January 7, 2020 § 19 Comments
by Sandra A. Miller
Half dozing on the train from New York to Boston with a snowstorm raging outside the window, I grabbed the Amtrak magazine from my seat pocket and mindlessly flipped to an interview with Patti Smith. I read along, engaged but not fully moved, until I came to this line in which Smith talks about performance:
You have to stay with the night, because some nights are a bit rocky. And some nights are explosive. But whatever the night is, you have to stay with it until you feel that people have a release.
I gasped and sat up so fast that my seatmate actually pulled her coat tighter, as if to shield herself from my sudden effusion. Yes! I thought. Yes!
Over the years, dozens of writing students have asked me, how do you know when an essay is finished, but I never quite had the language for it. I once tried to describe it as a click you feel inside, but it’s more than that. Yes, the writer, after years of practice, likely has an intuitive sense of an ending and knows when the piece locks into place, but I never accept that an essay is done until I’ve seen a reader get what I now know to call—thank you Patti Smith—“release.”
This is what release in an essay means to me: Did the reader not only connect with my words, but was he or she also a little loosened by them?
I grabbed my journal and started scribbling as the Acela zoomed me toward home, now going far too fast for all that I wanted to write. I began by brainstorming a list of essays that made me sit back and say “holy shit” because over the course of reading them, something changed in me. The kind of work that my friend Gary and I say we want to “throw across the room,” as in we are so moved/jealous/awestruck that we can’t bear to hold onto it for another second.
I thought about “Chimera,” an essay in which Gerald Callahan examines the workings of memories and immune systems to explain why his children’s mother, who committed suicide ten years earlier, still regularly appears in his physical world. Every time I read it the piece weakens me a little. Is that release? I think so.
Ditto for some of Joan Didion’s more personal essays—“In Bed” comes to mind—where her complex syntax and content hold me in thrall. Sometimes, after being so profoundly tugged along by Didion’s intellect, so yoked by her language, I find myself almost adrift when the piece ends. Release? Yes, a version of it.
I keep scribbling: Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” Andre Aciman’s “Lavender.” Essays that when you look up from the page, you are in a different place than when you began. And with so much to read and so little time, I don’t want to settle for anything that doesn’t, if only in some small way, move me.
My husband, Mark, a clinical psychologist who helps people with their feelings, is always my first reader. I will hand him an essay and watch—his face infuriatingly placid—as he pores over each line, making faint gray marks with his pencil. Pretending not to be looking, I’ll glimpse over as he nears the end, and I’ll watch, hoping, for that catch in his eyes. A tightening. Not necessarily a tear, but sometimes. Or maybe just a pause, an outbreath. When he hands me back my pages, I know, even before he says anything, if it worked or not.
When I arrived back home in Boston, I couldn’t stop thinking about release and wanted to hole up in my office and start reading essays. But my husband had done several rounds of shoveling while I was galivanting around New York, so I went out for one final scrape.
Just then, my friend Amara walked by with her hyper miniature poodle, Oscar, and stopped to say hello. Amara’s husband died suddenly two years ago, leaving her to raise their two young children alone. She adopted the dog to help with the healing, but he had turned out to be far too much. “We need to re-home him” she said. I can’t do it anymore.”
I nodded as Oscar, fluffy and strong-willed, tried to yank Amara away from our conversation.
“Maybe you needed him when he appeared,” I suggested. “Maybe he brought something into your life in that moment of crisis and transition that you could not have gotten in another way.”
“That’s it,” she said. “He was my release.”
“He released me from the idea that I could do this parenting thing perfectly. I thought I could power through anything, but I had to let that go.” Her eyes glistened with tears, and I wanted to hug her, but a high snowbank loomed between us. So I held her gaze and nodded, briefly, feeling that click of connection. When Oscar started dragging her down the street, we wiped our cold tears and shouted out good-byes.
I kept shoveling, thinking about the way we share our stories. Some are passed, friend to friend, in the hush of a December night. Others are crafted carefully, with the hope that they might affect people we will never meet.
