December 11, 2018 § 7 Comments
In early September, I decided to go to a coffee shop to begin writing the last few pages of a memoir. Walking out the door, I was seized by the uneasy feeling I should stay at home. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on the porch. Dog-walking neighbors waved, birds sang in a tree nearby, and yet I felt even more apprehensive. I retreated to the house and burst into tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked one of our cats, who watched me from a safe distance.
Then it hit me. I was working on the ending.
In Unum Magazine, Reema Zaman writes:
As artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. …When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.
I’d started writing after devastating personal loss and worked steadily for years while wracked with grief. Yet I still hadn’t formed the scar tissue necessary to write about the traumatic event that occasioned the memoir.
Eight years ago, my son Ethan and I were frolicking in the surf of Lake Michigan when we were swept into a maelstrom. The waves crashed over our heads from both directions as the bottom dropped out from beneath our feet. Holding Ethan by his swim-shirt, I swam frantically upward toward the bright summer sun. It was hopeless. My arms and legs gave out. A peaceful feeling overtook me when I looked at Ethan floating lifelessly below me, his arms suspended at his sides and his hair glistening in the rays of light penetrating the water all around us. I knew we were going to die together. A thought popped into my head: I won’t be able to tell his story.
Pulled to shore, my hands and feet blue from oxygen deprivation, I began my new life, my “after” life, without skin, in searing pain every waking moment. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers did all they could for us. All their kind attention could not close the wound. Taking care of my wife Janet and our daughter Penelope became my sole focus, much as caring for Ethan had been when he was born with multiple internal organ defects ten years before. But now I was never fully present.
I came to accept that my anguished longing for Ethan was a permanent disability, that I would never be fully connected to people or life again. But playing Barbie on the floor with Penelope and her friends one day, fighting back tears, I remembered my last conscious thought underwater. I had to tell his story.
As individual memories coalesced into chapters and the story of our relationship took shape, I began to hear his voice again and his throaty laugh, to feel him pressed up next to me, and to imagine him playing with Penelope and his friends. Writing the memoir put us together in an eternal present. He was very much alive for me while I wrote, and this kept me alive.
But the ending.
I tried various dodges, first a neo-Greek tragedy, then an epilogue, prompting smiles and nodding heads from intimates but frowns and head-scratching among beta readers. One finally told me with admirable candor, “People will want to know what really happened.”
I re-read, realizing I’d channeled my son too much while writing. The draft did not reflect enough of my own dubious character.
A childhood bout with encephalitis left me with extreme nervous energy, wild mood swings, and a flash temper. Managing Ethan’s care prevented me from getting the exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction I needed to stay on an even keel. I paced like a caged animal in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, lonely, bored and ready to explode.
But Ethan’s cheerful demeanor under the worst of circumstances taught me to live in the moment. He had an instinctive ability to draw out the best in people. One evening, waiting outside the gym before basketball practice, I was busy giving the hairy eyeball to a kid who had been terribly mean to him. Ethan turned to him and suggested they practice passing. The kid looked as surprised as I was. It wasn’t that Ethan wanted to be his friend—he just wanted to make that moment together the best it could be. And it was, because Ethan was willing to give that kid an opportunity to be better.
I became a different person under my son’s tutelage: less anxious, more patient, more loving. More like him, but not entirely nor all at once. Clearly some revisions to the memoir were needed.
I added some salt to the original chapters and wrote two more, then pitched the memoir at the Chicago Writer’s Workshop. Momentarily forgetting my inability to bring it to a close, I told several interested agents it would be completed this fall.
Writing about that last, terrible day forced me to reexperience it and accept his death. It was debilitating at first. The few words that appear here took over two weeks to complete. But each line I wrote closed the wound a little bit more. After three months, I have formed enough scar tissue to tell his full story.
After all, people will want to know what really happened.
Jeffrey Seitzer is currently a student at the Story Studio in Chicago, where he also teaches at Roosevelt University and lives with his family. Author of a number of scholarly books and essays, his recent work in creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, Pulse Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @urbancornhusker.
