On Writing “Everything (Except What’s Important)”

January 30, 2013 § 7 Comments

2870342043_fb70d71a20_zWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published. Today, Pamela Dellinger tells us how she came to write “Everything (Except What’s Important):”

She stands at the end of the jetty and watches. Her bathing suit fit at the beginning of the summer, but now the polka-dots are ovals against her dark skin. She looks behind her. All the others, laughing, pushing, hurrying to hurl themselves into the abyss, then do it again. She stands there quietly. They push her, thinking it a game. At the last minute, her arms straighten and her fingers weave together, protecting her from the jellyfish. She brings one out of the water with her, holding it from the top, tentacles rendered useless, poison hanging down. She drops it on the sand to die, and runs down the slippery boards of the jetty again.

This is the person I used to be. A little hesitant, yes, but brave nonetheless. All I wanted to be then was a writer. I threw myself into that task with as much abandon as everything else I did, and devoured the words of others even as I wrote my own. I wrote my way through college, majoring in print journalism and free-lancing for every paper within a hundred-mile radius, covering hospital and school board meetings to make ends meet, writing fiction for fun.

Then, with only my internship left before graduation, my illness spiraled out of control and put an end to it all. I questioned everything about myself, and my abilities took a second seat to survival. I did not write more than a post-it note for almost twenty years.

Two husbands and three children later, I find myself back on the jetty, tossing myself into the dangerous unknown and writing again.

There are few things I know for certain. I may have stood on the jetty, but never would have leapt again unless I was pushed. “Everything (Except What’s Important)” is part of a larger work that began as a short assignment my first semester back in college. When that assignment ended, the project refused to let me put it down, and for that, I am grateful. To take experiences, mold them, shape them, turn them like stones until they shimmer still excites me. This project has given me the opportunity to look at the moments making up my life with a different voice, to see the impact manic depression has on my relationships, to share that impact with others. I’ve cut and revised, tweaked and polished, and even scratched the whole structure and started over more than once. It is constantly, relentlessly drawing me closer to that dark, fearless girl I used to be, who was not afraid to launch into the abyss over and over to do what she loved.

And I have remembered what I love to do is write. My project may never be more than enjoyment. It stretches and grows like the polka-dots on that old bathing suit, refusing to be contained in one shape. Index cards with scenes yet to be written litter my home like my children’s toys. It seems to be gradually becoming a memoir, though I don’t know if it will make it. For now, just the sheer joy of repeatedly hurling myself from the boards with reckless abandon is enough.
Jellyfish be damned.

Vicky Mlyniec on “This I am Allowed” and an Abundance of Heartbreak

January 24, 2013 § 13 Comments

V. MLYNIEC PHOTOWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Vicky Mlyniec tells us how she came to write “This I am Allowed.”

This essay about the loss of my son is the first piece of writing I have produced from a paralyzing abundance of heartbreaking material.  I try to write, and turn away.  I wait and try again.  My husband gently tries to dissuade me; I am slow out of the abyss.  But for me, writing is the way.  Meanwhile, my mind, flooded, creates more material, making connections that surprise and interest me, some that offer solace, some that deepen horror, others that open new doors.

Where even to begin?  How would I convey my son’s rare spirit?  A teenage boy who stops to tap water from a rain-drenched flower to release it from the water’s weight.  How from his youngest days I worried that he was too good to be true, that our family was perhaps too happy?  Or begin with the origin of my long-standing sense of doom — family tales of firing squads and flights across Siberia during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. And just when I set aside my expectation of apocalypse I am shown that horror doesn’t have to arrive in jackboots.  Or start with the early morning dark of the accident?  How we clipped a deer ourselves just a quarter-mile before we came across the flares and emergency vehicles, the man wearing a windbreaker lettered CORONER?  Or maybe the gashed tree — the young tree that we surely drove by thousands of times coming and going to Scout meetings, Little League games, and high school during Nate’s 18-year life.  The tree there all the time, silently growing along with my son, as he graduated from infant carrier to car seat, to front seat, to driver’s seat.

Complicate matters with a Russian saga: the story of my long dead grandfather, Nikolaj Konstantinovich Gins, a captain in the White Russian Army, who died in China long ago.  There are common features here and as more occur to me I decide to conjoin the stories.  In the year after Nate’s death I submerged myself in a translation project, finally bringing to English the contents of fifty brittle love letters Nikolaj wrote to his bride, first from the front as he fought the Bolsheviks, and then, after a year’s silence, from where he lived in hiding for two years after the war was lost.  I “met” my young grandfather through his words; and through his words I saw my old Baba afresh as an abandoned bride and a bereaved young wife.  These lost kin and others whose lives I came to know, provided untold comfort.