Once I had finally removed the light, top layer, I struck ice, intractable with the freezing temperature. But I knew in the morning the sun, warm and persistent, would reach the pavement, eventually releasing what, in that moment, wouldn’t move.
Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, is available through Indiebound, Amazon, and Brown Paper Press. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is a regular correspondent for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.
Author Photo by Holloway McCandless
January 6, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Alison Lowenstein
After meticulously crafting a brief cover letter and biographical statement, you upload your work of creative genius, along with a twelve-dollar submission fee. You press submit and enter a period of limbo when you see the essay, along with your many other submissions–ranging from haikus to flash fiction, logged as Received.
Every evening you visit the web page for the literary journal you submitted to and imagine yourself on their homepage. Fantasizing that within minutes of the essay being on the journal’s website you get a book deal or at least an inquiry from a literary agent.
Rebuilding Your Confidence:
You reread your essay to remind yourself that you truly are talented and any editor tasked with navigating a content management system to review a virtual slush pile will be delighted to read the layered work rife with metaphors and allusions to religion, literature and a variety of high and low brow works of art.
Judging Those Who Don’t Publish:
To pass the time, you silently judge your friends who aren’t vulnerable enough to submit their creative work to literary publications like you do. You think about your old college roommate who was lauded in the alumni newsletter for discovering a procedure to cure blindness, who as far as you know has never published in JAMA, while you have had three poems and an essay featured in literary journals with a circulation of over 2,000.
Your heart skips a beat when you see your status finally changes from Received to In-Progress. You imagine your essay being discussed at an editorial meeting where the words “brilliant” and “we made a serious discovery here” will be uttered several times by an enthusiastic staff comprised of unpaid grad students and a lecherous aging professor. After two months, when your status hasn’t changed to Accepted you start reading the masthead of the journal and craft impassioned letters to the editorial board about how they better make a decision or you will be forced to Withdraw the submission. You wisely never send these letters.
Perusing Social Media:
You follow many notable writers and other literary icons on various social media platforms and cringe when you see them mention work they’ve recently published in the literary journal you submitted to and haven’t heard back from in four months. In addition, you follow the editors from the publication you submitted your essay to and wonder how they could tweet several times a day, while it takes them months to make a decision to Accept or Decline on Submittable.
It’s been six months and you still religiously check your Submissions page, but there has been no change in status. You regret not sending your essay out as a multiple submission and blame your monogamous nature as a reason for this mistake. Late one night in a fit of rage, you make your way over to the Discover page and search for other journals accepting creative nonfiction. You submit to a contest that has two hours left before its submission window closes, and a series of online and print journals, spending a total of one hundred and four dollars on submission fees. The following morning you receive an email congratulating you and you log onto Submittable and see your status has changed to Accepted.
Alison Lowenstein is a freelance writer and author of children’s books, guidebooks and plays. She’s written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Modern Loss, Gothamist, New York Daily News, National Geographic Traveler, Travel and Leisure.com, and many other publications and websites. You can find her at www.brooklynbaby.com. Follow her on twitter @cityweekendsnyc.
January 3, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
When I was 15 years old, I moved with my family from Connecticut back to the small town in Ecuador where I was born. I knew that leaving my childhood home would have a myriad of consequences, but I never imagined that one of those would be depriving me of access to a library. In my naïveté, I thought that all countries and cities had libraries like the ones I spent time in while growing up, attending art classes, going to author events, accompanying my mom to her ESL lessons, and losing myself in the book in front of me. But just like that, I got on a plane, and that privilege was gone.
Though Ecuador has libraries, very few of them allow you to borrow books. My hometown had a small municipal library with outdated, fraying books, but borrowing wasn’t an option. Instead, there were open markets by unused train tracks where you could buy books. Many of them were religious books, all in Spanish, and each priced at one or two dollars. There was no author’s name or publisher listed, just the cover and the start of the book on the first page. I had seen bootleg DVDs and CDs, but it was the first time I had ever encountered a bootleg book. My parents offered to buy me what I wanted, but I said no. I could touch them, but they weren’t real.
