How Writing Brought My Daughter and Me Closer

November 8, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Rebecca Rolland 

Last Christmas morning, trying to ignore the dreary weather and the even drearier pandemic-induced quarantine, I told my nine-year-old daughter Sophie I had a present for her—but it wasn’t edible, and I hadn’t bought it. I handed her three double-spaced pages.  

“I wrote you a story,” I said. 

“You what?” she asked. “But I don’t like to read.” 

Still, she sat and read for a minute. Then she laughed. 

“The vlute!” she said. “Like the one Paul plays in the shower. I like that!” 

The vlute was a green plastic recorder her brother, three-year-old Paul, had received at a birthday party a year earlier. It was cheaply constructed and made a terrible squeaking noise—especially after my husband Philippe had stepped on it by accident. Paul especially loved playing it in the early morning, when I most wanted quiet. Playing the vlute in the shower had been a compromise.

“My vlute!” he’d said, making squawking sounds. “So cool!” 

We’d told him it was called a flute, but it didn’t matter. The name stuck. 

That morning, Sophie folded the pages and went on to her other presents, exclaiming over her L.O.L. Clubhouse dolls. She didn’t seem to think much of the story, and I let it go. I’d written it on a whim the night before, feeling I didn’t have enough presents for her, but that I didn’t know what else to give her. Buying more things, I sensed, wasn’t the solution. The combination of “mom guilt” mixed with a sense of restless hunger and anxiety. I wanted to bring some hope, or joy, or excitement, to her and Paul, but I had no idea how.  

The pandemic had already dragged on for nearly a year. For the first time in Sophie’s memory, we hadn’t gone to France to spend the holiday with her relatives. Still, she’d talked excitedly about Christmas for weeks, and seemed to be trying to make the best of it. We’d have a Christmas tree, she said, for the first time, and she’d decorate it. We’d have time to make hot chocolate and maybe even go sledding, if there was snow. 

Never mind that there was no snow, and we didn’t even go to the grocery store, and she and Paul kept fighting over which ornaments to put on the tree. Never mind that, as healthy as our family remained, I knew we weren’t happy. Far from it. Sophie kept asking to call friends. She kept asking to go to indoor water parks that had closed. We felt disconnected and frustrated, I sensed. So I did what I knew how to do, from years of practice, ever since childhood. I wrote. 

And yet I’d never written anything for children. Since high school, I’d considered myself mostly a poet, writing longhand. Then I moved into nonfiction about parenting, and finally into fiction, inspired by the uniqueness of the people I met as a speech-language pathologist. But writing for kids was something I’d stayed away from. I never could seem to get it right.  

But this story was different. I thought about Sophie as I wrote it, imagining what would make her laugh. I’d had the idea that, when Paul played the vlute, a world opened up in a wormhole—a little like Alice in Wonderland dropping down the rabbit hole. But this would be called Vluteland, a place filled with vlutes of all sorts. And she and Paul would be the heroes.  

After my more “serious” writing, the opportunity to play with an idea made me laugh. Still, I’d assumed it was a one-time thing.  

But then, the next day at dinner, Sophie stopped me. “What about Vluteland?” she asked. “What happened?” 

“What do you think?” 

“Oh, let me tell you.” She set down her fork. And then she started talking. She told me all about Vluteland: Arctic Vluteland and Desert Vluteland, each with different climates. She talked so much her mouth hurt. She went to get water, and then kept on. 

“Put all that down, okay?” she asked me. “I don’t like the writing part.” 

“Okay,” I said. 

It was true. She didn’t like to write. Often, she claimed “all the good ideas are taken.” In school, she ripped her paper and said she didn’t like what she had written.  

So I decided to go with the flow. Over the next days, I started carving out time every evening to write about Vluteland. The story became increasingly absurd, and I let myself get lost in it. There was Nancy P. Potato, short for Nancy Potato Potato, a woman from Idaho with a strange love of the spud; Zero Ma, a grandmother who didn’t want to feel old and hated the name “Grandma;” and Papaya, the talking papaya, who constantly complained about being cold.  

As I wrote, I felt momentarily released from the daily reality of handwashing and wearing masks. And soon, I found, the story created a ritual between us. Each evening, at bedtime, I brought that day’s pages, printed out, and Sophie read out loud. 

The more the isolation dragged on, the more I wrote. The process was escapist, I sensed—but it was an escapism we both needed, and better than buying random things on Amazon (which I also did). Sophie started saying she might have some good ideas. She invented Happy Liam and Sad Liam, two potatoes that Nancy P. claimed were her babies. Nancy P. tossed them in the air. She gave them faces with magic marker. And she sang them lullabies. “Potatoes need what children need,” I wrote in Nancy P.’s voice. “Just love and attention, soil and sunlight.” 

I was, I realized, saying all that mostly to myself.  
____

Rebecca Rolland is the author of The Art of Talking with Children, forthcoming 3/1/2022 from HarperOne. She is a speech pathologist and lecturer as well as the mom of two young kids. Find her at www.rebeccagrolland.com and on twitter at @rolland_rg.

To Do or Not To Do: On the Comfort of List Essays

November 5, 2021 § 17 Comments

By Jill Kolongowski

As a nonfiction writer, I’m scared of plot. Perhaps that’s why I’m a nonfiction writer. I’m drawn to writing about the way things are, or thinking about the way things could or might be. It feels like my job is to find a plot in the senseless.

