On Memoir: When Angst Is A Prompt

May 2, 2016 § 31 Comments

By Laura Vrcek

Laura Vrcek

Laura Vrcek

I recently read an essay by Tom Spanbauer titled “Dangerous Writing” in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers. In it, he mentions that occasionally a beginning writer will submit a horror story or screenplay in his Dangerous Writing Workshop. The misunderstanding is honest at best but what Spanbauer wants is considerably scarier. He writes, “To write dangerous is to go to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore…” The kind of writing that challenges the personas we publish on social media and defend when they’re wrong.

It was timely when I read it, just after AWP’s 2016 conference in Los Angeles. My goal this go around was to find enough panels to attend so that I could sponge and then justify writing about my mother’s bipolar disorder despite the fact that it makes her unhappy. On a panel called “The Ethics of the Artist: Writing About Family in Essay and Memoir,” four female memoirists (Honor Moore, Alice Eve Cohen, Julie Metz, Aspen Matis) discussed the ethics of writing about loved ones, how to navigate those relationships after publishing, and whether or not you really need permission at all.

I’ve asked a lot of friends about this too, some writers, some not. They suggest that I share my stories not out of angst or in an effort to hurt my mother’s feelings but because her (and my) stories can help others.

I so want to believe them. I want to believe I wrote about the time my mother told me I was ungrateful after I flew to Dallas to help her recover from surgery so that other children of parents with mental illnesses feel less alone. I want to believe that there’s a noble reason behind sharing that my mother once told me if I were to get a tattoo of a seahorse, people would think I’m a whore because “seahorse” sounds like “whore.” But it’s just not true. Loud, for the world to know: I’m still angry. And when I write about what it’s like to have what feels like a broken mother, part of me leaks steam.

When I come into contact with confident, women writers in their 50s or 60s, I tend to baby-bird them. I see in them the strong-female figure I wish I’d had growing up. The idolization is accompanied by incessant guilt. Guilt for not wanting to fly to see my mother more. Guilt over what she’d do if she found out I felt this way.

Spanbauer is right. When you write, you have the constant option to be dangerous. When you and your pen walk right up to the edge of a cliff and glare over, you always risk an inevitable drop.


Laura Vrcek‘s poetry and nonfiction work have appeared in The Red Clay Review, Apple Valley Review, The Orange Dot, and on KQED’s storytelling segment, Perspectives. She lives in Oakland, California and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University.

Senior Moments at the AWP Writers Conference

April 27, 2016 § 16 Comments

Len Lyons

Len Lyons

By Len Lyons

“Even the registration was overwhelming,” I said to my daughter. We were walking, heads lowered, through a wind tunnel created by the massive Los Angeles Convention Center to our left, and the Staples Center to the right. She told me, “That should be your opening line.” I had just told her my fantasy of writing about the experience that lay before me: attending the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference, where I hoped to reconnect with a world I had once felt a part of, but one in which my citizenship was now arguable. That I had published two books in my thirties, two in my forties, and one in my sixties seemed not to matter. It had been ten years since the last book. Was it too late now to rejoin the cohort of twelve thousand writers attending this conference, most of them decades younger than I.

My daughter, Gila, is a 30-something writer riding the wave of a career gathering gravitas. She had been invited to be a panelist at a session on memoir writing and feminism. Among the thousands who had flocked from around the nation for this event were best-selling authors, aspiring neophytes, and the majority of us somewhere in between. But I felt I was in a category of one: a 70-something sometimes-writer, whose energy for generating books, or even journal articles, was palpably ebbing. I feared that all that was left of my erstwhile waves of creativity was the foam. Because I was in LA for my sister’s 75th birthday party, the conference drew me towards it, irresistibly, like a survival kit, a last attempt to confront the fear that the shelf life of my career had expired.

Earlier that day, when I first entered the cavernous West Hall of the Convention Center to register, I’d observed the long and fast-growing queue warily. As the line zig-zagged at a lazy pace towards the matrix of monitors for self-registration, I surveyed the 70 or 80 people ahead of me. They carried backpacks or dragged carry-on luggage behind them, their conversations were animated, punctuated by eruptions of laughter. There were plenty of tattoos, nose rings, and a remarkably large percentage of women with short blue hair. There were also a dozen or so middle-aged, conventionally dressed types, but no other senior citizens I could spot. Mathematically speaking, I was pretty sure that I raised the average age more than any other individual. Anyone here my age ought to be the dean of writers by now, I thought, not someone trying to get his game back. I wondered what I thought I was doing, I imagined ducking under the roped aisles and heading for the sunshine outside, opening a dependable New York Times, while nursing a nonfat latte at a ubiquitous Starbucks. I knew enough online, millennial English to think to myself, wtf!