One of the agreements with my parents when we moved was that I would go back to Ecuador only if my dog and all my books came with us. The books arrived to the port of Guayaquil a few months after we settled in. When I opened the boxes, it felt like Christmas, my birthday, and a gift from the universe wrapped all in one to keep me sane. I reread and reread those books for the seven years I stayed in Ecuador. My personal library grew a bit every time I went to Guayaquil and purchased another book. I had to carefully pick the ones I wanted to add to the collection since I no longer had the privilege of taking ten books home and bringing them back weeks later.
In 2012, when I was 22, I moved back to Connecticut, with only one suitcase and a carry-on bag to stuff all the clothes I needed to once more start a new life in another country. There was no space for the books I took to Ecuador or for the ones that were added to my collection over the years, so I picked the one book from my collection that was a mix of English and Spanish: Buffalo Bill ha muerto by E.E. Cummings, translated by José Casas. It’s one of my favorite books, anthologizing Cumming’s poetry from 1910 to 1962 with the original English poem on one page and the Spanish translation on the other. This book would serve as a reminder of where I came from and where I was heading.
I arrived to the U.S. unemployed, but I knew I didn’t need to afford books in order to have access to them. I immediately began to take advantage of my local library just where I had left off. I had to wait until I could prove I was a resident of the town so I borrowed a family member’s library card. Then I borrowed books like I was hoarding them. I attended informational sessions on applying for health insurance at the library. I renewed my passport there. I also went to free book events while I looked for a job. I read magazines I couldn’t afford to buy. I read books that had been on my to-read list for years. For the first few months, I lived with three others in a one-bedroom apartment and the library was the only place where I could get some silence and solace.
Just a few months ago, a friend and translator reached out to me with the following question: “How do you call the borrowing system libraries have in the United States?” What an odd question. “We just call them libraries,” I said. Yes, she explained, but the translation she was working on would be intended for audiences in Ecuador, and she wanted to make it clear that this particular library was an anomaly because it in fact had a “book lending program.” The memories came rushing back, and it spurred me to donate to my local library.
I then tallied up the library events I had been part of in the last year. I was a volunteer at Love All Project’s Community Storycast event in the Norwalk Library. I took a memoir workshop at the Greenwich Library by Joan Motyka. I participated in my first poetry writing workshop this past summer at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT led by Sally Bliumis-Dunn. Some of my published essays and many of the stories in my draft folders have come from inspiration from those workshops and the people I met.
Even though now I have a collection of books stored in my home, I go to the library at least once a week. As a reader and writer, the library is not a place I will ever take for granted. Someone asked me recently what places I love the most, and I said the mountains, the beach, and the library. It might have come off as a bizarre response, but for me entering a library has always felt like coming home.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.
January 2, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Christy Stillwell
I love a book that is unapologetically female. The market is brimming with explorations of female experience, books that examine issues such as food addiction, shame, sexuality and the process of aging. Men struggle with age, I know. Each time I complain about my gray hair, my husband points at his head and says, “At least you have hair.” But when it comes to perennial dieting, body shame, and loss of youth, women struggle in much different ways.
I devoured Hunger, by Roxanne Gay, and I’ve read everything by Brene Brown. I relished Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, an exploration about female desire. I am astonished to see the thread of shame and scarcity running through my own life. Even at middle age, I don’t know what I want. In fact, in an effort to immunize myself against disappointment, I’ve made a habit of not wanting anything at all.
When I found Dorothy Rice’s memoir, Gray is the New Black, the book felt like a cosmic gift. In this memoir of self-acceptance and healing, the writer lays bare her disappointments and struggles with sugar addiction, dieting, and bad men. What’s more, she digs into her past to see the part she has played in her own unhappiness, a courageous move.
A retired California civil service worker in her early sixties, Rice discovers she needs a year “to get my shit together.” She aims to “crack the code of living my life in the now” to make “peace with the past and embrace the present.”