And the past year and a half has felt utterly senseless. Our first daughter was born three months into the first lockdown in Northern California. I wrote some pieces about the weather, but they were fragments, incomplete. I felt like I could not write any beginnings, and I couldn’t write endings either. Especially in the early days with a newborn in a pandemic, time felt unmoored, and completely beside the point.

But what I could do was make lists. With a list, I could put a small bit of sense in the senseless. Do this, then do that. Sometimes, there was no “then,” either. Just a list—one thing, another, ways to shape the day, a container of some form of order, when every moment felt beyond unpredictable. In between feeding the baby every two hours, I made small lists. Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. I sometimes crossed things off, and sometimes crossing things off felt like it took too long, but the list was a concrete object narrative I needed.

My writing started to take the same form. All I made were list essays: “Ways I Was Afraid My Daughter Might Die In the First Two Months of Life.” “Things I’ve Forgotten.” “Cliches for New Mothers.” “Things I’ve Googled at 3 am.” The lists had no beginning, no end. They jumped in wherever my brain was stuck, and followed with me as my worries jumped from one thing to the next. The list essay didn’t demand anything from me, didn’t tell me I was doing anything wrong—all things I needed to feel, as a new mother. The lists were expansive, welcoming, and forgiving. I didn’t need to put things in order. I didn’t need to find sense in the senseless, or have an epiphany. I didn’t need to get anything right. I just needed to get it down.

Of course, the trick is that list essays do have plot. They do have story. Their story lives in the rhythms, in the juxtapositions, in the crescendos. When I wrote the collaborative “161 Things That Scare Me” with my students for Brevity, I collected our fears on notecards, and then spread the fears out on the floor. I looked for patterns. I saw fears of creatures, fears of voids (heights, depths, space), fears of the body, fears of the heart. I saw how often we listed the same thing (fear of a loved one dying. Fear of losing ourselves. Spiders). The plot, as it always does, revealed itself as I wrote—that we have our own fears that are uniquely ours, the result of traumas or circumstances, and we have fears that we all share. The cumulative list was a list of human vulnerability.

The list essay is what I use to get unstuck. When narrative or plot or sense seem impossible, there are still rhythms, juxtapositions, and crescendos worthy of consideration. Make a list of what you did today. Make a list of what your cat did today. Make a list of things that scared you today. Make a list of your internet searches today. Make a list of texts you wrote then deleted. Make a list of the flowers in your neighborhood. Make a list of what you see in your neighbors’ front yards—the dog and the fence that were there, and now are gone. Make a list of things you saw in the gutter, and wonder how they got there. Like Ross Gay, make a list of what delighted you today.

Then, look for patterns. What came first, second, and last? Does that order mean something? What kinds of things do you list? Why do you think you’re drawn to those lists? As Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in Several Short Sentences about Writing:

“…everything you notice is important.
Let me say that a different way:
If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice.
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. |
Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?
It will have to be you”
(37, emphasis mine).

Make a list of what you did today, and you have a story now. It’s not just a story of the day-to-day minutia that can feel oppressive, but it’s your story, the story of how you’re spending your moments. Story lives in every object, in every list, in Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. That’s a story about me, becoming a new mother and a new person, and learning to put the fragments together into a bigger whole, even though it feels slow. Thaw chicken is a story when a family needs to eat. Write a paragraph is a story of a writer trying her best. Put away laundry on a list for three weeks / forever is a story of how we choose to spend our time, what matters, and what doesn’t.

The list essay taught me that there is always story to be found, even if your lens focus feels microscopic or unimportant. The story is yours. What should you write about? Make a list.
___

Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of a collection of essays called Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). Other essays are published in BrevityWaxwingSweet: A Literary ConfectionRiver Teeth, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essays have won Sundog Lit’s First Annual Contest series and the Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Creative Nonfiction at Lunch Ticket. She is at work on a new essay collection about anxiety and disaster, and you can find her online at jillkwrites.com.

The Power of Small Journeys

November 3, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

I wasn’t visiting Manhattan to discover the tiny waterfall park on 51st Street, or the set of hidden stairs off Beekman Place leading to the East River.

No, I’d gone there in August for a research fellowship at the New York Public Library.

But stumbling upon the waterfall on my first night in town (and later the hidden staircase), I felt as though I’d never been to New York before, and this discovery was a reward for making the journey. The wall of water appears to spill from an apartment terrace overhead, bestowing the quiet of the woods on a busy corner of Midtown Manhattan.

Other things that sparked my interest during the trip: the art deco GE building on Lexington Avenue whose spires in the form of lightning bolts are aimed at celebrating the power of electricity and the petanque players I observed one day in Bryant Park who appeared to have arrived directly from France that morning. The public library’s main branch on 42nd Street is, of course, exquisite in its own right: the frescoed-ceilings in the main reading room are so ethereal they seem to be not just from another era, but the temporal equivalent of another planet.

Walking from my hotel to the library each day, I marveled over the variety of observations emerging from the same route done different ways. I had to walk eight blocks south and three avenues over, and each time I did so, I’d invent a new route: two blocks down, then one avenue over, now six blocks further south and two avenues over. The next time, I might walk four blocks south, and two avenues over, followed by four more blocks south, and so forth.

And it wasn’t long before I got that feeling, that urge. The urge to record my observations. In other words: The need to write.

Change of scenery, change of energy.

The energy that fuels writing.

I hadn’t visited New York since the first Covid lockdown in 2020, and I felt estranged from the city that, as a native Long Islander, I had had in my backyard growing up.

