January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Marie A Bailey
The first time I saw Pam Houston was in 1991 or 1992. I was a graduate student in English at Florida State University. The university was hosting a creative writing conference and Houston was on one of the panels. I had not read her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in part because I didn’t like cowboys.
During the panel, one of my professors asked Houston whether she thought being a woman created roadblocks for her in the literary world. Houston’s response was brusque and silencing, along the lines of “I’ve never had a problem with that.” I felt that my professor had unwittingly hit a tender spot and Houston had nipped back at her.
Later I saw Houston walk across the floor, adjusting the elastic waistband of her flowing skirt, looking irritated. There was something about Houston that day that both intimidated and attracted me, both as a woman and a writer. Even though I’m several years older than her, I would have bowed that day to her seniority in life experience and writing.
I didn’t think about Houston again until early 2019 when she came to a local independent bookstore to give a reading from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I think I fell in love.
I’m a happily married cis woman but I am still attracted to strong women, of which Houston is one. I saw her from the back as she walked past me to the front of the room. She was wearing a light-colored lace dress with cowboy boots, her calves solid as rocks. Her smile was infectious and her ease with the audience (packed in like sardines) was downright joyful.
By the time Houston was done with the reading and Q&A, I had placed her way high on a pedestal, nose-bleed high. So even though I had purchased a copy of Deep Creek before the reading, I slipped out without asking her to sign it. I knew I couldn’t reach that high, and I didn’t want to ask her to bend down for me.
I read Deep Creek off and on for the next couple of months. That’s one of the things I love about collections: you don’t feel that you have to read the whole book in one sitting. There’s much about her life with her parents, her ranch, her dogs, her sheep, and the wildfire that almost took everything. But Deep Creek is more than a collection of essays. It is a thoughtful rendering of a woman’s life, her journey from someone “born to two humans who wanted me not at all” to “a child of the wilderness.”
Deep Creek is a love letter to Mother Earth, to Mother Nature: “When you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.” Her love for her ranch and the creatures great and small that abide there is the gift one gets from reading Deep Creek.
Deep Creek is the first book of Houston’s that I’ve read. I knew little of her personal life. I read in horror of her parent’s abuse and neglect of her, but I don’t know if the horror I felt was over their acts or Houston’s even, detached tone as she related the abuses. I felt no cathartic cry of anguish and anger, but a steady movement toward love and belonging.
Houston has survived numerous life-threatening events, some a result of her risk-taking behavior. At least that’s how some would see her behavior. For Houston, “it was hard not to believe the earth was somehow keeping my best interests in mind.” She has survived multiple abuses, car wrecks, and natural disasters, and she’s survived it all with her heart intact and open to love.
Through Deep Creek, I’ve learned to marvel at this young woman who has met every challenge that Life and Nature will throw her way only to come through with more love for the wild things, people included. When she got a “precancer diagnosis in the form of HPV 16,” she decided to make some changes. “… I’ve said for years if I ever had to make a choice between giving up coffee and dying, I would choose death. But as it turned out, all death had to do was wave at me from the window of a bus at a distant intersection for me to quit all caffeinated beverages cold turkey.”
I compare myself to her, like I compare myself to anyone who might be superior to me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and had to have a total abdominal hysterectomy salpingo-oophorectomy. I haven’t stopped drinking coffee or wine, and although my cancer is gone, I still sometimes behave with fatalistic abandon.
Yet, Houston nails my truth, and the truth of many of us women over fifty, when she writes:
“Two mostly wonderful things about life after fifty: I’m never sure what I am going to say until I hear myself saying it, and it’s hard to remember, with any real accuracy, feeling any way other than how I feel right now.”
I embrace these words. For them alone, I’m grateful to Houston.
Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.
