they have found a black Labrador puppy and want to know if they can keep it. We walk the neighborhood looking for the owner. I’m not hovering.

Monday in class I realize I didn’t print off part of my assignment. I close my eyes in silent disgust as the rest of the class turns in their organized papers.

I try as best I can to raise my daughters to be independent, but the teenage years are difficult for all of us. I watch them sideways. I’m not hovering, I’m writing.
___

After a career in law enforcement, Jan McGuire now teaches English at an alternative high school in the Omaha area. She is working toward her Master’s in English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She was a finalist for the John J. McKenna Graduate Fellowship Award in Creative Nonfiction and has been published in Lesbian Connection. She made time for writing again when her teenage daughters felt she needed a hobby.

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