But I think the feeling that surged through me wasn’t simply a hankering for Gotham. It was more akin to the gift traveling anywhere bestows on everyone, but perhaps especially writers. The jolt that new discoveries afford us. Travel encourages us to pay attention, and to paraphrase Anne Lamott, writing is all about learning how to pay attention.

It reminded me of a trip to Montreal, where I fell under the spell of French simply by seeing a road sign on the highway for “hebergement” (lodging). This was back before Covid, but at a time when traveling farther afield wasn’t possible. So we jumped in the car and drove up from our home in Connecticut. Dusting off my high school French, I was thrilled when I managed to complete a simple transaction in a bakery. We were staying in a residential neighborhood called Rosemount-La Petite Patrie which is full of delightful duplexes with second floor balconies facing the street that overflowed with flowers, bikes and the odd pair of running shoes. On a whim one evening, I took a walk at sunset. As the sky turned purple, I craned my neck to get a better view. On a sliver of park land I glimpsed between duplexes I could see soccer players practicing, while bike commuters ambled by me. And notebook in hand, I began taking an inventory of the neighborhood’s businesses: a grocer, an off-license, a hair salon, a book shop, a toy emporium, a real estate office, the plumber, a driving school (automatique and manuelle) and so on.

Why would I do that? Well, I just felt so alive I needed to note everything I was seeing.

For some people, this swooning would move them to look at real estate brochures, and imagine a new life in the vacation destination.

For us writers, the swooning means one thing: new writing. Which, for us, is a new life. A new lease on life.

Perhaps it’s the discovery of something that seems hidden. A similar sensation occurred one morning when I dropped off my son at school in our suburban Connecticut town. Along the route is a glorious waterfall that’s largely hidden from the road. I turned on the first road after the waterfall only to discover not a creek feeding the falls as I had expected but a small pond surrounded by stately homes and long, manicured lawns dotted with canoes. A tiny neighborhood nestled in a de facto nature preserve I knew nothing about in my own town. By the pond was a bench next to a Little Library so I sat down and got to work.

If I said going to Paris — or Tokyo or Rio — will awake the writing muse within you, it wouldn’t sound like a major discovery. It also wouldn’t be of much use to writers who for a variety of reasons can’t jet off to these far-flung places.

Instead, what I’ve found is small journeys are often enough to get me writing again or writing in a new way.

Ideally on the journey I discover a waterfall park in Midtown Manhattan, or trot out my rusty French to order a croissant in Montreal “comme ça.” But even simply making a detour after school dropoff and finding a new writing nook at the edge of a pond will do. And it’s a relief knowing a short trip – one that’s within practically anyone’s reach – will provide a jolt. The jolt we writers so desperately need – the one that gets us writing.
__

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

A Review of Ira Sukrungruang’s This Jade World

November 1, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

Several years ago, at a writer’s conference, I stood next to Ira Sukrungruang at a makeshift bar in the conference director’s kitchen, engaging in loose chitchat. For reasons that escape me now, Sukrungruang told me, he’d gotten divorced because he wanted a child. After this, our host shooed us outside to roast marshmallows, and, thus, I didn’t hear the rest of this story.   

The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about this yearn for a child, but not being able to have one…for whatever reason. Then, I saw Sukrungruang and his young son, Bodhi, running across the college lawn. He grabbed the boy, wrestled him to the ground, their faces glowed, their laughter ricocheted off the campus buildings, and I thought what a lucky boy to have such a father.

When Sukrungruang’s essay collection, This Jade World, arrived in my mailbox, I was thrilled, hoping to hear the rest of the story, still locked in my memory.

This Jade World is a collection of forty-five short essays (two of which have appeared in Brevity). Sukrungruang (who sometimes refers to himself as Thai Boy) describes growing up in Chicago, born to Thailand immigrants, struggling with body image and self-confidence.

At twenty-one, a college student, Sukrungruang meets poet Katie Riegel. “To friends, she was known as Teacher, a poet who was nine years older and taught at the university Thai Boy was a student at,” he writes in his essay “In 1997.” “He idolized her. Saw her as his guide in life. Someone who would lead him on the right path.”

Riegel invites him to her poetry reading, and Thai Boy falls into a “swoon that saturated him in a blushing warmth.” The relationship grows quickly. Riegel sees this and warns Sukrungruang on their fourth or fifth day: “You don’t have to be married to be in love. It’s just a paper, a fuckin’ paper. And then what happens? Domestication.” Riegel not only seems adverse to marriage, but seemingly rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother. Yet, young and naïve, Sukrungruang nods along…wanting whatever Riegel wants.  

“When you meet someone at twenty-one, someone nine years older and wiser, you learn the world through her eyes,” he writes. “You are a blank slate, a boy who hasn’t lost enough. You adopt what she wants and her views on life.”

Sukrungruang wants to show Riegel how much he loves her and stages a romantic outing, which he writes about in heartbreaking detail in “Mount Crested Butte.” On a chairlift, climbing up the mountain, he pulls a ring from his pocket, but doesn’t place it on Riegel’s finger. He’s afraid he might drop it. So, he hands it to her.

“She opened and closed her fist,” he writes. “Then she slipped it onto her index finger,” but says nothing.  

Back in town, Sukrungruang stops at the library. He pauses before entering, turns around and sees Riegel in the car, staring at the diamond, prisms flashing across the ceiling. He believes this is the happiest day of his life: “This woman loves me. Loves the ring. Wants to be my wife.”