September 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
Writing-adjacent activities that don’t involve opening a Word document to craft new sentences kept me in the literary loop this past year. They are both essential to the process and exceptional diversion tactics. I reread published essays and my unpublished memoir as a reminder I once produced. I scrolled “lit Twitter” and retweeted essays with which I connected. I made a list of possible essay topics I will never write, including “What I Learned from My Dead Grandma about How to Stay Single.” I “Kondo-ed” my bookshelves, ditching 62 books that don’t “spark joy.” I submitted a personal essay 37 times (so far) and then wondered if Submittable was broken when the last submission remained “in progress” for eight months (and counting). Mainly, I did my best to embrace the opportunities of the Pacific Northwest as a Californian living in Washington for 10 months without close friends and family.
I attended the Portland Book Festival, where I absorbed wisdom from Jamel Brinkley, who reminded us to “stay curious” and “focus on things off to the side” to craft a fuller world. On the same panel, Rob Spillman said Tin House received 20,000 submissions a year—before its final issue was announced. As an editor, he’s looking for material he “didn’t know was possible;” characters not “on [his] radar.” He’s “interested in day-to-day survival.”
Despite being inspired, I didn’t write.
I signed up for a one-night Mindful Writing workshop at the Hugo House, a beacon of light in a dark Seattle. There I tried to get unstuck. Anna Vodicka talked us through freewrites in a candle-lit room. She cited Writing Down the Bones when she reminded us to “feel free to write junk” and “always have tremendous kindness for yourself in this process.” She asked us to name our pesky inner critic and send her on vacation. I named mine after my toxic sixth grade teacher. As part of my newfound, theoretical contemplative practice, I thought, “I hear you, Miss Salter, and I’m not listening.”
To curb our interior chatter, we inhaled for four counts; held for six; exhaled for eight. We beat our chests like Tarzan and did “goddess squats” and yelled, “Ha!”
Anna asked, “What is a reasonable writing practice goal you could set?” and suggested channeling other writers: “Hey, Mark Twain, what should I do now?”
I left with a temporary willingness to “put [my] energy toward the next sentence and let go of end goals” because “failure is integral to practice.” Vodicka propped me up long enough to revise the one essay I’ve been trying to publish. I quit holding back and spilled it all. Then an imaginary Miss Salter whispered, “You’re not good enough,” and paralysis was restored.
I returned to the Hugo House for a Maria Semple lecture series, of which I made it through three of five classes before succumbing to the flu. With her guidance, I realized the short story I had been trying to conjure was, in fact, a novel. I cursed out loud.
“At least you know what you’ll be doing for the next five years,” my novelist friend said, offering condolences.
Semple said, “The story starts when we see coping mechanisms not working. How are fears externalized?” She detailed what she called “gap scenes”: the gap between what protagonists want to happen and what actually happens. “Characters are forged in the gap,” she said. “True character is revealed in choices a human makes under pressure.” A character’s choice at the end of a scene should be a “one-way gate.”
After jotting ideas for my nonexistent novel, I put them aside, afraid my first real leap into fiction would land with a thud.
Then I went to AWP. On the first day, Pam Houston made me cry when she read an essay about learning to love a man like she loves a mountain. Later, R. O. Kwon said her book sold after eight-and-a-half years. “I was happy for 27 seconds” before reaching “a whole new level of anxiety. I have stayed in that state since that phone call.”
That will be me, I thought.
“The life of an artist is being told no,” Garth Greenwell added. “The one yes is what matters. Don’t let them lie to you. Don’t lose hope.”
Like Houston, Greenwell brought tears to my eyes.
At a nighttime reading in a shoulder-to-shoulder packed room, Greenwell read a stunning sex scene.
“I need to up my game,” I said too loudly afterward.
The woman next to me fell over laughing.
“I meant the writing, but that too,” I said.
The AWP book fair was a writer’s candy store. There I met a former editor in person who said my work in her journal was still one of her favorites. I chatted with another editor about my unpublished piece. He told me to “slice and dice” it and send it to him. That weekend, I cut 900 words to make it 2,000. He sent a form rejection.