What kept me in line, literally, was a snippet of conversation I overheard in the row of fresh young faces in front of me.

“I’m like totally bummed,” said a young lady in a tank top with blond curls falling to her shoulders. She was talking to a guy who gazed at her nodding earnestly, while his thumbs roamed with complete confidence all over the screen of his phone. “The agent was supposed to call me, but nothing. No text, no call.”

“Don’t worry,” said her friend.

“Fuck, man,” she continued, “she’s the closest I’ve been to getting my book published.”

“The conference hasn’t even started,” he assured her, “chill”.

Overhearing her frustration, her longing to get to a place I had already been, I was buoyed, briefly, by the feeling that I did have some right to stand there. At the same time, it didn’t begin to answer the real question: Could I write anything now, ten years after writing the most recent book?

Even more daunting was the question of whether I could write the way I had wanted to early on: from the inside, fueled by heart and imagination. It had always been easy for me to write about a topic, aiming at a known “market” for a book. I had published three books about jazz, composed on an IBM Selectric (William Morrow and Company), and two more about home computers in their infancy (Addison-Wesley), conceived on an Atari! After a brief (18-year) interlude as a technical writer (Sun Microsystems), I came off the bench and hit a solid single in 2007 about Ethiopian Jews struggling to find their place in Israel (Jewish Lights). But these topical books, which promised at least some predictable readers, now seemed like an easy target. But what about creating a feeling, a mood, an imagined story with memorable characters, struggling, failing or succeeding, a plot the reader had to see through to the end? This was what drew me to writing in the first place, the great novels, passionate internal explorations. Those were the targets I was initially after, but I had never really aimed high enough to test myself.

There was one more fleeting rush of confidence. A short story of mine, sent out on a whim, had been published in 2013 (jewishfiction.net). Full disclosure: it had been written 15 years earlier. Yet it was the kind of sustained, imagined truth that drew me to writing in the first place. That lonely spark from an internal fire, now mostly ashes, also helped to keep me in this line of writers, if only to find out once and for all if I belonged there.

The next opportunity to be overwhelmed came quickly on the morning the conference began. The program book offered a feast for anyone with an appetite for indecision. More than twenty panels met simultaneously during the first session at 9 a.m., but there was no doubt which one was meant for me: “Crashing Through Barriers: Confronting Writing Barriers and Rebooting Your Work.” It was comforting to be among close to a hundred writers for whom this panel was a compelling way to start the first day. By the end of the 75-minute panel, I had picked up one new attitude – writer’s block serves a creative function, letting your voice well up behind it, until it flows. I hope so. There were many practical tips. “Never throw out a draft,” said one panelist, a fiction writer who also edits a well-respected literary quarterly, “because you may revive it later on successfully.” Later that morning, I crossed paths with that editor and told him about my 15-year old story that, after some polishing, was published in a good online journal. “And I have more of them,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible. He invited me to send it and claimed he would remember me.

Not all picks were as obvious. “The Jazz Aesthetic” panel took place at the same time as “Grove Atlantic Writers Question Race: What difference does it make?” As a jazz author, who would love to incorporate the spontaneity of improvisation into fiction (think Murakami), I couldn’t pass that up. But my book about Ethiopian Jews had drawn me into investigating other Jews of African descent and ultimately the trope of “race,” which has recently been rejected as bogus by geneticists and anthropologists. The venues for these panels were a five-minute brisk walk from each other. I shuttled between them twice! Neither one lived up to my hopes, but I got my aerobic exercise for the morning.

Of course, I went to the panel “It’s Not A Love Story,” which featured five women writers, most importantly, my daughter. Among the 60 or so in the audience, there were only two men, and the other one looked close to my age. His daughter must be on the panel too, I thought. But this panel was enlightening for a guy like me who reflexively thinks of memoirs as a genre for famous people who hire ghostwriters. But memoir writing is not that. It is really not “navel gazing.” It is best explained by a book Gila gave me to read, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. The “I” is a character in the work, not the “I” who writes in a diary. For me, the most memorable statement in the session came during the Q & A from a young panelist who was responding to a question from the audience. She began by saying, “I actually had two boyfriends when I found out I was pregnant.” Did she realize that would be a perfect opening line for a short story?

