Reading Like a Writer: On Uncertainty

November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments

By Jennifer Berney

Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”

The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.

[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]

Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.

In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.

Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:

Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?

To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.

Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.

This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.

This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”

Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

The New Normal: How I Accidentally Developed My Morning Writing Routine

April 3, 2018 § 24 Comments

By Kristin Boldon

If the road to hell is paved good intentions, there are a lot of bricks down there with my name on them. A few of the things I’ve vowed over the years: Do more yoga. Meditate. Write every day. Read better books. The list goes on. I’m sure you have one, too. Instead, my life looked more like Whack-a-Mole, with me desperately swatting at tasks, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. Most days, the alarm went off at 6AM and my husband and I snoozed till 6:30AM. I went downstairs, made coffee, checked Facebook and Twitter, and wrote in my journal if I had time before getting our boys up at 7AM.

Things changed around the new year, after my husband read Discipline Equals Freedom by a former Navy Seal, Jocko Willenk. George set our alarm an hour earlier so he could go to the gym. It was his change of routine. I could have kept sleeping. Instead, I got up too. Rather than rushing to coffee and my phone, I did a few yoga poses, then journaled in my office, instead of downstairs at the cluttered dining room table.

After a few days, something weird happened.

I didn’t quit.

I went to sleep earlier so I could get up earlier, and I started to do a little more each morning. I remembered a chant I’d learned at a yoga retreat a few years before. In my office I had a few items I rarely used: at my desk, a light therapy lamp to combat the dark Minnesota winters. On the wall, a wooden labyrinth that used to be downstairs until one of my sons used it as a maze, tracing the meditative path with a red Sharpie. On my bookshelf, memoirs and books on writing, many unread. I threw these into the mix. After yoga, I chanted. In my office, I turned on the sun lamp, took the labyrinth off the wall and traced it with my fingers. I wrote in my journal, ending the entry with a short to-do list for the day. Then I read ten pages from one of the writing books and took notes.

After a few days of this expanded routine, something weird happened.

I didn’t quit.

Instead, I looked forward to getting out of bed and into my office. It went from being something I should do to something I wanted to do. In a short time, one seemingly simple change—getting up an hour earlier—resulted in a morning routine I’ve done every day for almost three months now. I didn’t have to buy new gear or equipment, or even learn new things. I started with yoga and my journal, then glommed on things already at hand.

The whole thing fits into about an hour. I’ve done it in as little as 20 minutes on days I need to get to work early, and for over an hour on weekends. Since I started, I have only missed one morning, when my husband was sick. One of my favorite parts is the short daily list. Each morning, I look back to check off what I did the day before. Since I begin every list with the steps of my routine:

  • Make bed
  • Do Yoga
  • Chant
  • Labyrinth
  • Journal
  • Read 10 pages

I can always quickly cross off six items from the previous day’s list. Plus, I’m more consistent about the rest of the list. Sitting in my writing chair first thing warms it up; I’m eager to get back in it as soon as I can, even if it’s hours later. My writing productivity has increased significantly since the beginning of the year. After months of wandering in the middle of my memoir, I was finally able to finish the second draft.

After years of wishful thinking, I now have a morning routine that includes meditation, reading, writing, and yoga. I don’t do anything in depth, but I do a little of several things that matter to me. I leave my office energized, and not just from the sun lamp. It’s uplifting to know I’ve done all these things before my day has even officially begun. Like the Queen boasted to Alice, I’ve accomplished six impossible things before breakfast.

______________________________

Kristin Boldon writes memoir, essays, and fiction. She was born in central Ohio, moved as far away as Guam, then settled in Minnesota sight unseen, where she lives with her husband and sons. Her work has been featured on the Taste Blog of Minnesota Monthly, and at Simple Good and Tasty. She blogs sporadically at girldetective.net, and is a member of too many book groups.

aixelsyD (…and that looks fine to me)

March 13, 2018 § 16 Comments

A guest post from Ryder Ziebarth:

In third grade, we practiced our reading aloud in homeroom each afternoon. If we didn’t falter, Mrs. Karrick sent us to Assembly Hall for the last half hour of the day, where a group of better readers gathered with the head of the lower school, Mrs. Drysdale, to practice.

I remember when I was sent to Assembly Hall. I felt so smart, walking down the green linoleum hallway, through the swinging doors of the great Hall reserved for morning meeting, the pledge of allegiance, and school plays. I chose a seat in the semi-circle of gray plastic chairs closest to Mrs. Drysdale.

My turn came to read a passage. I stood with the book splayed open in my hands and stared at the sentences before me. The words were longer than the ones I read with Mrs. Karrick and they contained too many letters. The words in this book looked like a foreign language to me; so many vowels! My eyes looked down at my Buster Browns.

