September 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Adrian Koesters
If you’re lucky, you’ve had someone to talk with about things—someone to answer, “That’s right, that’s right,” to what you’re trying to get at.
The pleasure of reading these letters/essays between Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown is being able to answer, “That’s right,” as we follow their takes on books, food, music, sex, politics, and writing and teaching poetry. Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives is, first of all, an exchange of essays on the writing life. It is also, as they tell us, a “record of an important friendship.” In this, Lea and Brown, past poets laureate of Vermont and Delaware, are as transparent with us as they are with each other.
Transparency takes time, as we know. “William Blake saw that we have to pass through innocence into experience in order to arrive, if that’s the right word, at a higher innocence, a place where we bring everything with us…,” says Brown. Yet, Lea answers, “I’ve imagined my mind to have found something that, at least for the fleeting moment, will suffice.” Even a “higher innocence” is no final arrival.
“The universe is slow, really,” Brown says in “Books,” the first of twelve essays. Her description of the tactile experience of reading the printed word transported me to the card catalog at my college library, the slow, insulated suspension so dearly missed, pulling out one drawer that played to another, learning what books to seek out, the titles delicious, fantastic.
Still reading “Books,” I recalled the even slower universe of the grade school library, the wealth inside a pile of library books, the liberty of the card, the stacks, the tables, the quiet. I remembered in second grade, pleading to take out books each week from the “big section,” and when I got permission, reading the same ones over and over, as Brown also did with her childhood favorites.
Then, I remembered an afternoon when Sister So-and-So called me up, pulled out a list of words, and told me to read them. I didn’t know most, but thought I was rattling them off pretty slick, and that she’d be pleased, but she said only, “That will be all,” and tossed the list in her desk drawer as if it were burning her fingers. If I didn’t already know the life-and-death difference a word could make, I knew it then.
This sense, that the world stands on a word, both poets recognize well, and that if you write it’s likely because you figured this out early on. The exchanges in Growing Old compound and deepen this understanding from one section into the next. In “Sports,” Lea tells of a fascinating journey from the high school hockey field, to a struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, and ultimately to writing. He quotes a poem by James Wright wherein the sons of “proud fathers…/grow suicidally beautiful,” whose pain he understands, whose journey can end in “moral idiocy” in those who cannot comprehend it.
“And yet,” he says, “I’m not large, and I know it.” He loves sports, but Brown says, “I’ve written two sports poems…I can pretend.” They are serious, but they have fun. Lea admits, “The feel of improvisation is what juices up my form.” Brown figures, “Poetry is like a large bird, coming in closer and closer until we finally admit we’re stuck with it.” At times reading their serve-and-return feels like listening to a terrific radio program with your favorite hosts, at others sitting down for long conversation with your friends.
But the final, transcending word is for the writer. Poetry feels like “a self-abandonment to something divine…,” Lea says. It comes, says Brown, from “…silence, [it] needs to open itself into silence, not hostage to anything.” That sounds right, and trustworthy, as both poets admit they know a good bit, but still not much completely for sure.
Two poets grown older, still considering, as they do in the introduction, “Are poets’ lives any different in tone or texture from any other sorts of life?” Maybe not. But the particular vocation of the poet, of the writer, I hear them say, is to free words without too much judgment, to judge words without taking them hostage, and to be “eager to continue.” Growing Old in Poetry is an important book and a conversation and a friendship generously recorded.
Adrian Koesters is a poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Her most recent essays appear in Oakwood Magazine and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.
August 23, 2018 § 9 Comments
Once, from the next room, my fiancé heard the clicking of my fingertips against the computer keys stop. He thought I had finished writing, but when he came to check on me, I was stoically staring out the window barely blinking.
“Where are you right now?” he asked.
I said, “I’m in the morgue standing over my father’s body.”
Now, whenever he sees me sitting too still, staring too blankly, he always asks with trepidation where I am, so he knows just how far I’ve gone.
There are many moments when I get so lost in the past, it’s easy to forget that my feet are touching the ground. Sometimes it takes me a very long while to find my footing and acknowledge that I am not the same lost person I was over a decade ago—to remember that I’m a twenty-nine year old established woman with a career and a fiancé and not an eighteen-year old child who just lost her father.
To write memoir, we have to be multiple simultaneous selves. We need a reflective “I” that is our present with all our wisdom and fortitude. We also need the past “I,” the one experiencing everything for the first time. But the “I” that is not on the page is important, too. The “I” that has relationships and doctor’s appointments and dinner plans and anticipation for Patriots game-watch parties on Sundays.
