So the Was Turns to Is

September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:

So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch

Lynette D'Amico

Lynette D’Amico

When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.

My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of  Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.

I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.

Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”

I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:

“The impossibility that she is dead.”

“How impossible it is that she is dead.”

“It is impossible that she is dead.”

“The impossibility of her dead.”

I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.

Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.

In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:

…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.

In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?


Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for

Launch Day (and Free Shipping) For Nonfiction Field Guide

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is the big day! We are happy to announce the release of the eagerly anticipated The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Brevity’s Dinty W. Moore.  and including Barrie Jean Borich • Jenny Boully • Norma Elia Cantú • Rigoberto González •Philip Graham • Carol Guess • Jeff Gundy • Robin Hemley • Barbara Hurd • Judith Kitchen • Eric LeMay • Dinah Lenney • Bret Lott • Patrick Madden• Lee Martin • Maggie McKnight • Brenda Miller • Kyle Minor •Aimee Nezhukumatathil • Anne Panning • Lia Purpura • Peggy Shumaker • Sue William Silverman • Jennifer Sinor • Ira Sukrungruang • Nicole Walker, many of them past Brevity contributors.

Today and tomorrow only! Get free shipping on your Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction order using coupon code LAUNCHDAY when you check out!

More from the Rose Metal site:

 Unmatched in its focus on a concise and popular emerging genre, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction features 26 eminent writers, editors, and teachers offering expert analysis, focused exercises, and helpful examples of what make the brief essay form such a perfect medium for experimentation, insight, and illumination. With a comprehensive introduction to the genre and book by editor Dinty W. Moore, this guide is perfect for both the classroom and the individual writer’s desk—an essential handbook for anyone interested in the scintillating and succinct flash nonfiction form. How many words does it take to tell a compelling true story? The answer might surprise you.


Dinty W. Moore and a multitude of contributors to The Field Guide will be reading at a number of venues this fall and winter, including stops in Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Columbus, Ohio. Dates and details here.

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Thursday Morning

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the best (worst) aspects of the AWP Conference is that there are more intellectually-stimulating events than you can ever hope to attend.  Just Thursday morning, for instance, in the first three hours, four nonfiction events jump off the schedule and demand to be seen.  But of course, you have to choose:

Thursday, 9 to 10:15

Virginia C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R114. Tearing Your Heart Off Your Sleeve: The Problem of Pathos in Creative Nonfiction. (B.J. Hollars, Re’Lynn Hansen, Marcia Aldrich, Marion Wrenn, Katie Jean Shinkle) How can nonfiction writers avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and nostalgia while directly addressing them in the work? Join editors from Black Warrior Review, Fourth Genre, South Loop, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Versal as they discuss the problem of pathos in nonfiction while offering concrete strategies for how best to approach emotionally driven topics. Panelists will also explore how traditional and experimental forms lend themselves to packing an emotive punch within the genre.

Hampton Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, East Lobby

R120. The Essayist in the 21st Century. (Randon Noble, Robert Atwan, Eula Biss, EJ Levy, Kyoko Mori) What is the future of the essay? How can essayists make this 16th-century form relevant to a new millennium? This panel of writers and editors will discuss how the personal essay is being challenged by more experimental forms, how this traditional genre might transform itself to meet the demands of a new publishing environment, and how new technologies pose logistical, aesthetic, and ethical problems for the essay.

Thursday 10:30 to 11:45

Thurgood Marshall East Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

R130. Memoir and Latinidad. (Joy Castro, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Luis Rodriguez, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Rigoberto González) U.S. Latina/o memoir has developed a rich contemporary tradition that spans the political and stylistic spectrum from Richard Rodriguez to Gloria Anzaldúa. But what makes a memoir Latina/o? Does latinidad influence aesthetics and craft as well as content? Do Latina/o memoirists see themselves as inheriting the life-writing techniques and traditions of the U.S., Latin America, or both? How do writers navigate mainstream expectations that their memoirs will represent whole cultures and nations?

Hampton Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, East Lobby

R143. A Sense of Where We Were: Nonfiction Writers on Setting. (William Bradley, Robert Root, Bob Cowser, Steven Church, Kristen Iversen) Setting is vital across nonfiction, in essays, memoirs, and literary reportage, and often the main character in travel and nature writing. Giving a reader a sense of where the writer was is key to the reader’s immersion in nonfiction writing. Writers whose works span the range of nonfiction will discuss how they create settings from communities they live in and landscapes they encountered—how to enter place in prose, how to recognize and overcome obstacles, what they’ve learned in the process.

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