Writing about Writing                      

August 24, 2020 § 24 Comments

ann klotzBy Ann V. Klotz

As a little girl, I wrote elaborate stories in my head and rhymed doggerel that impressed only my mother; in clumsy cursive, I penned an epistolary novel set during the Civil War, carefully stored in a secret compartment of the large desk my grandfather left to me. Today, that desk occupies pride of place in my school office, but the compartment is empty. I would be a novelist because reading was my favorite activity, what I did best. I gobbled books, devouring my school and local library’s juvenile sections so fast that the librarians shook their heads and promoted me to adult fiction when I was nine. As high school loomed, though I loved to read, schoolwork required more carefully structured essays with quotations to support my ideas and fewer flights of fancy.

An uncertain teenager, I would clamber out the window of my sister’s bedroom in our vacation home in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, to sit on the roof to write. Something about the small rebellion of hoisting myself over the sill satisfied a need. My brother, child of the 70’s, smoked dope, sold dope, partied a lot, and died. I did none of those things. From the gentle slope of gritty, green shingles underneath my calves, I could see the world; they could not see me. Danger was minimal, but I knew my mom would scold me if she knew. I wrote with a cartridge pen that had belonged to my brother, navy blue with matching Schaeffer cartridges. I wrote and wrote, trying to write away the sadness, the fury I felt at my parents for fighting with my brother the night before he died, the rage that roiled, volcanic, that they had, somehow, let him die. An English teacher at my school wrote back to me each week with calm encouragement in an era when WASPY teenagers didn’t go to therapy. I wrote about doing plays and the boy I had a crush on. I wrote because I knew that Mrs. Goppelt read my words.

Mrs. Goppelt threw me a lifeline by handing me that first marbled notebook when school started four weeks after Rod’s accident. Her gift gave me a writing practice that lasted through college, through the early years of my marriage and then… After my first miscarriage, no more words. I didn’t even try. Frozen. Mute. The loss of the hope of a baby silenced me. I did other things with words: I taught legions of girls how to write essays with debatable theses about works of literature; I taught seniors how to compose compelling personal narratives with strong verbs that would make them irresistible to colleges; I wrote thank you notes. I had four more miscarriages and then two daughters. Along the way, I became a head of school and produced, a late-life bonus baby son, almost a decade younger than his second sister.

Some years ago, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye told the girls in my school that “Grownups have a way of talking themselves out of what they most want to do.” She advised her audience to write three things each day. I jettisoned my untouched journals, found a pencil whose lead was pleasingly dark, discovered a small notebook in my desk, and began to write again each day. Why had I waited so long? I think of all that I missed: my childrens’ childhoods, my evolution as a school leader, millions of moments left uncaptured. I no longer felt like writing fiction. Non-fiction was strange enough.

During the pandemic, I acquired a dot-journal, thinking squares might help me control the chaos that is Covid-19. I scribble with a shiny turquoise Lamy fountain pen—I coveted one I noticed a woman using in a writing workshop and bought my own. A pandemic requires ink.

This summer, I write on the porch beneath the window out of which I often climbed to take my secret view. Versions of that girl—awkward, sad, determined to leave a record—lurk around corners in this house. I write to preserve and to know what I think. I write so that we will not lose forever the stories of my family. I write to keep grief and change at bay. I write because it is a privilege to spend time arranging words on a page, a respite from other obligations that threaten to swallow me in a gulp. I write because the spigots inside me have unfrozen and there is still time.
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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

 

The Magic of Book Covers

August 21, 2020 § 7 Comments

holly hagmanBy Holly Hagman

The scents of brewing coffee and fresh pages have always been a welcomed comfort. Somehow, whenever I enter the doors of a Barnes & Noble – or any bookstore, library, or a friend’s home with well-stocked shelves – I am suspended in time. Simultaneously, the world beyond the books chugs along in rhythmed ticks and pauses, waiting as I lose myself in others’ stories, buried in their words.

Before I can dive into a narrative, immersed in the ink, I study the cover. A long time ago, I was attracted to the sans-serif font capital letters of a new release in the YA section. The cover of this paperback book – stark white with light green hues around the thick, black lettering – had an intentional hole in its middle. The hole was an imperfect oval with one or two lumps, reminiscent of a paint splotch on a canvas had this particular paint contained acid as an ingredient. This cover led me to choose the book from the shelf, read the summary, thumb through the first few pages use my smartphone to see if the author had a website, and shell out the seventeen dollars to nestle said book between other books, also with intriguing covers, on my own personal shelf.

