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Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction Craft Essays
On autobiographia: yours, mine, and ours, a craft essay by ian clay sewall, on autobiographia: yours, mine, and ours by ian clay sewall.
Writing stories and essays about the people I remember and the people I know requires stretching out moments, staring through a square piece of stained glass that’s purple and blue and orange, soldered a long time ago against strips of silvery-looking zinc. The stained glass is a few feet from my stained desk, and looking at it helps me remember that what I am writing, the colors I use, the tools of creative nonfiction, are many. And they’re both new and old.
At times, when I’ve wanted to explore further inside another person’s interiority, when I’ve wondered what those people wondered, I’ve written in a draft, “I imagine,” or “perhaps,” or “maybe.”
When I write about my memories, I’m a first-person narrator limited to my own experience. But when I speculate in these narratives, “maybe” is a round trampoline of possibility. It allows an excavation of what, for example, my parents, born in 1949, think about everything from the snowy weather to horses on the prairie.
When we, as writers of memoir or personal essay, look back at what someone might have been thinking, where their eyes moved, how their words connected or belied the content of a conversation, how nothing and everything telegraphed meaning—a speculative sentence or two in a story can reveal what could have happened and didn’t, what could have been said but wasn’t, what notes may or may not have been played.
Speculation in creative nonfiction is a moment where we come right up to the line of fiction—though we don’t cross. It’s that experience of being in the creative writing sandbox—a writing portage that picks the readers up and out of bustling narrative rapids, and then sets them down on the banks of the river story. The speculative gesture is an arrow of maybe; one that reveals new angles on the muscles of a story.
And there is a danger, too, in all of that. And that’s the mythopoeic nature of writing about yourself. You become the hero. This certainly wasn’t the case in every remembered event. Many times, there were no heroes. Sometimes, others were heroes.
And yet, the very act of creative nonfiction means you are telling your own story. There is some sort of mythologizing of the moments.
I imagine that the people who love us, those who despise us, and those who are indifferent about us—everyone has myths, in which they are the ones who are seen or distorted or refracted.
My father wrote a book about folklore, and early in the text, he compares storytelling to a cowdog that’s been kenneled—and that cowdog begins to herd the birds he sees on a power cable. The story about the dog begins with the phrase “They say” and that makes me wonder who exactly is they? Who is saying this?
My father created a myth out of that cowdog; to me, the cowdog represents any story that’s told again and again. And there’s the paradox of what my dad is saying about narrative—the notion that it can be exhausting. The notion that telling stories can be fatiguing, on the surface, seems contradictory.
But maybe so. Maybe so.
My goal is to present images, stories, and the human beings I know and knew in a truthful light—a light framed in letters that relives and reimagines and retells. But what truth? Whose truth?
As I write vignettes about rural Canada where I grew up, and stories of Los Angeles, where I live now, I’m often pulled towards the phone, towards my two Dunvegan Hill parents, as they sit at the oak table of their farmhouse overlooking the winding, crystalline Peace River. It sparkles from that table view.
The lively conversation begins with a textual primer. They’ve been given a page or two that I’ve written about our 160 acres or maybe about the farm animals. My parents come to the conversation primed and prepared. They come with insights and memories that might not precisely match mine—though there is plenty of overlap. They are young again in these conversations and now they are living in the topcoat. Often, they’re telling me stories about when they’re the age I am now. The story will last longer, I imagine, because of the primer coat they help provide. The words will stick better.
“Dad, could you tell me about our mule, Red Jenny?” I asked on a recent call. I can’t imagine what his response will be. All I can remember is Jenny’s single blinded pale blue eye, her slow and steady trot, her towering height against my brambly, skinny body.
“Jenny and her brother Jack were separated, son, after we bought her from a Nebraska jail.”
This detail surpasses any sort of textural note I suspected he’d supply—something about her coat or the way she once wintered with a moose during a particularly cold winter. There’s a bifurcation where both their voices begin to meander and split into streams. My mother added, “Jenny was in that prison to work with the prisoners.”