Older and wiser, he looks back and sees these scenes differently. On the chairlift, after Riegel slides the ring on her finger, her “face is windburned, cheeks and forehead red. She wears a baseball hat that sits awkwardly in the tangles of her hair. Her face wears no expression. Not a smile. Not a frown. The boy doesn’t see the nothingness on her face.”

Maybe it’s like the snowball rolling downhill, going faster and faster. There’s no way to stop this marriage. They exchange vows in Thailand, in front of Sukrungruang’s family with “a white string—mong kol—twined around their heads joining them.” Guests “pour holy water over the couple’s hands, wishing them the best in their future together.”  

Riegel undergoes a hysterectomy, and the string that supposedly tethers them begins to unravel. In “After the Hysterectomy,” Sukrungruang writes in second person as if his wiser self needs to have a talk with young Thai boy: “Because of her you don’t want children, complain of their noise and ruckus on planes, the way they can’t control the yarn of drool dripping from their toothless mouths.” By the end of this essay, he realizes, “This would be the end, though you did not know it then. The end. The end.”

On the couple’s twelfth anniversary, Riegel sends Sukrungruang a note. She wants a divorce. Sukrungruang is shocked, heartbroken, and sees only a bleak future. He’s so distraught, he considers suicide.  

The book opens with a dark, slightly surreal piece, “The First.” In it, Sukrungruang leaves his warm, loving, and happy relationship to have robotic sex with an online stranger in a cheap motel.  

All of the essays are thematically connected, each one self-contained. They do jump back and forth in time, which might disorient a few readers. For me, though, it was like watching an artist paint a picture. First come the random brushstrokes, then bits of color, then shape. Eventually the complete image emerges and what a thrill to have been there to see it evolve.  While these essays circle around the topics of love and divorce, they’re also about renewal, finding love again, and, of course, the joy of fatherhood. 
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

What’s Wrong With the “I” Word?

October 29, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Elisabeth Hanscombe

When I was a child the nuns taught us never to use the word ‘I’. It was too self-seeking. Better to slip into the passive voice, the way our university lecturers taught when writing up psychology experiments. A form of language that troubled me, even then. The idea that some mysterious person made things happen.

In English classes, it wasn’t easy, for instance, to write about what happened on the weekend, without inserting the word ‘I’. Even in fact-based subjects such as science, I could not help but notice my part in whatever project we undertook.

During second-year psychology classes we itemised the number of people in the class who could roll their tongues. It was a genetic fact. Some could do this and others not. A point of difference that thrilled those of us who rolled our tongues effortlessly and saddened those whose tongues were not so flexible. The task was to write down the results in the form of laboratory tests and use the correct language of sample size, controls, and variables. Do a statistical analysis. All of which I passed, but only just.

It made no sense to me. This search for objectivity. This insistence on facts, on knowledge that exists only because it can be observed, synthesized into bite sized chunks, and then recorded for further experimentation.

Why not begin my research statement with the personal pronoun? I collected the sample. I put people through their paces. I wrote this report. 

Writing memoir has changed my view on this. The ‘I’ of memoir writing allows me to go into my mind, to shape its contours, to ponder those agonies of personal failure, and to create a new order on the page. Even as my writer’s mind works against a hot hand on my shoulder, the internal voice of authority, the one who tells me I have no right to write and no right to exist on the page.

So, what’s wrong with the ‘I’ word?  Is it that each one of us, is an ‘I’, and we dislike the thought that one other person’s ‘I’ might dominate and thereby interfere with our positioning?

Another word from my university days comes to mind. ‘Solipsistic’. A word that speaks to the nun’s abhorrence of all things self-centred. ‘Selfishness’. The greatest sin of all. As a child I added it to my list for confession. Two counts of selfishness, alongside stealing, telling lies and disobedience. Selfishness meant putting yourself ahead of another. You took the biggest piece of cake. You spent too long in the shower. You hogged more than your share of ice cream from the tub. You dared to make a claim, your words on the page, and thereby spoke for the universal, even as it was couched behind an ‘I’.

Although memoirists write of their own experience, they must take care not to insert too much of their own selfish interests, but somehow root it in the universal. Otherwise, they‘re guilty of writing boring prose that no one wants to read. Because every person’s ‘I’ likes to see themself inside another’s.

The question of identity is further charged. Identity gives us authority to speak (or not speak) on certain topics. Yet we still have real trouble with the ‘I’. Either it’s nothing or everything. What about the in-between? And what of Mark Doty’s idea that ‘memoirs operate under the sign of truth’ but are less ‘about what happened so much as the experience of what’s happening.’

We live in an age of self-exposure. We live in an age of personal revelation. We read memoirs till they pour out of us and think nothing at learning the most intimate details of another person’s life. Even then as Jacqueline Rose in her thoughts on ‘cult of celebrity’ writes of our ruthless tendency to take possession of another, to get our celebrities to be perfect and then strip them bare. We revel in their failures. We enjoy any shaming that can take place in the life of a celebrity.

As for the academics, there are many who study autobiography from a theoretical perspective, but few academics embark upon their own autobiographical writing. Instead, they examine the memoirs of others. A safer bet, perhaps. They can analyse and think through ideas. They can question their memoirist’s perspective and motives. They can challenge the level of truthfulness or otherwise, consider the extent to which the writer has abided by or broken Paul John Eakin’s ‘rules for self-narration’.