I flew to the Azores in 2015 to learn and write about my father’s death. At times, my drive to deliver was unstoppable, even a bit manic. I’d get up in the morning, grab a bowl of cornflakes, and sit at my desk near the floor-to-ceiling windows. But rather than gaze out at the cerulean currents scribbled across the navy blue Atlantic, my attention was on the black keyboard and stark white screen of my laptop. I’d spend eight to ten hours typing, only stopping for a brief lunch and the occasional bathroom break.
My feet were on the floor, but my ears were ringing with my mother’s screams, my eyes watering at the sight of my grandfather’s distraught face, my fingertips burning at the touch of my father’s lifeless forearm. This zone of mind is good for writing because it allows writers to sink deeply and emphatically into their pasts, but it is also a treacherous slope—one that must be treated with caution—as it destroys all notions of a present life. Like a moth drawn to light, writers must acknowledge the allure of such a space, but we must recognize its danger, too.
If you ever get lost in your past “I” and need to find your footing again, do something that makes you feel human. I did a lot of cooking while I was writing in the Azores—lemon-frosted cakes, Oreo puddings, double-chocolate cookies, and chorizo-stuffed Portuguese lasagnas at 2AM. I only realized why I was cooking so much after I came home to Boston—because when I ate that lasagna at two in the morning, my senses were on fire. It was hot, spicy and damn good. I felt my bare feet on the kitchen floor, the coolness of the tile. I was cold. I was feeling. I was firmly grounded in the present.
Whether it’s cooking or dancing to extremely loud music or going for a run or having sex—do something that will transport you immediately to the present. Though it seems obvious, it is easy to forget—it is the present and not the past in which we live. Though you may be writing a tragic memoir filled with suffocating experiences that have caused you enormous pain, there is freedom in taking breaks to remember that you are more than just this past “I.”
I’m back in Boston now—back in my real life—but I still have a similar writing process. I dive into my words and drown in them. I find my quiet space, turn the TV and music off, and let the work come slowly, deliberately, out of me. It feels like a birthing. Any time I have produced writing worth reading, I was in one of these zones. A zone where the only thing keeping my body from floating towards the sky like an unruly birthday balloon are my fingers hitting the keys at a constant pace. But whenever I do reach that euphoric, nirvana-like state where the work flows from my fingertips and I am simply the vessel delivering it from my mind to the page, it is important to remind myself that I am not a vessel. I am human. Not a means to an end, but a person, living in the present. As much as it is worth fighting like hell for the past to come alive on the page, it is just as important to come out alive, too.
August 21, 2018 § 31 Comments
Yesterday I went viral on Twitter:
Toni Morrison: 40
Mark Twain: 41
Marcel Proust: 43
Henry Miller: 44
JRR Tolkien: 45
Raymond Chandler: 51
Richard Adams: 52
Annie Proulx: 57
Laura Ingalls Wilder: 65
Frank McCourt: 66
Harriett Doerr: 74
Harry Bernstein: 96
No, you’re not too old to publish your first book.
— Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir) August 19, 2018
And aside from 17 replies of “But I’m 97,” a few scoldings on how I shouldn’t glorify Laura Ingalls Wilder, 12 “What if I’m just lazy,” and a couple of crabapples sniping about factual accuracy (yes, I should have said “novel” for Twain), the overall response was one of relief.
Thank you, I needed that.
There’s still hope.
I needed to hear that today.
A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.
It was fun to see so many retweets and likes, and I checked in periodically while putting together a PowerPoint for a workshop next weekend, “25 Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life.” I made pretty slides about saying no to tasks that don’t help your writing, and how many “obligations” we take on aren’t really things we’re obliged to do, and apps and tools to manage our time. Then I edited two hours for a client, went to the library and printed some maps I needed for novel research, refilled a prescription long-distance and answered some email.
My day also included a panic attack, where I wept and vented on the phone to my best writing friend, because I’ve just finished a writing workshop and booked myself three days of personal writing time in the same location, and I’m spending that time working for other people.
Not writing my book.
I feel my age closing in, the sense that I’ve “wasted my life,” which is patently ridiculous given that 1) I’m only in my 40s; and 2) I’ve already done three successful careers which, surprise! gave me shit to write about.
But in a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”
I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.
I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.
I don’t want to quit traveling.
And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing. They demand physical and mental energy. That’s what we forget when planning our writing lives: it’s not the obligations we chafe at that are hard to shuck off—It’s the stuff we love.
Many writers love being a good spouse. Parenting well. Looking after a family member who needs help. Those aren’t writing hours.
We enjoy living in a nice place and keeping it up. We like working to pay rent and food and the care of people who need us. We take pride in doing well at that work—some of us even adore the work itself. Those aren’t writing hours.