“Begin, please,” said Mrs. Drysdale. The big word danced.

“The genie in the bottle said…ab…ba, aba…ab…ra, ca, cad…cada…”

“Abracadabra,” Mrs. Drysdale said. “Next?”

Back to homeroom I went, scuffing my shoes, promising myself I’d try harder next time. The following week, I read flawlessly for Mrs. Karrick, but in Assembly Hall I stumbled over the word physical for Mrs. Drysdale. Where was the “F” in that word? The commute went on for another week, until finally I wasn’t asked back again. I felt stupid, and relieved. Unfortunately, feeling stupid was the feeling that lasted.

I discovered I had dyslexia—a language-based learning disability characterized by trouble spelling, reading, decoding and pronouncing words— at age forty, when my own daughter was being tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. I picked up a pamphlet on the table in the psychologist’s office, waiting for her appointment to end. Take this test, it read.

Do you have trouble sounding out words?

I just skip over them when I read to myself, never out loud (shades of Assembly Hall).

Difficulty spelling?

I hire freelance editors for everything I write.

Do you have difficulty memorizing?

F is for French…and chemistry.

An inability to spot mistakes when proofreading?

See “hiring freelancers” above.

Trouble knowing left from right?

There’s a difference?

Was it hard for you to learn to tie your shoes as a child?

I was eight.

Telling time?

I was nine.

Teachers told my parents I was smart, but lazy; some said I was stupid and lazy. I loved to read but read slowly, skipping the words I didn’t recognize. I tested terribly. I couldn’t get in to the college of my dreams, but when I finally got to a college, I learned to compensate for my impairment by finding classmates looking for extra cash to either proof and type my papers, or tutor me in math. I always wore a pinkie ring on my right hand.

When I worked in New York, I paid secretaries to correct and type my reports because I couldn’t figure out the word processor in my own office no matter how many tutorials the company sent me to. I simply couldn’t remember the instructions.

My dyslexia hasn’t changed, but I learned to recognize it. I continue to thank the computer Gods for spellcheck and write checks to editors.

Recently, I posted an ad on Facebook for a writer’s workshop I held in my home, and was publicly called out for typos, none of which I saw after what I considered a careful proofread. The commenter said she’d never attend a writer’s workshop when the writer couldn’t spell. I thanked her for locating the mistakes, but my eight-year-old self went slinking back down the hall to Mrs. Karrick’s homeroom, as the Assembly Hall doors slammed shut behind me.

Although I tell myself I graduated college cum laude, plus two graduate-level programs despite my handicap, it’s still hard not to berate myself.

I will always need an editor. A kind soul who won’t make me feel stupid or lazy—just polished after my drafts are proofed. For many years I worried I was the only one—that everyone else had this secret power I lacked. But at the NonfictioNow conference in Iceland this past spring, author and keynote speaker Karl Ove Knausgård revealed he too, has never once in his entire career worked without an editor by his side.

I was in the right room at last.

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Ryder S. Ziebarth is the founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series (Creating Memoir From Memoir workshop upcoming June 10). Her work has appeared in N Magazine, The New York Times, Punctuate, The Brevity Blog, Tiferet, Assay, Proximity and Past Ten. She serves as TRUE columnist for Proximity and as a committee member for the Nantucket Book Festival.

Listen Up

October 19, 2017 § 13 Comments

Yes, I should pause there…

When I teach a workshop, I like to audiotape it. Partly so I can send the recording to the class, which takes some of the stress off taking notes and lets everyone participate a little bit more. But also because ItalkamillionmilesanhourifIdon’tstopmyself.

The same thing applies to readings–when I head up for the podium, I leave my phone voice recorder running at my seat. After, I can listen–did I pause in the right places? Was there audience laughter I didn’t make room for? Often, just glancing back at my chair, seeing the phone there, reminds me slow down. Take a breath.

It’s valuable to listen to our own voices. Find out how long that piece really is with audience reactions in it. See if we really sound like a dork (spoiler: usually no). If the recorder is in the audience, it often picks up the kind of supportive murmurs and agreement breaths listeners make when we’re enjoying a story. Those noises aren’t always easy to hear in the moment, when we’re stressed about getting through a piece. And it’s always awesome to re-listen to applause.

As well as being a great tool to improve our own reading, there are places to submit audio stories. The Drum is a fantastic audio literary magazine, and Story Club specializes in nonfiction performance, with the author setting the text after a live show. The Brevity Podcast will be calling for One-Minute Memoirs next week. For all of these, you don’t have to be an audio whiz, but a few simple tricks will help you sound your best.

