March 15, 2021 § 40 Comments
By Morgan Baker
I looked over the quilt on my sewing table and sighed. Just as I thought. The rows of squares and rectangles didn’t line up. Time for the seam ripper. With the quilt in my lap, I tore out the stitches I had carefully made a few minutes earlier.
I had designed this quilt for my 25-year-old daughter who moved in with her father and me this past year, with its purples, teals, greens and blues. Ellie has had a terrible pandemic year with a break up and a stalled acting career, and then her grandfather died of Covid. But she’s coming through the other side and to show her how proud I am, I created this quilt. I adapted the pattern from one called “Trip to Kauai,” because I had recently spent almost a year in Hawaii and Ellie had visited frequently. But without clear directions on the adaption, it had been challenging.
Quilting, I’m beginning to see, is a lot like writing. I get excited about a new pattern or essay and I jump in, sometimes too fast, and then invariably, I make mistakes. The corners don’t meet or the sentences don’t follow logically. I sew back to front instead of front to front or I need to take summary and develop into scene. The seams need to be ripped out, or the sentences and paragraphs need to be rewritten and, in some cases, tossed.
Don’t rush your writing, my husband Matt reminds me. Easier said than done. Sometimes I want to finish a project sooner than it’s ready. My enthusiasm gets the better of me, whether it’s a new quilt or section of the memoir, which I think I’ll be working on forever.
Patience doesn’t suit me, but hurrying through a project doesn’t work. Taking short cuts isn’t the best idea. When I brought Ellie’s quilt to the fabric store to find material for the borders, I pointed out to Lynn, one of the generous owners, that the rows weren’t even at the bottom. “Did you pin them before you sewed?” “No,” I answered meekly. Thus, the error of my ways. The fabric had shifted and stretched without the pins. The uneven bottom was payback.
Occasionally, you need to rest and let something sit and set. I might need to leave a quilt laid on the table for a few days while I figure out how to make the new pattern work, or my writing needs to stew in my brain. To my dismay, I may have to admit I really do need to rip the seams apart or rewrite the sentences on which I worked so hard. My pride can’t get in the way. I’ll wait until the quilt is on Ellie’s bed to take joy in my work.
After returning from the quilt store, I pinned the quilt back together and sewed the rows that screamed out at me before. The pinning worked, just like when I replace a weak word with a stronger one, or rewrite a sentence so it has more pop, or maybe replace the passive voice with the active.
Ellie and I spread the quilt on the living room floor, the purples and turquoise greeting us. We tried to even the bottom by trimming. Despite all the work, I wasn’t completely confident of what it would look like when I put on the borders.
Days later, the front of the quilt was finished. After I trimmed and altered, I sewed the borders on while Ellie was at work. She was astonished to see it when she came home. It’s ready for the next step –the batting and back. Then it will be quilted.
My memoir isn’t close to being finished, but I can see more clearly now where different sections fit and how to get from one to the other. I have to take my time and write with intention and even when I think I’ve done a great job, I may have to rip a sentence or two apart and start over. I have to work harder on scenes and less on summary. That’s okay, because the edited version will line up better with the material already there.
Morgan Baker lives, writes and quilts in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. She most recently took part in a Rebirth Your Writing Retreat, where her writing got a dusting off. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about her time in Hawaii.
March 12, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Rick Brown
Meditation—a practice often shackled with the uncomplimentary term, “navel gazing”—is considered by some to be an esoteric waste of time. The pursuit of writing is similarly maligned, especially in our hurry-up-and-produce Western culture. The rewards for both often amount to private victories, after all, and the labor expended may not be conspicuous to the critical observer.
But make no mistake: both involve difficult and dedicated work.
No one will reap the benefits of meditation simply by thinking about it, even less so by talking about it. Instead, we must cultivate the solitary habit of returning to the cushion time and again, preferably every day. On some days, our thoughts will bounce around like sugared-up preschoolers and we wonder what we are doing wrong. Other times we will meditate like bona fide gurus.
Writing is no different, especially on the positive side of the experience. For are there not moments when we become so embedded in a story or essay that the “real” world around us drops from our awareness, if only for an instant?
As creative writers, we live for times like these. It is the paramount blissful state of our craft. Yet, amid the bliss we also have days, often many of them, when we find ourselves distracted by refrigerator noises, mischievous cats, or those irksome patrons who dare to walk into our café and shake our concentration.