Early in the book, her sister challenges her to stop coloring her hair, a loaded request considering that when Rice tried this years ago, she was mistaken for her sister’s mother. In the spirit of personal rebirth, Rice accepts the challenge, and the author’s gorgeously thick, gray hair becomes the central image of the book. Throughout her ups and downs—both in spirit and weight—her hair bolsters her. It is the one thing she allows herself to love about herself, even as she admits to a debilitating sugar addiction, a long relationship with a sexual predator, an abusive first marriage, and ongoing struggles with yo-yo dieting.
Rice is upfront about her food addiction. “I routinely eat myself sick,” she admits. “I claim to fear migraines more than anything, and when I’m in the grip of one, I vow never again. Yet I forget . . . . or rather, I don’t forget; I’m overcome with sugar lust.” The scene in which she loses her battle with a bag of Halloween candy reads like the description of a junkie shooting up. The power of the scene comes in part from the book’s structure; Rice lets readers witness the first binge early, and we dread the inevitable recurrence. We know, as she does, that the sugar will not only sabotage her weight loss, it’ll also make her violently ill.
The memoir takes a darker turn as Rice explores the root causes of her shame. Most women she knows have a rape story. It’s a fact—not defended or analyzed. Rice’s rape story is unconventional; she was not attacked late at night, but lured into the car of a twenty-something predator who trolled her high school. He didn’t pin her down and force himself upon her; he unzipped his pants, grabbed her by the neck, and forced her to perform fellatio. In his car. Parked on the side of the road. In broad daylight.
The (non)relationship with Ron continued intermittently for two years. Never gratuitous or self-pitying, Rice’s descriptions of these encounters are riveting, as is her honesty about her own confusion:
It’s hard to understand why I kept seeing Ron, why I didn’t stop. I do know that even as I came when he called and did what he asked, I desperately wanted a real boyfriend. I knew that what I did with him was nothing to be proud of. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t even like to think about it. Nor did I enjoy it or look forward to the next time. . . . It was never about me, or even about sex, but rather power, control, domination. I didn’t get this intellectually, but I knew it in my bones. I’d surrendered free will.
What sets Gray is the New Black apart from other self-reckoning memoirs is the author’s willingness to take responsibility for her own self-delusion. She’s openly curious about why she clung to these false truths about Ron. In a similar way, Rice investigates the stalemate in her marriage to Bob, and here the reader sees change unfolding.
A retired engineer, Rice’s husband is a “literal kind of guy” and more than a little dense when it comes to speaking his feelings. The author baits him repeatedly, trying to get him to say what she wants, a test he fails repeatedly. I “batted my lashes and hunched my shoulders so my breasts pressed together,” then she asked, “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
Though he fails in the compliment department, he loves her. He tells so all the time. And Rice loves him. She admits that she can’t be angry; she has gained weight, knows she doesn’t look her best. By the book’s end, after a year spent excavating shame and a trip to a Utah fat farm, Rice faces herself:
I have waited all my life for a man to say the prescribed magic words to me, to perform the prescribed grand gestures. . . . I have felt cheated out of my due of Lifetime movie moments.
Understanding that this cycle of dissatisfaction is based on fairytales, she asks herself: Are these good enough reasons “to hold my husband at arm’s length until he utters the magic words?” No, she concludes:
It’s time to look at what I’ve been pining for all my life and ask if that’s still it, do I need that anymore, or am I a bigger girl now? Does my piano have more than one insistent sour note to plink?
With incisive, lyrical prose, Dorothy Rice articulates a longing for a generation of women seeking an honest way to see themselves, a way to authentically exist in the world. Her tunneling investigation into why it was once so important to fit in, to be wanted by a man, even the wrong man, feels essential. Even if Rice doesn’t give readers solid answers, it doesn’t mean they should stop asking the questions.
Christy Stillwell is the winner of the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. She is the author of The Wolf Tone (2019 Elixir Press) and the poetry chapbook, Amnesia (2008 Finishing Line Press). She lives in Montana.