Check your phone. Phones usually record better than computers if you’re not using a separate microphone, and you probably have a native Voice Memos or Voice Recorder app. On most phones from the last three years, the built-in mic is good enough to get decent live-audience audio, and decent-to-good private taping. Look up where the mic is physically located on your phone, and point that end toward the reader. Try a couple of test recordings to see how close you want to hold it to your face–usually 4-6 inches away is good.

Check your app. On my iPhone, the Voice Memos app keeps going even when the screen locks or if I open another app. But when I’m doing more sophisticated recording with a plug-in microphone and an app called Motiv, the recording stops if the screen goes dark. I found that out the hard, embarrassing, can-I-please-interview-you-again way. Now I turn screen lock to “never” and put the phone in airplane mode. Some phones also stop recording if someone calls or texts. Find out for sure–or just put it in airplane every time.

Pad your space. Recordings are better with less echo. In a public reading, this is out of our control. Setting the phone on a wooden or plastic surface is better than a metal folding chair (they give a slight echo), but it’s not going to make a huge difference for personal recordings. If you’re taping for submission–like, say, the upcoming Brevity call for One-Minute Memoir–test the first paragraph in a couple of spaces to see what sounds best. Rooms with carpet, lower ceilings, and soft furniture work best. Walk-in closets are great. In a pinch, I record in my car (parked and turned off, until it gets so hot I have to take a break) or with a blanket or towel over my head. (Table fort, anyone?)

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I always bobble on a few words the first time I read an essay aloud. Plus, speaking into the recorder affects my pace. I try to tape a reading at least three times. Even if I can’t edit, I can at least pick the best take.

Whether you post or submit your work, or just listen for your own edification, taping is a great way to see how you sound. Often, extra lines or awkward phrases jump right out from the audio, or we instinctively smooth out a sentence as we speak it. Why not give it a test run? We’re hoping to hear from you soon, and we’ll tell you how and what next week!

______________________________________

Allison K Williams hosts the Brevity Podcast. Her most recently available audio class is Write Better with Social Media.

Speedreading

February 12, 2016 § 19 Comments

Dave Franco

Dave Franco is absolutely relevant to this post

A guest post from Ronald Anahaw:

 

Like a chef with one recipe, I always ended up using the same ingredients to write memoir: pow, a splash of humor, bang, male friends more like brothers, zap, love interest. Order up, one awkward but boyishly charming essay coming your way. And yes, I do make those sounds when I write.

But like ordering the same dish each time, writing about the same stuff gets boring. It gets old. (Unless it’s Bon Chon’s Korean fried chicken, in which case, bring it on.)

Trauma, joy, papercuts, dinners for one—we write what we know. I’m eighteen. So I still don’t know a lot. I’ve noticed I write about the same friends and events every time I write nonfiction, and my well of inspiration seems about 2 inches deep and filled with a lot of early nights.

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about lists as a writer’s tool.

If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

He later told The Paris Review:

But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. 

Ray’s always been a smart guy. So I sat down and made a list. Okay, this list is going to be of all the cool shit I’ve done! Twenty minutes later I had three items and a cramp from poising the pen above the paper. I was struggling to discover “me” from the lopside of my brain. Okay, no worries Ron. Try the underside of your brain. Write a list of all the things you’re going to do

  • Get a book professionally published
  • Live as a hermit in the Philippines
  • Run a fan blog for Dave Franco’s smile (I mean, c’mon, just look at it).

I had twenty-two things. I was happy for a moment. Then I realized, Shit, I can’t write about things that haven’t happened yet. Disheartened, I turned to Wikipedia. Hemingway drank; I devoured crowd-sourced media bites. A page on Aziz Ansari led to the dangers of inorganically grown lettuce which took me to Siberian Tatars. Often, hours will go by when I’m like this.

And then, I remembered–at ten years old, I speedread Ken Follett’s massive, 816-page Pillars of the Earth in three days. Why was a young boy reading a sprawling historical novel about architecture, love, and betrayal? Well, Oprah had vouched for it, so naturally I tore through it. A week later, my teacher asked what my favorite part was, and suddenly I couldn’t bring to mind even one thing from those 816 pages. The meat of the work was gone. My eyes had picked up the basic plot and the main characters, absorbed them and moved on.

I’d lost all the finer points and tiny moments that, accumulated, make the book. And I’d done the same speedreading whenever I reflected on my life to write nonfiction. I’d missed how when I was younger, drinking was my father’s vice as much as affection was my mother’s. How my respect for myself was always tied to the number on a weight scale. How I’ve always repped my American self before my Filipino self. How, when I was eight-years-old, my best friend joked that I was his brown shadow, and ever since then I’ve had trouble seeing myself as more than that.

I thought I had nothing else to write about. I thought being eighteen meant I just didn’t have very much to say, that I was going to have to wait to get the “real” things worth writing about. I was wrong. There’s plenty for me—or anyone else—to write about. We just have to read our lives more slowly.

 

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Ronald Anahaw is a student at Bennington College and Brevity’s podcast production assistant.

Essays Are For Lovers

February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

ValentineWe’re here because we love essays, memoir, creative nonfiction. They’re not always easy to find on the shelf, and the Amazon browsing process can be…flawed. (Inspired by your shopping trends, this print of Iron Man. Yep, got it in one.)

Over at Essay Daily, notable nonfictioneers including Ander Monson, Maya Kapoor, Brian Doyle and Jill Talbot have listed some of their favorite essay collections, including our own Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mr. Essay Writer Guy and Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang, and also mentions of individual essays, including several at Brevity.

The booklist is itself a catalog essay of sorts, with the editorial comments from the recommenders as charming as tracking down the essays they adore. From Aurvi Sharma:

Eliot Weinberger’s ‘An Elemental Thing’
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, ‘Read this!’ Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don’t know but Sei Shonagon’s late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that’s a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book.

Go check out the list…and choose a book for your Valentine.

I’m Sorry You Scare Me

February 23, 2015 § 17 Comments

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Gaucher

For those on our email list, an unfinished version of this post went out yesterday, our fault, not the author’s! Please enjoy the full version.

A guest post from Elizabeth Gaucher:

“I think I have to apologize for something,” the message from my longtime friend read. “At first I thought I need to apologize for not reading your latest published piece, but I think I have to apologize for or admit to something deeper.”

I felt my brows rise. This was coming from one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone who is also a writer, and it felt like a warning flare. I took a deep breath and read on into the mysterious sin. She had in fact finally read my column about the writing life for an online nonfiction journal. She was really moved by it. She apologized for not reading it sooner, admitting she wasn’t too busy and she hadn’t forgotten. In the column I examined how my writing evolved after a particular retreat combining lots of physical activity with writing prompts.

There was yoga on horseback and running with horses through Vermont forests; I couldn’t engage these particular things because of my M.S. and balance problems, but I walked out to the horses and stood with my friends who climbed up on their backs. I went to the edge of the forest. I put my hand on a horse and felt his heartbeat as my friend climbed onto his back. I felt my own fear. I could do other things, like follow a series of yoga poses to Eminem and drop to write to serious prompts about someone who loves me. This was more frightening in many ways than climbing on a horse. Fall off the horse? Blame disease. Blame the handler. Blame the weather or whatever external thing I could claim. Fail to really tell my story? There can be only one soul responsible at the end of the day.

I discovered how not letting my body’s knowledge speak up on the page was limiting my work. My body’s weakness was always an excuse. This breakthrough was accompanied by some crying jags and complete withdrawal for a few hours, but it was all worth it. It was a purge of my bad writing habits, like over-intellectualizing and avoiding emotional honesty by writing only with the rational mind.

My friend’s message continued, “I am somewhat terrified that you weren’t quite there yet. I entirely get that none of us are ever quite there yet and might not ever be, but you, to me, are a very scary role model of the unflinching look at the necessary, the real, the uncomfortable. And you weren’t there yet. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy for you, but it does mean that sometimes I don’t leap into reading something you wrote. I’ll keep working on it. And I hope you will keep sharing your writing with me. It always always always makes me think. Even when I wish it wouldn’t.”

I wonder if we all have writers we want to read but sometimes can’t or won’t, because what they reveal in us is uncomfortable or confusing or even downright unpleasant. I think about how I’ve picked up Toni Morrison’s work exactly once, and not because I don’t admire her writing or don’t want to know what she has to say. Or maybe that is exactly it, I don’t want to know what she has to say. I don’t want to know it. I felt like Beloved would kill me if I kept reading, and I’ve never gone back. Like my confessing friend, I have very complicated feelings about this reality. I feel like a coward, but I also know how hard and powerful narratives can be, how they become part of who we are, how we can’t go back to who we were before we read them. Once I’ve established a grip on writers who can do this to me, who will unavoidably alter my life with their work, I tend to exercise tremendous discretion around the right time to read them. I have in rare instances decided not to read them at all.

It is not an easy thing to admit this deeper thing, this truth that I choose at times to put distance between myself and the raw reality of other people. Writers are human beings who want and need readers to connect, to understand their experience and, yes, their pain. Readers are human, too. I’m grateful my friend felt she could tell me how she feels, and I’m honored that what I’m doing is significant enough to someone that she might not want to read it; but of course, I hope she will.

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Elizabeth Gaucher is a writer, an editor, and a degree candidate for the MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElizGaucher.

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