April 25, 2018 § 8 Comments
By Lisa Witz
In Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose says to, “put every word on trial for its life.”
Writers of nonfiction have an obligation to tell the truth; this includes the facts, of course, but also the spirit of the story. Our job is to not just to make sure the craft is tightly strung, but to also make sure that the words, once threaded together like pearls on a string, hold up to the challenge of readers, especially those who are characters in or witnesses of the story. This is delicate, because everyone’s memories of a single incident differ slightly. No one remembers the same. Yet there’s some line, some place of substantial truth that can’t be questioned, and as a memoirist it’s a basic requisite for me to delineate where this line is.
I treaded near that line recently. I wrote a story called “Cutting Tails” about a typical farming chore my father asked me to do as a kid; that day my friend Julie was over at my house, so she accompanied me and shows up in the story. In a nutshell, my Dad asked us to load up some lambs in the back of the pale blue pickup and take them to the butcher. I shared the story with my writing group and they gave me all sorts of comments and constructive ideas on how to tighten the story, to craft a more polished piece. But they had no reason to question my facts, or my recollection of how the events unfolded that day. They did ask, however, about the friend, and if I am still in touch with her, and how she is doing today.
My heart started beating right there at the table in writing class. I know, as soon as someone suggested it, I knew I needed to run the story by her. Julie is a dear friend of mine; she’s read other writing of mine before, and she’s an ardent supporter. She is one of the few people that knows a substantial history of my life. I’ve known her longer than I’ve known my husband. Her family knew my family before we knew each other. That’s how it is in small towns; and both of us got out, but the memories of our childhood haunt us equally. And this story, this small snippet that I wrote, is a place where our histories intersect.
So, I should have felt safe sending off a piece of writing to her. Yet because I put words to the page about this day, something shifted. I became author of a shared memory in our lives, and not just friend; I became a tiny bit more responsible because it was my version of the truth that took to the page. I crafted an email and attached the essay, and pressed send.
I waited, in anticipation, for her response.
A week passed before her reply. And it was gut-wrenching waiting because instead of sharing writing that was mine, this writing had her as a character in the story. I was on pins and needles worried with how she would feel about how I characterized her. As soon as her response landed in my inbox I could tell she took time to craft her reaction. She diplomatically and poetically explained her experience, revisiting this moment, this day that affected her deeply. She awakened me to the fact that we are still living the story, still engaged in a relationship where our actions may influence/enlighten/hurt/ one another. She is a college English professor, and she’s excellent at communicating the bare truth even when it is a difficult truth to share. Sharing this story with her was complicated, on many levels.
It turns out I had several facts wrong. I remembered us being in high school, but she correctly pointed out that we were in college, because she left my farm that day, after seeing two lambs shot to their death at the butchers, to her waitressing job where she carried steak oozing with its red, thick juice to patrons in the restaurant. She was repulsed. She also pointed out that when we drove the lambs to the butcher, as my dad asked me to do, and as happened frequently on the sheep and cattle farm where I grew up, we carried three lambs in the back of the pickup. Not two. The butcher, as Julie recalls, had room for only two so he quickly and decisively terminated the lives of those two and spared one. Julie told me that a lamb was missing from my story, one whose life was spared, for no apparent reason, and how “seemingly random” (her words) it was that it witnessed the horror and then went on to live.
Her words propelled me deeper into the story, deeper into the memory, to a place where my heart pounded not only more quickly but much more profoundly. Why did I place this story in high school, when we were in in college? Is it because I had often driven to the butchers, and the memories of going there become jumbled? Or was I remembering a more innocent girl, a younger version of myself who couldn’t be responsible for turning her friend vegetarian?
I had to put the essay aside for several weeks. Julie’s response frightened me. It made me want to write fiction because my own truth feels more far-fetched than fiction, at times, and because I started to doubt my memories. They are difficult to open and examine; they are difficult, at times, to remember.
Julie thanked me for writing about that day; “It’s all kind of strangely haunting and beautiful all at the same time.” She went on to say, “It turned out to be one of the most defining moments of my life, and in many ways altered the entire course of my life.”
At times I feel like my memory is on trial for life. Is my version of the truth true? If it isn’t, or if it misses some facts, why did I leave them out? The eyes of the lamb who was saved, the one who drove back to the farm in the pickup truck with me, the one who witnessed the silence between Julie and I that shifted our relationship, that lamb haunts me. Why did I forget the third lamb when I wrote the original story?
Lisa Witz grew up the youngest of nine children on a sprawling cattle and sheep farm north of San Francisco. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, living in Japan, Spain and the Pacific Northwest. She now lives near San Diego with her husband and three children, and they often visit the farm to hike the trails of her childhood. Visit http://www.lisareginawitz.com/ for more of her writing.
May 16, 2017 § 12 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
July 13, 2016 § 11 Comments
Yesterday, a writer I work with confessed her greatest fear–lack of originality. She felt she didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said. What could she offer that was new, different, worth reading?