My high school English teacher always told us not to judge books by their covers. He was a middle-aged man who lectured with his leather shoes perched on his desk, a baby blue baseball cap resting backwards on his head matching the underlying stripes of his plaid shirts. He would tell us about author history – small facts about the birthplace of Eugene O’Neill or why fans of Sylvia Plath tend to hate Ted Hughes; information that we would memorize for pop quizzes. Most would discard this information later, but author backgrounds always seemed important to me, like a glimpse into their lives would reveal the secrets between the lines.

When we studied Catcher in the Rye, all of the books we received had different, handmade covers: paper bags scrawled over in ugly cursive, poorly doodled carousel horses, an unfortunate rendering of Holden’s red hat. Symbols that appeared in the novel danced in a chaotic harmony around the classroom. The book covers underneath these student-made layers were hard cardboard shells, and they were completely blank, except for the title, centered in a modest typewriter font.

Salinger was a favorite of my English teacher; he often joked about moving to rural New Hampshire, where Salinger fled after the fame of Catcher became too much for him to handle. He also told the class that our friend J. D. requested that his books be printed without a cover design to prevent preconceptions about his work. The famous red cover with the demented horses in the foreground and yellow text was added later, after the book was already popular. He wanted his words, his pages of prose, to stand alone, to be enough.

We all want our prose to be enough for our readers. Hopefully, for the most part, they are enough to keep them engaged, to keep them turning pages. However, the cover design is instrumental in getting them to open those pages, to look at our words, to spend money at a bookstore, to sit the book on our shelves at home and read it even if the attraction to the cover is where our affair with the book ends. That YA novel that I bought was about horrific acid rainstorms that terrorized a teenage heroine who could do very little to save anyone from nature’s wrath. My relationship with the text ended as quickly as it began, but the cover did its job. It got me to buy the book.

I hope that when I publish my first book, that people like the cover. I want someone to stop at the bookstore as they sip their coffee and be intrigued by the font choice on the binding. When they hold it in their hands, I want the texture of the paper or cardboard to be smooth and rich, the colors to be soothing and reflective of the narrative within. I want the cover artist to get so much credit for wrapping my words in their passion, for surrounding art with art.

My English teacher did move away after I graduated. I visited his classroom once after he was gone, and his presence could only be felt in those homemade paper covers for the Catcher books that rested on the shelves. Even though that YA book I bought didn’t lead me to purchase the whole series, I still notice its binding among my other books. There is a power there that I cannot explain, a magical magnetism that engages the reader before any pages are turned. I hope to be captivated by more covers as I add books to my shelves, an ethereal attraction only to be enhanced by the words inside.
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Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She has also earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been an assistant editor for Brevity, the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit, and is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs, cuddling her cats, and defending the use of the Oxford comma. Her work can be viewed on hollyhagmanwrites.com.  ​

The Best of Brevity: Pre-Ordering Now Available

August 20, 2020 § 8 Comments

brev webimageWe are proud and happy to announce that The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction is now available for preordering (and free shipping too.)

Over the past 20 years, Brevity has become one of the longest-running and most popular online literary publications, a journal readers regularly return to for insightful essays from skilled writers at every stage of their careers. Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.

With contributions from Krys Malcolm Belc, Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more (listed here), The Best of Brevity offers unparalleled diversity of style, form, and perspective for those interested in reading, writing, or teaching the flash nonfiction form.

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Under the Table with Fiona

August 19, 2020 § 3 Comments

StevenBarker_AuthorPhotoBy Steven Barker

“Hiding under the table and listening to Fiona Apple,” I texted back to my buddy that asked, “How’s the writing going?” He responded with a laughing emoji and I wasn’t sure if he took me seriously.

I was listening to The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do after spending the previous 10 hours sitting at the table above; typing, deleting, and re-writing my book, which was due in a day. I was laid out on my back, looking up at the bottom of my IKEA dining table that rarely saw napkins, knives, or forks, feeling less alone hearing Fiona admit, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” She reassured me that I was worthy, singing, “I like watching you live.”

I was almost a published author and I’d no longer feel like a fraud when telling people I was a writer. If someone asked, “What have you written?” I could give them the title of a book to lookup in a library database that had my name on the cover. At least that’s how I expected I’d feel. Until then, I went under the table to hide from my anxiety telling me I wasn’t good enough and it was only a matter of time before my publisher realized they’d made a mistake and took it all away.

I titled my manuscript, Now for the Disappointing Part: A Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better. My editor said it was missing a persona-defining detail to tell the reader who I was—a note I agreed with, although I disagreed with his suggestion to call myself a “Millennial.” I was born in 1980 and can be called a Millennial, Xennial, or Gen X depending on the source, but teetering between generations made me at least five years too old to have written the common person’s perception of a Millennial experience. It felt like an attempt to capitalize on a buzzword to get copies on a display table in Urban Outfitters.

