April 11, 2022 § 38 Comments
by Dorothy Rice
It’s Spring 2022, over two years since life was transformed by a global pandemic. Meetings, appointments, and vacations cancelled. Professional obligations and expectations suspended. My longest stretch of workaday limbo, aside from three maternity leaves.
“I think we should stay away for a while. You’re in that vulnerable age group,” my son said, over the phone during the initial quarantine. “We can’t risk anything happening to you.” Which meant no son, no grandkids, for weeks that became months.
I had unscheduled time. Every writer’s dream. I might have completed that memoir, tackled my moldering list of essays, made progress on the middle grade novel begun as a break from the navel gazing of personal writing. But my thoughts were unfocused, too diffuse to distil into coherent sentences.
I excavated closets and cupboards, arrayed the leavings of five grown children and my recently deceased mother on the dining room table, wishing they were the pages of a manuscript. I held each object, felt its heft and texture. Victorian glassware and mismatched China. Grandma’s handknit, hand-sewn suits and dresses, each with a dyed-to-match silk slip. Mom’s Latin American textiles, photo albums from her world travels. Children’s artwork, their imagined futures in photos, award certificates and boxes of mementos.
I amassed piles. Keep. Gift. Recycle. Repurpose. Trash. The lines bleary as my thoughts. A can of baking powder that expired in 1988—trash or collectible? A sack of wooden spools from my own sewing days—string them into aclunky necklace for a kindergarten teacher?
The silverware drawer and pantry became marvels of cleanliness and organization. I ordered padded storage boxes (that appeared on the doorstep days later) for the glassware—one daughter said she’d want it if she ever left Manhattan. I assembled sewing baskets for my two sisters with surplus notions acquired from Grandma, Mom, and thrift stores. I did touch my writing. Documents dragged into computer folders. Journals arranged in descending year order. My office was ready for me whenI was ready for it.
Along with routines, schedules, and external obligations, I was suspended, in creative limbo.
In younger years, when I expressed angst about the future, Mom would remind me I was just a grain of sand on the beach of life, a cog in a great machine. “Find your cog and put your shoulder behind it,” she would say. I’ll show you, I used to think, I’m no cog, no grain of sand, I’m special.
Now I get it. I was, I am, a grain of sand, a cog, a Victorian bubble-glass goblet.
The urgency of anything I had to say withered in the face of world events. Global pandemic. Wildfires. Uncloseted white supremacy and bigotry. Gun violence, fake news, conspiracy theories. War, refugees, famine, closed borders. Earth gasping for breath. There all along. Then a massive hand shook the planet like a snow globe. Virus molecules insinuated themselves into every nook and cranny, leavening, and gas-lighting our differences, our placement on the privilege scale.
In light of life revealed, bruised and diseased, I was neutralized. Does the world need this essay, I asked myself. Does the world need another memoir? Does the world need anything I have to say? Of course, the things the world doesn’t need appears infinite and expanding. Does the world need another roundabout? Another dipping sauce, cat celebrity or meme? What the world needs now (cue music) is less, not more, a time out from human-kind’s machinations.
For two years I’ve treaded creative water, begun project after project, only to stutter, then stop, in the face of the blinking, blinding, why. Why these words, this topic, why me? No one will be hospitalized or cured if I don’t write. No one will despair. No one will notice at all. Was that ever the point? It’s not as if I believed my words could home the homeless, put food in children’s bellies, or avert another senseless war.
Joan Didion famously wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Of course, she’s Joan Didion, and I’m not. Yet isn’t it the same for any writer, no matter our success or visibility? I write to dissect what it is to be me, in this body, place and time, never knowing when my words will bring comfort, make someone feel less alone, or elicit a smile.
When I don’t transcribe life onto the page, when I don’t move words around until they resemble my truth, I’m left with a sense of lost opportunity. Does the world need another essay? No. But sometimes I do. How else to attempt to make sense of the world? And why cede my words to all that we need even less—another “reality” show, miracle diet, clump of big box stores. My words don’t take up space, interrupt traffic, create false hope, or defile what’s left of nature. Yet once written, they exist, one human’s experience distilled, like the petroglyphs and cave drawings of civilizations past.
After two years twiddling my fingers over the computer keys, I’m clicking them again, not because the world needs me to, but because I do. I’m a writer. That’s the cog I put my shoulder to.
Lately, when I see my ten-year-old grandson, he asks, “How’s that novel coming, Grandma?” If he were a fellow writer or nosy neighbor, I’d assume he’d asked because he knew it wasn’t. From my grandson it’s a reminder that he wants me to finish the dang novel so he can read it.
“It won’t be you,” I remind him, because I’ve told him the protagonist is also a ten-year-old boy. “There may be parts of the character you don’t like.”
“Yeah I know,” he says. “He can’t be all good. That would be boring, right?”
Which he knows because his grandmother is a writer and we talk about these things.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance, The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir, and editor of the anthology TWENTY-TWENTY: 43 Stories from a Year Like No Other. She is Managing Editor with Under the Gum Tree, and co-director of Stories on Stage Sacramento, a nonprofit literary performance series. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60. Find her on twitter at @dorothyrowena and at dorothyriceauthor.com.
February 11, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Catherine Lanser
I consider myself a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve been reading and studying the form for more than 10 years, but until recently, I was hiding a secret. I had never read much Joan Didion.
My Good Reads list says I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking in 2009 but quit after a few pages. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Her dense writing made me feel self-conscious, as if I wasn’t good enough, the same way a woman I used to volunteer for did.
“Evelyn” was the head of an educational nonprofit, and I was helping her lay out her quarterly magazine. She dropped names of people in her movement and at the local university in the same way I thought Didion would. Evelyn’s large sunglasses and smart matching suits with twin sets looked very 1960s to my 1990s eyes and similar to Didion’s favored clothing on publicity photos.
It had been years since I snuck over to Evelyn’s house to drop off the last proofs at her doorstep. I thought of her when I saw her obituary in 2021 and again this fall, a few months before Didion’s death, when I finally read the book.
This time, after struggling through the opening pages, which describe how the first lines were drafted, I continued on. Now older and married, I did have something in common with the author.
I had almost lost my spouse to a heart attack only three years after we were married in 2014. At 47, he was three years older than his father had been when he had his first heart attack. Her text still felt heavy but I continued reading.
Since 2009 I’ve read nearly every memoir about death, illness and grieving as I wrote my manuscript about my father’s stroke and my brain tumor. Though Didion was bereft at the loss of her husband John, I could think of a stack of books that felt more heartbreaking.
The lines I highlighted are clinical and focused. Didion tells us she wrote the book not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death. She explains how words, which she has used her whole life to find meaning, failed her following John’s death. As the title suggests she begins to think like a child does, as if she can change the course of time and bring him back with her actions.
I think about Evelyn. During the time we worked together her husband faced and lost a battle with cancer. When I saw Evelyn months after the funeral in her home, his sweater remained draped over the back of the desk chair where it had always been. Over the remaining time I worked with Evelyn, the sweater never moved as if he might put it on at any minute. I compared it to my mother who cleaned out my dad’s closet, removing nearly everything in the five days between his death and the funeral. Didion talks about giving away her husband’s clothes but keeping his shoes because he would need them should he return.
I had practiced this sort of magical thinking in my life during my illness. First as a teen, when I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone about the “spells” I had I could make them go away. Hiding them for eight years I imagined the other diseases they might be, such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but still told no one.
I also practiced this outcome-based imagination after I learned the spells were seizures caused by a brain tumor. When my dad suffered a stroke only a few years after my brain surgery to remove a tumor from my temporal lobe I wondered if it was my fault for not being thankful enough for surviving.
While Didion’s prose didn’t necessarily feel sad, she made me feel emotions I hadn’t in reading other memoirs. Near the end of the book I’ve circled large paragraphs of text and scribbled notes between the line breaks. As I read it now, my heart catches.
She quotes the Episcopal litany: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” About a half page down she repeats the line and I have underlined the last three words, “world without end.”
