The Words Between Us: A Covid-19 Diary
May 18, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Armen Bacon and Phyllis Brotherton
It started with the memory of a children’s book we both love, The Cloth Lullaby by Amy Novesky, its message feeling especially timely and poignant during this pandemic:
“Rentrayage – to reweave across the cut. To make whole.”
While cleaning closets, tossing expired spices, repurposing drawers, updating photo albums, and experimenting with Bundt cake recipes certainly offer a degree of satisfaction, we both agree we need more.
To chronicle life in this strange pandemic world where dinner plans, birthday parties, graduations and even funerals remain on hold, in suspended animation, both of us sense writing might offer solace in the wake of disaster, mitigate knots in our stomachs. Phantom fevers and coughs arrive without invitation. Our “to do” lists are suddenly blank – all commitments cancelled or postponed until further notice.
But writers write. We are masters of social distancing – often at our best when under self-quarantine, self-isolation. So why not translate fears, anxieties, reflections and revelations into a mix of musings and forms – create a docu-memory of life during Covid-19.
And so began the daily exchange of words between us.
Armen writes –
One minute I am ok. The next moment I am not. This afternoon I found refuge in the quiet loft where my books gather. Here, life feels safe. Predictable. Sometimes even normal. At this hour of day, sufficient light shines through the glass pane of windows – offering bursts of hope for whatever awaits us on the other side of this monster. I inhale words as if they are oxygen. For now, they help me find my footing.
You could say we did this to avoid “The Crack-Up.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s devastatingly prophetic 1936 essay notwithstanding, we needed a path and a practice to harness the mood swings, the ups and downs, find some silver lining to all the scary headlines. Forced to stop every gym visit or yoga class, every meeting, every celebration, every gal pal cocktail hour, in other words, every routine that kept us connected to the social and physical world, we were suddenly forced to STOP.
With newfound time on our hands (let’s face it you can only cook and eat so many scrumptious new dishes or bake so much bread), we decide to channel all the excess energy into a collaborative, creative pursuit guaranteed to light our brains on fire. First and foremost, we wanted to play and have fun, with the overarching rule: “No Rules!”
Then, of course, being the organized, Type A (for anal) women that we are, we establish a few rules, a structure, a timeline and a tentative plan. Suddenly, we’ve launched ourselves into the creative nonfiction stratosphere, with a book as promising to us as the pot of gold at the end of this dark and difficult time.
We reflect, we vent, we confess, we remember. We share, we contemplate, we revise. We write more, with breaks for those “down in the dump” days few of us can avoid, and FaceTime check-ins to discuss progress and problems, sip wine and laugh, heal a little, plan next steps.
Phyllis writes –
A nasty new virus has stopped us in our tracks. We ponder its origin. Maybe a bat or a conspiracy. The latter, though despicable, would be somewhat understandable, more predictable. We have no stomach or capacity for comprehending Mother Nature seemingly out to get us. Our man-made vaccines cannot, in the end, outsmart her. In the meantime, as we stand outside our houses, careful not to venture further into the street without a mask, the sun says bask in my rays, soak up my warmth. The moon says, remember me?
“This pandemic truly has a way of shifting priorities. Let’s FaceTime soon.”
“The projected statistics of virus deaths is terrifying. Think I’ll bake banana nut bread, re-org and write.”
“I wanted to talk to you about a collaborative writing project experiment we could play with. We could commit to a certain number of words per week. Maybe an Exquisite Corpse.”
“I’m in! Making soup with leftover veggies, then heading upstairs to write.”
“We’re cleaning the house.”
“My mind was on fire in the shower…thx for igniting the spark!”
“Honestly, it gives me a daily practice to focus on besides the apocalyptic next two weeks. I’ll keep sending you words.”
“Do you want subtitles? This is better than Xanax.”
[Picture of zucchini and onions sautéing]…”My Xanax at the moment.”
“I am happy to write ____, working on _____, also will review ______ and send tonight or tomorrow.”
“Two Type A chics!”
“I may have to start over, switch out the sections.”
“Will we ever emerge ‘vomiting rainbows’ from this nightmare?”
“I’m running out of paper with this F-word assignment.”
“We are either brilliant or insane.”
“After a 4-hour stint, I’m feeling unmasked, uncensored, unafraid.”
“FYI, with regard to footnotes, these are just for me to know where I found stuff, in case I need to find sources.”
“You mean like when it becomes a bestseller?”
Thus, our day-to-day experiences, life during lockdown, takes shape on the page. In other words, we write in the dark. Together, we write towards light.
Armen Bacon is an op ed columnist and the author of three books: Griefland – An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship, and My Name is Armen”(Volumes I & II). An artisan alum of CSU Summer Arts, she has studied memoir, poetic prose, creative writing and flash fiction – crediting the program for igniting/fueling her writing passion. Her essays have appeared in Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change, Entropy, Brevity Blog, Hybred Magazine, and The Fresno Bee. Follow her journey on Twitter @ArmenBacon, Instagram @ArmenBacon and Facebook: Armen D. Bacon.
Phyllis Brotherton, memoirist and essayist, holds an MA and MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her work has been published in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Anomaly, Brevity Blog and elsewhere, with her essay, “Ashes and File Cabinets,” nominated for Best of the Net. She is currently sheltering-in-place with her wife, Denise, eating far too much and binge-watching “The Restaurant.” Follow her on Twitter @phyllisbwrites, Instagram @phyllis_brotherton and Facebook: Phyllis Brotherton.
Nirvana: How the Lockdown Released an Easily Distracted Writer
April 22, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
If you, like me, are an easily distracted writer who tries, tries, tries to keep her butt in chair, but who inevitably fills her days—day after day after day–with never-ending, “more pressing and important” things to do, then we might have discovered a kind of writer’s nirvana in the days of the pandemic lockdown.
I’m not suggesting the pandemic is a good thing, but it’s clear that our behavioral changes are affecting us in many different ways, not all negative.
Nirvana: a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.
Let me deconstruct this concept as it relates to the ADD/ADHD-type writer that is me, and perhaps you?
A transcendent state: Yes, this lockdown and social distancing experience has put me in an elated state (not as in joyful, but as in high). The regularity with which I now find myself in front of my manuscript is unequalled in my life as a writer. I delight at being this connected to my evolving work, having removed most if not all non-essential activities from my life.
No suffering: The usual (and frequent!) dilemma (followed by guilt) I typically experience when I want to participate in a social activity, that I know will take a good chunk of time while I know I should or could be writing instead, is gone. Poof, like that: no more FOMO suffering.
No desire: Once I got over the initial, brief disappointment of cancellations (and my desire to go see my son in NYC, my desire to spend spring in Tel Aviv as was planned, and my desire to tell a story at a fun storytelling event in Boston where I was slated to be on stage…etc.), none of those otherwise important events mattered in the same way. There will likely be other opportunities, later, when I’m not in lockdown. Desire and pining gone.
No sense of self: I have never felt less “ego” than in this time of globally shared and urgent predicament. It is as if the idea of “me and mine” has dissolved. Now, it’s just “us,” because we’re all in this together.
Subject (a.k.a. writer) released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth: Meaning and purpose has shifted, and suddenly, there is space to focus on what really matters. I am convinced this release will herald some extraordinary writing in the months ahead from writers all over the world.
Nirvana represents the final goal Buddhism: Isn’t the final goal of being a writer to be a person who actually writes. I’m guessing the lockdown will see the birth of some fine auteurs, not just another baby-boom. Because we have been released
With this novel-like-clockwork habit of undistracted writing, I must have developed a new kind of muscle memory. I come back to it again and again because there aren’t many other options, and it feels good, like a “normal” I’ve never known. There is something comforting about the predictability and simplicity of this stripped-down routine.
Butt in chair, Anne Lamott famously says, but it was never that easy for me. My report cards from elementary and middle school read, without fail, “Nina disrupts in class” and “Nina leaves her chair without permission.” Who knew that at the age of fifty-four and living through a pandemic, I’d finally be able to experience the kind of calm and focus that greatly benefits the writing habit. This extraordinary feeling is grounding me, centering me.
May the looming threat of Covid-19 soon be diminished and our lives return to normal, and by then, I hope the muscle-memory of my newly discovered writer’s nirvana will be sufficiently imprinted in the fibers of my body, so that the practice–for it is a practice, isn’t it?—can be sustained from here onward.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to editing my MFA thesis.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, Hippocampus (forthcoming), and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 4th and final semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.
On Teaching and Writing From a Distance
April 10, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Meg McGovern
It’s not often—or ever, before all of this—you get an email saying schools will be closed indefinitely. That word feels so permanent now.
On March 12th, students arrived off their buses at the middle school where I teach Language Arts. The building bustled with activity. Lockers were opened and closed, halls echoed with footsteps as students made their way to their classrooms, teachers chatted with each other, and laughter rang through the halls. The bell rang and the two-minute warning was announced. It was business as usual. Students and faculty stopped in place to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the building otherwise silent. After the normal announcements, the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker advising students to take their chrome books and chargers home at the end of the day. Anyone who didn’t have one or the other, or both, were told to report to the Learning Commons. A whisper of concern filtered among students and staff. At noon, the announcement was made again. By 12:40 p.m., our lives changed with an email from the superintendent. By 2:40 p.m., the hallways were empty except for staff members standing in disbelief, trying to figure out what had just happened.
The next morning, I rose as usual at 5:15 a.m., I could have slept late, but my mind spun like a top hurling into an unknown space. No school buses screeched to a stop across the street at 6:30 a.m. to signal it was time to head across town to school. No bell would ring, classrooms and hallways would be empty, and life as we knew it would change. I walked around the house in a daze. Should I work on my MFA project, grade papers, catch up on the bills, do the taxes, or just sit and read while I had the chance. I could have crossed things off my to do list, but I hadn’t figured out this new routine, so I sat on the couch with Gia, my yellow lab, and did nothing.
“Distance Learning” began a few days later. Administrators and teachers rallied to get teaching online up and running. Faculty and department meetings were set up on Google Meets. “How to” seminars were launched for staff to get up to speed with technology to teach from their computers. Teachers created, planned, shared lessons and schedules. Students sat around kitchen tables across the country doing schoolwork with their parents in the place of their teachers.
I sat at my desk from 7:30 a.m., until 5:00 p.m., nonstop, without getting to my MFA third semester project like I had promised. My eyes burned, and my whole body ached. In my classroom, I am ordinarily in constant motion, sitting only to grade papers, to conference with students about their writing, and to eat lunch with my colleagues. It was difficult on a normal day to come home and begin my own writing, but this, setting up assignments and grading in Google Classroom, responding to students, and recording myself to provide instructions, was killing my ability to get anything else accomplished. If this was my new normal, my workspace and schedule needed adjustments.
Productivity for me, means an organized teaching and writing space. My desk can be an eclectic conglomeration of bills to be paid, to do lists, papers to grade, books to read, books to write up in my MFA Bibliography, journals, and index cards with ideas. Something had to change, so I spent a weekend going through piles of papers, sorting, dumping, purging. I organized MFA materials into semester binders and teaching materials into another. I organized my computer files, and my books into baskets by semester and genre. Even Gia’s toys went into a basket under my desk. Finally, I had space to teach and write.
Without routine, life can catapult into bad habits and result in poor time management. As a teacher and writer, I could work around the clock without leaving my desk. The reality of indefinite “Distance Teaching” has forced me to create a new structure and give myself permission to take breaks. My day now starts with writing early in the morning before checking in with my students at 8:30 a.m. My alarm still goes off at 5:15 a.m., but now I am at my desk, in my PJs, with a fresh cup of coffee and my computer by 6:00 a.m., writing while everyone else is sleeping. When the school day begins, I’ve worked on essays for my MFA and feel productive. Taking breaks from the screen every hour or so is essential for my mental and physical health, so I’ve set my Fitbit with reminders to get up and stretch, start a load of laundry, chat with a friend, or get some fresh air. My husband and I shut down our computers at 5:00 p.m. to take a long walk with Gia. We cook and have dinner as a family. Afterwards, I have time to write or read MFA related books and essays then relax before bedtime.
The Coronavirus has asked us to change the way we work and live. It has asked us to evaluate and focus on what is most important. Family and good health have become priority. For the unforeseeable future, we are homebound and have new routines. It’s not the same as the face to face contact with students, family and friends, but for now, I am happy to do what I am passionate about from a distance.
Meg Keeshan McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker in Connecticut. Her book, We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination was published in 2018. She is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Fairfield University.
Love in the Time of Ourselves: Reflections From a Memoir Teacher
March 30, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Joelle Fraser
The other morning, like tens of thousands of parents, I woke to a message: our children would not be returning to school after spring break. It almost felt like old news. The threat of change had been in the air itself, as real and invisible as the virus that caused it.
I’d taken stock of my situation, the way one does from shore as a storm approaches: single working mother—wildly fortunate to already be an online teacher—of an 8th grade boy with two anxiety disorders and a speech impediment. I imagined the two of us together, sheltered in place, for weeks, maybe months, as the world shuts down around us.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a memoir about my childhood in the late 60s and 70s, those freewheeling days in San Francisco and across the bay. I had several stepdads and father figures along the way, and I wrote about the bone-deep ways their lives had marked mine.
But one day, while working on the last chapter, I realized it was my mother and her choices that the book was ultimately about. I had written it because of her.
I’m now a mother myself and a memoir teacher and editor. For five years, every spring, fall and winter, about 20 people take my course, the “Thirty-Minute Memoir,” which I teach through an online school.
What strikes me is even when the memoir is about a year in Andorra, or retiring on a farm, or a life as a jazz musician, the writer’s mother will still be there, her presence moon-like, a faraway pull on her child’s life even when that child is 70 years old and her parents had died decades before.
Sometimes I can see the mother’s presence even if the writer doesn’t, and I might suggest in my comments, Can you go deeper here?
And when they do, I read of mothers who soothe and hover, cook and clean, lie and drink, work and cry; who lament their appearance but are beautiful to the child. They write of women who told stories and sang songs, who protected or looked the other way.
The memories are bright and swift as falling stars on the body. They describe the smell of a wrist, the sound of a car door and whether it signals calm or chaos, the taste of powdered sugar laced over Swedish pancakes. They write of morning rituals, of hummed melodies—and some create the image of arms forever, it seems, folded in anger.
For others, like me, the mother becomes the focus of their book. Many times these mothers will have secrets and mysteries, and some will write their entire memoir about that secret
These writers become detectives writing letters to distant relatives and co-workers, searching ancestry and DNA trails and making pilgrimages to childhood towns and homes. Always searching for more connection, more clues.
And of course fathers will matter, too, profoundly, and many of the writers are writing about them in similar ways. But their imprint is of a different hue.
More and more, I wonder what my son would write about me. From the participants in my course I have found some answers, but only some. He may remember that my patience had its brittle moments, and that I loved to bake but the muffins and breads came from a box. Would he write about the Beatles song I sang to him before bed until he was 13, and how when he hears it as a man he thinks of me and the blackbird singing in the dead of night? Will he remember my love of candles, my curses for tailgaters—the dazzling, summer night skies I woke him to see as we peeked from our warm tent?
Now, home with my son during the reign of the virus, as both teacher and parent, I feel the pressure of my influence even more. But I also sense the wondrous opportunity.
As a reader of others’ memories, I have little advice for mothers, for parents, just this: you will be remembered in ways you cannot imagine. Whole books could be written about how much you mattered, and how deeply you were loved.
Joelle Fraser has two published memoirs (The Territory of Men, 2002, Random House; and The Forest House, 2013, Counterpoint Press). Her essays have been published in several journals, including Crazyhorse, The Hawaii Review, The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives with her son and five rescue pets in Reno, and is working on her third book. She teaches online at Creative Nonfiction.
Reading for Brevity in Times of COVID-19
March 27, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
In October 2019, I became one of the readers for Brevity’s special “Experiences of Disability” issue. I was excited to be a part of the team, and it drove me to write an essay about living with a chronic illness for my MFA thesis. It has been a privilege to read the assigned essays, and I am continuously in awe at the resilience and creativity fellow writers can find in the depths of pain. It somehow seems wholly apt and an act of masochism to be reading submissions now, when a form of collective pain has enveloped the world due to COVID-19. I’ve experienced two conflicting feelings while reading submissions the last few weeks. First, I’m proud to be a reader because I know how difficult it is for people to share their lived experiences with disabilities and illnesses, especially when my diagnosis didn’t arrive until I was nearly thirty. Second, at times there has been an unfettered desire to throw my laptop across the room because my pain, coupled with others’ pain, has become unbearable.
Since COVID-19 took over, its resulting grief hasn’t allowed me to concentrate or analyze submissions for the special issue. I have opened up Submittable, arrived at an essay, read the first paragraph, and then closed the tab. Waves of guilt have overcome me because writers are sharing the hardest moments of their lives and I can’t even will myself to read them. Snap out of it, I’ve told myself. I hadn’t realized that lack of concentration and ineptitude were some of the symptoms of a pandemic until I went on social media and saw writers who I admire confess they’ve felt the same way. A few days ago, I teetered on the idea of sending an email to the special issue’s managing editor explaining I wasn’t in the right mindset to continue reading.
Before I could send that email, I had a conversation with my brother, who at 24 was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery this past January. He has been too chipper since then, and his anxiety seems nonexistent while my mental health has been imploding.
“Why are you being so positive throughout this whole thing?” I asked him.
“Well, I lost my job in December, I had surgery in January, they confirmed it was a malignant tumor in February, and now a worldwide pandemic in March. My reasoning is it can only get better from here,” he said. I shouldn’t have cackled when he said this, but I did.
As the days have passed since our conversation, the only reason I have been able to go back to reading essay submissions about disability and illness is because of him. If he can envision a future, why can’t I? If he can make Instagram challenges during the pandemic, why can’t I? If he can read the book Room to Dream by David Lynch, sitting in the front yard while the sun sparkles on his jet-black hair and I stare at him from the window—thankful that it’s only stage one cancer—why can’t I read too? If he can write a script while being forced to stay put because even venturing to the pharmacy is strictly prohibited for him, why can’t I sit down and read for Brevity?
So, on a gloomy March day, I once again started to write and read essays about pain, because I figure we don’t just overcome viruses, and cancer, and grief, and unemployment, we fight through them.
No one knows how the world will look or feel like in September 2020, the tentative month the Experiences of Disability issue will go live. COVID-19 has already altered our lives and converted our shelter-in-place realities into the Twilight Zone, but I am certain Brevity will be there for us, just like it has been for more than twenty years. What I do recommend, especially if you are overwhelmed with grief or uncertainty when this issue goes live, is to treat every essay like a daily snack. This is the reading tactic I’ve now been implementing for the March submissions. Some weeks I’ve been assigned twenty essays or more, and I limit the intake each day or else my mental health wanes. Some days I’ve stopped reading altogether, until I feel ready to dive back in.
The essays in this upcoming issue will be imperative, more so in the midst of an era when the world has partly been brought to a halt due to a virus. I hope to send my brother the link to the issue, and thank him for allowing some of his courage to rub off on me when I felt like giving up.
The issue will be there for you to read when you’re ready, whenever that may be.
Victoria Buitron is a dual citizen of Ecuador and the United States. She is a translator and writer based in Connecticut and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.