Up until that point, I was so high off the idea that I was actually putting a book in the world that I went along with everything my publisher suggested. I didn’t say anything when they went with my second choice for the cover design, because I could live with it, but I knew I’d never be happy with a title that made me feel like a phony. There must have been a moment when Fiona had to tell a record exec that she didn’t give a shit if he thought a 23-word album title was too long. I pushed back against a week’s worth of emails until they were okay with changing “Millennial” to “Pseudo-Adult.”

My book wasn’t sold in Urban Outfitters, it didn’t get a Kirkus review, I didn’t get requests for interviews, or land on any best new author lists. It’s been three years since it’s been released and recently I typed the title into Google. When I didn’t find the validation I was fishing for, I looked up, “Fiona Apple 1997 VMAs.”

The moon man trophy for best new artist propped up on the podium in front of her is large enough to hide half of her delicate frame. “I didn’t prepare a speech,” she says. “Because I’m not going to do it like everybody else does it.” There’s light enthusiasm from the crowd, but in hindsight and knowing how she’ll be portrayed in the media the following day it seems more like awkward applause. Later she’d be called crazy and some would speculate she was on drugs. I might have thought that too when I watched it live, but at the time I was still in high school and hadn’t yet created something that made me afraid to let out in the world for strangers to judge.

Most people only remember that she said, “This world is bullshit,” which resonates with me more today than it did back then, but it’s not the reason why I regularly re-watch a speech from twenty plus years ago. It’s when she said, “Go with yourself. Go with yourself,” that sticks with me. It’s a fairly mundane mantra that I wouldn’t give a second thought if I saw it written in fancy script on an IKEA accent pillow, but I’m inspired when I hear it from Fiona. She said those words accepting an award for an album she wrote when she was 17, same age as me when I first heard them. Two decades later, she’s still making art that makes me cry.

My first attempt at a second book was a novel that never compelled me to seek comfort under the table with Fiona and eventually I realized it sucked. I reasoned it was because I was writing at a dinner table, which then made me wonder why I dedicated a large portion of my apartment to a table that never served its purpose, so I got rid of it and replaced it with a desk. When I flipped over the IKEA table to remove the legs for easy transport to Goodwill, I noticed a message written in Sharpie: 3/01/2016Go with yourself.

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Steven Barker is the author of the essay collection Now for the Disappointing Part: A Pseudo-Adult’s Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better released by Skyhorse Publishing in November, 2016. He is a 2014-2015 Made at Hugo Fellow, and a co-founder of “Cheap Wine & Poetry” and “Cheap Beer & Prose.” His work has appeared in Salon, The Weeklings, Split Lip Magazine, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere.

Rethinking Freewriting in the Age of COVID

August 18, 2020 § 16 Comments

By Christina Larocco

For years I’ve adhered to the Julia Cameron/Natalie Goldberg school of freewriting: at least thirty minutes, longhand, anything that comes into my mind, as soon as I wake up. This method has been tremendously fruitful for me in the past, especially when I’ve been blocked or don’t know how to fix an essay or chapter. When I let my mind wander for long enough, I uncover connections that I did not know were there or memories that had fallen out of my conscious mind. This kind of freewriting was a reliable first step in my writing process. From a parade of brightly colored Leuchtturm notebooks, I transcribed raw passages into Word. Many of these passages became the basis for published essays.

Lately, though, this method hasn’t been working for me. In part this is my fault: I’ve been furloughed from work for the past several months, and without a reason to wake up I’ve fallen into an ever-worsening cycle of staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. worrying about the world, sleeping until noon, and then napping again in the afternoon just to get out of my own head. The pandemic has exacerbated my depression-induced bad habits. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. As a consequence, though, mornings are out until I figure out how to break this cycle.

At the same time, and relatedly, I find when I sit down to free write that my mind is just…empty. “Blerg blerg blerg blerg blerg,” I write over and over again, “nothing to say, nothing to say, nothing to say.” The world is chaotic, but my life has shrunk to the size of board games, Skype, and (worst of all) my own brain. With nothing coming in, I’ve been unable to put anything out.

Certainly no one has to write during this time if they find they cannot or simply don’t want to. For those who do, I’ve found a way of generating material that has been working for me. In The Writer’s Process, Anne Janzer lays out her seven-step writing process. In her chapter on research, she describes the importance of “inner research” or “writing for discovery”: once the writer has assembled, compiled, and read over their research for a particular section, they put the notes aside to discover their own thoughts on the subject. I’m trained as an academic, so it’s especially important for me to step away from my formal research. Gathering information is easy for me, but my writing will not be interesting or creative unless I take the time to figure out what an event, memory, or theme in my own or someone else’s life really means.