But if we work in spite of it all, then we are on the right road; for showing up to stay is the first and most necessary step. Over time, and with dogged repetition, we will develop the ability to deal mindfully with distractions when they arise. After all, it’s not the distractions that shake us so much as our thoughts about them, right? And what are thoughts? They are electro-chemical impulses to which we assign meaning, and from which our bodies react physically. But the mental events need not always play out in the same way. In meditation, we learn to consider stray thoughts as ephemeral—cottonwood seeds in a breeze. Without judgment or excessive mental strain, we simply “observe” them as they float across our consciousness and out of sight.
The same tack can apply to writing. Rather than fighting those errant thoughts when they arise, or heaping shame upon ourselves for thinking them, we can adopt a basic technique from meditation practice: “return to the breath.” For this we pause, breathe deeply once or twice to re-ground ourselves; then, for a while longer, we do so more naturally, noticing each in- and out-breath with mindful intention. Sit apart from any wandering thoughts we might have, label them as simply thoughts, and let them travel on their way. Finally, we return to our work and pick up where we left off. If the distractions return (and they will) just repeat the process.
I know, it’s easier said than done. But it can be done. And the more often we employ this technique, the easier and more natural it will become. Return to the chair. Return to the breath.
Another axiom to both meditation and writing is that it is wise to come to each new session relatively free of expectation. As we know, expectation implies an attachment to a specific outcome. In some instances this is reasonable: we can expect that the sun will rise again tomorrow. But in the interminable play of the universe, even this is not an absolute; and in any case, it is not an outcome we can control by way of human power. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but we experience this truth on many lesser, everyday levels as well. We cannot, for instance, expect that our next meditation or writing session will be as “good” (or as “bad”) as the previous one. We can do our best to ensure a positive outcome—perhaps by reading something inspiring, by not eating directly before sitting, or by first engaging in a stretching or yoga routine.
But in the end, the session will be what it will be. If outside forces conspire against us, that is just the situation we face.
Some writers are good at disciplining themselves to achieve an outcome—siting on a certain number of words per session, for instance. Ernest Hemingway is said to have jotted down his daily tally in pencil on the sides of the cardboard boxes stacked alongside his writing desk. But many more of us approach the desk with trepidation. Are we up to the task? Will we ever publish?
Often, the mood we bring to the task depends upon forces outside our influence or control, such as past performance, the weather, or the needs of others. There is peril at the extremes too. Both overblown and undernourished attitudes can undermine us. If we begin with an air of pomposity, for example, especially one that is not earned, we can almost count on not performing anywhere near the level of our expectations. Likewise, sitting down with no confidence at all will yield predictable results.
Perhaps it is better to arrive without a predetermined outcome in mind, aside from the decision to arrive and remain. We might turn out a masterwork; we might stare at an empty screen for an hour. In either event, we will have faced the reality of our task at hand. In the final accounting, that is an accomplishment.
In this way, too, we treat the act of writing as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something “higher.” And if we make ourselves available in this way through the cultivation and practice of a dedicated awareness, then any added windfalls—like publication, book deals, or even enlightenment—will appear as whipped cream on the pie.
But in the meantime, return to the chair, return to the breath. Repeat as necessary.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
March 11, 2021 § 20 Comments
Pregnant at 31 with my first child, I was so excited to wear maternity clothes. I’d been loaned an entire wardrobe by my husband’s cousin’s generous wife. Though my normal, unpregnant weight was creeping up, the scale still topped out at 115 pounds. I really didn’t need those stretchy panels in the pants just yet. The tent-like tops and dresses were like nothing I’d worn before. I paraded around the grocery store, so proud. Look what we’ve done! Our miracle. I couldn’t, after all, take all the credit.
Writing can be a lonely thing. Introspective and sometimes obsessive. Self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating depending on the subject, the daily news, the weather, my mood, my husband’s mood, our old dog’s state of health. Once written, scribbled late night in a coffee-spattered journal, lost in a jumble of disorganized computer files, or deleted with a single keystroke, the words may never be seen again. But a personal essay becomes not so personal once it’s found a home outside the protective covers of the journal or files. Once it’s left the womb.
I wanted to wear my words like those too-big clothes. To hide under the fabric of them while still parading them around. Look what I’ve done. This time there was no sharing the credit. The words were mine. All mine.
My daughter was born in an out-of-hospital birthing center. I’d packed my Joni Mitchell albums along with lavender oil and a favorite tattered volume of Mary Oliver’s poems. That bag went untouched. At one point I told the midwife I’d changed my mind and I was going to go home. Rather than argue, she climbed into the queen-size bed with me. She held my face in her strong, capable hands and looked me in the eye.