I’ve felt that. The sharp stab when seeing an essay gone viral, or a book about an experience I’ve had, too. The feeling of that should be mine.
In The Millions, Kaulie Lewis writes about seeing other writers’ books and essays and wishing desperately that she’d written them:
…I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first…My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
It’s not just us. Everyone (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen) worries that what they want to write has already been done, probably better, by someone else.
It doesn’t matter.
There’s room for Wild and A Walk in the Woods. For Bird by Bird and On Writing and The Art of Memoir. For Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. What matters is not the subject, but what the writer brings to the table. It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the rarity of a specific expression of that idea. I went for a hike–why? I learned to write–how? My family won’t stop fighting so I can find love–guns or swords?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.”
But we do. No-one else can tell our particular, unique, specific story. It’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.
It’s up to each of us to discover not just the general appeal of our work (cancer memoir! lost a parent! recovery!) but the nature of the story that is so personal, so intimate, it can only be told by one person. Here is a topic that everyone cares about, and here is a new way to think about it.
We are seldom original. But we can always be rare.
Kaulie Lewis’ essay at The Millions is well worth reading, and mentions what to do when you feel like your piece has already been written.
June 9, 2016 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Jennifer Berney:
This week, nearly thirty years after his death, Arnold Lobel (author of the Frog and Toad books) was outed to the world in a New Yorker piece by Colin Stokes titled “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same Sex Love. I read the piece with interest because as a parent and a writer, I’ve been an abiding fan of Lobel’s work. In the countless hours I’ve spent propped against pillows, reading Frog and Toad books aloud to my sons, I find myself always half-immersed in story, and half-immersed in my own wonder at how flawless those stories are. As a writer who works primarily in the genre of memoir, I cannot read fiction without wondering where the author’s life intersects with his art. I am nosy that way.
Most Frog and Toad stories are composed of brief, everyday moments that, when arranged with Lobel’s precision add up to something that is at once startling and funny and layered with meaning. For instance, in one of my favorite stories, “A Swim,” Frog and Toad go swimming in a river. Toad requests that Frog avert his eyes as he leaves the water because he’s afraid that he looks funny in his swimsuit. But then a turtle comes along, and then a group of lizards, a snake, a mouse, and finally a pair of dragonflies. When Frog asks them to leave so that Toad can come out of the water, they insist that if Toad looks so funny, well then they are going to wait around to see.
Each time I read the story (even though by now I know the ending), I halfway expect that it will end with Toad being reassured that he looks fine, not funny, that he was silly to worry after all. But instead it ends with all of the animals—even Frog—laughing, because of course Toad does look funny in his swimsuit. How could he not?
In this and all his other stories, Lobel presents us with a world that is at once candid and charmed, a world that acknowledges that we do look funny in our swimsuits, that our friends may look when we ask them not to, and laugh even if they mean us no harm. It is a world where, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that cookies taste better than willpower. Lobel’s stories always teach lessons, and yet they never moralize.
And so, each time I’ve read Frog and Toad to my children, I’ve wondered about Arnold Lobel himself. One time I looked him up to find the picture above and to learn that he had a wife and two children and that he had died in 1987.
This did not really answer my questions.
I wanted to know where his stories came from, and how he had learned to master the art of storytelling. I wanted to know if he had studied Zen koans or Aesop’s fables, or if he was just some kind of genius.  But I did not want to learn anything that would ruin his stories for me, like for instance that he had been a drunk or an adulterer, or some kind of religious zealot, and so I stopped researching his life and began to simply picture him as the author with the impressive mustache.
It never occurred to me that Arnold Lobel was gay, just as it never occurred to me that Maurice Sendak was gay—a fact I learned just after his death in 2012. Now that I know, I wonder what it means that two of the greatest minds in children’s literature were men who spent much of their lives in the closet. I think that it is more than coincidence, that there is something about having to live in secret that disposes one to work well in metaphor. When we can’t tell our literal stories, we must either get creative or give up.
I think also that the strongest children’s literature is work that explores buried desires and impulses, work that builds worlds where wild things can actually be tamed, and where, if you wait on your front porch long enough, a snail will eventually deliver you the letter you’ve always wished for.
I believe that it’s important to understand Lobel’s sexual identity as a part of his legacy. As a lesbian writer, I feel that I’ve reclaimed some small part of my history any time I learn that an author I’ve admired is gay. I can also acknowledge the possible connection between Lobel’s orientation and the tender affection that Frog and Toad share. However, I worry about the suggestion that we re-read Frog and Toad as (to refer back to Colin Stokes’ title) “a celebration of same-sex love.” Ever since Stokes’ post appeared last Tuesday, others have been quick to hop on that bandwagon. People ran a story titled Are Frog and Toad Gay? and Slate published How Frog and Toad Author Arnold Lobel Explored Gay Intimacy in his Work. But here’s the thing: Arnold Lobel did not explore gay intimacy in his work. That’s kind of the point. He was writing from the closet, compressing his experience into something that readers would find universally true. Frog and Toad are neither gay nor straight. They are archetypal characters and as such their identities don’t require labels—that is a part of their appeal.
