December 13, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Sarah Baker
Chief Complaint: Writer’s Block
Subjective: (PMHx: Past Medical History): Childhood hx severe persistent asthma requiring repeated hospital admissions, gradual resolution over adolescence, adult history of mild intermittent asthma. Also, “bunions,” early onset severe bilateral functional hallux valgus, where her hallux (big toes) nestle snugly into their neighbors. Pt denies pain, or impairment of ambulation. Reports rare anxiety-well managed. Pt’s two front teeth are fake, and she’s allergic to cats. Otherwise, Pt is a healthy, 54-year-old female.
HPI (History of present illness): Pt reports 2-day onset persistent inability to perform creative duties related to writing. Denies premonition or precursor. First onset of these symptoms for her, last Monday. Pt reports normal ADLs including: she drank her latte, scanned the headlines, meditated, did a free-write. When Pt sat down to write a Hermit Crab essay, she went blank. Totally blank. She describes a “fortified box-like structure in her brain.” It was “empty,” Pt says, “the sides were made of impenetrable steel.” “No ideas were getting in or coming out.” Pt further describes onset of increased heart rate, shallow and audible breathing, impending sense of doom. Pt denies frank wheezes, chest pain, dizziness, loss of consciousness.
Pt self-assessment and self-care: Pt takes a deep breath and types “Hermit Crab essay” in her browser. She finds an article that mentions the book Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Pt calls local bookstore to see if they have a copy. No copies. She calls another local bookstore. No copies. Pt tries local library. No copies. Pt describes googling “Hermit Crab essay” again, and finding an article by Miller. Pt reads it, but her inability to perform creative duties related to writing persists. Pt then searches Brevity’s website, and finds an article about Dr. Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Creative Nonfiction class (where students write hermit crab essays) at South Dakota State University. Virginia Tufte’s book Artful Sentences is mentioned in the article. Pt owns this book. By page 16, Pt reports underlining sentences: Tennessee Williams’s “The Nothingness Continued;” Norman Mailer’s “Harmony settled over the kitchen;” Valerie Boyd’s “John Hurston, however, ached with ambition.”
Pt describes further reading and underlining: Lawrence Durrell’s “They peel the morning like fruit;” Wyndham Lewis’s “Two stripes ornamented the sleeve.” Pt recalls thinking about metaphors, and vows to work on them, the way she works on her net game in tennis.
Pt continues to struggle with Writer’s Block, and wonders if exercise might help. Or maybe psychedelics? She’s been thinking of a Michael Pollen-type journey and ponders if now is the time?
A notification flashes across Pt’s computer screen: iCloud Storage full. She recalls running down the stairs to get her credit card. She remembers turning on the electric kettle, and running to the basement to put in laundry. Pt inputs her credit card, and fixes her iCloud storage.
Pt begins to feel an easing of her symptoms. She’s just returned from four days away: Visiting her father, who has Alzheimer’s; dinner with her estranged half-brother; and a weekend of glamping on Governor’s Island for a friend’s birthday. Though Pt loves her view of the Statue of Liberty, she hasn’t planned for the all-night party boats that circle New York harbor. Pt concludes she is exhausted physically and emotionally. Pt reports needing someone to take care of her, and to give her permission for the way she is feeling. Pt recalls feeling relief to be home, and she hadn’t had a steady home growing up, and Pt is so grateful to have one now. Pt starts to cry. And all Pt wants is what she calls “a Doctor’s Note,” one that says it is okay that she has Writer’s Block. That it is understandable given her weekend, her life story, and all the baggage she carries around with her because she lost her mother when she was eight, her father had abandoned her, and she describes herself as a Leave No Trace girl. Pt recounts often performing, and trying to always be a good listener, and trying to make everyone else feel great. And Pt says she just needs “a Doctor’s Note” because she’s putting so much pressure on herself after deciding to leave her last job. And she’s been waiting to hear about a dream job, and has had five long, and what she thinks are successful, interviews, but the director isn’t getting back to her, or returning her emails. And her friends are wondering if this is a bad sign. And Pt describes sadness because she is a new empty nester and her youngest is living in Germany, and she is worried about his safety because that’s what mothers do. And that he is skipping a soccer practice to go to Fridays for Future meetings because he is prioritizing his climate change activism over his soccer, and that he is taking a 23-hour bus to Glasgow for Cop23, and Pt frets over when she will see him next because he doesn’t want to fly anymore, and a boat ride from Germany takes forever, and he doesn’t get that much time off from soccer. And Pt misses him.