As a theorist of all things autobiographical, Eakin suggests we live lives filled with our efforts at what he calls ‘self-narration’. Some of this gets onto the page. From earliest days, parents begin to teach their children to create an identify for themselves and this is reinforced when we go to school in events such as ‘show and tell’. Despite the nuns’ insistence on self-avoidance.

Eakin writes about the link between narrative and identity, the way we spend our lives constantly speaking and reformulating our stories as part of our identity formation. We do it so naturally we don’t even notice we’re doing it. Only when it breaks down in instances such as Alzheimer’s, or autism, or situations where people refuse to engage in the process, do we notice. We notice the process through rule breaking as well. But this applies particularly to the business of more literary forms of autobiography, the writing of our stories and putting them into the public domain.

There are three primary rules that govern the writing of our lives. One to do with the rules of privacy, the other to do with truth telling and the third, the one that applies essentially to the everyday practice of living autobiographically, deals with the extent to which we present ourselves as normal. These rules are monitored by our readers, by the public and there are repercussions, even sanctions, imprisonment, confinement, financial losses, if we break them.

The academics might offer a personal reflection to add to their experience of reading another person’s personal account of their journey. But they do not offer their own journey, their own story, or thoughts about their own lives. They leave that to us, the memoirists. And we must shake off the injunctions of our forebears who, like the nuns, tell us not to begin our sentences with an ‘I’. 

___

Elisabeth Hanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her doctorate in 2012 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. She has published a number of short stories and essays in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative nonfiction in magazines such as Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Antipodes, Southerly, and Griffith Review as well as in Life Writing and in psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and in the United States, such as Brevity’s blog. She is winner of the 2014 Lane Cove Literary awards for her memoir, ‘A trip to the beach’ and was short listed for the Australian Book Review’s 2009 Calibre essay prize, longllisted in 2011 and 2014, with several book chapters on subjects such as complicated grief, the therapist in film and television, motherhood in midlife, feminism and women’s writing. Her childhood memoir, The Art of Disappearing was published in 2017. Her second memoir about her life as a psychotherapist, The Museum of Failure, is yet to find a home. She blogs at http://www.sixthinline.com.

Getting to the Truer Version of the Story

October 28, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Aimee Christian

Memoirists often ask themselves, Would anyone actually want to read my story?

That depends.

David Mura says, “I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.”

I wrote an entire draft of my memoir and when I was done, I felt great. I submitted it to my writing group, who reflected back to me something I could not see myself. My first draft was not just shitty, it was ugly. Angry. Fury, all over the page. A 90,000-word vent. As Allison K Williams calls it in Seven Drafts, it was the vomit draft. But as I continued to revise and revise, I let go of so much wrath. As I cut the ugliness away from the narrative, I found that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need unpleasant words to describe other characters not only because I wanted the readers to draw their own conclusions—but because I didn’t feel that way anymore.

Just by writing it out.

Which is great. But was not enough to make the story the truth.

I’m not suggesting my memoir wasn’t true, or that your memoir isn’t true. But what is truth?

After you’ve edited for factual correctness; reckoned with what you remember versus what you don’t and how you plan to address the differences; and carefully crafted an acknowledgement that your book is your version of the truth, what comes next?

Melissa Febos put it so beautifully in her essay collection Abandon Me that when I listened to the audiobook in the car, I had to pull over to rewind again and again, writing down her words like it was the 1980s and I was trying to decipher The Cure’s lyrics from a tape. Stop. Listen. Stop. Scribble. Rewind. Repeat.

We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. 

I wanted to tattoo Febos’s words on my eyelids, on my fingertips, so that I would remember them with every single word I typed. I suddenly understood why I’d grown bored of my own manuscript. I’d written detailed accounts of all the stories I’d told over the years, of the smoothings over, the ironings out of truths. The stories I’d told myself that made my pain points a little less sharp, that made my shame a little easier to hold at night, that made my life a little easier to live. But in doing so, I’d left out all the parts that were not genuine. The pieces that made truly interesting memoir worth reading were just not there.

How would I begin to unravel the layers, peel back the covers, get at the rawer truths?

I did it and am still doing it painstakingly. Poring over a paragraph at a time, asking myself questions through a series of writing prompts, about sentences, dialogue, exchanges, actions. Why, why, why, okay and why, great but why, and why, no but why? Why did I do this? What did I mean? What did I really want? Why did I behave this way? What would this scene look like from the other person’s perspective? What if I wrote this scene in five sentences? What if I wrote it again, and again, and again?

Here’s an example: I know my mother, and I know how my mother behaves. So when I did that thing all those years ago, was I really so surprised when she behaved exactly as she always did? Or was I just looking for another excuse to feel wronged? Why did I do what I did? What did I think would really happen?

Getting this honest with myself, I didn’t like what I saw. But it was a much realer picture. And even I had to admit, the story that was unfolding on the page was much more interesting than the one I’d set out to write. I began to feel better about who I was. David Mura was right. I was becoming the person I wanted to be when I sat down to write the book. She was waiting for me.

If you’re going through the pain and vulnerability of writing a memoir at all, write the real one. Not the curated one. The one you don’t want people to see. The one you’ve tucked away all this time.

Dig it out. Dust it off. Get reacquainted with it. Learn to embrace it and maybe even love it.

Because that’s the story people want to read.