To embark on this inner research, I follow Janzer’s instructions: I open up a blank Word document, save it as “random thoughts on [blank],” set a timer for thirty minutes, and brainstorm bullet points until the time is up. Rather than aimlessly jotting down anything and everything that pops into my head, which worked for my pre-COVID self, I focus my attention on one particular topic for the entire writing session (keeping in mind that if my thoughts head in unexpected directions, all the better). I even started this piece with a document titled “random thoughts on freewriting,” but I didn’t consciously understand how the waning efficacy of my previous practice was connected to quarantine until I sat down to write about it. The process of discovery still takes place through freewriting, but freewriting about something.

For the past several months, I’ve been trying to complete my book manuscript, a biography-in-essays of the White abolitionist and feminist Martha Schofield. Born and raised outside of Philadelphia, she spent over half a century teaching freed people in South Carolina, witnessing the racial violence of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. This was the part of her life I was trying to tackle when protests and violent reprisals broke out across the country. It was impossible to ignore the resonance: I was a White woman trying to confront the reality of racial terrorism, in part by writing about another White woman who did the same. Was my brain, already frazzled by months of quarantine, up to the task? It certainly wouldn’t have been without this new strategy.

As I began to experiment with Janzer’s method, I first tried to address some of these big questions. What is witnessing? What is Whiteness? What is history? But I was unhappy and unfocused in these writing sessions, spinning my wheels in search of interesting thoughts. I’ve had more success in responding to something concrete—a book, a film, a specific event—anything that provides the “something coming in” that the stimulation of the outside world normally would. When I turned to more specific stimuli­—Citizen, I am Not Your Negro, an interview with Tomika Miller—I found that I was able to contend with these big questions more naturally—and more interestingly. Ultimately, I came to understand White people’s resistance to seeing themselves as part of history in a way that I do not think I would have without Janzer’s method.

I haven’t yet fully integrated these new observations into the manuscript, but I’m excited to see where my now slightly less random thoughts lead. If you are also struggling with creativity and generativity in this time, try tackling one small, concrete slice of your project this way. It might just help unblock you, and remind you that your brain is a pretty interesting place to be after all.

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Christina Larocco is a writer and historian based in Philadelphia, where she is editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal. She is at work on two books: The Women’s Rights Movement since 1945, forthcoming from ABC-CLIO, and a hybrid memoir/biography about Martha Schofield. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Feminine Collective, Avidly, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere.

On Virtual Readings and Accessibility

August 17, 2020 § 10 Comments

Nancy NguyenBy Nancy Nguyen

Recently, I attended a knockout virtual reading highlighting writers with disabilities. Not only was I introduced to work that would otherwise be disregarded under “normal” circumstances (“normal” meaning auditoriums with steep ascending seats or the upstairs of a seedy bar that doesn’t have an elevator), but I found myself paying more attention than usual. Seamlessly, the facilitator handed off hosting privileges to each reader, and the highlighted reader shared their screen while they read aloud. In any other virtual reading circumstance, I would’ve opened my spiral notebook and sketched flowers as I listened, but this reading took accessibility a step further by sharing their manuscripts on the screen to accommodate the hearing impaired. As I read and listened, I was astonished by how easy it was for me to follow along.

Growing up, I was a quirky kid, whimsical with a limitless imagination. I would later learn that these descriptions were euphemisms for my chronic inability to focus. I was a habitual procrastinator, often guilty of overlooking small details, and I would automatically zone out upon hearing the monotonous drone of the priest’s homily during mass. It was only in graduate school, at the age of 28, that I went to see a therapist for the first time. After our second session, she graciously referred me to an ADHD specialist, who said I am textbook inattentive: limited attention span, good at cramming, painfully late diagnosis.

After shelter-in-place, I was lucky to find a job teaching writing to kids online. For the first time in my teaching career, I have been able to create my own work schedule and found a rewards system that works the best for me. For instance, I set up a timer for grading, bracketing fifteen-minute internet-browsing breaks between papers. When I have to buckle down and grade several papers or write up performance evaluations, I put on pants and sit out on my porch, which activates the Pavlovian part of my brain. I have also found more time to read, about half my reading made up of audiobooks I listen to on my walks. And of course, I’ve been spending my free evenings at virtual events.

Attending a virtual reading usually only requires an RSVP and a Zoom account. As the days in quarantine melt together like Jolly Ranchers in the cupholder of a hot car, I have been taking advantage of Zoom’s option to turn off my laptop’s video camera. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how many days I’ve gone without showering, and I no longer worry about appearing like a well-behaved attendee. When I went to obligatory readings in graduate school, I practiced good attendee manners (left my phone in my backpack, refrained from doodling in the margins of my notes, kept foot-tapping to a minimum), but I usually came away having not retained much information. In the unchecked safety of my own home, however, I’ve been trying out ways to focus my attention. I’ve been sketching objects around my room and folding origami. Lately, I’ve been playing the online board game Ticket to Ride on my phone, which has been the best method thus far.