Left to me, examine, compare and contrast:  Family lost; family regained.  The nature of tragedy: Global, historical – war, famine, act of nature.  Everyday – a lab report, a drowning, a deer in the road.  Put all of these thoughts, memories, feelings, facts, images, letters, questions and tears into what I picture as a huge funnel.  Add the pressure of a writer not writing.

A fellowship at the Hambidge Center for the Arts in Georgia gives me three weeks alone in a remote cabin.  Yes!  I imagine index cards, a list of chapters, some alternate beginnings written.  Flying home with a big start.  None of that happens.  I arrive with notes from my journals, disordered notebooks, letters to translate, my Russian-English dictionary and Tell It Slant.  End result: aside from hours of hiking alone in the woods, I accomplish just two things.  On five large sheets of newsprint tacked to the walls, I list every topic, issue and image I can think of to include, from skid marks to Petrograd, and then live in view of them.  On the last day, the essay.  I think Brevity.  The limitation of 750 words is a warm invitation, the restriction a mercy.  I start small, begin with myself. I focus on a puzzle, my out-of-character behavior. And trust the essay to explain.

Lee Martin on His Essay “Talk Big” and the Communal Voice

January 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

lee_martinWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Lee Martin tells us how he came to write “Talk Big:

“Talk Big” came about as my response to a specific shooting from my homeland of southeastern Illinois, but really it was my response to all the violence from that part of the country that I’ve been on the periphery of, and also my attempt to understand that violence from the perspective of the perpetrator and those who participated in it verbally. The essay, written in a communal voice, also investigates the role that language plays in these unfortunate acts of violence, becoming a weapon that eventually carries someone to the point of no return.

My writing of flash nonfiction is often voice-driven, so it was natural for me to occupy the collective point of view of the people who were present the night some drunken words led to a man’s death, and by so doing to think more deeply about who those people were in that particular place and to eventually find the vulnerability of that group, that fear of becoming voiceless. The only way they can try to keep that from happening is by talking big, big, big.

I love the small towns and farming communities of my native southeastern Illinois, and I recognize the pressures on the people there—the pressures of a shrinking economy, the prevalence of drugs like crystal meth, the dearth of opportunity—everything that can cause one’s world to narrow so much there’s nothing to be seen on the horizon, only the here-and-now, and when that’s the case, it’s not so hard to step over the line of right-thinking into the land of making a big enough noise that people have to notice. Sometimes, like the night of the shooting I describe, there’s a communal pain that screeches and roars until something explodes.

Writing from a collective point of view also allows me to think more deeply about the self. If you’re interested in trying it, begin by recalling a saying from one of your communities (e.g. family, church, school, scout troop, neighborhood, town) and then write an opening line that contains that saying. Keep writing using the language of the community to introduce a narrative action. See if you can let the climactic moment of that action reverberate through the community in a way that evokes a surprising response. The language of a community projects a certain image of the group, but almost always there’s an opposite truth just beneath the surface of the language. The pressures of the action will allow that opposite truth to emerge. In the case of my essay, people talk big to keep themselves from being afraid.

Nin Andrews on Her Essay “Bird Watching with James Dickey”

January 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

Nin-AndrewsWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Nin Andrews tells us how she came to write “Bird Watching with James Dickey:”

My father was an habitual story-teller. It was a day like no other day, he would say, beginning one of his many stories. Immediately my mother would correct him.

It was a perfectly ordinary day. I remember it well.

The air was so electric, my father would continue, ignoring my mother. Even the hairs stood up on my hands.

Hairs don’t stand up on hands, my mother said. Besides, it’s hair, not hairs.

I said hairs. I meant hairs. 

Sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in front of the box fan after dinner, I would listen to my father’s tales, and my mother like a hound tracking his every word. They were good stories, made better by my mother’s interruptions. And they were evolving stories that changed with every telling.

Sometimes my father would be joined by his friend, the writer, Peter Taylor. The two would trade tales about their families, the south, ghosts, and famous writers. My father, a competitive man, could hold his own on the first three categories of stories. He even suspected Peter was stealing his tales and using them in his fiction. Secretly my father thought he was the better raconteur of the two.