Over the three days, I jotted down some pithy remarks that I think of as blossoms without stems, because I no longer know who said them. But they are in my notebook between direct quotation marks. Each one massaged my imagination and gave me something to contemplate that promised to nourish, mysteriously so, my quest to return to “real” writing. Here are a few: “A short story is like a bubble. Its surface reflects the world around it.” . . . “We don’t need chase scenes or shootouts to make a story succeed. We need to identify what is happening internally that transforms the self. That is drama.” . . .“It [the memoir] can’t just be about you, but about what other people can identify with in you.” . . . “I gave myself permission to write a thousand bad pages because writing badly is better than not writing at all.”

For the past ten years, I had committed the worst sin, worse than a thousand bad pages – not writing at all, or at least not the kind of writing that made me want to write. As the conference ended, I felt myself starting out again, rejuvenated or at least with a remodeled interior, an aspiring writer once again, now in his 70s. The question I had asked myself – Can I? – turned out to have an answer, but not the one I expected: I want to try, even if I can’t. I had to leave the landscape of known markets, topic-driven writing, and instead follow the writing itself and whatever creative instincts remain. There’s no telling where this will lead; so far, to what you’ve just read.

Len Lyons, Ph.D. in Philosophy (Brown University), is the author of six books on a variety of subjects, including jazz, philosophy, and computers and religion. His most recent book is The Ethiopian Jews of Israel – Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land, about the struggle for acceptance in Israel of 140,000 Ethiopian Jews. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Tablet, The Forward, Jewish Review of Books, JewishFiction.net, Journal of African Religions, and more.

Sharing the AWP Love: Accumulated Wisdom Posts.

April 7, 2016 § 18 Comments

Janice Gary

Janice Gary

By Janice Gary

It’s too big, too rushed, too crazy with choices. But for a writer, there is nothing like the AWP. Every year, I look forward to attending with both excitement and dread. In the end, it’s always worth the trouble. I fill up with inspiration, writer camaraderie and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

The inspiration (and sugar high) lasts about week, maybe less. This time, to keep the AWP mojo going, I’ve decided to revisit one gem of wisdom a day from my semi-indecipherable notes. The content is telling. Memoir. Personal Narrative. Some poetry. (I did wander into a translation panel by accident and stayed long enough to be polite and catch my breath. As a panelist, I’m sensitive to flagrant bolting.)

The quotes and snatches of conversation are pale ghosts of the experience, but act like touchstones. And some are quite moving. For those who were not able to attend this year, or those who did not take notes (you know who you are), here are my notes in one overwhelming rush – just like the real thing.

AWP 2016 : Accumulated Wisdom Posts.

“Be vulnerable on the page. If we do anything as writers, it’s to make people feel less alone and visible.” Lee Stein.

“Writing is how I metabolize my own experience.” Melissa Febos

“Essay is making meaning out of raw experience through the sentence to reflect the true and beautiful.” Richard Hoffman

“Be alert to speaking and listening in writing. Listen to what you have written on the page.” Mark Doty

“Even though the unbearable is unbearable, it is not unbearable forever.” Marilyn Bosquin

“Everything I write is always a wandering.” Katharine Winograd

Writing enacts, entombs, it raises (the past) and buries it.” Tom Larson

“The impulse to let another voice in is a generous one.” Fiona McCrae

“Say one bold thing.” Maggie Nelson

“Those who condemn memoir are scared of it. They are scared of the emotionally graphic nature of memoir.” Sue William Silverman

“This habit of trying and retrying, approach and then another approach is a pattern in trauma narratives. People can bring themselves back from extinction by putting together shards of fragments.” Debra Marquart, quoting Terry Tempest Williams.

“The way to write a piece that ultimately speaks to the universal is to allow the bottom to drop out of what kind of truth you’re willing to reveal.” Cheryl Strayed

I make myself naked on the page. I show my wounds. I share my shame. That’s what I do in memoir.” Beverly Donofrio

“My story matters more than what anyone thinks of it.” Laura Bogart

“People who lack decency live among people of great decency.” Shann Ray

“Be your full self unapologetically.” Anna March

“Our job as writers is not to make people comfortable. Artists are supposed to be subversive. It’s what we do when we put words on paper.” Sue Silverman

“Inspiration is something only amateurs wait for. If my work is flat, if it’s dead, I keep going back to it until I pump it back to life.” Andre Dubus III

“It’s just that hard every time. You have to start over and over again.” Toi Derricotte


Janice Gary is a writer, teacher and lecturer of creative nonfiction in all its glorious forms. She is the author Short Leash: a Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance and is on the faculty of the Master of Liberal Studies Program at Arizona State University. www.janicegary.com.