Objective: What’s objective about reacting to life, grieving, regaining one’s footing, seeing the world for what it is? Maybe nothing’s objective…
Assessment: Life attack
Plan: Regarding the above note, it seems Pt’s symptoms eased after some distractions, and went away once she lightened up. In the future, when these symptoms appear, I recommend Pt relax, chill out. She’ll be fine. No medication required. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
Sarah Baker is a freelance writer, and has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, CommonHealth on WBUR, and other places. She has been a magazine editor, radio producer, and book editor. Thanks to Phebe Kiryk, MSN-CNP for help with medical terminology. You can follow her work at SarahBakerStories.com.
December 10, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
I first came across Ona Gritz’s work when she submitted an essay to my literary publication, Thread, in 2015. The piece was titled “Should I Feel Anything Yet?” and I was in from the first sentence: “It was the eighties but we wanted it to be the sixties, those of us in divided Boulder who claimed Pearl Street, ‘the mall’ as opposed to ‘the hill’ where the University of Colorado students fratted or whatever they did besides look down on us through their Ray-Bans.”
I was immediately struck by the poetry, details, and contrasts. The eighties versus the sixties, “the mall” and “the hill.” How she othered herself from the University of Colorado students who “looked down on” her through Ray-Bans.
Gritz captured those transitional twenties by nimbly moving from falling for “the classical guitarist with green basset hound eyes” to concerns over her runaway older sister to a square of blotter acid that looked like “the sugary button candy of her youth.” She tells us that she had “guiltily smoked pot twice in high school,” but ultimately decided to take that tab of acid. That between she and her sister, she was “the angel,” and her sister, who was murdered along with her boyfriend and infant child, was an angel of another kind.
“Now that she was the angel of the family,” Gritz writes, “who should I be?”
It was Gritz’s agility in juggling opposite truths at the same time that won me over, and the essay was published in Thread’s Fall 2015 issue.
So earlier this year when I learned that she was releasing a collection of essays, I wanted in again and was delighted to discover this tension of twos is a deep theme in Gritz’s life. The notion that two contrasting things may be simultaneously possible appears in many of the essays in this sensitive and elegantly composed collection.
From the first few lines of the opening essay in Present Imperfect, we learn that Gritz lives with a form of cerebral palsy she describes as dividing her in half. She determines the temperature of water with her left hand. With her eyes closed, she would have to move a coin into her left hand to distinguish it from a paper clip. And there’s a limp.
But it’s not only her body that is divided.
There’s her sister Angie, the runaway, who did heroin and meth and didn’t like school and called Ona “Miss Educated.”
“My two hands are sisters,” Gritz writes. “Left beautiful in her grace. Right, Clumsy-Girl, with lesser jobs.”
There’s a marriage that failed in part because it was with an able-bodied man, which, at first, felt like it meant that she wasn’t truly disabled but she would later come to understand after being in a successful bi-disability one. After her divorce, she writes, “Thankfully, by then I understood that my tie to him wasn’t what made me whole.” Of her second marriage to a man who is blind, she writes, “These days, disability is a mere factor in our daily routines.”
There’s raising an able-bodied son who is learning to drive. He is “almost a man now, testing his power. Carrying both of our lives, the way I once did, but with none of my fear.”
In “Deluge,” she writes, “Love can be the wall of water, the brigade of rain. It can drown the things you felt sure you couldn’t live without, dependable things you thought were just humming along.”
Like her essay that was published in Thread, which I was delighted to see as one of the fourteen essays in this collection, Gritz investigates a life that feels split. These essays strike me as an exploration of opposites. The book’s title, Present Imperfect, is a grammatical reference to action in the present tense that is continuous. Action implying something in the past. Continuous, suggesting that it is not yet over. It’s as if she is suggesting that we drag the stuff of our life around with us into the present, whatever that may look like.
Ona Gritz on the page is a warm, wise, and concise confidant who deftly turns the craggy rocks of life into touchstones.