________________

Join Aimee Christian for three Wednesday evening writing sessions beginning December 1st to get to the truer version of your story, looking at those parts that Melissa Febos says need to hurt, not flatter, and not comfort. “Let’s meet our own gaze and see what’s really looking back.” Includes readings, writing, and one workshop. Info and registration here

Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net


Rendering Truth Faster

October 27, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Melissa Uchiyama

Revelation while using an undersized lid: It was during an intensive, two-day Japanese cooking course taught by a chef and food writing legend, Elizabeth Andoh. Among the miso, dishes, and knives, one item was a drop-down lid called an otoshibuta (otōshee-bootah)

Instead of the Western lid made to fit exactly on the rim of a pot or pan, cooks here employ wooden, ill-fitting lids that lightly sit atop. The diameter is smaller; a 20 cm pot may take an 18 cm lid. Any detritus or foam to be skimmed from vegetables or fat from other ingredients can be skimmed while the otoshibuta sits on the ingredients. Underneath it, there is no air the way a western lid works, perched on the outer rim of the pot. With this drop lid, there is no space, so very little condensation or steam can dilute the flavor. The wood simply is there, pressed with surface tension.

After my workshop, I purchased my own otoshibuta and tried it a few times; what I most wanted, though, was to use the principle in my writing. I started reading shorter pieces to see authors model this principle. I knew the drop lid flavored with urgency instead of diluting words.

Not only is cooking time lessened and flavor deepened with the lid; the ill-fitting lids are made to separate and catch the foam, or aku, that emerges when boiling or simmering veggies or foods that contain bitterness and/or impurities. Drafts are needed; what comes out in the process of these events, characters, feelings expressed, are necessary. What goes in and what simmers away over heat is not what will stay. Some of it simply dissipates. Some pain leaves, but there is still the flavor, the molecules of disaster and relief. We skim off what is unnecessary or too bitter. The meat of the peace, the heart of it, should remain. If cooked with seasoning and skill, a meal will satisfy the writer, and later, the reader.

It is the skimming and the pressure, combined, that can gift my pot and pieces with a gentler, more efficient way to reach my goal. Pressing and skimming. Essence stays, bitter aku goes.

Brief essays encapsulate the art of no wasted movement. Less water and little oil is needed — flavors intensify under the immediacy of a lid that concentrates what is simply there

Kate Hopper, author and mentor, says, “Giving yourself a goal of cutting a certain number of words can help distill a piece.” What about starting out with this? I decide to exchange my free-flow style for a position that moves deftly, with limited words.

I want fillers gone. If my story can cook down without dilution, I’m in. I challenge my writing student and myself to describe an event in 250 words or less. We do. She writes a lyrical, urgent offering of a girl digging for a pebble to throw into the sky for her mother just before the sun goes down. I dive into my creative non-fiction with a similar, more mindful urgency than I typically have, immediately honing in on a frantic moment of discovery: a dead swallow caught in my jasmine, now dead. Remembering is quicker now.  

This goal works especially well at the start when the writer is empowered with a burst of energy and with ingredients that are still sharp and acidic with memory. I know my form and plan where to land.

“I think writers often write a lot in order to find their way to the true story,” Kate says. She reminds me of a long-form essay we worked on. It can take writing the whole gamut of our thoughts and events as we re-explore events to arrive at the mound of hope: somewhere, in all of this descriptive sludge of vocabulary and memory, our story is there. It’s just deeply hidden, bobbing between the carrots and potatoes, weaving its way through the pot as it boils. At the right time, the words and bits that are no longer needed will be scooped out in the aku. The editor in us will know what needs to remain and what can go.

“Asking the questions”, says Kate, “What is the true story here? What is the heart of this piece?” can help a writer compress. One you’ve figured out what that heart is, the extra stuff can go. You can look at it with new eyes and decide what serves the story and what doesn’t.”

I see what skims off and what remains. I continue to use it with my student, asking, “What is at the heart of the story? I generally have to slice off whole, flowery portions. This is big; I’ve been the queen of flowers writing who has yelled aloud at myself, “What are you trying to say?”

In the Japanese kitchen, nothing is wasted, including energy. With a wooden otoshibuta, the cook easily scoops or scrapes this detritus from the rim around the gap. It is the drop-down pressure, or limited word count, that helps the cook remove any detraction from a piece. Editing is easier.

My teacher’s otoshibuta drawer holds lids of various diameters and intentions, some in young pine and some two generations old. Maybe for us, too, there is the right way to draw out our most rigorous poem, or the right surface tension and urgency for our creative nonfiction.

We can enact this tension as we:

  • Launch into 500-word essays instead of a usual 2,000. Challenge word length.
  • Sail or cut right into the heart of the piece, the place of wound, the place of discovery.
  • Whittle it down to the place of injury and fear it revealed.
  • Use urgency to get to the place where healing or whatever you’re after, can occur.

I begin a new piece, aiming directly for the action. A writerly mis en place is beginning with the right lid.

___

Melissa Uchiyama writes essays about food, culture, and immigration. She leads creative writing camps for young writers in Japan, where she resides. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, The Japan Times, The Kyoto Journal, Taste, The Epoch Times, and anthologies, Knocked Up Abroad Again and Mothering Through the Darkness. Connect with Melissa on https://www.eatenjapan.com/about or on Twitter, @melibelletokyo.

Drawing Inspiration from Micronature

October 25, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino

Nature: There’s inspiration for you. Everyone says so.