Unexpectedly, the pandemic has encouraged me to realize the value of my unique perspective, how much it lends to my sense of humor, my ability to problem solve, and of course, my writing.  During lockdown, I’ve discovered virtual readings, writing groups, and discussions. I’ve found organizations that uplift marginalized voices, like Radix Media (which organized the reading highlighting writers with disabilities and aims to spotlight marginalized groups in their monthly virtual readings) and Kweli Journal’s International Literary Festivals (a virtual ten-week long event dedicated to BIPOC writers that will recur annually).

No one really knows how long this pandemic will last. We can only glean the infection numbers and the ways our leadership has failed us in order to make conjectures and prepare. My single hope is that we observe all the ways shelter-in-place has improved our lives, that we remember these improvements when things become “normal,” though maybe we should realize by now that “normal” is a mirage. I hope working from home becomes more widely accepted, that we commute less and find more sustainable ways of living. That virtual readings, workshops, and events strive to become even more accessible and recur even after shelter-in-place is officially lifted. That we realize how many people would be excluded without them.
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Nancy Nguyen is originally from Orange County, and she now resides in Baltimore. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she has received support and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Kweli Journal. A selection of her work can be found in NANO Fiction, Pidgeonholes, and Jellyfish Review. She writes about women, environmentalism, and the ways in which capitalism stands at odds with family bond and loyalty.

Trusted Friend: Relying on the Promise of Writer’s Block

August 14, 2020 § 8 Comments

Jennie BurkeBy Jennie Burke

I assigned a persona to my writer’s block. He keeps guard over my laptop like a reliable, funny friend. My stuckness is mop-headed Muppet Mr. Don Music: the one who groans “I’ll never finish this song!” when he can’t get past the first stanza of Mary Had a Little Lamb. He bangs his fuzzy rectangle head against the keys in agony. He wails and whines and rubs his gigantic eyebrow with the back of a tethered arm.

The light-hearted comparison was born from a need to survive. I was writing about my brother, a living, breathing, opiate addicted human being. It wasn’t a lack of creativity or motivation that stopped me from doing the work; I was afraid he would sue me, or worse.

In the fall of 2019 I shared the first chapter of my manuscript with a publisher. When she asked to see more, I told her (while wiping a renegade tear… “dang allergies!”) that I couldn’t give it over. I was afraid my brother would burn my house down if he knew I was writing the story. And besides, the saga was ongoing. Matt was still using.

Addiction fulfilled its promise and continued to besiege my brother. He died of an overdose on May 15th. He was a 43-year-old attorney, and a beloved father of five children.

A few hours after I learned of his death, in the middle of the night, I turned to the solace of my familiar. The computer. I pitched a favorite addiction editor who once rejected me. The pitch was more of a letter, since I had developed a one-sided relationship with her. I read her column. I followed her on Twitter. I researched her essays. She had unknowingly been with me on the journey, and I felt an urgency: she needed to know.

She responded immediately, and together we embarked on a two month odyssey to write this essay. Free from the fear of my brother’s aggression, the writing flowed essentially. I persisted for the sake of my own sanity, and the legions of addiction sisters following in my footsteps. My faithful buddy, Don Music, was nowhere to be found. I no longer needed his silly dramatics. I changed old habits to support this new wealth of creativity.

I set routines. Caring for a family of six, and the anxiety of 2020, stole my life’s loose structure. To support the grief writing I committed to a regular bedtime and set an early morning alarm. I vowed to treat my brain to the rest it needed to fire full throttle.

Next, I set boundaries. Not the kind I used to set with my extended family (like: we can’t come to Christmas; he’s using) …the boundaries that would produce work. I told my family when and where I would be writing, then asked them to give me space and peace. They were more than supportive. They were happy to see me writing.

I found mentors and opened myself to criticism. By June I joined two interactive writing classes, and one zoom-style salon. I contacted addiction authors. I applied for workshops. I overcame my fear of Twitter and reached out to editors. Some wrote back, some expressed interest (then ghosted me), some accepted my work.

In a complete reversal from depressive episodes, I adopted health habits. I hike every morning. It clears my mind and shakes off excess energy – I like writing after a brisk walk. I have also stopped drinking. I used to enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings, even though I knew I was in for a night of poor sleep and morning regret. Now, with so much so say, I can’t afford the grogginess. I don’t miss drinking. I feel solidarity with my brother when I consider breaking my fast.