“Maybe it’s not about the body and its limits,” she writes. “Maybe it’s a destination, everyone hobbling there as best we can.”
Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.
December 9, 2021 § 22 Comments
By Heidi Croot
Writing the first-draft hot mess of my memoir was easy—a mudslide down the inky slopes of several thousand journal pages.
Rewriting countless drafts, fun—an archeological dig I’ve never tired of.
Restructuring the thing, hell—as I struggled to place backstory at the precise moment of reader thirst.
But none of those ups and downs compared with the anxiety I felt about sending my manuscript to my two aunts and my uncle, who appear frequently in its pages.
I had reason to be nervous.
My memoir is about their eldest sister, my mother—a woman they were estranged from most of their lives, my own longest estrangement from her spanning a mere seven years. My aunts and uncle tried to have my back through the turbulence. An only child, I leaned heavily on their love and support.
Yet as soon as I mentioned I was writing a memoir, I detected frost in the air. Heard rumblings of that old lament, “airing the family’s dirty laundry.”
I understood their wariness.
They were of a generation that preferred to hold troubling family truths underwater with the flat of their palm. I am driven to haul those truths out, towel them down, assess them from every angle. What can they teach us? How might they heal us?
My aunts and uncle don’t read memoir. I knew if they were going to accept my manuscript, I couldn’t just thrust 300+ pages at them and hope for a miracle. I would need to chart a wayfinding course to the genre using signposts and lamplight.
And about two years ago, drawing on what I knew about awareness campaigns from my 35+ years in corporate communication, that’s what I did.
I casually sent them essays by memoirists who acknowledged their vulnerabilities and the challenges of truth-telling.
I sent book reviews and memoir quotations to show what other writers were sharing with the world.
I sent updates on my own project with excerpts from my work-in-progress that I hoped would demonstrate a balanced take on our difficult family circumstances.
This drip-drip-drip approach paid off when the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay, “How to Tell Your Mother She Can’t Go Home Again,” describing one of the harshest events of my mother’s life (and mine)—her first day in a nursing home, eight years before she died.
With that, my memoir project could no longer be ignored. Nor could its intent, tone or potential reception in the world.
My aunts and uncle read the piece and sent congratulations.
We had taken the first hill.
It was time for the second.
By now the manuscript was ready for beta readers. I promised my relatives a copy but kept them waiting while I finished some edits. One aunt in her eighties complained that at this rate she might not be around to finally read the thing. My uncle asked how it was going. I could hear the other aunt’s fingers drumming from her home in California.
They were eager to read.
I emailed the pdf to the California aunt. She immediately responded with family stories triggered by my chapters, as well as helpful editorial suggestions and a factual correction.
“For the duration of the reading it was as though my sister were alive, in front of me with all of her strife and fury…” she wrote me when she finished reading. “You’ve done yourself proud, Heidi.”
My beloved writers’ groups responded to this news with jubilance.
Meanwhile, I invited my other aunt, and my uncle and his wife of 50+ years, to my home, where I presented them with coil-bound copies. We spent a convivial weekend enjoying a charcuterie board, tacos, wine, and quiet time as they turned pages.
They didn’t offer encouragement, though my uncle remarked that his avid reading signaled his interest, and his wife dissolved into tears at one point, acknowledging the painful path our family had been forced to take in tangling with my mother.
In my beta reader guidelines, a one-page menu of suggestions I developed for first-time readers on what kind of comments would be most helpful, I had asked for their feedback within a month—one week away as I write this. I’ve invited them back for a second weekend to close that loop. After all, this was a business arrangement: their access to my full work in exchange for their editorial catches and family history tweaks.
No reply yet.
Offering feedback can be challenging when you’re not used to it.
No reason to be nervous, I want to tell them. You’re in safe hands here. It’s going to be all right.
Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi on Twitter @heidicroot.
December 8, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
I stare at my eighty-seven-year-old mother, who stands in the hallway, sweaty and flushed, breathing hard and telling me how she’d tried to walk around the block, then fell and crawled into the bushes, hoping no one would see her.
Really? Mom’s knee is so bad, she can barely hobble from the living room to the kitchen…never mind walking around the block. Still, her pale, sweaty face and deer-in-the-headlights stare tell me something happened. What? I’ll never know, because Mom is too confused.
My mother, queen of Sudoku, master of crossword puzzles, reader of just about everything, no longer knows which button to push to turn on the television. She forgets her pills, forgets to brush her teeth, forgets to eat, forgets where her purse is hidden (thieves looking for spare change might find it stuffed in the cushions).
Mom forgets that she forgets, and if I tell her that she’s forgotten, she’s snaps back, You just don’t know! Where are you getting your facts?
Laura Davis’ mother, Temme, in The Burning Lights of Two Stars, reminds me of my mother—stubborn, independent, and feisty. Both, in their later years, live in an alternate reality.
“Why did you make me move out here anyway?” Temme asks her daughter, after she moves her entire household into a trailer park, in California, just to be near Davis and her children.
Of course, Temme has forgotten this was her idea…and one, in fact, that concerns Davis. As a young adult, she saw her mother as “a poisonous spider,” who would wrap her in her web.
When Davis came out to her mother as a lesbian, “she carted out every stereotype about being a dyke.” When Davis was writing her now classic The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, she told Temme that her grandfather (Temme’s father) had sexually abused her. Not only did Temme refuse to accept this, but accused Davis of having false memories.
Years later, they’d arrive at a “shaky peace,” but Davis knew “3,000 miles still separated us for a reason. Our reconciliation went only so far.” Even as Temme saw her life drawing to a close, she would not accept that her daughter had been abused by her father. Maybe there was a reason. Maybe Temme had been abused too, Davis speculates, but “she was never going to look me in the eye and tell me the truth about her father.”
After Temme moves to California, her health declines. She forgets (or ignores) her doctor’s orders (particularly the one about not driving). Davis writes,
After the dishwasher accident, and her close call with kidney failure at the ICU, Mom recovered, but after that, her life was never the same. She’d entered the endless cycle of medical interventions that plague the lives of the elderly. She’d become a cog in a wheel, a number on a chart, a birthdate on a computer screen. She’d gone from being a healthy elder, physically strong with a poor memory, to an elderly patient with a different doctor for each part of her body.
Davis shuttles Temme to appointments, dispenses medications, checks in, and buys groceries. Whatever time is left, she works, manages two teenagers, and hopes to spend time with her partner.
Everything changes when Temme is found “passed out in a parking lot, sitting in her car with the engine running. Her horn [is] blaring, and she [is] nonresponsive….” Davis realizes her mother can no longer live alone.
Embedded in this fast-paced memoir is a story all too familiar to boomers with aging parents. We’re grateful for medical advances in cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases, because it enables us to enjoy our parents longer. Yet, treatment and prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has not caught up.
What do we do when our elderly loved ones cannot live on their own? Take them in? Hire in-home health aides? Move them into independent, assisted, or full-care facilities that will eat up every bit of their life savings? Each decision comes with a cost.
“I wanted Mom to have help, so she could stay in the little home she loved, doing the things she loved for as long as possible,” writes Davis. But Temme resists in-home health care and finds fault with the care worker.
Davis’ story flows back and forth over time, old stories deepening the main narrative. To keep readers on track, Davis uses a numeric countdown, marking the days until her mother’s death, posted under each chapter heading.
While The Burning Light of Two Stars gives readers a first-hand look at some of the elderly health care dilemmas today, it’s also a painful story about an emotional break between mother and daughter caused by lack of trust, honesty, and empathy. As the countdown numbers grow smaller, Davis and her mother keep reaching toward each another, hoping to reclaim what they’ve lost.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
December 7, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Lisa Cooper Ellison
I haven’t worked on my memoir in two months. A small part of me believes this isn’t supposed to happen. As a writer and coach, my creative tool belt is packed with strategies. But when the world is big and I feel small, those strategies can’t prevent my stories from crawling right back into my belly button.
When that happens, I turn to my writing community for inspiration.
I know how precious this community is. I drafted my first stories in the early 1990s. Back then, the only two writer hangouts I knew of were coffee shops and college classes. At the time, I was a college dropout, which only left one option. Sometimes I’d stand in the back of local coffeehouses on open mic night, praying for the courage to share my work. Occasionally I’d read, but I never felt cool enough to ask the “real” writers if I could join them. Instead, I wrote alone. If my stories hadn’t been so persistent, I might’ve given up.