“Eileen, you’re in transition.”
That made all the difference. I knew I was close. I decided to stick it out. What choice did I have?
I wrote a very personal essay about my failed interfaith marriage after my secular Jewish husband fell in love with Orthodoxy and out of love with me. It was filled with rancor and I needed to write it.
My two critique partners pointed out the many phrases that were ugly. That could be offensive. What did they know? Neither had lived that life. I’d ignore their concerns. I needed to keep my authentic voice. My snarky, angry, authentic voice.
I reached out to a FB group and asked for readers who were or had been observant Jewish women. I received the generosity of their time and thoughtful comments. While opinions had a wide range, all comments were helpful in seeing the work through the reader’s eyes. Still, I didn’t change much in the essay. If I omitted everything that might be offensive there’d be nothing left. I put it aside—to let it roil and fester. To breathe. To rise like the challah I used to bake.
Finally, after a few weeks, I opened the essay again, I was able to step back and see what the others had seen. The parts that meant the most to me were buried under the anger. Tainted with resentment. Although that was part of the story, it was not the story I wanted to tell. At this stage of my life, I was ready for another transition. Ready to let go of some of the hurt. Some of the anger.
It took the strong, capable hands of another kind of midwife—my trusted critique partners, to ease this story into the world. I am humbled and grateful and most happy to once again, share the credit. Because without these gentle word doulas, I could not have held this story in my hands, feeling proud of what we’d created. Wanting to say Look what we’ve done.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.
March 10, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Rasma Haidri
On Twitter yesterday I saw someone ask if he can call himself a memoirist because he keeps journals. No, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I resist engaging in social media conversations with strangers (although I’m told that is the point of social media). Nothing proves Goethe’s adage, “The spoken word comes not back,” better than Twitter where every utterance is carved in cyberstone. What if I changed my mind? What if I got trolled? Anyway, he wasn’t asking me. And besides, what do I know?
I know that the word mémoire is French for memory and what we write in journals is not memory. It is the present preserved. We write in journals to explore, confess, deny, blame, examine, discuss. We write in journals so our thoughts are not—what’s the saying—lost to memory? Even when writing about something remembered, it is the present moment of remembering that we record in the journal.
“This is not a book,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin in the first line of his journal. Rightly so. A journal is private interior writing that we do for many reasons, none of which is public consumption. A memoir, on the other hand, is a book. We write them to be read by the world at large. Even an unread, unpublished memoir is a book rather than a journal, because it is a rendering, a creation, a work. Even published diaries, like those of Anaïs Nin, or Gauguin for that matter, are works someone has annotated and edited, transformed from journal to book.
I am writing a memoir based on my mother’s private personal writings that she left unsorted in a box. That box has made me a memoirist. As memoirist I am a thief, stealing my mother’s private thoughts in order to imagine and construct her life. As memoirist I am a Dr. Frankenstein, awake at all hours frenziedly piecing dead fragments into a living whole. It is dark and bloody work. It is a scream in a frozen field where I unveil the body and behold a chimera. I think it’s my mother, but it’s me. The memoirist is not the writer of the journals. She is the one who exhumes them from a box, dissects the body, inspects the archeological find, and renders from the amalgated past a memoir.
All writing is hard work, and the memoirist’s work is among the hardest. Journaling, whether stuttered fragments or flowing spontaneous prose, is among the easiest as it doesn’t have to do anything or go anywhere or impress anyone. No one is going to read it. Journals are where we record the raw material for memoir. The journal narrates ideas, dreams and struggles in a context we are now far removed from. The journal’s narrator always predates who we think we are today.
Some years ago, my daughter told me that if the house burns, I must hurl my several dozen personal journals out the window. She wants to read them when I’m gone. I asked her what she thought she’d find there. She said, “A young woman I never knew.” I told her she can ask me anything now, no taboos. My mother allowed no personal questions, but I am determined to be the opposite. I told my daughter I will answer any question openly and honestly. She said, “I know.” She doesn’t ask. She has no questions.
I wonder if I’m wrong about my mother not allowing personal questions. In my honest moments I must ask myself: is it possible I just didn’t pose any? Perhaps a mother must die before her daughter realizes that the person she knew is only part of the woman who was her mother. Only when the mother is gone do the questions the daughter never asked begin to form. They are the beginning of memoir writing.