If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things. I contribute to the house with money and work, but after twenty primary-breadwinning years, I’m not self-supporting any more. My best writing time is often away from my husband by thousands of miles. And it’s hard to say no to editing clients, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can help them best.
Small things help: I pop in my earbuds and put on the song that launches me into one book or another. I maximize my time by turning off wifi and my phone. I updated my website to say I’m not taking on new writers, because it’s easier to have potential clients say no to themselves before emailing me.
I’m privileged that these are options I have; your barriers may be different and much harder to surmount. But it’s easy to make time for writing by saying, “I’ll get the kids to do their own laundry and start doing groceries only once a week.” It’s much harder to look at things we love and value, and decide we might love writing more. Especially when we aren’t living on our writing money, the time we spend can feel like self-indulgence, like a frill.
But we’d tell our treasured friend, You deserve that time. We’d say, Modeling dedication and focus is also good parenting. We’d tell them their spouse should be supportive, and applaud the spouses who were.
Let’s tell it to ourselves, too. Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her adventures with the monthly I Do Words TinyLetter.
August 15, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Amanda Irene Rush
In my journals from twenty years ago I have found entries of what I can only see now as early drafts of my thesis. Bitter passages about my alcoholic father and his inappropriate confessions, laments about my mentally ill mother and how I felt her a ghost, an early account of a cherished family relic and what it symbolized. My thesis had been in the making for a very long time.
Yet, when I entered the Ashland University MFA in Creative Writing program in 2016, it was not a family memoir I had in mind. What I had was a revision of a manuscript I had begun in 2009 about my first four years as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The first 125 pages covered the span of 12 weeks. I recently did the math: at that plodding pace I was on my way to over 2,000 pages.
The problems with the manuscript became clear during my first residency. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and realized I had a situation but no story. I had never considered the difference. Steve Harvey drove the point home with his gentle but relentless focus on theme — what, he asked, is my narrator’s comment on life?
Steve also taught me about kronos and kairos — those two ways of experiencing time on the page — and what a crucial thing pacing is. My pages were steeped in scenes. Everything got equal time, so even if I had a theme, it was diluted with my overpour of words.
From Bonnie Rough, I learned the difference between the character self and the narrator self. I had been relying on my fiction training: I was showing a lot through my character self, but telling little. Until I read Phillip Lopate, I didn’t know you could — and should — do both in creative nonfiction.
I left that first residency with a plan: go back to the manuscript; focus on one chapter; eliminate any unnecessary scenes; add exposition; shrink or expand time as needed; locate my narrator self and get her on the page; identify my themes. Easy peasy, I thought. It would be like those paint-by-numbers I used to do as a kid. I didn’t have to know what to draw; just follow instructions.
It didn’t work. The revised version — though I had followed all instructions carefully — was even worse. The words seemed dead on the page. I felt that the harder I tried to cram the manuscript into my box of a plan, the less control I had over it. I knew I had to find a better way.
I have been a doodler since college. I call them “doodles” because they are born from my subconscious, not my imagination. I don’t render them into existence, so much as they seem to choose to be expressed. Whenever I try to draw something on purpose the image is crude and uninspired. But, when I let the pen or pencil or crayon do its thing, what comes out is usually the beginning of something surprising and engaging which I can then enhance.
I wondered: could I do this with writing? I started with a prompt (a picture, a doodle, a memory, a journal entry, an object) and I free-typed with as little preconceived notion as I could muster. I could feel the difference immediately. The words started to take on a shape and texture like never before. I started a new folder in Google Docs called “Raw Doodles,” each file a piece that may or may not fit later into a larger whole. I shelved my expectations and just kept doodling. When each packet came due, I scrapped chronology and arranged the “doodles” into associative patterns, trusting that eventually my themes and my story would emerge — this time not by my pulling and prodding, but by me listening to what the material was trying to tell me and letting it guide me to where it wanted to go.
It worked. It was my “in.” And what I learned was that the story of becoming a nurse practitioner — the story of finding myself in a position that I felt I simultaneously did not belong and was made for — was not the actual story; it was merely the situation. The real story was deeper and more complex. A story about how we break and search for wholeness, how we struggle to make sense of our experience, how we ask questions that are mostly unanswerable, how we go on anyway — asking more. Ultimately, it’s a story of me looking at where I came from to understand who I have become.
This was all well and good.
But how to structure it all in a way that was both cohesive and aesthetically pleasing? Over winter break, before my final, thesis, semester, I tried many ways to intuit the structure the manuscript wanted to take. I spread the pages out, cut sections and taped them elsewhere, shuffled and sorted and sweated over the sheets and sheets before me. I was hoping for a pattern to arise; none did.