As a writer, and a sister of an addict, I keep an inventory of fear: fear of writing a true story, of my family knowing about it, of being abandoned for sharing The Truth, and most of all, of losing my brother. These things all happened, but they no longer separate me from my words. And that’s something to fear too. What if I say everything there is about losing a brother to opiates? Will I grow bored of my words, my ego, my sorrow? Will everyone else?

It creeps in…Don Music is in another room, pressing one cloying key. He’s not funny anymore. What happens when this burst busts? When I’ll long to play free, know the next line by heart, have it fly from my fingertips. Writing will become hard again. I’ll be patient. I’ll ride it out. If there’s one thing that loving an addict and writing have in common, it’s that both are acts of hope.

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Jennie Burke has been featured in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, Motherwell and various publications. She has an MFA from Goucher College and is a certified English teacher. Her work in progress is an addiction memoir. She is a married mother of four teenagers, and calls Baltimore and New Orleans home. Follow her on Twitter @jennieburke

Tropical Storms, Pandemics, Power Outages, and Stalled Writing: Better Days Ahead

August 13, 2020 § 12 Comments

Cassandra Hamilton photoBy Cassandra Hamilton

Late last week, during a pandemic that shut down many businesses in my town, we were hit by Tropical Storm Isaias. Downed trees and power lines: my writing came to a grinding halt. My house phone: useless. My cell phone battery dies. My computer battery depletes. I’ve no hard copy of my work; I’m at the stage I need to write from previous material.

The next two days, I read a book a day. In Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, I savor phrases embedded in short, cleverly crafted chapters. I linger, reread and taste them on my tongue. I progress with writing by feeding my knowledge. Then, in Borrowing Hope by Lisa Schiller I find catharsis in her spiritual journey with a brain tumor and a Newfoundland dog she trains as her service and therapy dog. I’ve traumatic brain injury from Multiple Sclerosis lesions; I’ve trained two Newfs as my service dogs, one also as a therapy dog like Schiller. It’s rare to find another who understands these two worlds. We are in a Newfoundland Facebook group; when I get power, I’ll send her a note as I feel we have much to discuss. A friend in the waiting!

Day three: still no power. A neighbor takes pity on me and lends me her phone so I may make calls. Two numbers I need are stored on my unusable phones. Later, power is on in the main part of town. I drive searching for a place to plug in my computer. Jackpot! The library advertises a new phone charging station outside – but, no visible outlet.

A power cord leads into the brick library wall protected by a metal flap. I don’t touch things that don’t belong to me, but a man who’s says he’s an electrical engineer does; he looks under the metal flap and tells me there’s ONE empty three-prong outlet.

Now I’m plugged in, writing about this adventure as my computer battery charges. The library won’t let anyone inside due to the pandemic, so no matter how thrilled I am for an opportunity to write, when my bladder calls, this trip is over. But for now the weather’s gorgeous: slight breeze, low 80’s. I’m sitting on a park bench hunched over my laptop which I’ve put in the dropped seat of my walker on wheels. One thing I’m grateful for from this storm: I am spending more time outside. My thoughts slow.

*

At the beginning of August, while my fourteen-year-old cat Simon sat on my lap, my neighbors across the street felt it was high time for fireworks. The whistling whining that followed the window-rattling booms sounded like debris falling toward my home. Simon freaked and ran out the cracked front door. Since then, every day, I call for him at my door and drive up and down streets at a crawl calling for him. I put his scratch toy with cardboard center and ball in outer track outside my door. He liked to sleep on it. I sprinkle it liberally with catnip. He goes potty outside, so his litter box does not carry his scent. I call vets, rescue groups, and speak with neighbors. He has not returned. I am horribly sad without him. He’s the last living of my five animals.

A few days ago I marked my 51st birthday. One friend sent a card. I’m sure messages wait on voicemail and Facebook, but last year, on my 50th, my ex ruined my birthday. I was hoping for a better one this year. Maybe on my 52nd I’ll pick up celebrating with people.

Lately, the birds have been chattering at high volumes. Last night the cicadas and crickets chirped in a rhythm I thought would inspire island dancing with conga drums and women swishing their hips. This morning, I opened my backdoor and a vibrant red cardinal sat in the wire of my dog kennel fencing. Later a little chickadee landed on the carpet by my front door hopped around to eye me.

– Hello, Sweetie. I said.

It chirped and flew out. Later, a yellow tanager was up for more chat and it chirped and sang back to me after each phrase I spoke. I said,

– Hello. Hello, Sweetie. How are you? I see you. You see me? Yes, you see me. Hi, Sweetie. Good day, Sweetie.