But when it came to stories about authors, Peter Taylor, held most of the cards. He and his wife, Eleanor Ross Taylor, could talk at length about Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford and many others. But my father did hold one ace. William Faulkner visited our farm before I was born. Did I ever tell you about the time William Faulkner was thrown off our horse? he would begin. Peter nodded. After a while, my father decided to tell a James Dickey story instead. After several tellings, my father went back to talking about William Faulkner. I’ve often wondered how many times William Faulkner fell off our horse.

Heather Sellers on her Essay “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth”

January 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

heather-sellersWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Heather Sellers tells us how she came to write “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth:” 

The roots of this piece are from a poetry assignment—a kind of marathon writing run I do each year with a friend.  For Lent, instead of giving something up, I like to give something out.  Each year for Lent I write a poem a day for the forty days. It’s intense and wonderful and demanding and incredibly fun. My writing partner send the poems to each other via e-mail by 11 AM.  And we write back quick comments—just saying what we loved. On the fly. What’s wonderful about Poetry Lent is you walk around looking, hungrily, for anything you can use as fodder because the next poem is already demanding your attention. And you wake up with a poem in your heart, on your lips. It’s a luscious position in which to be. (Option: you can do a twenty day mini-lent, or a seven-day “cleanse.”)  If, at the end of Lent I end up with one “keeper,” I’m thrilled.  The assignment is more about the process of paying attention than it is about product development.

So, I was writing a poem each day for forty days and the morning after the interaction with Liz I began writing about what had happened. I described the gift of this student’s tears, the grace of her profound sadness, a sadness which circled me and held me and somehow brought me into closer touch with the griefs around my parents’ endings. As I wrote and revised, I noticed how much teaching is based on listening, and being present, being with. I began writing on Friday morning, and the campus was closed and the town was empty because it was Spring Break. In the quiet and space allowed by those wide windy days, in the dead quiet, the poem grew, changed shape, shifted its center, and by the end of the week, it had become this short essay.  Form follows vacation. 

The parts were all there—the assignment and deadline and reader waiting are for me an essential part of the writing process; the exquisite overlap of the student feeling and saying the very things in my own heart; and, crucially, the empty “dead” campus, a feeling it was just the two of us left living, trapped and held by that great old stone mausoleum-temple, Graves Hall.

This piece was originally titled “Us in Graves” until a reader pointed out that the title could be misread as the United States in Graves. The new title still gives the effect of us being buried by grief, I think.

On Writing “First Bath”

September 25, 2012 § 6 Comments

Sonya Lea writes about the origins of “First Bath,” her essay in the current issue of Brevity.

I began to write our memoir from the notes I made when I lived with my husband in a cancer hospital for three weeks. He was being treated with an aggressive surgery and chemotherapy, which had caused an anoxic insult, a brain injury in which his mind emptied his memories. My piece in Brevity, “First Bath” came from those notes about the early sensual experiences with my husband’s body, and a self so altered that I called him the “new” man.

The time in the cancer hospital had been tumultuous. Patients screamed. Wives grabbed my arm to ask me why their husbands were struggling. Nurses assumed I was out of control rather than a woman surrendering to pure emotion. As I circumambulated the hospital hallways, I memorized other’s pain, and wondered what had happened to the husband who “died” in the ICU. When we returned home, I wrote as a way to make sense of the events, and to release the trauma of that time and place. For the first few years I wrote a piece each month. An image would come to mind – the pink bowl filled with soap and warm water – and the piece would emerge from the tender sensation surrounding the event. I wrote in fragments, in a collage style, images that came together like the piecework my Kentucky grandmothers made from scrap material they sewed together. Nothing had to fit together perfectly, but the word-quilt somehow found beauty in the relationship of one fragment to the other. Some pieces were longer, like the description of the bath. Others were only a few lines. I crafted the pieces using Priscilla Long’s fine practices in The Writer’s Portable Mentor. I shared them with my writing group, and began to receive feedback. I learned where I was still confused about what information was needed for readers to grapple with this complex story.

When I began to write about my husband’s constant forgetting – an outcome of the traumatic brain injury (TBI) – I felt the despair of losing him so fully that I realized I was at a terrible crossroad: I had to choose completing the memoir or bonding with my husband. I told my mentor and colleagues that I had to put aside the story and concentrate on rebuilding my relationship. They understood my choice. I began writing fiction.