For my first draft submission to Kate Hopper I patched it together best I could, actively avoiding any kind of chronology for fear I’d fall into the same rut as before. I had worked with Kate in the past; I trusted her instincts. But when she came back and suggested a chronological arrangement — to eliminate confusion for the reader, to avoid unnecessary repetition, to enhance the sense of urgency — well, let’s just say I was not in agreement. But, as I said, I trusted Kate, so, after a few weeks of kicking-and-screaming contemplation, I started to arrange things chronologically.
And it worked. The structure emerged of parallel narratives. The “now” of the story beginning with a scene in my therapist’s office in 2008 when I am on the cusp of becoming a nurse practitioner, wondering how I got there and why I hurt. The “then” of the story, reaching back before I was born, and moving forward in time with brief intervals between sections wherein I return to my therapist’s office. Within each section, the material is still largely associative, but the underlying chronology gives the manuscript much needed solid footing.
The manuscript is far from finished. I know that. What I also know — perhaps the most important thing I will take from this program — is that each writer must find her own way, must do the work herself. There is no prescriptive way of doing things. No paint-by-number shortcuts. At least, not for me. Through this thesis process, I felt more a channeler than a writer. My story was there all along; I just had to shut up and listen.
Amanda Irene Rush is a writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner living in central Ohio. Her work has appeared in Vanderbilt Press’ 2008 anthology The Way We Work and the Bellevue Literary Review. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University.
August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
By Ryan McDonald
We wish to never find ourselves realizing how far we’ve fallen, how messed up or off-course our lives have somehow come to be, but at one point or another it seems that this moment of sudden awareness inevitably comes. Steven Church confesses to such in the very first sentence of his latest essay collection, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, professing “this is what things have come to.” It is a first impression to the reader that shouldn’t be read as sensational, but rather the opposite for it touches on something universal. Church reveals a common truth: things in the past have disturbed us—this is what things have come to—and so will parts of the future—I’m justgetting to the disturbing part.
In this book, Church dives deep into a lifetime of fear, from his emotion-laden twenties—the anxiety-riddled years of trying to figure out adulthood—up to his forties, now a father of two, questioning what and how he should teach his kids to fear. At the heart of Church’s compelling inquiry and intimate storytelling is a confounding but relatable paradox: though fears come and go, change or fester—no matter how common or grand those fears are—fear itself will never disappear from our lives.
In the opening essay, “Deep Down in the Country Boy Mine,” Church unpacks one of the greatest fears he felt as a young adult, that he “might be making some really bad decisions.” It was 1995 and wanting “to be a mountain man, a pioneer of sorts”—an ambition shared by many foolish young men wishing to be the next Hemingway or Kerouac—the twenty-something Church abandons the path his BA in philosophy, scholarship offers for graduate school, and steady relationship with his girlfriend seemed set to put him on. Instead, he took up a job in Breckenridge, Colorado working as a tour guide and general laborer at a tourist trap named the Country Boy Mine. But nobody goes down into a mine with the intent of staying.
Church grapples with this stereotypical masculine pursuit of rugged individualism and grapples as well with how quickly he discovered it to be a hollow myth, made worse by the stress of his long distance relationship. Like a miner digging into and chipping away at the ground, “Deep Down into the Country Boy Mine” takes on a fractured form with Church’s frequent use of footnotes visually representing his deviating, conflicted young self and subheadings that chronicle his journey to and within interiors both physical and metaphorical. In doing so, Church also tries to write back to a whole, reflecting the eventual decision “to return to her, the choice of sweet dependence.”
Fear can turn our minds over and over, get us stuck, but Church’s narrative seamlessly guides readers to each next page, as time keeps moving and we keep getting older. Church became a husband, moved to a college town where drunk students often confused his apartment for their own, and he and his wife welcomed their first-born into the world. In the essay “Bright Orange Fear,” Church’s wife frantically rushes inside from the front yard to tell an unknowing Church that she had seen across the street what looked like someone getting stuffed into the trunk of a brown Honda Accord. (It turned out to be teenagers fooling around.) In this essay, Church takes count of all the fears he’d been accumulating up to that point in life. He attempts to orient himself as a husband and father in a post 9/11 world filled with dangers far and near (“It’s all about fear”), most not yet on his two-year-old son’s radar: “But what about brown Accords? What about the rattle of a doorknob at 3:00 in the morning? What about right outside our doors?”
Oddly, I found myself comforted by this book. When I read it, I was in my second month of unemployment, having just finished graduate school, with student loan payments looming over my head. Like Church in his twenties, I felt an uneasy fear: how even when you know things will work out, the question of what-if provides a pervasive gloom (What if I don’t find a job in time and get buried in debt? What if I had chosen a different path than this? What if I become a burden to those I care about and who care about me?) But I didn’t mind the notion put forth by Church that even as trouble sorts itself out (as it did for me; I got a job), I’d just find new fears. It helped to see this. We’re always learning how to adjust to the fears at hand.