Back at the Hugo House, I stepped onto a stage twice to read excerpts from my memoir to a large room filled with strangers. On the train three months after the first reading, a man approached me and said he was relieved my mom didn’t die in childbirth.
In spring I jumped at the chance to transcribe three episodes of my favorite literary podcast, which chewed up weeks of writing time but made me feel productive.
There are endless ways to avoid creating art while staying connected to the writing community; I’ve found them all.
I “finished” my memoir manuscript two years ago. Now it needs a fresh ending.
“Maybe you haven’t lived it yet,” a writer friend said.
Maybe. But I can’t let that become another excuse to sidestep blank pages.
Living out of state with ample time and a traveling roommate was a self-imposed writing retreat I squandered. But, back in California, writing about not writing is writing.
So, I’m back? I sure hope so.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
On the Value of Women’s Memoir: A Response to Alexandra Fuller’s “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.”
February 27, 2019 § 26 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
Earlier this month in the New York Times Book Review section, writer Alexandra Fuller took three recent memoirs to task, including Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir, Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, and Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, in one brief but cutting review.
Fuller begins her article with the blithe suggestion that Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston should seek counseling, writing, “At their worst, there’s little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional.” She then goes on to enumerate the ways each of these writers’ books is “poorly conceived,” dubbing the works both “special-interest” and “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape.” At one point Fuller even uses the tired phrase “navel-gazing” in reference to Zaman’s memoir, a book about the devastating effects of silence on women’s safety and well being, which Fuller deems too narrow in scope to truly “inspire the reader.” According to Fuller, what distinguishes a “good” memoir from a “bad” one is the ability to “reach beyond itself,” though how this should be accomplished is limited to comparing these works unfavorably to Maya Angelou’s classic and perennial I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Fuller’s is an argument nonfiction writers have heard many times before—writing about the self has been subject to this kind of withering scrutiny since the days of Michel de Montaigne, who famously prefaced his work with a warning to the reader that it “would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject” as a book entirely about him. No, not even the great-grandfather of the nonfiction essay was immune to this variety of criticism, and not much has changed since the 16th century in that respect. There will always be readers to whom the memoir does not appeal, and that’s okay; no book can be all things to all people. Still, it’s always shocking when the condemnation of the genre comes from one of our own, especially from a memoirist as widely celebrated in the writing community as Alexandra Fuller.
As a teacher of creative nonfiction workshops, I am constantly reminding students—and particularly the young women in my class—that their writing has intrinsic value. Many of the stories my students choose to share from their lives are intensely personal. They write about surviving sexual assault, losing family members, struggling with addiction, living in the United States as the child of immigrants, as a person of color. I encourage them to write toward the truth they’d most like to tell, toward the audience they’d most like to pick up their future book, without concerning themselves with what good writing is “supposed” to do.
Contrary to what Fuller says, nonfiction, and especially memoir, does not have to “be inspiring” or “reach beyond itself” to any great or meaningful extent. In fact, many wildly successful books don’t—think heavy hitters like David Sedaris and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the latter of whom has written not one but ten plodding autobiographical novels to warm commercial reception. Both of these writers tackle almost exclusively personal subjects, detailing the minutiae of their lives in a way that might be labeled “confessional” if they were women. The only real difference I can see between their books and the memoirs Fuller mentions is that Sedaris and Knausgaard are men.
Writer and feminist Adrienne Rich put it best when she wrote how “women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which values only male experience.” This sentiment is still demonstrably alive and well in the writing world today. Readers seem to have a great deal more patience for male writers, whose work is far more likely to be published than women’s, according to the latest VIDA Count, despite men being outnumbered by women in MFA programs across artistic disciplines. Male writers are also more likely to receive free publicity for their work in the form of book reviews, interviews, and other opportunities.