Eight years after the surgery I had luckily fallen in love with the new man, and could return to the memoir. I was stunned to see that the story fragments mirrored the state of the TBI: The stop and start of forgetting, the randomness of what gets kept and lost, even the nature of what it is to attempt to identify by holding onto our narratives, (and to have that history/herstory dismantled.) This hadn’t been something that could be planned but was necessitated by the nature of the trauma itself.

“Memory is a servant, faithful not only to the believed past but also to the imagined future.” I write these words in my journal and then I spend years learning what they mean.

Of Swerve: The Apology Epistle

September 29, 2009 § 8 Comments

Brenda Miller reveals the roots of her Brevity essay “Swerve,” and offers us a writing prompt along the way:

This little essay is a testament to many things: to the power of friendship, the efficacy of assignments, the resonance of small detail, and trust in one’s own intuition.

Friendship: It’s mid-autumn, and I go to a bookstore café to meet with two women I don’t know very well yet. We’d met through a service-learning program at the university, discovered we all want more writing time, more excuses for writing. So Kim, Marion, and I gather in this café—where the service is surly and spotty—at the table next to the poetry bookshelf. This lone bookshelf is hidden away here on the top floor, almost as an afterthought, poetry relegated to the corner where it takes some effort to find it.

We’re not sure how to begin. We sip our lattes, gossip about school. My eyes wander toward the poetry bookshelf, and my hand reaches out to grab a book, Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson. I’ve heard about this book, I say. Do you want to read it together?

Assignment: So we do. And we come back together the following week, excited by her “Divorce Epistles,” by the way Emerson is able to return to the past, to pain, to loss, through directly addressing the ex-husband. We all have something in our past to address, some complexity that hasn’t been easily resolved, perhaps never will be. So we give each other an assignment. Write an apology, we say, to someone in your past. An “apology epistle.” I’m not sure why we come up with apology. It’s just the first thing to come to mind.

Detail: I sit down at home and write the first words, I’m sorry… And immediately the image of that piece of wood in the road comes into my mind. It doesn’t arrive with a blare and a bang; it just emerges there in my brain, crystal clear, as if it had been waiting all this time for me to blink it into focus. I’m sorry about that time I ran over a piece of wood in the road. I haven’t been thinking about my ex-boyfriend, a man I knew thirty years ago, a relationship that had been fraught with alcoholism and emotional abuse. I had been a young woman, very young, still a child. And so, with the image of this small piece of wood, this roadside debris, the entire relationship comes back full force, everything that had transpired between us distilled into the essence of that road trip across the desert. The essay comes out of me in one piece, in about thirty minutes, one image leading to the next.

Intuition: I bring the piece, three copies, to our meeting the following week. We’re all a little nervous, so we spend most of our time gossiping before turning to the pages in our hands. I read “Swerve” aloud, and as I’m reading I see what I’ve really written. I didn’t know it until I shared it with them; I had just been following that piece of wood. But now I see that while I truly was sorry about running over it, I was really sorry for subjecting my young self to such a harsh and terrifying experience. And behind it all was the fact that I had gotten into the relationship in the first place out of a kind of penance: guilt over something that had happened to me just before I met him. So the entire time was tied up with apology, with truly being sorry for so many things.

I could never have written the essay deliberately, trying to work with all those complex emotions head-on. I simply had to trust in that piece of wood. The second paragraph came out in one long line, because I couldn’t risk stopping: I had to keep going to see where we would all end up. I had to let my intuition guide me to that dangerous place, knowing I’d be safe in the company of newfound friends.

Notes on Writing “Accident” by John Calderazzo

September 18, 2008 § 6 Comments

John Calderazzo shares some thoughts about his essay “Accident” in Brevity 28:

A funny thing happened to me a few years ago as I sat in the back row of a beginning creative writing class taught by a Colorado State University graduate student of mine. He’d invited me to observe him so that I could write a letter of recommendation that spoke to his teaching skills. So I sat in the back, in silence, taking notes and doing whatever he asked the class to do. Which on this afternoon was to write a poem that grew out of some very good sound exercises he had just run us through.

Once, in my twenties, I considered myself a poet, and I’d even published a chapbook from those intense and confused young man days. Then I decided that prose was my bag, the natural register of my writing voice. First it was fiction and then, overwhelmingly, nonfiction, and I had been writing magazine pieces, essays, and books ever since. “Ever since” meant a good twenty-five years.