It is fitting then that Church ends I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood with a one-paragraph flash essay, “Overpass Into Fog,” in which he writes in the present tense of an unexpectedly profound car ride to his daughter’s daycare:
I can stay suspended in the present on the overpass into fog, the memory of our conversation on cursing, my daughter’s gambol around goddamnit lingering in the penumbral past, as I sail off blindly into the deep abyss of being a divorced father of two children, catching mere glimpses of clear thoughts through windows in the haze; and perhaps such suspension will help me remember that it’s important not to pass over such moments, to stay in the vehicle of metaphor, moving forward, even if you can’t see the edges or the end, even if the concrete seems to disappear into gray ether, into a terrifying and ecstatic final separation.
Here—pinned to what things had come to, a liminal instant in time, somewhere along the way to the disturbing part—Church leaves the reader with both hands on the steering wheel and a foot on the gas pedal, a controlled forward momentum, suggesting that our fears and the future are at least navigable for as long as we keep driving.
Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. He teaches at George Mason University. His essays have been published in the Normal School Online, the Rumpus, Catapult and forthcoming in 1966. He is currently working on a collection of essays about commodities and the way they affect our lives globally, locally, and personally
July 20, 2018 § 15 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
On the Upper West Side, over brunch, Marcia and I talk about Educated, Tara Westover’s recent memoir. We are awed by the narrator’s resilience. We marvel at how family norms define us and ponder how much we can’t know is “normal” if we have nothing else to compare it with. We wonder what other horrors and atrocities brilliant Westover may have omitted, what she may have blocked. I mourn Westover’s mother’s inability to attend to her daughter, even as I acknowledge the fact that the mother couldn’t keep herself safe.
Over sausage, we talk about the coming summer—my plan to organize my memoir, by tacking the titles of scenes up under headings on the walls of a purchased, but not yet renovated, small house at the foot of the driveway of the house I still call my mother’s house, though she has been gone for eight years. It may be years before we renovate the new, small house—other projects take precedence, so I decide I might as well use it—when else will I have an empty house to play in? I imagine carrying my coffee cup and my resolve down the driveway from our house to the new house’s empty rooms. I’m hoping a new space will help me make sense of the jumble I’ve assembled. More than 300 pages of disconnected bits, a mish-mash. I’m determined to finish a draft this summer.
“My book is called a quiet memoir—nothing really dramatic. It’s a bunch of scenes organized around the summer months in Eagles Mere. About my family. Sort of a collage,” I explain. No hurling a hiking boot down a mountain, no cruel and abusive family to flee. The energy of my story is smaller.
Do I feel inadequate that I am not Cheryl Strayed or Tara Westover? Some days. Still, I have been working on this collection of fragments and essays for three years now. “It’s not a memoir at all,” a writing teacher counseled. “It’s a collection.” First, that discouraged me, but it’s true. More than a century is a lot to tackle in a narrative arc, especially since I missed the first forty-five years, having not yet been born.
Eagles Mere’s architecture is also a mish-mash. Over many decades, architects fashioned houses full of whimsy. Gothic and Queen Anne homes pose, elegant, next to spacious shingle cottages. Mansard roofs, arched windows, clapboard, board and batten, steeply pitched eaves cohabit. Decorative trim serves no function but to delight and evokes another era. New houses bloom on lots, made to look old. Many original 19th century cottages expand over time. Eclectic turrets and tiny paned windows and wrap around porches make each home distinct. These are houses devoted largely to leisure, to relaxation, but houses, too, in which families expand and contract. My computer often shares a table with a kerosene lamp, artifacts from different eras–a hodge-podge. Right now, my memoir reminds me of this unruly architectural mélange, this mingling of old and new, lots of unrelated bits to shape into an appealing structure.
Marcia, my brunch pal, is a Broadway producer; she tells me about a theatre project in development—a story within a story that has moved her. She notes that, for her, good stories always center on the conflict the main character must negotiate.
I smile, grim: “Loss, grief. That old stuff. It’s not lost on me that I started writing this piece after my mom died—and that I need to finish it before I can write any other big pieces of my life.” Marcia nods. Everyone has a family, knows the pull and the tensions, loss, fear tinged grief—what else may be lost? I’ve built this memoir bit by bit in classes, during the spaces in between, snatching time from obligations, putting off my family with, “Just one more minute; I’m working on a piece.” I explain the generous comment Molly, an online classmate, offered about doing. She said my prose was livelier when I described all we did in Eagles Mere, one summer to the next, generation after generation.