Thankfully, my writing community is now only a click away. It’s given me so much over the years. I turn to Brevity for Allison K William’s posts on building your author platform and her anti-huckster brand of self-promotion. Abby Alten Schwartz’s essay about thinking like an art director and Brenda Miller’s case study on the hermit crab form inspire me to see my work in new ways. But the ones that feed my soul remind me not to give up, like Chelsey Drysdale’s 100 agents and Shiv Dutta’s Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life. I soak in each writer’s successes, setbacks, and tenacious belief in their stories no matter how long and daunting the way ahead seems.
The writing organizations we depend on have spent the past eighteen months playing a whack-a-mole-style game of pivot. Some reinvented programs or invested in equipment so they could transition classes and conferences online. Others offered generous refund policies to help writers feel safe registering for in-person events at a time when uncertainty was the norm. Pre-pandemic, most ran on volunteer sweat and budgets that barely covered expenses. Now, they must account for the additional costs required to sustain themselves during COVID and the learning curves demanded by new systems.
Last year, I created a #Giveaway4Good campaign to support writers and communities as we weathered the relentless COVID doldrums. Each week I designed challenges that asked you to support charities, writing organizations, independent bookstores, and other writers in exchange for prizes. Together, we raised over $24,000—a response that fueled my courage and creativity during the first half of the year.
This fall, I’m in a creative trough caused by overwork, recent losses, and a broken middle finger. In the face of these setbacks, the world seems big, and I feel small. So once again, I’m leaning on our beloved community, but this time I’m also giving back by running a second #Giveaway4Good campaign.
Last week, writers earned tickets by donating to charities. This week, donate $10 or more to your favorite literary organization will receive one ticket toward my drawing for a $30 gift card to New Dominion Bookshop, PLUS one copy of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, The War of Art, Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction, Doodling for Writers, The Best of Brevity, The Business of Being a Writer, and a signed copy of My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson.
You’ll also be entered into my grand prize drawing for a one-year membership to James River Writers, a 3-pack of webinars from The Crow Collective Online Writing Workshops, one Jane Friedman webinar of your choice, a 10-page manuscript review plus one-hour coaching session with me, and a query letter review by Allison K Williams.
Generous donors of $100 or more will get access to a mindful writing class scheduled for early 2022 and a chance to win a storytelling coaching session with Amy Eaton.
Low on funds?
Support these organizations online by subscribing to their newsletters, following them on social media, and sharing two social media posts about a current offering or why you love them so much. Send me email proof, and you’ll earn one ticket into this week’s drawing.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this post given how challenging the past two months have been. But then I read a few Brevity blogs and thought of the good we’ll do. Your words and this community make me feel brave, big, and connected, and as a result, my creativity is flowing again.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others.
December 6, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Jessica Gigot
Most people close to me know I have always been a fan of the holidays. The “don’t play holiday music before Thanksgiving” was made for me. I inherited a love of all things Christmas from my Catholic, mid-western Nana and as my parents, sister and I moved around the country (eventually settling outside of Seattle) I brought her seasonal verve with me.
Fast forward to December 2020. I am home with my husband and two daughters, both under five. We are not traveling to see any extended family in-person because of the pandemic and we’ve pretty much been isolated since March. My second poetry book came out in November 2020 and I’m trying to finish a memoir, but my creative time has taken a backseat to online-Kindergarten and tracking the daily Covid cases in our county. After a stressful election and way too much news-watching, I hit a breaking point.
“I am going to holiday so hard this year.”
After I randomly blurted this out to my husband, I remember being confused. What does that even mean? True, we had established some new traditions with our own children over the previous few years, ones that helped me rekindle my sense of excitement for the season with them, but this felt different.
Then, somewhere deep within my body, I unleashed my inner holiday behemoth. It started, at first rather innocently, with a few quarts of eggnog for coffee. Then a Hallmark holiday movie or two after the kids went to bed. After Thanksgiving, though, I really let loose. Reindeer antlers and red nose for the minivan, house lights!, a Christmas tree (before December), wreathmaking, matching family holiday pajamas, cookie decorating, gingerbread house plans, more holiday movies, drives around town to look at lights!, and a detailed Christmas menu weeks in advance which included a homemade yule log. I even took a few Zoom piano lessons (something I hadn’t done since childhood), so I could tickle the ivory with my own jazzy rendition of “Winter Wonderland.”
In my mind it was all “for the kids,” but now I am not sure. While these experience did offer joy, I am also concerned I might have been quite delusional. Am I ok? Are we all ok? What the hell happened this past year? Why am I in this tent of a nightgown covered in gnomes carrying present to other gnomes holding candy canes?
Bessel A. van der Kolk writes in his groundbreaking book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, “Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality.” I think the most common phrase of 2020 (besides “You’re muted”) was “Is this really happening?” and it’s a question that has unfortunately spilled over into 2021 with the dramatic resurgence of Covid cases.
Divisions over truth, fact, and what is actual reality continue, manifesting in real-time, public debate over vaccinations and masks and we will not fully understand the emotional impacts of these divisions, within communities and families and football teams, for a while.
While I don’t really believe my deep dive into all things holiday was that horrible, I do realize that I was in fact reacting to a long and hard year—widespread societal and personal trauma. I diverted all of my remaining creative energy into the “festivities” instead of sitting down to write and maybe that is okay. Maybe I really needed a break from my own reality?
I eventually finished the memoir and am slowly adding poems to a new poetry manuscript. While I might tone it down this holiday season, I do think that my 2020 holidaze was healing in a strange way and I entered 2021 ready to recommit to my writing process. Like many author-mothers, I am still just trying to do the best that I can. Keeping sane and keeping my family healthy feels like its own full-time job.
Although the holidays might feel slightly more normal this year, perhaps we all need to go easy on ourselves. To weep and grieve the many that have died. To celebrate the brave frontline workers that have saved so many lives. What we discover might not be easy, but instead of running for more tinsel try to sit with that unease a bit. That is what I am trying to do.
Let it snow. Let this year lead us into the next and let the lessons of staying home, of sacrificing, of so many canceled plans, seep in. We are all still surviving one day at a time.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and wellness coach. She lives on a small, sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour (Wandering Aengus Press, 2020) won a Nautilus Award and was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Jessica’s writing and reviews appear in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, and Poetry Northwest and she is currently a poetry editor for The Hopper. Her memoir, A Little Bit of Land, will be published by Oregon State University Press in 2022. Find her on Twitter at @shepherdessjess
December 3, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Abby Alten Schwartz
It’s unsettling to empathize with a serial killer, even a fictional one, but here we are. I’m watching the Dexter reboot on Showtime with a newfound perspective on the lead character’s inner conflict. Dexter is driven to kill, an urge he calls his “Dark Passenger.” I’m struggling lately to come to terms with my own Dark Passenger — the shadow self of my writer’s identity. My desire to write, submit and get published has spawned the twin demons of imposter syndrome and intense fear of missing out, and the more I accomplish, the worse it gets.
Though I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years, I’m new to lit pubs, journalism and the writing community. I enjoy my work as a freelance healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant, but for years felt an itch to expand creatively. I secretly dreamt of writing a memoir, but had no idea how to begin. Then the pandemic upended life and shook my priorities like a snow globe.
I joined an online journaling community and began sharing personal essays. I made friends who invited me into not-so-secret Facebook writers’ groups and felt a connection I was unaware I’d been missing. I found a memoir coach, started my book, took a Zoom course to learn how to pitch editors, and landed my first major byline.
The night I got that acceptance I had my first encounter with my Dark Passenger. I was on social media chatting with friends. Several of us had pitched the same editor after he spoke with our class, but so far none had heard back. Then the first of our group posted her exciting news: he said yes. I was happy for her. Then another friend posted. She also got a yes.
An ugly emotion tickled my brain. Jealousy. I wanted in. It was a wholly separate feeling from my genuine excitement for the others, but it was real. I joined my husband and daughter to watch TV, distractedly checking my phone. And then it happened. The editor emailed. He loved my pitch and wanted my story. In one hour, my emotions had run the gamut from happy to envious to self-pitying to exhilarated. Was this normal?
My taste of success ignited my curiosity to learn more, experiment, be bold. But it was my involvement with the writing community that lit a fire under me and fueled my ambition. It’s no different than when I learned to play tennis — I challenged myself to play with people better than me, and it forced me to level up.