And, it was.
___

Cassandra Hamilton is a disabled artist/writer with traumatic brain injury and central vision loss in one eye who creates from dreams, shamanic journeys, and life. In 2020 her images found international audiences via German publications Beyond Words and Beyond Queer Words. Her writing has appeared in 101 Words, The Door Opener Magazine, Rivereast News Bulletin, The Glastonbury Citizen and two Writing It Real anthologies by Sheila Bender: How and Why We Write: Writing It Real Members on the Vocation and On Mishearings, Mysteries and Mischief. She teaches Active Dreaming (a synthesis of dreamwork and shamanism) and is writing a memoir. You can see/read more of her work and contact her at BearDogDreaming.com.

Who’s in a Name? On Writing About Family

August 12, 2020 § 13 Comments

NelsonpicBy Joanne Nelson

“Have you asked them?” A friend inquired after noticing I was using my kids’ real names in essays. Actually, I hadn’t. And then it seemed wrong that I hadn’t. I used pseudonyms for parents, neighbors, and childhood friends, assuming they deserved some modicum of invisibility from my faulty memory. Hmm, and the kids and spouse and my brother didn’t?

Years ago, I made a chart of names and aliases, deciding on the perfect alter ego for everyone I wrote about. The list took me several afternoons of overthinking and unfortunately, has been misplaced. I’ve memorized the key players’ pen names though, and now think of them as family members. My spouse, in fact, goes by “Bruce” in most of my work. I like thinking of him as a Bruce—especially as the change honors Bruce Springsteen. Truth be told, I like thinking about Bruce Springsteen in all kinds of ways.

I don’t recall why I switched back to using given names after relying on the chart for so long. Maybe I’d gotten serious about publishing and decided it was what bona fide writers did. Maybe because those liable to be upset by my work had all died. And with their deaths, somehow betrayal and honoring became reversed. Maybe that’s a load of crap and I simply forgot to switch the names one day and the new pattern stuck. Maybe I shouted out “Bruce” at an inconvenient time.

But when I was nearing publication of my memoir, I began rethinking this choice. After all, the kids were now adults and might have thoughtful opinions about the issue.

I secured my brother’s consent easily. He said he didn’t care, “he had nothing to hide.” His role in my work is primarily supportive, so I wondered about his comment. Did he have something to hide? Why would he say such a thing if he didn’t? Was there enough hidden material for a new book? “Great,” I said, and filed his response away for another day.

Getting my spouse’s permission proved equally effortless. Although he at least asked, “What happened to Bruce?” And acknowledged the loss with some sadness.

That left the girls. Also simple yeses I’d assumed. Or perhaps a double checking re anything embarrassing being shared (Nothing to worry about. Well, not in my mind anyway).

I spoke with my youngest on the phone. “Hey,” I said, “Do You care if I use your real name in my book?” She knows she’s gone by Lizzy in the past—a shout out to her childhood desire to have been named Elizabeth.

“I don’t know. How many times am I in there?”

An interesting question, which hadn’t occurred to me, and so, with great innocence, I pulled up the manuscript and hit the find function.

I rambled as I looked and initially couldn’t find her name. I said this.

“Oh. How many times is Polly in it?”

I began to sense I’d made a mistake.

“Here you are, I searched under the wrong spelling. Seventeen.”

“And Polly?”

I paused. Searched. Calculated.

“It’s not important.” I replied.

“We always wondered who you liked better, I guess we know now.”

I bumbled along, describing her placement in the narrative, the number of unnamed references that referred to her. She had none of it. The count was all that mattered.

Despite her self-described devastating drop in status, my youngest soon visited overnight. Her friend, Pete, spent most of the evening with us. Lizzy quickly, loudly, emotionally, described our phone call, and Pete, good friend that he is, made a point of referencing the situation as much as possible during our long, long evening together. When I tried to make light of the topic by saying Pete scored 22 mentions, she almost had a coronary. Pete ignored me when I confessed he wasn’t in the memoir at all, and worked his nonexistent numbers into every relevant and irrelevant subject for the rest of the evening.

Lesson learned, I approached my eldest with more caution, more skill, when she came to visit. We were chatting over dinner when I wove my question into the conversation. She asked what the permission could be traded for.

My goodness, my sweet girls are filled with surprises.

I laughed, considering the reply an almost clear “yes.” But she continued. She mentioned a horror movie she’d recently watched. How frightening it was. How she’d like to see it again. Her eyes lit up.

“Sure,” she said. “If you watch the movie with me.”

The thing to understand is that even hearing about the plot of a scary flick can keep me up at night. I tried distraction, I tried humor, I tried guilt: “If that’s what you need, knowing how upset I’d be, then fine.” She just smiled.