December 27, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Chansi Long
In one of the early essays in his debut collection, Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, M. Randal O’Wain retells a poignant memory of a family friend’s suicide. In this essay titled “Arrow of Light,” O’Wain weaves normal childhood milestones alongside a horrific tragedy, recalling how his father picked him up from Webelos in his beat-up truck, but instead of driving home, he careened across town to Jimmy’s house.
O’Wain reassembles blurry details, combining his own memories with things he learned later, to tell the story of how his father’s best friend shot himself. While his father examines the truck where Jimmy’s body is, ten-year-old O’Wain plays in the yard, teaching himself to tie a square knot so he can graduate from Cub Scouts early. The narrator’s desire to mature early in such an innocuous way becomes salient as we discover that his environment will force him anyway into the adult world prematurely.
O’Wain’s father pilfers some gore—viscera and tissue—from the body, and later, O’Wain, his older brother Chris, and his father go to a meadow to bury a cigar box filled with these remains. O’Wain describes the memory thoughtfully, viewing his father’s decision to steal and bury pieces of the corpse with understanding and empathy. The fact that his father took him to Jimmy’s, rather than shielding his innocence by taking him home first, is a point of pride and a defining memory for O’Wain, bringing him closer to his father and the adult world he yearned to join.
Like Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, the essays in Meander are placed in chronological order, and deliberately ordered to provide structural and thematic coherence. The essays change in pace and tone but the voice—solid, compelling, honest, and funny—carries us through. One of the best is “The Junk Trade,” which has a theme similar to “Arrow of Light.” O’Wain, a fifth-grader, is once again eager to jettison his innocence for the adult world. He drinks black coffee, works his first job, smokes cigarettes, and makes out with his sixth-grade girlfriend Tatum. But the adult world is darker than O’Wain anticipates.
In this essay, a character called Junk Man Wayne sexually assaults O’Wain, and O’Wain follows the adult masculine models of his culture by staying silent on the matter. Reading this essay, I recalled my own attempts to grow up early with smoking, drinking, and sex. At fifteen, I once told my friends I wanted to have sex with a local twenty-one-year-old; a virgin, I was stunned when the man approached me at a party and took me to the woods. Too scared to say anything when he pushed my head toward his crotch, I felt obligated to perform oral sex for the first time in my life. At the time, I brushed the experience off as no big deal, but it was an ushering into the adult world that I wasn’t ready for. There are lots of innocence-shedding moments like this in O’Wain’s book.
O’Wain skillfully integrates humor into his darker material. In one scene, his mother is jamming to “Brown Eyed Girl,” “bouncing in her seat and waving her arms over to me. ‘Car dance,’ she said. ‘Come on, honey, car dance.’ But Tatum was half an hour late, and I didn’t feel like car dancing. ‘Used to love the car dance,’ Mom said, glowering.”
“Superman Dam Fool” is a numbered listicle that braids historical facts about Superman’s death with O’Wain’s personal vignettes on violence; most of the scenes O’Wain recounts occur at a Memphis public middle school where O’Wain was both threatened with a gun, and expelled for carrying a roofing blade in his unicorn emblazoned wallet. In this essay, O’Wain’s humor—an obvious defense mechanism—lightens the tone. “I learned people beat you up less when you acted crazy,” he writes. He was once told he didn’t like Virginia Woolf because he didn’t try hard enough. His rebuttal: “Perhaps you try too hard.”
Most of the essays are written in first or second-person, but there is a sizable section written in third-person. The middle part of the book is comprised of a three-part essay called “Memento Mori.” In this section we witness the movement of O’Wain’s mind as it focuses on his father. In his early twenties, O’Wain traveled the country touring with his band Sicarii, while his father stayed home living out the same-old routine he’d had for decades. With painstaking detail, O’Wain recreates his father’s day-to-day rituals working at a construction site. He embodies his experience using close narrative distance and third-person voice, imagining his father’s feelings and thoughts, and speculating what his life was like as he developed panic attacks.