Marcia smiles. “For me,” she says, “Eagles Mere isn’t about doing at all—it’s the opposite. Eagles Mere means all these people who come together because we love you; we stumble into the kitchen, waking up over coffee. Some go to the porch and some to the beach, and I walk around the lake—no agenda. And we meet up again the late afternoon, and we have to make dinner all together because there isn’t any place to go. So, we cook together and we eat a great meal at the dining room table, twenty of us—it’s about community and the ways our lives cross each other’s, with you at the center.”
Her words comfort me. The summer stretches out, weeks ahead to sift and sort through the jumble, to arrange ingredients—houses, meals, stories. My stories center on Eagles Mere—our home the center of the web, whose filaments draw us each summer. Blue and white china is arranged on a long table. Not everything matches. The lake stretches out beyond the front windows. An assortment of people gather around the table to eat and laugh—a summer meal in progress, a memoir to fashion.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection. Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station. She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction. You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog: www.annvklotz.com
July 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Tucker Coombe
Winter on Overland Mountain––some 3,000 feet above Boulder, Colorado––could be exhausting, writes Karen Auvinen. Snow fell “a foot at a time” and temperatures could plummet to twenty-five-degrees-below zero. Winds “howled and clawed at the cabin, rattling the gass panes like a live thing.”
Surviving winter, however, was by no means her greatest challenge.
Auvinen’s intimate and unforgettable debut memoir, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, tells of the decade or so she spent on the outskirts of civilization. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Rough Beauty offers a glimpse into a life that’s pared down to its essentials, open to unexpected, even profound, change.
Auvinen was nearly forty when she began living in a rustic cabin about four miles outside the tiny town of Jamestown, Colorado. She supported herself by running a rural postal route, teaching writing at a nearby community college, and cooking once a week at the Mercantile Cafe––the town’s only business establishment.
Auvinen depicts her younger self as awkward and a bit prickly, “[p]roud to be called ‘fearless’ and ‘tough,’” she writes. When her first rented cabin burned down––leaving nothing but her truck, her beloved dog (a semi-feral husky named Elvis) and the clothes on her back––the Jamestown community “arrived like the cavalry.” One friend took her shopping for clothing essentials, another bought new supplies for Elvis, and customers on her postal route left her envelopes of cash. The town even held a benefit in her honor. But she couldn’t abide the attention or the goodwill. “I roasted on the twin spits of chagrin and embarrassment,” Auvinen writes, “…more uneasy with condolences and well wishes than I would have been with condemnation and blame.” She loaded up Elvis and headed to Utah for a few days of solitary camping.
Who among us hasn’t at least considered a life of solitude? My own attempt, decades ago, was short-lived and humiliating. One autumn, shortly after college, I decided to stay in a somewhat isolated, bare-bones house on Cape Cod. I’d envisioned long, peaceful days spent reading and writing, but instead found myself becoming unmoored without the comforting noises of summer. At night I’d wrap myself in a blanket, listen to the tick of an old shelf clock and recall in vivid detail every horror story I’d ever been told. I didn’t last a week.
Auvinen’s memoir purports to focus on her years of relative isolation on the mountain. But it’s the stories she tells of her childhood and her teenage years that are most affecting; without seeming melodramatic, they have a real sense of poignancy and immediacy.
An irreverent, headstrong kid, “I licked the sidewalk because I liked the taste of dirt,” says Auvinen, who grew up in a family where women were “parsley on the plate––accessories or helpmates.” Her father, an Air Force career man, ruled the family with tyranny and occasional violence.
Auvinen writes of her father’s decision, during her middle-school years, to relocate the family to Hawaii, and to euthanize the family dog rather than bringing her along. Before the dog’s final trip to the vet, he carried the struggling animal outside and tried to fit her into a wooden box he’d chosen for her burial. Karen watched in horror: “I couldn’t control the sound coming from my chest––the guttural, animal wail of grief.”
Karen began marshalling considerable will against her father’s bullying and “forged a dark armor to protect me and keep others at bay.” Before entering graduate school––in a symbolic rejection of her father––she changed her last name. He threatened to track her down. She eluded him by quitting her job and moving into a tent in the woods. She and her father would not speak for another decade.
Living alone, in relatively rough conditions, seemed to suit her. “My preference was for the earth, with its rough beauty, its inscrutability, its mixture of shit and muck,” she writes.
Gradually, Auvinen began to feel grounded by the rhythm of the seasons and to sense a slow “unraveling” inside herself. Perhaps most importantly, she was both buoyed and steadied by the stubborn companionship of Elvis. For years, even as she avoided friends and family during the holidays, she relished cooking dinners––roast chicken, perhaps, or rosemary lamb––to share with her dog. Opening her heart to Elvis, she later realized, was life-changing.
When Auvinen first set out to live on Overland Mountain, she believed that her “commitment was not to a person but to a place: “…I placed my bet on landscape, putting all my chips on wildness.” But for all its focus on mountain living, what this memoir really seems to be about is the difficult terrain of human love and connection.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature, education and dogs, and lives in Cincinnati.
July 2, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Brittany R. Collins
Four years ago, I performed a poem in the back room of a bar for a patchwork audience drinking beer from plastic cups. At the end of the evening, an older man in a grey fedora pulled me aside to say: “There are some things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand.”
“Children, animals, and poets.” I hear him in my mind when I read, even now. I reach a clause or the white space after a period—for it is never the period itself that catches me, that bobber in the water, but the placid, smooth stream of the in-between. It is there that he is waiting, wading, whispering this line about audience.
Today, I am reading Annie Dillard by the peony garden when thunder rumbles. Ants scurry into the folds of the flower petals, tucking themselves into each crevice (each crevice a magenta duvet, a tortoise shell, a home) and I imagine them screeching tiny screams, sensing the atmospheric shift in their bellies.
They are always there, these ants, and sometimes a nuisance. When I clip the flower stems with sharp orange scissors, intending to bring the outer in, their bodies—glistening and black—remind me that the outer will always evade. They cling and grasp, immovable.
Watching their determination, I remember my clean kitchen counters, the aroma of Lemon Pledge, and I drop my scissors. I lay the blades down in the depths of my picnic basket and recede. You’re right, I think, watching the ants rush, frantic and frenetic (with glee? with fear? how similar the two feel, embodied). You’re right. This is where you belong.
There will always be unity and schism between the earth and me.
Sometimes the ants are welcome company. I whisper hello to them as I tread the tender earth, and they scurry. I have never seen a still ant. An ant of stasis. I relate to their urgency, their exigency. “Busy” is a guise for brimming—with glee, with fear. With both.
The ant-filled peony in the flower garden stands in contrast to the curated, cinched bouquet on the shelf. Both are beautiful and necessary. There is a time and place for them. Just as the worn arrangement at the supermarket serves its neon purpose, so does the untouched flower bush embody a sense of intent.
The Dillard book is The Writing Life. The writing life is also brimming, is also a confluence of fear and glee, doubt and surprise. It is defined by imminence and felt in the belly. The heart, head, and viscera.
Intent centers Dillard’s text, and all creative endeavors. “You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox,” she tells us. “Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”
The contents of my paintbox are rumble, rain, and soil. Sitting in my verdant corner, reading these words, I am reawakened to the meditative side of writing: not deadlines, not comma splices, no. Just me and the page as a container; a mirror; a canvas for this fleeting world. How vivid words seem when I return to this frame of mind. Surely the transcendentalists zoomed in on matters of heart and soul—interiority and cyclicality—before they fretted over fragments, and it is this attunement to the particular, the real, that grounds me when I lose the meat and purpose of my work—when I prize the scintillating (if frayed) grocery store bouquet over the messy elegance of an unweeded garden.
“A week later,” Dillard writes, “I had a visit so instructive that when it was over, and I had fully absorbed its lesson, I considered never opening my door again. This was a visit from children.” I reach this line, and there again is my audience member, wearing his grey fedora and a wise and witty grin. Playing in the sandbox, its own expansive paintbox, where creation and erasure meet at such a fluid line, the child knows something of articulation and attention. I can’t help but feel that all creativity is a seeking for return—for the restoration of this perceptual attunement to the granularity of the everyday.
So how do we capture such specificity in our work? How do we “paint” the particulars of experience as if we still carry a toy magnifying glass? I look down at my foot, feeling a small tickle, to see the picnic ants from the peonies crawling across my skin. I am Birkenstocked and sticky with humidity, the sky clotted with clouds. I smell predictive petrichor; I taste alfalfa, freshly mown. And I realize, clutching Dillard, that it will always be concrete nouns that root me—first in the world, and then in my writing.
To paint a scene on canvas, one needs color, texture, and a subject. So it is with words.
For why tell you it was moving, when I can instead show you the mountains?
Brittany R. Collins has written for English Journal and Literacy & NCTE, of the National Council of Teachers of English; Insight, of Dana Farber Cancer Institute; and The Mighty, among others. She is a Reader for the Harvard Review and New England Review and enjoys coaching other writers as a Group Manager at Write the World LLC. Her anthology, Learning from Loss: How Teachers Tackle Mortality in the Classroom, is in preparation– author-educators interested in contributing should contact her at email@example.com for more information.