November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”
The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.
[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]
Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.
In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.
Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:
Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.
This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”
Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
November 6, 2018 § 15 Comments
CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic
It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.
My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.
We all know “show, don’t tell.” Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.
I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.
What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.
To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?
Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?
Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.
Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.
The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.
But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?
In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:
Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent. It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.
Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.
But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.
As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.
Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog, www.saneteachers.com, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections.
October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:
I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice.
Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:
People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.
You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care.
Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
September 11, 2018 § 9 Comments
When my family arrived at the beach this year, my two teenage boys ran to the surf. They didn’t hesitate as they dove through the curling waves. I wasn’t so bold. I meandered to the shoreline and let the waves lap my feet. I waded in further. I watched the kids beyond the break. At some point, they tried to pull me in. I resisted. They laughed, rolled their eyes, and told me to dive in. I moved out deeper until the waves broke against my waist. After too much agony, I finally dove.
“It’s about time,” the boys called. “What took you so long?”
Why did I do this to myself? Why didn’t I dive in like they did? I knew how. But I got stuck. What if a wave knocked me over? What if I stepped on a broken shell?
I find myself hesitating on the shore when I’m writing too, questioning my story rather than letting it flow. Learning to trust I have a story to tell has challenged me as a novice non-fiction writer. It didn’t help that I spent part of my beach vacation reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which sent me into an existential spiral of self-doubt. I wanted to edit every sentence I’d written. Not a bad thing, but I was on vacation. I hadn’t even realized I had a trust problem until my mentor focused on a couple of sentences I’d dropped into my memoir about three drafts ago. She returned the draft to me with a note telling me to “DIG DEEP HERE.” It was a “very important moment in the narrative.”
I couldn’t ignore her comment. She was the third person to make it. Why didn’t I trust the others’ feedback? But I wasn’t ready to jump in. Instead, I played with sentences, changing a word here or there, hoping that would fix it. It didn’t, any more than watching the waves would get me into the surf. Yet I knew by now I had to address it, not play around with it, however uncomfortable I was. I had to wrestle with my past, with my rocky relationship with my mom. I had to tell the truth about a lie I told to my daughter and why I told it.
Yet, there I was again, standing at the water’s edge. Stuck. I thought about what I needed to write as I walked my dog each morning. I brought my pages to therapy and talked to about what I needed to write and why it was so hard. When I commented I thought I could cover the material in a paragraph, my therapist laughed.
“Oh, it’ll be more than a paragraph.”
After days of inching toward the deep water, I remembered what I learned from Allison K Williams at a memoir workshop earlier this summer. She emphasized how important it was to “deal honestly” with our own behavior, including our bad behavior. While we could be heroes in our stories, “even heroes mess up,” Williams wrote in a recent blog, Heroes and Villains.
I had to dive into my inner villain. I wrote and rewrote. I re-read the paragraphs. I liked them, particularly the simplicity of how I ended the section. I put it down and came back to it a day or two later. Then the doubt crashed over me. I wrote a few more sentences to make my point, forgetting that once was enough. I sent the revised section to my mentor. She loved it. Except she said, I over-explained. I began moralizing. I should have trusted my original ending. My kids would have rolled their eyes at me.
I told my mentor, I needed to trust myself more.
It’s not easy.
“Trust your material,” Zinsser wrote. “It seems hard advice to follow.”
The more I trust my writing, the better it becomes. I see the weaknesses on the page, particularly my desire to tie everything up neatly. To keep the trust, I’ve given myself a new editing tool. I read my work aloud and ask myself whether my teens would roll their eyes at me. If they would, I know I did it again. I let those sentences go, scattered like broken shells on the shore, and dive.
Christine Corrigan is a writer. Her essays have appeared in Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Grown & Flown, Purple Clover, Racked.com, Wildfire Magazine, and elsewhere. At 51, she’s working on her first book, a memoir about surviving cancer twice. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Find her on Twitter @CPCorrigan2.