Engaging with more experienced and accomplished writers inspires me to push hard and aim high. I’m a competitive person. I don’t want to be the fangirl relegated to the sidelines, cheering and handing out snacks. I want to be on the court, crushing balls and celebrating points. I’ll still be cheering the other players, but I’ll be fully in the game.
All of this is healthy, right? Yes and no. What I didn’t anticipate was the anxiety that would spread like black mold in the shadow of my desire. Every acceptance, every piece published, is an adrenaline rush — but like any good high, it eventually wears off and leaves me wanting more. And while I love the marathon commitment of writing memoir, the finish line is far in the distance. In the meantime, I see the mileposts of fellow writers getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “I don’t belong here.”
When Dexter’s hunger to kill intensified until he could no longer ignore the urge, he channeled it the best way he knew how: by following a strict moral code and killing only violent criminals who had escaped justice. Once satiated, his Dark Passenger would go quiet for a period of time.
Each time I’ve been published, I’ve basked in the glow of accomplishment, reassured I haven’t lost momentum, that my license to write wouldn’t be revoked. I could shift back to other priorities until the pressure started building again.
Did I just compare my urge to be published to the obsessions of a vigilante serial killer? Sadly, I did. Because here is my ugly truth. For me, it’s not enough to write. I crave the visibility that simultaneously terrifies me. I want to connect to strangers through language. I need the validation of a yes. And when I don’t feed that hunger, it turns cannibalistic, eating at my confidence. My own Dark Passenger, whispering in my ear:
“That brilliant idea you had in the shower? Someone else is submitting it right now.”
“It’s been months since that editor ran your story. She’s already forgotten you.”
“Everyone you know has work coming out. What have you done lately?”
My FOMO is real, but I’m learning to channel it in a positive way.
I can challenge myself to collect rejections. The more I send out, the better my odds — plus, submitting regularly makes each attempt less fraught.
I can remember to have fun. Having a separate source of income frees me to approach creative writing with a sense of adventure. I can explore different genres or go after moonshot pitches, knowing my writing group will be there to cheer my efforts or commiserate with my setbacks.
I can recognize that writing is not a zero-sum game. There’s an endless need for content and room for all of us. I can be inspired by the gorgeous work of other writers and motivated by their success, knowing that ultimately, every writing path is unique.
Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, The Manifest-Station and more. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant and once had a column about hooping. The hula kind. Abby is currently writing a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.
December 1, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
I once took a delightful prose workshop from a noted essayist and poet. His opening prompt was single word, an entry in his word-a-day calendar, and he required us to use it in the writing assignment: GORGONIZE. I was unfamiliar with the word, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect. I found myself writing about two rustics who found a word-a-day calendar at Walmart in a remainder bin and used the words they’d learned – often improperly, always unsuccessfully – in pick-up lines directed to college women at a bar. After stumbling home a bit inebriated, the younger of the boys was excoriated by his mother for drinking. “Do not gorgonize me with them yellow eyes,” he spat at her, causing her to back off immediately.
Using both the assigned word and the real-life circumstance of its discovery – a calendar – in my piece made for a satisfying writing experience, even if it wasn’t the best prose I’d ever written. This experience launched new thinking about prompts; how minimal the spark can be to light up a piece of writing. Finding an obscure, highfalutin word remains for me an occasional way to break a logjam, a portal to freewriting when I am unsure what to write on a given day.
At the other end of the spectrum is David Means’ wonderful short story “Depletion Prompts” (New Yorker, November 1, 2021), written entirely in prompts generated by the narrator himself. They are so highly specific that the prompts themselves form not only a complete story, but also a meta-story about the insecurities of the writing process.
In nonfiction, I have relished using photographs and postcards as prompts, sometimes focused on what is shown in the picture, sometimes on what hovers just behind or beyond it. An old postcard from the Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago catapulted me into a story about my German great-grandfather’s early days in the U.S. A discomfiting polaroid of me in fifth grade seated next to my teacher, Sister Mary Alphonso, bore fruit in a creative nonfiction story about the spelling bee in that class, the photo taken shortly after my crushing defeat.
Often it isn’t what’s in the picture that’s interesting, but what occurred beyond its edges, either in space or in time. Responding to a prompt to write about what isn’t seen in a photo I chose, I wrote about the eventual cancers of the three relatives in it, and my food memories before and during their illnesses, in a recently-published essay called “Cancer Buffet.”