June 27, 2018 § 14 Comments
By Claudia Hinz
Joyce Carol Oates describes the anticipation as “low dread.” The fact that Oates, one of the most prolific and decorated writers of our times, approaches her writing desk with “low dread” leaves little hope for the rest of us mere mortals. There are long mornings of procrastination when I am assiduously wiping down the kitchen counters, deciding to do a second run through with granite spray before buffing out the cloudy spots, that I am mentally ticking through every thing I would rather do.
There are weeks, months when I would rather be doing anything else besides writing. And yet, if I am not writing, I am not myself. Or rather, I am my grumpy and irritable self. The self that feels she has scooted along the surface, checked off items on the to-do list, but never set foot in a whole other dimension of my world. As writers, we may experience those rare and near perfect moments, maybe even long minutes or hours of these moments, in which we are like athletes, outside ourselves or so deeply within ourselves, that we feel outside of time. The coffee goes cold and hours disappear. After a good day of writing, I leave my desk and get into my car for errands, pick up a child at school, take the dog to the park, and while I know I am engaging with the “real world,” it feels like the truer world is inside me and now, partially on the page, and I’m itching to get back to play. But these moments are fleeting. So how does a writer lay the groundwork for more of these days at the desk and fewer “low dread” days?
Writers have much to learn from sports psychology and the practices of successful athletes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years at track meets, watching both my own children and Olympic athletes prepare to compete. Often, it is the image of my daughter in the infield before a race, accelerating her steps in strides, driving her knees high in the air, that I think of when I’m sitting down to work. All the pre-race preparations, the development of a routine performed exactly the same way time and time again, are ways to get out of one’s head, to stop the ego from needling with doubt and allow the body to do what it has trained to do.
If I do the same warm up every morning in preparation to write, I am communicating to my body that I am ready. I am prepared to begin the process of descending deep within. But what about that voice in my head that is telling me none of this is good enough, that no one will ever read what I have spent years struggling to voice?
Athletes rely strongly on visualization. Olympic runners may pause in their starting blocks, eyes closed as they sway; they envision the whole race as they have trained to run it. Before beginning her floor routine, World champion and Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber paused in the corner of the mat and performed a series of twisting movements, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she visualized her tumbling routine.
What an athlete says to herself before competing is the ultimate preparation. This mantra is seldom about going out to achieve a lifetime personal record. Instead, this self-talk revolves around the confidence an athlete has built in the daily routines of practice, drills, free throws, hours and hours tumbling down a 4-inch wooden beam so the mind doesn’t have to think. The body is on auto-pilot. It has been trained what to do. The self-talk may be as simple as, I am ready.
Now, there is one more important aspect influencing an athlete’s mindset and her performance: the elements beyond her control. As an athlete, there is always illness and injury to contend with. There are also the elements of weather, a headwind in your face or a teacher or boss who is being difficult. Things will not go perfectly. An athlete who strives for perfectionism will find herself on an impossible and destructive course. The only thing within our control is the practice, and the dedication to it day in and day out.
The greatest javelin thrower in the world taught himself everything about the sport by watching YouTube videos. Julius Yego grew up in a small village in Kenya. As a child he sharpened sticks into points that would pierce the earth when launched into the air. There was no one to train him, but he knew instinctively that if he practiced like the professionals on the videos he studied, he, too could be successful. He won the world championships and took silver at the Olympics in Rio.
I’m not suggesting that writers should imitate the practices of the best writers, although one can certainly find models of dogged and indefatigable work practices in Flaubert’s ungodly hours and Joyce Carol Oates’ voluminous production. It is the practice itself we must cultivate. The practice is enough. Enough to set the stage to write from that place of dreams, as Robert Olin Butler urges, from the white hot center we are striving to touch, the mysteries we are so curious to explore and express about ourselves and the world beyond our desks.
“I didn’t give up,” Julius Yego told a reporter. And perhaps herein is the best lesson: if we keep showing up, sitting down or lying down or however you can get comfortable in the most uncomfortable interrogations of the exposed self, we are doing the work. Practicing is the work. We are rehearsing for those out-of-body moments, pen in hand, fingers clamoring on the keys, when we feel our worlds righted and know with certainty we are doing what we are supposed to. We are training to extend ourselves far beyond ourselves, into the deepest depths and then come back to tell.
Claudia Hinz lives in Bend, Oregon. Her essays, fiction, articles and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bend Lifestyle Magazine, BLUNTMoms and True North Parenting. Her first novel is out on submission. Follow her on Twitter at @ChinzClaudia
June 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.