I haven’t decided if I will leave my journals for my daughter. Is it enough that she knows what she knows? How will all that spontaneously written rubbish in my journals distort her understanding of me? I am a writer of poems and memoir. I render the stuff of my life into literary works and offer them to my daughter to read. She hasn’t gotten around to reading much. Not yet. And she has a plan to find me in my old journals.
I might die, as my mother did, before I have decided what I want to do with my boxes of personal writing. If they do end up in my daughter’s hands, she will discover that the work of understanding her mother’s journals is the work of memoir, which ultimately requires a reconciliation between what is written there and what is already known, and what is unknowable.
The memoirist depends on journals for answers to questions that were never answered or asked. Whether it is one’s own journal or someone else’s, the journal once written serves the same purpose: to illuminate the past and inform the present. That’s what I’ll tell the man on Twitter. If I find him. Journals don’t make you a memoirist. Your journey through them exploring the past will.
Rasma Haidri writes in a pinewood room on an island off the coast of Norway. She is the author of the poetry collection As If Anything Can Happen, and is at work on her MFA thesis, a memoir about her mother’s box. Visit her at www.rasma.org.
March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments
One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.
These memoirs don’t work.
They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.
Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.
But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.
Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.
Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because
We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.
How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?
- If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
- After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
- Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.
See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.
March 8, 2021 § Leave a comment
Heather Frese and Keema Waterfield release their debut books, a novel and a memoir, respectively, this spring. They met while commiserating over launching a book while parenting during a pandemic and bonded over the element of humor in both their debuts, and below, they interview one another about those experiences.
Keema’s synopsis of Heather’s book:
In The Baddest Girl on the Planet bad girl Evie Austin of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, is in a pickle. She’s made choices. Like marrying Stephen Oden and having a baby instead of finishing her first year of college. Like wondering if an affair in adulthood redeems the affair her parents suffered through during her childhood. And before that, letting a boy kiss her under the bleachers at school. But now “Easy Evie” has to figure out what to make of where those choices left her.
Heather’s synopsis of Keema’s book:
Inside Passage is a memoir about the flow of a family constantly on the move. The book opens with the narrator’s birth at a weed-fogged party attended by hippies and musicians, including at least one future stepfather. She was lucky to survive, and this applies to the whole of her childhood, spent traversing the watery passageways of Alaska and the tumult of poverty, abuse, divorce, and uprootedness. This coming-of-age memoir is a love letter to coastal Southeast Alaska, music, and the connection between family that binds even through the roughest of seas.
Heather: I loved Inside Passage. Bad stuff goes down, though. How did you decide to keep the tone humorous when talking about traumatic events?
Keema: This is a huge question that gets to the dark heart of comedy for me. *Spoiler* The first time I heard sarcasm was at gunpoint, at three years old. I’ve had a relentless fight-or-flight response to even the gentlest teasing since then. But I saw how jokes and laughter were a bonding experience for other kids and I pined to understand it. In my 20’s a boyfriend said, “You’re not funny and you make people uncomfortable when you try.” So, I studied it. I studied humor in literature, trying to find the meter. I watched comedy to learn the body language, even though most famous male comics still make me panic. I have a hard story, but I didn’t want to write a trauma memoir. I even tried to leave the trauma out, but then I didn’t make sense on the page. I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am. In the end, I decided to let my nature guide me. I figure if laughter is medicine, then the people who laugh with you when you hurt are an all-out cure.
Evie, your narrator, also goes through some stuff. A family that breaks apart in childhood, postpartum depression, some epically bad romantic choices. How did you decide to tell her story humorously?
Heather: The first thing that drew me to Evie’s voice was that it was so funny. I let her go off on tangents. Her marriage is falling apart but she’s scrubbing the shower and having this drawn-out interior monologue about soap scum. How do you clean it? You can’t use soap; that’ll just make more scum. I found as I went that the funny parts ended up carrying metaphorical weight. In the soap scum rant, she says something like, “How can something clean be dirty and something dirty be clean?” which played into the theme of a girl who gets a bad reputation. And then I used things like the sex lives of lobsters to explore Evie’s evolving feelings on romance. In a funeral scene Evie thinks that laughter and tears exist on the same continuum, which is something I believe, too.
You mention formally studying comedy. That’s fascinating because the funny parts in Inside Passage feel so natural. Was there a lot of wit in your family while growing up?