Eventually, with a lot of crafty topic changing work on my part, the subject faded. We cleaned the kitchen, spent the night relaxing, and moved onto other things. The next day Polly (not her real name) left for home and I got back to my rewrites.
___

Joanne Nelson is the author of the memoir, This Is How We Leave available from Vine Leaves Press. Her writing appears in anthologies and literary journals such as Brevity, the Citron Review, the museum of americana, Consequence, and Redivider. In addition, she is a contributor to “Lake Effect” on WUWM—Milwaukee’s NPR station. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin, where she develops and leads community programs, maintains a psychotherapy practice, and adjuncts. More information is at wakeupthewriterwithin.com

Lying Fallow to Move Forward

August 11, 2020 § 19 Comments

By Peg Conway

I’d reached an impasse with my memoir of childhood mother loss. After several years of excavating memories, I’d compiled a 60,000 word manuscript and had it reviewed by a professional editor, but now the path ahead appeared murky. The editor’s feedback presented a monumental dilemma: Was I writing for myself to process the past, or did I desire to craft a story for public readership? To do the latter required significant revision, and I lacked drive for the task. Still, it pained me to think of abandoning my story. I wanted to tell the world about the long arc of childhood grief.

Reluctantly, I accepted reality and set the project aside, uncertain whether I’d ever look at it again. It was summer, and our garden plot and the local pool provided pleasant diversions. When fall came, I felt a void where the memoir writing used to be, but without corresponding energy to work on it. Then I received a notice about my friend’s upcoming Soul Collage series and figured, “Why not?” I refused to acknowledge the underlying doubt: “Am I nurturing creativity or procrastinating?”

Our project was to create collages on 5×7 cards. At the first class, the craft tools on the table in front of me stirred mild trepidation as I recalled a frustrating art activity in kindergarten that required cutting fabric into pieces and gluing them on cardboard. As an adult, I’d done scrapbooking and confirmed that straight precise edges were not my gift. We sat at tables of three, each of us with a large envelope of images to collage. The weekly selection provided an ample array of individual pages from magazines, art books, and calendars, all in varying sizes, and featuring landscapes, animals, paintings, the cosmos, architectural wonders, and people.

My friend Fabricia, the facilitator, offered guidance as we began, “Let the images speak to you. Follow your intuition, not your affinity. Just because you like butterflies or rainbows doesn’t mean they always belong on your cards. Sometimes what makes you uncomfortable is right.”

In the silent room I flipped through my images, noticing myself selecting figures of mothers, girls, older women, some sorrowful, some joyful. I also seemed called to water and sky and trees. As I began trimming them, I’d study each one, wondering, “What wants to be on this card?” To my delight, I loved using the scissors and X-acto knife. Their swift, sharp slices through the paper elevated the activity to a sacred rite of creation. My edges were seldom even, but enjoying the process superseded any worry about results. Too soon, Fabricia sounded the chime and asked us to clean up our work spaces.

The final step was to let each card speak to its creator. In small groups, we took turns responding aloud to prompts that elicited insights about each collage card. I usually completed three or four per session. Surprisingly for a writer, I felt impatient with this part. My absorption with the images seemed to bypass any need for words. At home, I propped my cards above my desk and gazed at them throughout the day. I looked forward to the weekly immersion into this intriguing process.

When the class series ended, I anticipated the next one in January and turned my attention to holiday preparations. Unexpectedly, as December drew to a close and I began to contemplate next year’s goals, the prospect of more Soul Collage held no spark. Instead, more and more, my memoir re-occupied my thoughts. I practically pined for it. Curious, I opened up my files and began reading the words I hadn’t looked at in five months, startled to rediscover a forgotten revision of the first 20 pages that I’d accomplished before setting the project aside last summer. It actually sounded pretty good. My writer’s mind buzzed with a familiar eagerness when I saw how the new opening actually set up the narrative to address the structural problems my reviewer had identified.

Intuition said to resume the memoir, so I did. Most mornings, first thing, I tapped away at my laptop for at least an hour, sometimes two or three when time permitted. I found myself cutting and re-positioning blocks of text, then filling in new passages like glue to smooth the narrative flow. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter, the pieces fit together, if not seamlessly, at least with a new guiding clarity.

My Soul Collage cards still graced the shelves above my desk, and I treasured them as a bridge to liminal space beyond words. Tactile gestures and visual elements had worked emotional magic, so the inner child’s lingering grief could yield to adult writing discipline. For the first time, I related to the story as something distinct from myself and grasped what a reader needed to appreciate its universal truths about mourning and remembrance. Over the next eight months, I completed the manuscript with help from an editor, submitted it, and had it accepted for publication in 2021. The Soul Collage class had not been an act of procrastination, but a wellspring for perseverance.

________________________________

Peg Conway is a writer and energy healer in Cincinnati, OH. Her work has appeared at Manifest-Station and Elephant Journal, and her memoir of early mother loss will be published by She Writes Press in 2021. Learn more at pegconway.com.

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