I don’t claim to know how Fuller personally feels about writers like Sedaris or Knausgaard, but I can’t help but question her choice to negatively review Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s memoirs as “navel gazing” books with little substance—even if she personally didn’t care for the work. Because, in doing so, articles like Fuller’s quietly perpetuate the sexism already lurking in the writing world.
By this, I don’t mean to imply that a woman cannot be in any way critical of another woman’s work. As writers, critique is the air we breathe—a welcome and necessary component of the writing process. But to broadly lambaste the memoir genre using three recent examples by women—and from a position of privilege and power as a book reviewer for The New York Times—is difficult to justify under the umbrella of constructive criticism, especially when one considers the subtext of some of Fuller’s statements:
To write that a memoir is “poorly conceived” suggests that the writer should have written her book differently in order to better fit what “good” or “successful” writing is supposed to look like. To write that a published, otherwise well-received memoir is not a “successful” book is to imply it is not worth reading. To imply that a memoir is not worth reading is to dismiss the value of the story it tells. To dismiss the value of this story is to dismiss the woman telling it.
There are so many women writers who look up to Fuller and aspire to her level of craft, myself included. As an established memoirist and a woman, herself, Fuller should know her words have the power to silence those in earlier, less confident stages of their careers.
In The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that silence, once imposed, is a highly effective weapon. “A free person tells her own story,” Solnit writes. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.” In a political climate where women, people of color, and queer-identifying writers are in very real danger of losing basic rights and freedoms, we need to make places for these stories, perhaps now more than ever before.
Because when Fuller writes that these memoirs are “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape,” her words imply they do not have a place on our society’s figurative bookshelf. That they are neither casual enough for light leisure reading, nor analytical enough for its heavier, high-brow counterpart. But memoir does not exist solely within the binary of guilty pleasure and intellectual rigor. There is room within the genre for stories that exist between, even outside of this spectrum. Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s books each bear witness to the interiority of the human condition. Their voices are unique to their experiences, and contribute to our collective understanding of our world. That should be enough.
In one final strange twist of irony, Fuller quotes Maya Angelou in her review, writing: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It would seem Fuller has neglected to heed, as it were, her own advice. The memoir is not going anywhere, and the writing world is harsh enough as it is. As women, we have a responsibility to hold each other up throughout our careers, and not to pull the proverbial ladder of opportunity up behind us. We have a responsibility to value each other’s stories, even when others don’t. And this is what I most want my students to take with them as the writers of tomorrow.
**The essays quoted above include “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” by Adrienne Rich and “A Short History of Silence” from The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit.
Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She also serves as Brevity’s Managing Editor. Find more on her website at zoebossiere.com, and on twitter @zoebossiere
April 1, 2015 § 1 Comment
Sharing some good news out of University of Georgia:
The University of Georgia Press is pleased to announce Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction. Edited by John Griswold, the series aims to publish two to four new titles annually.
Named for intersections, and for the heart of the matter, this series will publish literary nonfiction by diverse writers working in a variety of modes, including personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. Books are intended for general readers, including writers, teachers of writing, and students, and will be both intelligent and accessible. Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued. As the series develops, it will include non-American writers and experiences.
Griswold is an assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of A Democracy of Ghosts; Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City; and Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life: Collected Essays (Georgia, 2014). He has written extensively (as Oronte Churm) at Inside Higher Ed and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
The inaugural book in the series will be published in October 2015. My Unsentimental Education, a memoir by Debra Monroe (On the Outskirts of Normal), offers a smart and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when crossing class barriers in pursuit of the life of the mind.
Press director Lisa Bayer adds, “Creative nonfiction as a genre is experiencing an unprecedented period of growth and interest—a bit of a golden age. Georgia’s strong literary legacy, combined with the richness of the field, positions us perfectly to make a visible mark.”
The series advisory board includes Dan Gunn, Pam Houston, Phillip Lopate, [Brevity founding editor] Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Patricia Smith, and Ned Stuckey-French.For more information: