November 15, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Sonya Huber
As many essayists and memoirists know, poets often stroll into nonfiction and bowl a perfect strike, knocking us all over like so many bowling pins. Kelly Davio’s skill as a poet is in full effect in the pages of her new essay collection, It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability. She’s underselling with that word “notes,” as each of the twenty-five essays contained here is a miracle of compression. And as the best poems and essays do, these works pull upward and outward with taut energy, connecting specific experiences and resonant details to overarching themes relevant to any reader who happens to live in a body.
As someone whose body is also awry, I dove into this collection hoping to find that special sanity that comes from having one’s reality reflected in the experience of another. Although my rheumatoid arthritis is different from Davio’s condition, I am pulled toward memoirs and essays of illness and disability because it feels like these authors are engaged in a collective project of understanding and analyzing the way ableism functions. Davio’s essays delivered even more than I’d hoped, opening outward and inward.
Davio’s progressive neurological condition, myasthenia gravis, is named in the book’s epigraph, but that physical state is referenced in a circling, round-about way in the essays themselves. With a balance of intimacy and intellect she brings the reader immediately into the most urgent dilemmas that refract from that condition, dilemmas that reflect on all bodies and especially female bodies, such as the pressure to be “strong and healthy,” the ever-present question about one’s reproductive choices, the monitoring of appearance, food, and clothing, and even the way we think and use our senses.
Although I have delved into the pain experience, I realized in reading this collection that it’s still quite easy to detach from the actual fact of my body, spinning out into abstraction untethered from flesh. For Davio, the sensory and physical world is ever-present, but also intimately connected to larger issues and ideas.
There’s an essay that emerges entirely from the smell of old books and raises itself to the question of which bodies enjoy the experience of being the “default” in our cultures. The last two sections of the book dashes headlong through topics as varied as Kylie Jenner, David Bowie, oxygen tanks, Empire, mindfulness, and a range of other topics, leaving the reader wondering what Davio cannot do. The final essay, “Loss Report,” manages to knit the collection together and offer yet another lens through which to view the whole collection.
Experiences as a patient—both here and abroad—provide a fascinating window into healthcare as experienced by the female body. I found myself wishing that the collection’s longest essay, “Our NHS: One Sick American in England’s National Health System,” might appear in a high-profile venue like Harper’s or The Atlantic, as it provides a valuable and relevant look into the challenges and benefits of a government-funded healthcare system as experienced by someone with a reference point outside of that system—especially important as we watch the collapse of a funding system here in the United States.
Compressed description and an eye for resonant detail are paired with endings that arrive almost before you expect them, with observations that cut to the quick and echo long after each essay reaches its close. One essay in the collection, “The Service of Lesser Gods,” manages to weave together the risks of a major surgery, wool socks, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and Davio’s religious upbringing, all into a stunning four and a half pages that ascends into an ending that leaves the reader entirely clear on the connection among all of these themes and slightly breathless. Davio makes it look easy, so I asked myself whether I could do a similar exploration of Catholicism, the rheumatoid disease running through the family line and striking one of my aunts in the convent, the way faith is entwined with a kind of reverence for suffering? And in four pages? I’d have to walk away from that challenge.
The writing community comes up in more than a few pieces, including one disturbing instance in which Davio, while walking with a cane, is assaulted at the sprawling book fair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. As in other essays, Davio hovers with precision on the moment after that impact, asking the reader and herself to reflect on the gap between what we expect of each other and what we deliver. Her persistent probing raises the question of whether we as writers are so immersed in our own text and world-building that we may fail to engage with the embodied people around us. And part of me wants nothing more than to have this essay read on the stage at the next AWP book fair, though many disabled writers have decided that the barriers in attending the conference are too great.
As with the best of essay collections, the writer’s voice is the persistent presence that unites the pieces. The dry humor contained in these pages both cuts and delights. In each essay, Davio’s dry wit skewers the assumption that she might be considered a disabled “inspiration” for abled people because of her health condition, and in the next moment her vulnerability and intellect offer the reader so much more.
Rather than aiming to transcend her body or to be sanctified by physical challenges, she freely admits that the body reveals the self, and she lays bare her experience at the intersection of body and mind in the service of essaying, thinking, reflecting, and connecting.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.
November 10, 2017 § 1 Comment
As soon as I saw Claire Tomalin had written a biography, I had to read it. She had been an inspiration to me when I was working on my dissertation; I specialized in creative nonfiction, writing about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Not only was Tomalin one of the UK’s pre-eminent biographers, she wrote Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. My excitement grew when I read that Tomalin came late to biography, becoming a full-time writer at nearly forty. She writes, “how long it took me to get going with the work I most enjoy and value: researching and writing historical biographies.” I am a full-time lawyer, but would love to be able to be a full-time biographer, and I thought this might be a guide in making this shift.
Of course, that was foolish, as I discovered in reading A Life of My Own: A Biographer’s Life. An autobiography is not a how-to guide; it can only be a story of one person’s life. Anyway, I would not swap my life for Tomalin’s, even if it meant never becoming a successful biographer.
Tomalin describes, with the same care she takes for all her subjects, the story of how her life unfolded, starting with her unusual, intelligent, and artistic parents and early marriage, and continuing through her schooling, work as a journalist, then editor, and finally full-time writer. She sometimes takes for granted her successes and fortune, such as assuming she’d be accepted into Cambridge, which she enters and receives the highest possible standard.
She began writing after much personal difficulty: her husband abandoned the family, followed by an untimely death in Israel. At times, the book seems lacking in emotion, particularly in the way she describes how her husband “came in and advanced angrily with clenched fists raised to punch me in the face.” She uses the same tone and well-measured prose as describing how she organized a carpool for her children. However, I did feel her pain and confusion over the death of her husband, a well-known British journalist, and over another family tragedy.
Tomalin is eighty-four now, and the book sometimes sounds like an elderly person reviewing her diaries. Even so, A Life of My Own is an interesting read and a useful historical resource, showing what life was like in the literary media in the 1980s (including the detail that is attracting attention in the British press: her affair with Martin Amis). It is also the story of a woman with “conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life” and achieving both. However, as the title says, the story is Tomalin’s life. The rest of us just have to forge our own.
Laura Shepperson completed a master of studies in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, in 2015, specializing in creative nonfiction. She wrote a biography of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf for her dissertation. Shepperson was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize in 2017 for her novel, Harriet’s Room.
November 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
Not long ago I was working on a piece I was pretty sure was about the woman who founded forensic science. My editor, however, pointed out it was also about the struggles of women past a certain age, who are pegged only as grandmothers, lacking usefulness. Her comment made me realize: I usually write about the experiences of women whom society sees as past their prime. This shouldn’t have been a revelation: I write a monthly magazine column about intergenerational dialogue and have a degree in women’s history. Yet the new awareness of my specific focus has already helped me prioritize projects and pitch pieces to new outlets.
While much has been said about how writers must ‘build platform,’ in the sense of becoming a marketable expert on their book’s subject, this thematic focus seems more like a beat—that is, developing authority while writing on a number of related topics. So how do you create your beat? How can you nurture it?
Bustle writer Tabitha Blankenbiller says her beat
is fashion and style, which like any good subjects, parlay into a myriad of other themes: pop culture, body image, class issues, aging, feminism…[but] I find that when I put out fashion-related writing, it tends to be some of the better-received work. It feels like it ‘has legs.’
When she founded Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Athena Dixon embraced her editorial beat to “further diversify our current writing community by calling attention to the glaring diversity issues and offering at least one safe space for writers to submit and be read.”
Maisha Johnson has worked as a domestic violence survivors’ advocate and holds an MFA in poetry. She writes primarily about abuse and healing, race and racism, and intersectional feminism, as well as everyday ways we come across these topics, like pop culture, creativity, and identity. Articulating these intersections helps her deepen the lens and purpose of her work, and define who she is as a writer.
A writer’s beat ties into their social media presence, but isn’t just a marketing construct. Maisha says it can be equally important to unplug.
Because I work around issues like racism, trauma, and abuse, I know being constantly plugged in is going to take a toll. But also [I can’t be] totally absent from trending conversations. So I’ll use a social media tool like Hootsuite, and schedule articles I see trending from other writers. I’ll also add older [or evergreen] articles of my own that relate to the current topic. I don’t have to be on the cutting edge of every conversation in order to maintain a digital presence.
Your beat also needn’t be constantly “on.” Tabitha, whose book Eats of Eden comes out March 2018, says her beat requires
less hoop-jumping and more mountain-scaling. I am a slower writer than many freelancers I’ve known, who are churning out essays and stories along with news cycles… I can’t keep up with that pace, so when I’m writing standalones, I have the luxury of bowing to what’s really screaming at me. It may not be the hottest trending topic, but every so often you have good timing and what you’ve been obsessed about is in sync with the rest of the world.
Relevance can be serendipitous, Tabitha says.
Sometimes the fire comes totally from left field…[for example], a little essay I wrote for a now-defunct food site about my tendency to steal things like condiments, pint glasses, and steak knives from restaurants stirred up this big viral trollstorm.
For Athena, managing a beat is all about making choices: “I made a conscious decision to include all black women on my editorial board and to champion voices I believe may not be given a fair and equal chance to be published.”
How do you decide what to focus on? Maybe you already see a common thread in your work. You might make decisions based on pragmatic goals for publication in particular venues, or by paying close attention to what makes your writing flow and what works best for you and your work specifically. I jump at any opportunity even remotely related to aging, because juggling multiple projects keeps me on deadline. Maisha keeps a list of potential articles, prioritized by what she’s most passionate about.
Tabitha says, “Don’t discount what you love. Passion and joy are your greatest allies, no matter what sparks them within you.”
“Don’t be afraid to begin with what you know best, no matter how unique or particular,” Maisha says. “If you’re the only person who can write the story, that story might really need to be told.”
Athena Dixon agrees. “Be confident in what you know and share it widely. You have no idea what kinds of opportunities you may be unlocking.”
Hillary Moses Mohaupt serves as Social Media Editor for Hippocampus. She holds an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon, and her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Distillations. In her fiction and essays she frequently writes about the presence of the past, intergenerational relationships, and lying. Follow her on Twitter @_greyseasky_.
November 1, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Here at Brevity, we’ve known Michael Perry — humorist, radio show host, recidivist memoirist, volunteer firefighter, and intermittent pig farmer — for more than twenty-years, before he wrote his first wonderful memoir, Population: 485- Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. He graced Brevity early on, back when we had around ten readers, with his essay “Boat People,” and, shucks, we just love the guy.
And now he was written the alarmingly thoughtful (but still funny) Montaigne in Barn Boots and we thought, “Geezus Weezus, let’s interview him already.” So we did:
1. Do you entirely believe Montaigne? You fill the readers in on his extreme wealth, the constant tutoring, and the trailing zither players, but does knowing of this extreme privilege ever lead you to doubt his sincerity? I mean, really, the guy was a prince.
In the main, I don’t doubt his sincerity. But he must still be read through a lens that corrects for parallax.
For starters, there is no getting around the fact that he was an uber-privileged rich male European dude. He was furthermore, as the excuse and epithet has it, “a man of his times.” There was mitigation in the fact that his wealthy father chose poor villagers to be Michel’s godparents, and then sent him to live in a small cottage with paupers for the first few years of his life. This didn’t likely do much for the peasants and comes with its own set of problematic assumptions, but the fact remains that his father wanted him to confront his privilege, and take that privilege into account when dealing with others. That he shouldn’t be blithe about it. This is reflected in much of Montaigne’s writing, and some of his insights outside of his class are powerful, including the way he addresses ethnocentric bigotry in his essay “On Cannibals,” and how he used his experience as a judge to write bluntly of how little hope those trapped in poverty have for true justice. So, yep: Super-privileged, but capable of useful self-examination. None of this means you’d have wanted to be his manservant. Or his maid.
Montaigne also openly admitted his honesty had practical limits. That you can’t serve princes and tell only the truth. Others have noted that for all his self-revelation, he tends to describe personal faults that place him in the lovable goofball category. More troubling things may have been left in the dark. But even this tendency I have tried to leverage, for instance, by writing about my comical absentmindedness in contrast with the fact that for my wife, the cumulative effects of my behavior are not comical at all. There is no punchline.
I also believe–and hoo boy am I under-weaponized and in over my head here–that he never completely showed his hand regarding the Catholic church. One gets the sense that he was covering his bases.
- As you mention in your “Shame” chapter, Montaigne once wrote that “our life is part madness, part wisdom.” Is that still true in the age of Trump, or has madness finally won the day?
Well, I’ve lately been reading Voltaire, and he fashions a frame that fits a little too easily around our daily news. It seems we are deep into the golden age of gas-lighting. I come from blue-collar roots. Tend to kick my foot in the dirt and be all diffident. Properly so, in most instances. But there’s a huge gulf between being ignorant (as I am, to great depth, and across vast expanses) and proudly ignorant. I love big ol’ pickup trucks, but they wouldn’t be the same if some European polytechnic math whiz hadn’t worked out that whole turbocharger thing. I dunno. I know what it is to be condescended to in certain artful circles because I deign to pay half the mortgage telling cow jokes. But the effects of anti-intellectualism are insidious and currently flowering up in big fat rot-blossoms. That’s why I spend time in the book exploring the great debt non-academic me owes the academy. Sticking up for the perfessers. It’s so hard not to sound preachy, and I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime. But lately–including this week down at the fire hall–I have taken to reminding some of my buddies, “Them founding fathers we all hear so much about? They were farmers who studied French philosophy.” In the end, I don’t know if madness has won the day, but what Montaigne teaches me is I’ll be double-damned if I’ll let it win me.
- Do you think Montaigne, if he had been born in rural Wisconsin, could have raised chickens?
In fact he did have chickens. And pigs. Alain de Botton reckons Montaigne’s frankness about sex came from watching barnyard critters doing it (Mr. de Botton would want you to know that is a paraphrase, not a direct quote). Key difference is, I doubt Montaigne cleaned his own chicken coop. Speaking of rural Wisconsin, it is a pinnacle achievement of my literary life that the cover of the book features the great philosopher/essayist wearing a blaze-orange ear-flapper cap, standard issue around these parts come late November so as to keep you from being shot by some rifle-toting roughneck mistaking a sixteenth-century philosopher for a deer.
- The book is funny, of course, because that’s who you are, but to be honest, I was surprised how spiritual it became, and in the end, how positive. It made me feel as if I could be a better person. Were you surprised as well?
I was raised in an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect. These days I’m a bumbling agnostic with traces of amateur existentialism. I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, I’m just lookin’. But despite where I’m at now, and despite the profound misrepresentation of Christ’s spirit and intent by those who wield the Gospels like a cudgel dipped in spit and fear, my “fundamentalist” childhood was filled with love, peace, songs, and joy. These were (and are) people of charity and humility. So my enduring yearning for spiritual ties doesn’t come as a surprise to me. It’s always there. I’m just wary of where it leads, and how much good it does in the face of all the blow torches and barbed wire. And that tricky bit where faith transmutes into an abdication of responsibility for our neighbors, or for that matter, our own behavior. Or the behavior of our leaders.
In the book I quote former Black pentecostalist Ashon Crawley on the joy black gospel music still brings him, and I quote Bill Friskics-Warren on how Johnny Cash navigated his own contradictions of doubt and belief, of rectitude and misbehavior. Even when we leave our faith–even as we wallow in our contradictions–we trail the threads of that prayer rug. Even if I no longer buy the whole program, I am open to the idea of my insignificance. To the hope of being lifted up by something bigger, something purer, something more timeless, than I. In the end, even this ragged spirituality is a form of hope, and as grim as I find things to be, I want to fight for hope to the very end. Even if it’s only making one more ambulance call. Or sticking up for one more persecuted person. Even if I’m throwing cotton candy at a steamroller.
October 23, 2017 § 24 Comments
by Margarita Gokun Silver
I don’t have to be the one to tell you that you are invisible. You know it yourself. Store clerks pay no attention to you, doctors ignore your symptoms, and your children never call as often as they should. But that invisibility cloak will seem like a common cold in comparison to the arthritis when you start looking for an agent – or a publisher – for your memoir. Unless you are a celebrity or a certain former Presidential candidate, you’ll be overlooked, laughed at, and rejected. Since I know first hand what it’s like to be dismissed by agents and snubbed by what they always refer to as “market”, I’m here to give you a few pointers you can use when looking for your own representation.
- For Pete’s sake, don’t write about your life. No one cares. Even if you survived the insides of a volcano, traversed the Sahara dessert on foot without any water, or climbed Mount Everest in one day – no one will give a damn. Instead, go the library or a bookstore and look for memoirs written by men. Then Google their sales figures and write the same thing. Because if a men’s memoir made a lot of money, you may stand at least a chance to be considered.
- If your name dates you to a decade when your potential agent’s parents (or grandparents) were born, change it. Go for something more current, something that says 21stcentury. Google all the wave-making millennials and borrow one of their names. If that doesn’t work – take a name that sounds like a man’s name. This, at least, should get you in the door.
- Do something ridiculous. Dress as if you are thirty (scandalous!), eat dinner at 8pm instead of at your usual, early-bird time, or date a few men or women who could be your grandchildren. Document all that on Instagram and Snapchat (forget Facebook – that’s for grannies). When you accumulate a platform – a fancy term for voyeurs – of five or six digits, send your memoir to an agent.
- Go work for the Trump administration. I know, I know. But art requires sacrifice, right? Hold your nose and ride the scandals until your name is out there. Then ride it some more. With luck, you can maybe help Mueller and sell your memoir in one swoop.
- If all else fails, do what Trump himself did. Attach yourself to Putin. Insist that he was your real father – considering all the plastic surgery the guy’s had he could’ve easily fathered the Beatles. Or claim he was your lover when you, as a young’un, climbed the Berlin Wall and got arrested by dashing Vladimir on the other side. The wild, Communist-inspired sex you had that day became the experience you never forgot and the little Vladimir, oops Johnathan, you had given birth to nine months later looks exactly like his Daddy (minus the botox). If Putin’s name retails you at least a quarter of the number of newspapers it now sells, you’ll have a bestseller on your hands.
One of these should work. Trust me, I know. I haven’t tried any of them and I’m having the hardest time selling my memoir.
Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer living in Madrid, Spain. Her essays on the topic of her memoir have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others. She hopes that her agent is there, somewhere (and maybe even a reader of this blog).
October 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
by Vivian Wagner
Gratitude forms the heart of Dawit Gebremichael Habte’s new memoir. Gratitude for people, for opportunities, for everyone and everything that helped Habte get to where he is today. As a refugee from Eritrea, Habte had a long, complicated journey to America. Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir documents that journey, and in so doing it describes and recreates the journey of many immigrants who have come to this country before and since.
I must admit, first of all, that I have a personal stake in this book’s story. My father was a refugee from Hungary after World War II. His family lived in displaced persons’ camps for a number of years after losing everything during the war, and they finally got the opportunity to emigrate to America in 1950. I grew up with the story of this displacement and emigration, with a deep understanding of the process of losing one home and creating another in a strange place. It was my father’s origin story, and so, by proxy, my own.
Reading Gratitude in Low Voices, therefore, felt familiar, as if I were communing with my own family’s fractured and difficult history, gaining access to the thoughts and feelings of a refugee who might, in a sense, be seen as speaking for all refugees. This memoir gave me insight into the experiences of my father, and it helped me, ultimately, to develop my own sense of gratitude for everything he and his family did create the world I now inhabit.
So many of us in this country are the children and grandchildren of immigrants, of refugees, of people who braved treacherous and chaotic conditions to create new lives for themselves and their families. Gratitude in Low Voices tells the story of one particular refugee’s journey, and it’s likely to reverberate with the stories many others tell and know, as well.
“I was born into war,” one of the early chapters of this book begins, and it’s a common refrain for refugees. In Habte’s case, that war was in his homeland of Eritrea, a country in eastern Africa shaped by a fractious history of colonialism, annexation, and revolution. This war, in its various permutations, ends up forcing Habte out of the country of his birth, on a road of displacement through Kenya and ultimately, as a high school student, to the United States.
At first, Habte has a goal – even after making his way to America – of returning to Eritrea. He thinks of America as a temporary home, where he can get his footing, be educated, and muster the resources to go back. He gradually realizes, however, that the process of immigrating and assimilating and learning has changed him – and he realizes, too, that his homeland itself has changed. This is the old story of becoming an American, of discovering an identity in this new place, of finding that a new home can be built from the ashes of the old one.
Habte attends Johns Hopkins University and eventually gets a job working for Bloomberg. With a passion for computers and software engineering, he begins to realize that there are ways he can help his home country even as he continues to create a new life in America. He returns to Eritrea, not to live there permanently, but to help promote the creation of locally-based information systems and computer networks. He realizes that he has much to offer the place of his birth – largely because of the opportunities he’s found in the country he’s adopted.
This is, at times, a rambling and disjointed narrative. It goes in many different directions, telling the stories of all the people Habte encounters along his journey, and weaving those stories in with his own. There’s a kind of truth to this structure, however, reflecting as it does his experience in making sense of the unpredictable, in traveling toward unknown destinations and a mysterious future. This book is a story about storytelling, about the process of creating a narrative out of disorder, and about all the people that help shape that narrative along the way.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music and a poetry collection, The Village.
October 9, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Amanda Avutu
I was 21 and the worst kind of poet. By which I mean, I wore black dresses and had silver cat eye glasses. So, when a poet came to speak to my undergraduate poetry class about her novel, you can well imagine the twist my black knit stockings were in.
“How do you move back and forth between poetry and fiction??” I inquired during the Q & A session. It was not so much a question as an indictment.
Baseball players don’t play football! Ballerinas don’t dance tap! Hip Hop artists don’t sing Country! Poets don’t write fiction! So went my absolutist 20-something Poet logic.
Poets made each word justify not only its existence, but its placement, musicality, and visual appeal.
Poets were Allison from my fifth-grade class, nibbling tiny bites out of a bologna and cheese sandwich.
Other writers were competitive eaters, swallowing bologna and cheese sandwiches whole, not caring about the white bread stuck to the roofs of their mouths.
After the seminar, the visiting writer graciously signed copies of her book. In mine, she thoughtfully inscribed, “To Amanda, Wishing you luck navigating seamlessly between fiction and poetry.” I remember thinking—rather uncharitably— that I would never need her “luck,” because the only thing I wrote and the only thing I would write was poetry.
I’m 40, and while I still wear black dresses and glasses, I no longer consider myself a Poet or even a poet. I’ve written plays and short stories, novels and essays. I’ve also had brief—dark moments—where I was completely wordless. My god, those were terrifying. Generally, though I’ve become, quite simply, omnivorous where words are concerned. I consume them and produce them with vigor, regardless of their classification. What I’ve learned is that each form allows me to explore, and to expose, different pieces of myself. When I was writing poetry, my truth bobbed just below the surface of abstractions; bits of cereal swimming in the plausible deniability of milk. In my fiction, I anchored my tiny truth and then launched my readers and myself into an alternate reality. These days, I primarily write narrative nonfiction and I tell my truth as my truth. Nothing, however opaque, protects me from my reader’s gaping maw. And as much as my younger self might scoff at the idea, I’ve learned that my truth is my truth is my truth, which becomes my art, regardless of how I tell it.
There was a sense, over these last two decades, of betrayal. My husband fell in love with the poet, my degree proclaimed my proficiencies as poetry centric, since junior high—when I began writing awful rhyming verse—poetry was my identity. Now, though, I realize my poet self is there, making sure there is room for catharsis and that there is the strength to be a conduit. Making sure each word in each sentence justifies its existence. She buries tiny, delicious, moments for my readers to happen upon and savor. She has always been there and will always be there to make sure that whatever I write, it sings.
Amanda Avutu’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, O, the Oprah Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Bitter Southerner, and the New York Times’ Family Ties column.
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 § 24 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.)