So I have to say that I was shocked to see, and then feel, the poem that I dutifully started morph line by line and image by image into something that I could feel with my entire body. It was like watching a muscular stallion clop tranquilly by, then climbing on and taking off with him over the countryside, leaping ditches and flying towards the horizon, even though I barely knew how to ride. Scribbling very fast, I wrote right past the bottom of my legal pad and onto the desk top—well, maybe I put another sheet of paper down first (I’m writing nonfiction here, after all). But it sure felt like I’d flown off the page.

The next morning I was up before 5, writing more poetry. Same thing the next morning and the next . . . and now, a couple of years later, I have a poetry manuscript, culled from about 200 new poems, that I’m about to send out. I am still shocked by this.

But I’m not shocked that, along the way, a few of my poems came out sounding like narrative nonfiction. I mean especially some of the ones in which the “I” is “really” me and the facts are all verifiably true. This was almost the case with “Accident.” Based on an incident that occurred about two weeks before I sat down to write, I conceived it as poem. All the facts were true except one: the overturned, gasoline-smelling car never burst into flames. In my poem I made it do that because that was exactly what I thought might happen at the time. So if I wanted that car to burn, it would burn.

But when I decided to see what the piece looked like in paragraphs and then decided to make it nonfiction, I had to douse those poetic flames, so to speak. Thus the phrase, “In my mind’s eye . . .”

And thus this nonfiction short-short for Brevity.

From Terese Svoboda, on Writing “How Catholic”

September 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

For the next week or so, we’ll be featuring blog entries from authors found in our newest issue, Brevity 28.  The first comes from Terese Svoboda, author of How Catholic:

For maybe twenty years I have been trying to write a short story about the effect of finding two moons of green eye shadow on a towel in my youth. I have also written three poems twisting the memory around, alluding to its larger context. But what was that larger context? Was it only a “family story,” an anecdote worth repeating only once to another relative just to make sure I didn’t imagine it?

I feared nonfiction telling: that would be me. I went into poetry originally to throw the velvet cloak around that persona, or to flaunt the “I” voice in peekaboo. Publishing my memoir last year–Black Glasses Like Clark Kent–where I could skulk around as a detective and refer to myself in relation to my relatives—wasn’t too bad. But only under the duress of my uncle’s suicide and the horrific revelations of his tapes would I have attempted its writing. Yet something about the form felt familiar. Cannibal, my first novel, was called a roman a clef by Vogue.  According to Wikipedia, that’s the opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject. Think “thinly disguised.” The entry suggests that any material based on personal experience is a roman a clef, and used Heart of Darkness as an example. Huh?

What I do know is that all material needs the fuzziness of time until what’s important remains. Time completed How Catholic, enough to gain perspective on what those two green moons meant, and to find a voice to say what I understood about them in a larger context. To find a formal solution for this narrative in creative nonfiction worked. I’m happy.

Maybe I’ve always been happy.

Writing the Exotic: Anne Panning on “Vietnam: Four Ways”

February 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Anne Panning discusses the background to her essay, “Vietnam: Four Ways,” in the current issue of Brevity:

It’s hard to write about “exotic” places, and having lived in my fair share of  them—Vietnam, The Philippines, Hawaii—I always go through a period  where I try desperately to use these settings in my fiction.  I’ve found, however, that creative nonfiction—in particular, brief creative nonfiction—may be the best vehicle for me.  Why?  Because it doesn’t allow me to include any “what to pack, where to stay, don’t drink the water” information but it forces me to choose a singular, off-kilter lens from which to view the place and to do it quickly.  When I was writing there were originally “five ways,” but suddenly it seemed it could just as easily be “ten ways” or “twenty ways,” when in fact my goal was to capture the small fragmentary moments that defined the experience of the place for me.  So instead of focusing on large scale noticings (the presence of Communist soldiers everywhere), I looked at the small.

What originally sparked this essay was a street vendor making my son a  bird out of shaved ice one night when the temperature was around 95 degrees. There was so much drama in the simple act of getting the ice bird home without its melting.  I was also deeply affected by the loneliness and severity of the military swimming pool where I swam laps, and knew I had to write about it in some way.

I’m currently finishing a nonfiction book about my experiences in Vietnam with my husband and two young kids called VIET*MOM, and find myself still struggling with the issue of the “exotic.”

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