But what part of nature? The natural world writ large is too immense to tell me a story. White puffy clouds are too changeable, their reversion to gray disappointing. Tall firs are aloof, reliant on intimidation. I cannot be inspired by the fragile bowl of the sky; I cannot be inspired by something too mysteriously beautiful to understand. If I don’t understand it, how can I write it? I lose myself instead of finding myself. To be sure, losing one’s self is valuable sometimes, but for me, it rarely holds literary sway.

I consider instead the specificity of a dead fawn’s matchstick legs tangled on the roadside; of a turkey’s clucks and gobbles, tiny-brained invader of my driveway. I finger two greedy curls of wild grape vines, capturing nearby phlox an inch at a time. I go for the micro, not the macro. The variant, not the vista. I’m a sucker for wabi sabi, the beauty in nature’s imperfections, the smaller the flaw-containing object, the better.

When I’m walking the dirt road along the nature conservancy near my house in preparation for writing, I usually walk the same way, to the same place. I absorb the particularity of small changes along the route, substituting the question “What’s different?” for “What’s glorious?” I am as always amazed by nature’s editing process, the random-seeming aggregation of her sloppy mistakes with her happy accidents and her delicate precision.

Still, the question: Does nature inspire my writing? I know that nature does a poor job of inspiring me to write about nature. I once wrote about a rafter of turkeys; that piece garnered 21 rejections before it went back in the drawer. Micronature, on the other hand, does a great job of inspiring me to consider the hallowed value of detail.

Detail is the beat. Detail tells the story. Detail is more than what something or someone looks like.

Sound is a detail. The maddening insistence of a loon on the river channel inspires me to include the low, anguished cry of a widow in my description of her mourning, and to compare it to a loon.

Texture is a detail. A grouping of overgrown perennial grasses next to a neighbor’s house reminds me to describe the feeling of smooth legs brushing against the sharp edges of tall grasses.

Color is a detail. The beaten-in side of a small boat on the river helps me envision the precise color of red lipstick a clerk wore in Dollar General, the rust and creases in the metal reminding me that her mouth had a battered quality I need to describe.

Movement is a detail. The red-winged blackbirds that attack my feeder in late Spring have a single-minded way of dive-bombing from a tall hemlock to the feeder’s platform. I summon their urgency to describe someone rushing to the scene of an accident.

Smell is a detail. I have examples from the natural world, but the best example is from the world of spirits. It occurred while I was writing a memoirish essay about my mother. I happened to crack open a bottle of bourbon one night to accompany my efforts. Writing that evening about a formative time in my adolescence, I described my mother as smelling of bourbon and sleep, and knew it was right.

Whether these examples work for you or leave you cold, I urge you to consider how small details, even imperfections, in the natural world can be a fruitful place to begin your musings. Look down, not up. Holding something from your backyard in your hand may remind you how often small things lead us to bigger things. Micronature may cause you to register wonder at a manageable scale, jump-starting imagination and metaphorical thinking. And it may be that the small imperfections in nature assist us as we characterize the human imperfections that make our work true and convincing.
___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.

What Metallica’s “Black Album” Teaches Us About Writing Briefly

October 22, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Brendan O’Meara

Thirty years ago, Metallica’s self-titled record Metallica, better known as ‘The Black Album,’ was released. It was Metallica’s fifth studio album and was a watershed moment for the band in terms of sound and, more important, brevity.

Metallica had made a name for itself with epic seven-, eight-, nine-minute-long songs, but it was ‘The Black Album’ where the four key players wanted to challenge themselves not by making increasingly epic songs with more intricate time signatures, but something more welterweight.

They wanted to reach more people, and in order to do so, they needed to cut the fat.

What can we, as writers, learn from this pivot?

Lars Ulrich, the band’s de facto spokesperson and drummer, said on the first episode of The Metallica Podcast, “Is it easier to write a short song or a long song? I would say it’s easier to write a long song. The hardest thing to do is edit yourself.”

It’s incumbent upon the writer to pen the shortest possible work, no matter the length. The editing down comes with constant rigor and self-questioning, self-reflection: Do I need this? Do I really need this? Aw, dammit, no!

We can’t fall in love with a great sentence or paragraph or guitar solo or lyric if it’s not in service of the piece. The floors of great artists are littered with masterpieces.

And even if you love a great turn of phrase, or an overly verbose exhibition of your lyrical pyrotechnics, you might be getting in the way of the message. Where are my footnote writers out there? You know who you are.

James Hetfield, lead singer and lyricist said on Episode 2 of The Metallica Podcast, “Drawing the listener in by not overplaying. Their ears get bigger to hear what you’re doing and it draws them in. Through subtlety, you can make more dynamics … Simplify stuff. Don’t be so fancy.”

This takes an incredible amount of restraint because if you can shred, why wouldn’t you shred? It means checking the ego and asking yourself, again, how does this serve the song, the essay, the book? Are you trying to be too funny? Are you undercutting your narrative with a gag, too much telling, a flourish better left on the bench? Ulrich said much of their earlier music, certainly on the album that preceded ‘The Black Album,’ was “self indulgent.” To get past this, strip it down and ask more and more of the words left behind to carry the day.

By keeping things as lean as possible, there’s nowhere for the message or the story to hide. If we surrender to the story, anything unnecessary melts off the skeleton and, as Hetfield says, the ear gets bigger, drawing them in.

And this isn’t to say iron out every wrinkle, every ounce of weirdness that you bring to the page. Part of what makes a piece snap, crackle, and pop is the you-ness you bring to a subject. That can be a unique take, your language, and even your ability to appear in the piece as a guide.