Keema: My sister and I were incredibly giddy, wild kids, but we were bookish. We rarely had a television and our social life outside of school was fairly non-existent. I had Tekla, and Tekla had me. We had our secret sister-language and no one else to practice jokes on but each other, so our humor grew up in a vacuum. Tekla was really little during our shared trauma and it didn’t scar her in the same way. She hasn’t struggled with humiliation and shame like me, so it was easier to naturally mature into her sense of humor as a social animal. I’m still more comfortable jotting down a humorous observation than trying to get the timing right in a face-to-face conversation with my rabbit heart thumping away at my brain.
I feel like Evie and I would’ve been bosom buddies. Just a couple of kids misinterpreting the world together. I really need to know: would she have been freaked out by a bunch of drunk hippies in a big wet field passing joints and instruments while their kids ran wild in the Alaskan wilderness?
Heather: Oh, I’m 100% sure she’d have been down for kindred spirit shenanigans and festivals. She’d have run around barefoot and muddy, scamming festival food all day.
Speaking of food, I need you to tell me about bathtub bacon. I heard you read my book with bathtub bacon involved.
Keema: All I can really disclose about the bathtub bacon is this: if your partner brings you bacon and a fresh cup of coffee while you’re reading in the tub to ease the lingering pain from a breast biopsy (benign!), it might be VERY GOOD for your partnership after a year of lockdown with toddlers.
You’re deep in book release with kids, too; what does pandemic parenting + writing look like for you?
Heather: I’m at pandemic pod school now, which gives me a speck of breathing room for writing. I’m typing while the two oldest are on Google class meets. One’s in orchestra, so it’s Ode to Joy over and over. The middle one is now coming over to tell me about Komodo dragons. Their drool is venomous. The little guy is sitting on a bin of bristle blocks saying, “I pooping!” I’m not entirely certain it’s pretend poop, but I’m not getting up to check. This is a productive morning. Same question for you!
Keema: I have a lot of selfies from the last five years of my kids nursing on my lap while I’m writing. Most days I login to my computer and write a sentence before I stop to make breakfast. While the kids eat, I write another sentence. Two if I’m lucky. Then I change a diaper, play dinosaurs, breakup a toddler fight, and set them up with a snack and an activity or a show while mentally revising the last two sentences. At lunch I delete both sentences. If I survive putting the little one down for nap, I might get a paragraph in. Repeat through bedtime.
I have a new project brewing, but the last five years have taught me something very important: I can’t do this again without childcare. People are so quick to ask about your next project before your current one is even in the world. Especially given our current challenges, how does that make you feel?
Heather: I’m a slow-ish, recursive writer with lots of fallow periods of not-writing, even without pandemic parenting, so I always feel slight panic when someone asks me what I’m working on next. I recently started this little scene that surprised me and had an engine, and when a story strikes like that, I try to turn on the TV for the kids, sit on the kitchen floor, ignore the dishes, and type.
Keema: Let’s talk craft for a second. Everyone says to avoid second person, and yet we’ve both done it.
Heather: I started using second person in my book as an experiment. I thought it would be fun to write the same character in both first and second person. I love second person, though. I guess it can get old, but I don’t want to be told not to do it.
Keema: I love it too! I love the way it puts me right in the shit with the narrator.
Heather: Yes, that’s it – I wanted readers in the shit with Evie. Once I started playing with second person, I knew I wanted more than one chapter in second and to experiment with form throughout. I also thought that, especially for the chapter where Evie is dealing with postpartum depression, as well as putting you in the shit, it lets Evie distance herself from…herself. Like instead of a straight narration, she’s outside narrating her life. Despite being a really heartbreaking chapter, I still wanted it to be funny. Poor Evie is so desperate she’s writing letters to Dear Abby, and that made me laugh.
One last goofy question: where do you imagine readers reading your book?
Keema: I like to imagine my readers in a camp chair somewhere with good starshine, maybe using it to shoo squirrels out of their soap stash every few pages (squirrels were always eating our soap and it totally baffled me). Or on the deck of a ferry, or a cruise ship, with the wind in their hair.
Heather: In my imagination, someone tosses the book in their beach bag. The slather in sunscreen and start reading, the waves crashing and the sun penetrating their skin until they get that relaxed, melty-boned feeling. But if someone’s reading in the bathroom while a toddler bangs on the door, I hope the book transports them to that beachy state of mind.
Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem, with work appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Review, Front Porch, the Barely South Review, Switchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @Heatherkfrese.
Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, releasing from Green Writers Press in April 2021. Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her essays have appeared in Redivider and Pithead Chapel, among others, and her Brevity essay “You Will Find Me In The Starred Sky” was a Best American Essays notable. She lives with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instragram @keemasaurusrex.