Initially it’s unclear why O’Wain invests so much attention in recreating the onset of his father’s anxiety—especially when he wasn’t present for these moments. But then his father dies unexpectedly of a heart failure at age forty-eight. O’Wain’s exploration of his father’s last days seem like an attempt to reanimate him via written word, to both grow closer to him and empathize with his struggle.
“Memento Mori” is artful, but it’s not the best part of this book, and in ways, it feels out of place. The other essays are more concise, and they tell us about characters through the author’s perspective, rather than trying to take on their points of view. O’Wain’s voice is strongest when he focuses through his own lens.
William Zinsser’s description of what a memoir does has always resonated with me: “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” And that’s what O’Wain provides—a deliberate construction of salient moments, when read, that trigger our memories, produce their own, and linger like lived experience.
Chansi Long is a graduate from the Nonfiction Writer’s program at the University of Iowa. She has been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and others. Living in southeast Kansas, she is working on a memoir about foster care and poverty.
December 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Susan Tiberghien
Writing the afterword for the 20th Anniversary Edition of my spiritual memoir, Circling to the Center: Invitation to Silent Prayer, I uncovered the alchemy of the narrative arc.
When first working on the book, I realized how each chapter brought more light into my life. I saw this as alchemy, almost magic. I saw how the first chapter circled around a small five petalled flower, a cinquefoil. And how the fifth and last chapter circled around a double buttercup, a renunculus. My little wildflower had become the golden flower of innumerable petals. Alchemy!
Memoir is story-telling, telling the story of one facet of our life. In every story there is a beginning, a struggle, the narrator (in memoir, the author) wants something. There is a middle, the narrator encounter difficulties which lead to a climax. And there is an end, a resolution, the narrator has a transformation, however small. We are story telling creatures. When we relate an experience to a friend, we tell it in story form. Otherwise the friend may lose interest. When we remember our dreams, we are telling ourselves stories. And best to write them down lest we forget.
When I would sometimes take care of a few of our grandchildren, and when they were being rambunctious, I would ask them to sit still just a moment. Then I would say, “Once upon a time…” Two or three pairs of eyes would latch on to mine. All was quiet, attentive, expectant. And I would relate a fairy tale, a folk tale, a tale which has withstood the centuries. Or I would make up a new one, remembering the climax.
In my memoir. I was writing about darkness in my life, about deeply difficult experiences. As I I progressed, I saw the three steps of alchemy. First, putting the base metals into the furnace to burn away the dross. I would go into the dark to relate stories of adoption, of anorexia, of Alzheimer’s – nigredo, the blackening. Then the second step, washing and distilling, looking for the gold. I would come to grips with each ordeal– albedo, the whitening. And finally polishing the bits of gold and bringing them to the light. I would claim my own transformation – rubedo, the reddening.
I saw that these three alchemical steps are the three parts of story. The alchemy lies in the story arc. Without it, our memoirs may be beautifully written but they are flat. As memoirists, we are sharing not only a busy profile, a heart-breaking profile, or an attention-grabbing profile. We are sharing part of our being. We are pulling back the curtain and saying this is how I survived, this is what it felt like. Or this is how I stood up for justice, this is what it felt like. This is the narrative arc that pulls the reader to the climax. How we overcame, or did not overcome, the odds.
This is the sharing that readers are looking for. We are all interconnected, writers and readers. We learn from one another. In writing memoir, we share an experience. It lights a candle in the darkness for the reader. We remember the metaphor of Indra’s net. How over the palace of the great God Indra, there was strung a net of thousands of jewels. They were arranged in such a manner that if one of them caught the light, it was reflected in all the other jewels.
Let your memoir catch the light by shaping its story arc. Be an alchemist!
Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, is the author of four memoirs, two writing books, One Year to a Writing Life and Writing Toward Wholeness, and most recently the 20th Anniversary Edition of Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer. She teaches at C.G. Jung Societies, the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in Europe and the U.S. She founded and directed the Geneva Writers’ Group for 25 years. Recently she did two master classes for the Jung Society of Washington,.