Didion describes how she found this line as an antidote to meaninglessness as a child by interpreting it as a description of how the world’s geographic structures were always changing.
I remember this childhood prayer as a Catholic prayer I would say before I went to sleep. I began to recite it one night when I was about seven. I thought the lines would bring me comfort when I could not sleep. Instead, they left me in a state of terror.
As I said the words, I felt myself flying out from my body until I could see the endless universe of blackness surrounding me. It was the first time I understood death and eternity. Only later, did I learn that the out-of-body experience I felt could have been related to the temporal lobe seizures and migraines I soon began to have.
Didion thinks about this line as she contemplates the “unending absence” of grief. Again, she finds some comfort, finding that they mean we must let the dead go. As nature keeps on changing so do we.
I have thought about the place where my tumor was in my brain as the absence. It has remained a solid grey spot of unchanging size among the folds of my brain for almost 30 years. My cells die and are reborn. My brain reroutes and learns but this spot cannot grow.
Still, somehow, I do. I am not the same person I was when I hid my seizures. Or that didn’t know how to act around Evelyn. I am not the person who tried to read this book in 2009. I can admit that now.
July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dana Shavin
A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.
I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.
One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”
I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.
Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.
I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.
And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.
Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.
April 8, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Ross West
Is this thing on?
[Tapping on microphone]
Okay, welcome, welcome everybody—nice to see such a good crowd. The subject of my talk today is Farrah Abraham. You may remember how she rocketed to fame as a participant on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She followed-up with appearances on Teen Mom, Teen Mom OG, Couples Therapy, Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition, and Celebrity Big Brother.
Now twenty-seven, her indefatigable commitment to cultivating and leveraging her name, her celebrity—her brand, if you will—is simply breathtaking. What I’m here to tell you is that Farrah Abraham should be a role model and an inspiration for every writer attending this conference. This is true whether you are promoting a book, building a platform, or curating your career.
Just this month Abraham added “book critic” to her already impressive résumé with a review of Joan Didion’s groundbreaking Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Demonstrating the attention-getting panache of P.T. Barnum, Abraham titled her review, “Joan Didion is a Gin-drinking Bore Who Writes Convoluted Books.”
[Audience gasps and hisses]
I should add—
People, please. I should add, this piece was not written on spec—a practice painfully familiar to many of you fledgling self-promoters. No, Farrah Abraham was commissioned to write the piece—by Penthouse magazine.
I can see the name of that publication has some of you fidgeting in your seats. But let me remind you of a few authors who were glad to have their work appear in Penthouse: James Baldwin, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Roth.
Abraham is not without a certain amount of her own literary credibility. Her memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended, was a New York Times e-book bestseller. How many of you can say that?
[Indistinct comment shouted by an audience member]
Yes, I agree, it was absolute garbage. Her review of Didion’s book is even worse. As if Abraham is completely unfamiliar with the concept of an essay collection, she’s stumped as to why the pieces jump “from year to year, often for no rhyme or reason. The non-linear structure confuses me. I had to wonder, ‘Was Didion even trying when she wrote this junk?’”
[Audience gasps and jeers]
Yes, junk. Ahem. And then there’s this: “If you’re looking to find out what not to do as a writer, this is a great book for you.”
[Groans and hoots]
Look, I don’t disagree with you. Let me come right out and say it: Abraham doesn’t have, and never will have, the literary talent of Joan Didion’s toenail clippings.
But that is not the point.
Now please, people, can we all get off our artsy-fartsy high horses and get down to business?
Here’s the bald-faced fact: Success in this today’s publishing world is all about ambition.
So how do we learn from a fantastically successful self-promoter like Farrah Abraham?
Has writing your book landed you an interview? If so, great. But how can you make that interview work for you? In other words, ask yourself this: What would Farrah Abraham do?
Research shows that the more times a prospective buyer is exposed to your book’s name, the more likely she will remember it, google it, and buy it. So when the interviewer asks you a question, keep in mind the writer’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt take every opportunity to flog thy book. Commit to memory such phrases as “As I talked about in my book…” and “I devoted a whole chapter in my book to that…”
Listen to how smoothly Abraham does it: “When you need a book to read and ponder your drug problems, pick up a Didion essay collection. If you’re looking for a book that discusses real issues, you are better off picking up my memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended. My life story is closer to the truth of life.”
[Sneering, derisive laughter]
Yes, it’s appalling, grotesquely so . . . and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget, her book came out in 2012—seven years ago. But she’s still out there hustling the merch.
Let me be blunt: If you want to build your platform, if you want to blossom your career, sell books, and make money, you need to hold these truths to be self-evident: The race doesn’t go to the talented, or the clever, or the crafter of the most elegant lines since John Milton. The prize goes to the most aggressive promoter.
What matters is visibility, publicity; any and all attention you can generate in print, radio, television, podcasts, and blogs—exploding across social media with the attention-getting energy of a lightening bolt.
Abraham knows this in her bones. Her formal education is an associate’s degree from a defunct cooking school, but when she saw an opportunity to crap on one of the literary titans of the past hundred years did she hesitate? Not for one second. She’s a minnow calling a whale puny. That, ladies and gentlemen, is audacity.
And does she allow herself to be hobbled by some misplaced sense of humility? No! She’s riding the galloping stallion of her career and she’s giving it the spurs for all she’s worth.
If Farrah Abraham is anything, she’s shameless—a quality I suggest you nurture. And if you don’t already have the word careerist in your vocabulary, add it immediately, apply it to yourself, wear it as a badge of honor.
Any of you have a problem with that?
Another of Abraham’s skills: she thinks laterally. She accompanied the release of her memoir with a tie-in album of her music—one song for each chapter in the book. Pure cross-promotional genius. Farrah Abraham: TV star, best-selling author, literary critic, and accomplished musician. Has a nice Renaissance-woman ring, doesn’t it?
In point of fact, the reviews of her record were brutal; one used this phrase: “the most horrible combination of sounds to ever be assembled in the history of audio recording.” Doesn’t matter. Self-promotion is not a rearview mirror enterprise. What matters is what’s new and what’s next.
So ask yourself this: What am I going to do and how far am I willing to go? Abraham went all in, starring in the adult films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. You might not want to promote yourself quite so, well, nakedly. But people, one way or another it’s all about exposure. You need to act and act aggressively. Your books are not going to sell themselves. Your career is not going to spontaneously generate.
Let me leave you with this thought. Being a writer is, first and foremost, about pushing, plugging, hyping, branding, merchandizing, and in every other possible way advertising your work and yourself. It’s not a career for the timid.
Are there any questions?
Ross West earned an MFA at the University of Oregon, where he worked for nineteen years as science writer and editor of the research publication Inquiry then as senior managing editor of the university magazine Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His essays have been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest; Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and The Best of Dark Horse Presents. They have also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Recent publications include an excerpt from his novel in Embark (October 2018) and a short story in Spank the Carp (February 2019). He served as the text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and the Atlas of Yellowstone.
August 15, 2017 § 7 Comments
It’s time once again for the intermittent Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #5 features an interview with Dinty W. Moore, our very own Editor in Chief and founder of Brevity. Dinty will be keynote speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Donna Talarico-Beerman, Editor in Chief at Hippocampus and the Hippocampus Press.
Show Notes: Episode #5 People and Books
It’s the wrong time of year for Peeps, but catch them around Easter. If you’re looking for Samuel Pepys, find out more here. You can also read his exhaustive diary, one of the great records of 17th-Century London, including eyewitness reports of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.
January 24, 2017 § 9 Comments
By David Bersell
After Major Jackson
Because I relate to Kanye West.
Because I am not a rapper.
Because I am not a comedian.
Because I am not a poet.
Because I am like you.
Because you are special, but your loneliness isn’t.
Because a tornado pulled me from my mother’s arm and I learned to fly.
Because AOL Instant Messenger and The Real World killed music videos and newsprint on fingers, on tongue.
Because my war was watching towers fall.
Because trees are beautiful.
Because Joan Didion is a fox.
Because I am where antique-green water meets mud, the in-between.
Because please, because thank you.
Because the train rumbles past my house every day. I used to pause when the walls started shaking, but now I know I am safe.
David Bersell is the author of The Way I’ve Seen Her Ever Since (The Lettered Streets Press) and Nashville Notebook (forthcoming from Ursus Americanus Press). He is from New Hampshire and lives in Brooklyn.
July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments
By e.v. de cleyre
A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.
Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”
The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.
Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”
Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”
Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”
Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”
e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.
July 14, 2016 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Kim Steutermann Rogers:
Today, I tell myself, I will not scroll Facebook as if I were cram-reading War and Peace. I will not say yes when the wildlife volunteer coordinator asks if I’ll go to the beach to check on a cute new seal born just that morning. I will not slip out when a text alerts me that the Laysan albatross chick I’ve been watching since it hatched five months ago is standing on bluff above the sea, flapping its wings, about to fly off over the horizon, not to be seen again for three to five years. Today, I tell myself, I will get some writing done. Yes, I will.
As I write this by hand in my notebook, a cheap DECOMPOSITION BOOK with line drawings of safari animals on the cover, I look up. Staring at me from across the room is the free-floating head of Joan Didion printed on an oval piece of cardboard that is glued to a flat tongue-depressor-like stick. A hand fan. I picked it up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles this past April after a particularly heated session—the room, not the conversation—because, well, I am a woman of a certain age.
AWP: Think 15,000 academics and creative types crammed into the Los Convention Center. Think tweed jackets with suede elbow patches. And yoga pants. Think purple hair and tattoos, ripped tights, and Chuck Taylor Converse throwback basketball shoes. Think apple-cheeked children with crispy clean MFAs. And puffy-eyed, word veterans in need of coffee and, later in the afternoon, beer—or something stronger—from the beverage vendor at the south end of the book fair. Think best-selling authors, award-winning poets, and top journalists from around the country. Think the rest of us—with stories and books and essays and poems and clouds in our eyes and on the tips of our tongues, eager to share with anyone who will listen. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I fall in the last category.
Joan Didion is staring at me from across the room where I stuck her in a coffee-mug-cum-pencil-holder after a vigorous use of fanning one spring day when spring winds stalled in their tracks, replaced by summer’s stagnant-dog’s-breath-hot-air. A few degrees change in temperature does not go unnoticed, because you know, I am that age, that effing age.
Joan Didion’s visage sits just to the left of my computer screen. When I am sitting at my desk, presumably writing, I can see the Grande Dame of Literary Journalism out of the corner of my eye, her mouth set in a line and her makeup-free eyes narrowed on me. Damn. It’s the eyes.
Dame Didion is the toast of nonfiction writers across the United States. She was required reading during my MFA studies. She’s one of the first to be named when calls go out for lists of great essayists. Hardly an AWP—if any—goes by without her name prominent in a panel title.
I first read Didion as I was trying to craft my own writerly voice, and I fell hard. Major writer crush. Here was a wordsmith with whom I felt a kinship. A journalist. But not. A memoirist. But not. A personal essayist. But not.
In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”
I have more than a few notebooks lined up across my desk, packed in plastic boxes in my closet, all to be thrown away upon my death, as I’ve made my best friend take a blood sister pact with me.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Amen, Dame Didion.
“What I most appreciate about Didion’s writing is that she witnesses her world. Her writing may be about her, but it is anything but confessional,” I wrote in an essay after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
But, now, some years later, the truth is I’m tired of Dame Didion. Oh, not her writing but of we writers who would bow on bended knee and kiss her writing ring, if her hand were ever proffered and if such a thing as a writing ring existed.
Wait. Does it?
I’m sick of the Didion worship that goes on in literary and MFA circles. Because I want her for myself. Because it seemed once my bright-eyed love for her blossomed, she went all Baader-Meinhof on me, and every other student of nonfiction writing adored her, as well. My secret, favorite writing mentor was mine no longer.