March 5, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Jody Gerbig
When I was a college student visiting home, I chose to spend many of my limited afternoons and evenings with my grandparents, then in their mid-sixties and early seventies. They were, in their retirement, some of the most interesting people I knew, my grandfather playing violin with his chamber-music group or cooking the latest New York Times recipe, my grandmother trying new bridge tactics and attending symphonies. I enjoyed sitting among them and their friends, eating brie and multigrain crackers, discussing art exhibits, new memoirs, and the moral implications of farming salmon. Their lives felt uncomplicated by young children or work stress, their days filled with chosen pursuits. No one else I knew led such rich lives. No one else seemed so leisurely contemplative, free to let thoughts wander.
I was reminded of those visits while reading Rick Bailey’s essay collection, Get Thee to a Bakery, an exploration of daily life lived mostly in retirement, including long lunches with foodie friends, special trips to the “vegetable guy,” and discussions about key changes in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
That is not to say Bailey’s writing is all highbrow, however. His essays are often funny and self-deprecating, focusing on either the mundane (shopping for nativity Jesuses in San Marino), or the hilariously grotesque (ordering dog poop by the gallon to teach his neighbors a lesson). In “Alien Pleasures,” he admits to enjoying the odd hotdog left on the counter overnight. In “You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You?,” he considers eating the squirrels invading his bird feeder. His writing is sharp, ironic, and humorously honest, but his character is contemplative, thoughtful, even sweet, his affection for his wife seemingly unwavering.
Just as dynamic are Bailey’s feelings about aging, sometimes mourning his youth and other times celebrating life’s changes. Appropriately, he opens his collection in the fall season, when air is both “crisp and faintly rotten smelling.” Perhaps he should not be climbing the ladder to clean the gutters himself anymore, but he does anyway, an attitude that carries him through most days. Of his food preferences, he says, “as you age, your taste buds dull and die. Bitter becomes okay,” a lucky thing, he thinks, for someone trying to drink his eight servings of vegetables each day. His gradual hearing loss makes crowded restaurants more difficult but allows him to use the word circumambient obnoxiously often. Bailey essays approach aging not as an end, but as a transformation, like a caterpillar becomes a moth, or like someone wipes his Kindle clean to make room for new lists of highlighted words to look up. With age, he says, comes longer lists, more to remember, so it is best, occasionally, to start fresh.
Bailey’s writing style makes defining his collection difficult. In each essay and throughout the collection, he revisits seasons, conflicts, and motifs in such a way that I sometimes felt I was reading an epic poem and other times watching an episode of Seinfeld. I am mesmerized by his ability to weave together disparate ideas. In “Back to Comanche,” for example, Bailey covers as many as five topics (moths, road rage, revisionist history, and hypertension), ending with the realization that most rage is pointless and self-destructive. Only at the end of the essay did I ask myself whether all five topics were related, though I didn’t mind the possibility they were not. Bailey’s details are often fascinating and real on their own, capturing both the arbitrary and connected nature of our days. Rather than espousing a thesis, his collection evokes new questions, creating an experience similar to the one he describes while assessing Susanna Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: “All day long stuff happens to us, we are flooded with sensations, experience, and meaning. The mind processes the experience, stores it in memory, in code—images, words, figures, sounds—in symbols that we access and organize, and shape and reshape into meaning. We live in a swell, a tide of significance that rises, envelopes us.”
Like with my grandparents, I wanted to hang out with Bailey’s essays longer than I was afforded. In them, I felt comfort, inspiration, joy. In some ways, they make me look forward to my own retirement in which I might dare to climb the ladder when I shouldn’t, or lean back too far, threatening to fall. And, why not? Perhaps the view from that climb will inspire an interesting thought. Perhaps, if I fall, I will land with my eyes pointed skyward, noticing, like Bailey does, the delightful oddness of the everyday and the wonder—the gift—of still being alive.
Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is raising triplets and a writing career. Her essays have been published in Columbus Monthly, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. She also writes fiction and serves as an editor at 101 Words and Typehouse Magazine.
March 4, 2021 § 28 Comments
Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.
But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.
In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.
Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.
Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”
I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”
She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!
I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.
I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.
And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:
- There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
- If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
- Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
- Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
- Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.
In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”
Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?
When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Stephanie Hunt
“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.
This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.
Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.
And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.
During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”
This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.
Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites.
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.
You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.
It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:
To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.
The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.
Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”
If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.
Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.