Arnold Lobel was not a memoirist. His work doesn’t invite us into his life, but still we want to find him there. We are like the animals who sit on the river bank—the turtle, and the lizards, the snake, the mouse and the dragonflies—all of us gawking at Toad in his swimsuit when he’s so clearly asked us to look away.
 I did find an archived interview with Lobel as I was writing this, and it turns out that he did not study koans or fables, nor did he consider himself a genius. Lobel said, “I’m really rather insecure about writing, which is why I always write my stories complete before I draw pictures. Drawing the pictures is nothing for me. I know how to draw pictures. With writing, I’m in quicksand a bit. I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s very intuitive.”
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Brain, Child, The New York Times, Motherlode, Mutha, and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
October 8, 2015 § 8 Comments
At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:
I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.
Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.
Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.
Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.
Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?
Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.
As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”
January 26, 2015 § 29 Comments
About a year ago, I made a decision. The last relationship I had been in, with a partner who lived in a foreign country, had been very expensive. Flights, time away from work, opportunities chosen for nearness rather than maximum pay. Before that, I’d been the primary breadwinner in a long relationship, then dated an actor and a musician. This time, money was going to be an issue.
I set my online dating profile to the country I wanted to live in — a country with a high standard of living and lots of expats. When messages came in I checked the approximate income level of the job the message-writer claimed to have before responding.
Shallow? Sure. But I’m a white, cisgender woman with no kids. I got a lot of messages. Screening for income is no different than screening for age, height, looks, or doesn’t-post-racist-screeds-on-Facebook. Saying, “I’m not interested in dating anyone who can’t, if necessary, support me.” is no different than saying “no kids.” It’s a status they have some control over, based on choices they made. It’s as arbitrary as liking C-cup brunettes.
Reader, I found him. A kind, gentle man with a wicked sense of humor in a physical package I find attractive. With citizenship in a country I wouldn’t mind living in, residency in the country I want to live in now, and an income, ability, and desire to be the primary household support.
Not paying my own rent is weird. Not having my own residence permit is weird. Letting him hand me money for groceries and taxis is weird.
But it’s better than not writing.
It’s better than squeezing writing in around paid hours of something else, or stressing about the rent, or worrying about what happens if I get sick. It’s better than thinking, “One day, when I have time…”
For a long time, money was the currency I brought to my relationships, and finding different ways to contribute is weird, too. I like cooking and laundry, I don’t like cleaning or being a leech. And sometimes yes, I feel like a “research” day or a “resting” day was a “wasting someone else’s money and support” day, and that makes anxiety.
It’s a job like any other, this writing-while-supported, and I’m learning how to do it well.
At Salon, Ann Bauer writes that it’s a problem when writers don’t talk about where the money’s coming from — it misleads younger writers into thinking they’re doing it wrong. At a reading she attended,
The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards. He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.
None of this takes away from his brilliance. Yet, when an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask him how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by. I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.
When we walk away from a statement like that, or compare ourselves to authors with an independent income and a room of their own, it’s easy to think I’m not working hard enough. Easy to attribute a lack of bill-paying success to a dearth of talent or skill. But the support of a family fortune, terrific connections, or a willing spouse is a fellowship. A grant to take the time we need to write, to refine our work, to develop our voice without having to sell sell sell.
My instinct is to support myself, and I’ve taken on enough editing jobs to have to reconsider my ability to make money, and how it’s interfering with the time to write larger projects and submit work.
I’m lucky to have that choice.
Check out Ann Bauer’s essay at Salon — there are some interesting comments, too, both agreeing and opposed.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She lives in Dubai and recently became engaged.
November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
Here at Brevity we’re all about the truth. While some authors–notably Pam Houston in her essay “Corn Maze”–make a case for judiciously incorporating fictional elements that smooth out a narrative–we’re in favor of the tangled web of real life on the page, loose ends, messy plot lines and all.
Other journalists, not so much.
Longform has curated a collection of some of the most notable falsehoods in non-fiction: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, of course, but also some pieces intended as pranks, such as this gem from the New York Sun in August 1835, describing the discovery of life on the Moon:
At the foot of this boundary of hills was a perfect zone of woods surrounding the whole valley, which was about eighteen or twenty miles wide, at its greatest breadth, and about thirty in length. Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence. In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history.
Equally fascinating is the level of language in the Sun’s story–the article about Dr. Herschel’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made” is flowery beyond novels of the period, and yet this was a mass paper, a tabloid, intended for everyday reading. The life-on-the-Moon story ran as a six-day serial, and it was America’s first “media event.” The Sun sold 100,000 copies at a time when the population of New York was only 300,000.