First Timer AWP16 Debrief, or Notes from a Literary Lilliputian

April 5, 2016 § 18 Comments

AWP16ThumbnailBy Phyllis Brotherton

At AWP you will meet for the first time your true tribe, literary geeks who nerd out on words. Since you are likely a literary type, you already know the Ben Franklin quote about what happens to fish and company after three days, so I won’t repeat it. Much the same can be said about AWP16 in Los Angeles, though there were also stellar moments. Here are a few of my takeaways.

You will see odd ducks of every ilk. Like the woman who walks away from the snack bar shaking her head and repeating loudly, “No, no, no,” after the cashier says, “$4.00.”

You will experience frequent frustration and joy in quick succession. Like the security guard in front of the Bookfair, who will speak with authority on how to get to Room 401, waving his arm in a direction that you already know is completely and utterly wrong. Soon after, the female security guard pushing mid-seventies, wearing thick, padded shoes from years of working on her feet, with the cool bleached streak in her hair and pink lipstick, who smiles and calls you, Honey, who walks you halfway to your destination. You love her so much for being kind and right.

Phyllis Brotherton

Phyllis Brotherton

You will see garb you have never imagined, first surprising you, then breaking you out of your Macy’s/Chico’s mode, taking mental fashion notes for next time.

You will attend good panels and so-so panels; panels you will walk out of and panels you won’t want to end.

You will spot your lit mag hero, whom you’ve joked is your “fantasy husband (if you were in to husbands),” with his titanium-orbed spectacles and Buddha body. You will walk behind him all the way to the conference center, sit two tables from him in the bar chatting affably to others, and you will never, not once, muster the gumption to walk up and introduce yourself, because you cannot fathom a follow-up sentence after hello.

You will not take advantage of the “Introverts & Networking” panel, since you want to attend the “Self as Protagonist” panel. (Fact-checkers beware: I am employing the “creative” aspect of CNF.)

You will not be invited to private parties because you are a literary Lilliputian. You intuitively understand this but detect a slight bitter taste in your mouth, an everyday and entirely human case of sour grapes. By the end of the bleary-eyed three days, you have ceased pining after literary rock stars and groupie kiss-butts, of which you were/are one.

You will appreciate the small audience who attend your reading, even if 25 of the 28 are friendly faces. You learn that sub-tribes exist and you will eventually locate one, which aligns with your unique set of writing desires, world view and quirks.

You will feel empowered by the feminist evening event where you witness unapologetic women kicking some ass of their own in their writing and performance. You will buy the t-shirt with the f-word on it and know in your gut that after you have flown out of this alternate universe, time warp of a conference and land in your own reality town, you may never have the courage to wear it in front of your spouse, to the grocery store, or God forbid, to work, even though you will want to nurture the tiny seed of radical womanness and help it grow into a fierce fire.

You will next time learn how to better navigate food. Feasting on bacon-wrapped dates, good wine, sumptuous burrata and $32 oatmeal (OK, with toast and coffee), will quickly break your budget, and when no university or other entity is footing the bill, you risk turning into the Shaking Head Woman walking out of the snack bar yelling, no, no, no! Next time you will pack instant oatmeal, tea bags, protein bars and almonds, resolving to persevere each day all the way to the evening meal, expending precious moolah only on water, and maybe, maybe a Diet Coke.

You will give some people a pass, such as the talented, MFA grad, who frequently came to class drunk, whom you plied with granola bars and peanuts to keep him awake, who reminded you of a young Ernest Hemingway on the verge of flaming out, who greets you from behind an esteemed lit journal booth, and says, “Oh, you are reading in that panel, too? So, it’s all of you.” All of us? All of who? The older women? While our moderator fell ill prior to the conference, two of the four of us present are under forty-five. We are a disparate group, one teacher, one professor, one retiree, and one working outside of education (me). Three straight, one gay (me). Three dark haired, one gray (me). Is his a categorization much like Edward Stein’s back-sleepers and front-sleepers?

You will give another pass to those you’ve personally invited to attend your reading, who decline because they have a conflict, a very real and valid excuse. You will also forgive yourself for making the same excuse when you want to attend another panel or can’t sit through one more panel or want to hibernate in your room. You will never make it to Room 507, the Quiet Space, though you desperately wish to; there is just no time to be quiet.