Some prompts encourage the writer to combine unrelated material. For example, one instructor asked workshop participants to combine a childhood memory with a story from the news, from a different era than the memory, that has stayed with the writer. Sometimes it’s futile to force a combination, but I saw at least one magical result in that workshop, from an eighteen-year-old just starting to write.
Most of us who write occasionally from prompts use these middle-ground approaches, prompts that provide a set of instructions somewhere between word-a-day and David Means, and they’re not hard to find. Workshops frequently include prompts. Writing texts often contain them. Entire books can be found comprised solely of prompts. In my experience, they don’t often result in a polished, saleable piece of work, but can be helpful fuel, warming a writer towards creativity and productivity. At their worst, they hem the writer in. Breaking free of such prompts isn’t an act of subversion so much as an act of liberation.
With that in mind, here’s a prompt for today: Choose a postcard in which the picture has no obvious connection to your life, such as a postcard of artwork from a gallery. Salvador Dali’s art works well here. Now open a dictionary to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word until you land on a noun. Finally, select a relative, living or dead, whose story you’d like to tell. Beat at low speed until combined; then increase your mixer to high speed and continue until the ingredients form a silky-smooth amalgam. You may not use “amalgam” as your noun. You may not substitute Salvador Dali for your family member, unless he was a family member, in which case you may not use a postcard of his artwork. If Dali’s artwork reminds you of your life, please substitute a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” If that reminds you of your life, please don’t write today.
Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.
November 30, 2021 § 36 Comments
It’s Giving Tuesday! A hyped-up commercialized day of charity to balance out the hyped-up commercialized days of shopping! You’re probably getting exhortations from every nonprofit you’ve ever lent your email to, plus the charities who bought your email from them. It’s inbox hell.
Brevity does not want your money today.
Instead, consider the spirit of Giving Tuesday: if you have, give. But for your author friends and your literary community, the gift of your time and attention is far more valuable than a monetary donation. In that spirit, here’s Brevity’s wishlist of Mostly Free Acts of Literary Citizenship for Giving Tuesday:
Free, 10 minutes or less
- Google an author friend’s name or scroll their social media, and comment on their most recent blog post/article/essay. Let them know someone is reading.
- Pick a quote you like from your friend’s book or essay and post it on your social media. Tag them. If you know how to schedule Tweets, pick three friends and do one a week between now and Christmas.
- Phone your local library and request they order your friend’s book.
Free, 20 minutes or less
- Review your friend’s book on Amazon. If you have five more minutes, copy-paste the review to Goodreads.
- Write a note to an author/writer friend you admire, and tell them why.
- Whatever app, gadget, or process makes your writing life easier, write 50-100 words about why. Send it to Brevity [ brevitymag+blog (insert @ symbol) gmail.com and yes that’s a plus sign] with WRITING HACK in the subject line and we’ll do a round-up of writing-life hacks in the weeks to come.
Takes More Effort But More Rewarding:
- Write a review of a new, small-press book for your or someone else’s blog
- Contact your favorite literary podcast and say you’d like to see the author on it (with two reasons why they’d be great!)
- Offer to read a friend’s manuscript or exchange pages when you both need feedback
- Buy a friend’s book. If it doesn’t interest you, put it in someone else’s Christmas basket
- Subscribe to a literary magazine you’d like to be published in (win-win!)
- Take a chance on a new author—tell your local indie bookstore what you enjoy, and ask what they recommend (bonus points: relationship-building with the store that will one day be recommending your book!)
They’re small things. But they’re not insignificant. As humans, we minimize ourselves and our impact. Particularly in these times, our focus is so strongly on survival and protecting those closest to us, it’s difficult to take outward actions, to engage in a world that has become so actively hostile to our ideals. We tend to think, How much does my compliment matter? Does anyone care what I think?
And each time we take action to benefit a friend—or wish a stranger well—we take one tiny step towards our own happiness. In a challenging time, feeling our own power to do good, even in tiny doses, can reaffirm our faith in ourselves, in each other, and in our literary world.
Your writing matters.
Your opinion, your thoughts, and your inherent membership in our community matters.
Step forward with your words.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.