Hetfield managed to cut open his veins more from ‘The Black Album,’ and what he found was a greater connection to the audience. Again, it wasn’t self-indulgent, but in relaying a delicately worded personal trauma, it let the audience feel seen.

Matt Wardlaw of Ultimate Classic Rock writes, “The situations were getting vaguer and connecting with broader audiences. ‘I’ started showing up in Metallica’s lyrics more and staying. Hetfield’s characters weren’t getting strapped to an electric chair or chopping their breakfast on a mirror anymore, but the anger, aggression and fear were stronger than ever in the whipping boys and scapegoats that reached millions.”

For the memoir or personal essay writer, it’s not enough to have had this weird/quirky/traumatic experience. It has to serve the reader in some way. This way the reader can overlay her own experience on yours. You dissolve away, you become a vessel for the reader’s experience. You, in effect, become invisible, but all present.

In physics, we talk about density. A cube of lead the size of dice is heavier than an equal mass of aluminum that’s several times “bigger.” That’s packing a punch in a small package, and that’s the great lesson in Metallica’s ‘Black Album,’ that it sacrificed zero power in going shorter, finding freedom in tighter confines.

___

Brendan O’Meara hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast and is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter @CNFPod. Better yet, sign up for his newsletter at brendanomeara.com.

A Review of Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart

October 21, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Kelly K. Ferguson

Last week I found myself wandering Ellis Hall in Ohio University. Back when I was a creative writing grad student, I lurked all the time, acting as if I had official business, but really on the lookout for company, which I usually found. But that was seven years ago, and we’re in the second year of a pandemic. Ellis Hall has since been renovated to resemble a Hampton Inn. The dusty hardback copies of Ivanhoe? Recycled. The bat under the trash can? Disposed. No sensible person would miss how the stairwells used to smell of baby diapers. The clank of an opening door echoed and I scurried out.

The above is what Brenda Miller would call a container scene. My scene is meant to demonstrate particular loneliness, the loneliness a writer feels for other writers. The German word for that feeling is Schrifstellersehnsucht.

Schrifsteller = writer

Sehnsucht = longing

In A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller weaves short essays of her writing life with craft lessons. The book is divided into three sections (of course!). The first centers around memoir of Miller’s writing life, the second on craft, and the third reflects on writing community.

Any follower of Brevity recognizes Brenda Miller as a good friend to creative nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve read her classic essay “Swerve,” or Miller writing about writing “Swerve.” Miller may not have invented the lyric essay, but she has made containers such as the hermit crab, collage, and braided essay accessible to instructors and writers.

If Miller’s Tell it Slant (co-authored with Suzanne Paola) is a chalkboard crammed with notes, A Braided Heart is a pot of perfectly steeped tea with two cups. The book is a testament to the tensile strength of essay. No matter how the form is bent, so long as the writer remains in conversation, the connection maintains, this friendship through words.

While I was a grad student at Ohio University, Brenda Miller was a visiting writer and I picked her up from the Columbus airport. I was nervous and excited and took a detour to Canal Winchester, the exit where strip malls and car dealerships go to thrive. Losing our visiting writer to the machinations of neoliberal industry would be bad. I rambled without pause to cover my anxiety until I figured out how to merge back onto the proper road.

Miller remained good company throughout.

Miller’s talent is to make the structure of her lyrical essays feel natural, as if they couldn’t read any other way. “Writing Inside the Web” connects a story about a Free Box at a lodge, to a writing retreat, to a list of internal brain machinations, to Simon and Garfunkel.

“…the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen.” (“On Thermostats”)

Last Friday, I sat down to finish this review, and wound up writing a hermit crab essay instead, which I credit to the juju provided from A Braided Heart.

When I taught the hermit crab essay as a graduate student, I would show this video of a pet hermit crab changing shells. Without their container, the hermit crab is vulnerable, disproportionate, a hunchback out of the belfry. At the end of the video, when the crab slips into their new home, a woman gasps, “Ooooh! There she goes!” This always made the students laugh.

That laughter was the sound of freedom from the five-paragraph essay.

Miller writes how concrete forms allow for “inadvertent revelations,” where the writer surrenders control. “Revelation, or discovery, emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.”

Confession: Schrifstellersehnsucht doesn’t exist. My partner is Austrian and finds this idea of a “German word” for everything perplexing. He explains that German has more compound words, so it’s easier to string words together, but that doesn’t mean the words are real.

“But what would the German word be, if you made one up?” I ask.

He knows I’ve been lonely for other writers.

The day after I’d visited Ellis Hall, I ran into my former creative nonfiction professor, Eric LeMay, in a market parking lot. Even as my chatter floated in the air, I wondered why I would go on about lurking for the smell of baby diapers, out of all the things I could say. Our exchange was over in a minute.

“Maybe see you somewhere, someday,” I said. I meant a reading or a gathering.

“Maybe,” he said through his mask.

The inside of my car was silent. I thought, this is a somewhere, someday.

“What I’m trying to say is the lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken,” Brenda Miller.

Two wide flat mossy rocks sit like invitations in front of my house. A father and his daughter walk by most days. The girl always runs up to the rocks, and leaps from one to the other. 

“Whee!” she says, but only when she’s in the air.

___

Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Storysouth, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications. In the past ten years, she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio back to southern Louisiana on to southern Utah back to southern Ohio, where she has planted asparagus in the hopes of yielding a tender spear in three to five years. 

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