Didion's Corvette

Didion’s Corvette

You may manage to make one good point in a Q & A. Mine: A good-hearted and ever-so-polite smack down of one panel guy who posits that Joan Didion’s cool persona, i.e. the sunglasses, the Corvette, the cigarette, is merely a result of good marketing, while in fact the real Joan is crabby, conservative and slightly mentally ill. You ask if we should possibly consider that forty or fifty years after our cool twenties and thirties, after all that life and loss, who doesn’t become crabby, conservative and slightly mentally ill. Joan was cool. We all were cool in the Sixties.

You will be rocked by inspiring advice found in the oddest of places that will alter your writing journey. In your old copy of Like a Beggar, that you lug to AWP just to get Ellen Bass’s autograph, and on the way home on the plane you open it and read, “Be brave.”

You will drink your post-AWP morning coffee out of a mug inscribed with Cheryl Strayed’s words, “Write like a Motherfucker,” and you intend to do just that.

Phyllis Brotherton is a late-blooming writer, receiving her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University at the age of sixty-six. Her essays have appeared in literary journals including Your Impossible Voice, Spry, Shark Reef, and Under the Gum Tree. Her essay, “Ashes and File Cabinets,” was nominated for 2015 “Best of the Net” by Jet Fuel Review. She was fortunate to participate in the AWP16 Panel Reading, “Worlds Within the Other California.” She works at ValleyPBS and lives with her wife, Denise, in Clovis, CA.

AWP 2016, Los Angeles or Bust: A Packing List

March 29, 2016 § 6 Comments

awpSome helpful packing advice from Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige:

1. Combat Medic Kit.

If, like me, you suffer from both actual and imagined illnesses, you will want to be prepared in case of a blowout at the book fair, a paroxysm in panel, or (god forbid, crossing myself just in case) an embolism in flight. Make sure you pack the essentials: vitamin-C, pain reliever, prescriptions, antacids, Calamine Lotion, antiseptic, anti-diarrheals, anti-anxieties, anti-inflammatories, anti-psychotics, tourniquet, epi-pen, staple gun, and emergency flares (better safe than sorry). In case of emergency, you can find me, my kit, and my hypochondriac’s diagnostic wheel at the Brevity table in the book fair.

2. Toiletries.

Red lipstick, moustache wax, pomade, cigarettes, mouthwash, flask, sunscreen, hair brush (?).

3. Snacks.

Leftover jellybeans and Peeps (which double as action figures for book fair dioramas), cigarettes (or nicotine gum), gum (nicotine gum), energy drinks, coffee (instant single-serve pouches are a lifesaver!), Emergen-C, Ziploc bags—for book fair loot and snacks you can pilfer from various hotel lobbies.

4. Old-Timey Typewriter*.

Who needs clothes? It’s Los Angeles, 75 degrees and sunny.

*Check with local hipsters to see if this is still a thing.

5. Sandal/ Mandal/ Strappy Footwear.

You want to make your friends back in Michigan jealous of the tan lines on your feet.

6. Razor

To shave your toe tufts (see #5), or any other overgrown tufts in need of maintenance.

7. Extra tote bag.

Because if you are not playing the ongoing, silent game of statement tote bag one-upmanship, then you are missing out on AWP’s parallel universe hijinks and answer to the Hunger Games.

8. Business cards, calling cards, book-release postcards, or other cutesy swag with your name, affiliations, and social media deets.

Remember, and this is important: AWP is not for learning or networking. It’s for gathering new Facebook friends and Twitter followers and/ or impressing your existing followers with the style of your swag.

9. Big sunglasses and scarf.
Again, a common misconception is that AWP is for learning and/ or growing community. Not so. This is only what they want you to believe so that you let your guard down, look like a douche, and everyone laughs at you. The goal is to win, and in order to win, you must remain aloof and mysterious (and medicated) at all times.

10. Sunglass/ Scarf Alternative.

Perhaps you want to seem casual, relaxed, and approachable? I can’t imagine why, but if this is your jam, just make sure to bring a sun visor and your Hard Rock Café Los Angeles T-Shirt from 1988. Your new writer friends will flock to you like free manuscript critiques!


If you have time and space, consider packing the following as well: travel id and money, books, panel presentation notes, conference schedule and planner, laptop…what else am I forgetting? Oh, and pants! Pants are good. They might even be required.

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