Joan Didion levels her steady gaze at me from across the room. She could have taken a pair of scissors to her hair and gave herself that haircut, I think, wispy bangs, and blunt, chin-length hair.
But here’s the thing about Didion: She got it done. Something like five novels, a dozen books of nonfiction, half-dozen screenplays, and a play. The woman wrote. She sat down and wrote. I can see it in her makeup-free eyes. The determination. The discipline. She’s a reminder to tap into my own determination and discipline. It’s there. Somewhere. I know it is.
Mentors. Muses. Inspiration. We tend to think it’s their words that help us. But at this time, apparently, it’s not the words but the face of Joan Didion I need. The bad haircut, thin set mouth, and those examining eyes remind me to just do it. Sit down, and write.
Freelance journalist, Kim Steutermann Rogers moved to Hawaii with her husband, two dogs, and twelve boxes of belongings in 1999. “We’ll stay for one year,” she told her family and friends. That was 17 years ago. Now, Kim shadows scientists into rain forests, volcanic craters, and throughout the uninhabited atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to learn more about Hawaii’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But, most days, she sits on her bum and attempts to churn out words appropriate to the science and place and people of it all—and tells herself she should exercise more. Kim holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is at work on a book about Mark Twain’s Hawaii and the psychological concept of place attachment. You can read clips of her work and her blog at http://www.kimsrogers.com and follow her on Twitter at @kimsrogers.
April 5, 2016 § 18 Comments
By 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.
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.
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.
June 4, 2012 § 5 Comments
A guest blog post from Alexis Paige:
“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
– Joan Didion in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem
On the first day of my creative writing class last fall, I asked my students to bring in a writing mantra. I like to trot out my shrill inner headmistress early on, so I told them they were to affix said mantra onto a notebook, “NOT A JOURNAL!” (see Didion’s own distinction). I shared the above quote, raising my head after with a broad smile, but to my surprise the students looked stricken. I had expected that I would smile upon them beatifically and they would nod in spiritual communion with the sentences, and we would all just bask. But the spell was broken before it was cast, and I began the peculiar tap dance of a teacher trying, and failing, to connect. On a day when I should have inspired trust, I had done the opposite, even leveled a perceivable threat—I might sell them out one day. No one was safe; everyone was just material.
I argued that Didion’s quote didn’t give writers carte blanche for revenge or carelessness, yet the students didn’t buy it. “Selling somebody out” was something you did if you were a punk. I considered reciting the words of Inigo Montoya to Vizzini in The Princess Bride: “I do not think it means what you think it means,” but the damage was done, and a dated pop culture reference would not undo it. I doubted my own objectivity then; the words had been with me for so long that I seemed lost in my own translation. I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem sixteen years earlier, while at a campus bus stop in a yellow Paddington Bear hat; I read the book because M. Mark Moskowitz gave it to me (in what I misinterpreted as a romantic gesture), and because I was avoiding Dante.
Initially, I invoked the quote as permission to write bad spoken word poetry and feminist rants and to jettison the people-pleasing that plagued me. And a few years later, as a reporter myself at a small Maine newspaper, the mantra helped me fake chutzpah to make phone calls and to march up to duffers at selectmen meetings. I covered town meetings mostly, and lobster festivals, but even the small stories required confidence I did not possess.
Later still the words helped me rationalize writing as astute voyeurism, but since class last fall my mantra seems different to me. Recently, I had occasion to use an insult in a piece, and I did use it—not with particular conviction, or virtue, or even malice. I used it because my husband said it and I could not think of a better word, and as a result I sold someone out. Yes, the choice constituted a kind of loyalty to my husband, but it was loyalty to the story that prevailed. It seems that I have had it all backwards: the admonition is not for the reader; it is the writer who must remember to watch out.
Alexis Paige’s essays have appeared in Seven Days, Ragazine, and Prison Legal News, and she was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual essay contest. She received an M.A. in Poetry from San Francisco State University and begins an MFA in Creative Nonfiction this summer. She lives in Central Vermont with her loyal pack.