Truly, they are invaluable, these interviews with my parents, who are often the main characters of my collection. One might argue the subjects of a memoir should not be able to see the work as it is written. For me, their stories help deepen my own.
While I write my collection of essays, on the freshly trodden side of my MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles, I’m also peering into craft books on nonfiction like the lush flash nonfiction The Best of Brevity , edited by Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. The concise and taut essays push their sentences. The essays are full. They are braided, graphic memoir, fragmented, hermit crab, lyric, micro, numbered—like this one—and researched. I feel as though I’m at the Getty, looking at art from all over the world.
In Christine Byl’s braided essay, “Bear Fragments,” she shares several bear stories from different locations, and then one patch of her essay includes fourteen instances of bear as a verb and lists a variety of expressions. How can one not be impressed?
In Jane Alison’s craft book, Meander, Spiral, Explode , she writes: “Super-short paragraphs and line breaks can aerate prose, throwing light into density, giving the reader space to think.” The notion that prose is something to be aerated—this gorgeous metaphor—how can a writer not be inspired to experiment in such literary soil?
I’ve gone from writing sentences to appreciating sentences to experimenting with the way sentences move and flow on the page.
And what happens when my hopefully well-aerated vignettes and short essay story bits get published? There’s a family text message in Canada, where all sorts of text moves from Alberta to British Columbia to here in Los Angeles.
I see a thumbs up or a heart and congrats.
And then, back to the drawing board. I’m in need of more stories, I’ve decided, for this collection. I find new stories when I become more sensitive to narrative, more open to the sounds outside my window, more able to listen in a conversation. So, I begin my writing once again.
Coffee helps. Walks are good. Traveling is especially effective. I think back to Utah.
The car I’m driving there, then, is cold. The back window is covered with morning frost. Several inches of airy snow layer up in the parking lot. I remove the ice on the windows with a snow scraper. The plastic end pushes on ice that formed overnight. The ice flies off, scattering to the asphalt and my weathered cowboy boots. I flip the tool around, and the bristle broom feathers and fusses until the glass looks new. A new story idea emerges about rural cars and trucks that need to be warmed for minutes before getting inside and driving. I have to write the idea down before it vanishes. The cold is just the tactile imagery needed for transportation and story mining.
There are thousands of these types of feelings and stories in me from Canada. The stories are in little containers, waiting to become words on a page. Waiting for a juxtaposed layering with Los Angeles.
So, I come to the typewriter. An old Olympia that was repainted locally, in Brentwood. The blue matches the California sky. The clacking sound of the keys makes me aware of each stroke, each moment the metal key collides with the inky ribbon. I study my hands, suddenly new, covered in rings. One ring is textured like the bark of a redwood. Another is silver like moonlight—blue with turquoise from an old mine in New Mexico, the shape of an eye. A gold signet on my pinky, a bear paw engraved.
Perhaps while I sit at my stained desk in Los Angeles, my parents are out on their deck, peering out at the Peace River, wondering what it all means.
A brown dog’s tail wags near my writing desk. Fresh coffee is about twenty feet away, ready to be poured into a worn cup. The stained glass does what it always does: lets the light in, acts as an inspiration, and leads the way to prose.
A LESSON FROM MY THIRD-GRADE SELF: On Writing from the Heart, a Craft Essay by Vivian Conan
A LESSON FROM MY THIRD-GRADE SELF On Writing from the Heart, A Craft Essay by Vivian Conan
I was fifty-two when I chanced upon the bright marigold flyer taped to a streetlight in my Manhattan neighborhood. The Writer’s Voice at the West Side YMCA, it said. One of the courses listed: The Personal Essay. I had never heard that term, but it sounded like just what I’d been looking for.
From the time I learned to print, I’d wanted to be a writer, even though on a parallel track, I believed all the books that were ever going to be written had already been written. I got this impression from the pictures on a card game called Authors that I played with my brother. With old-fashioned hairstyles and names like Sir Walter Scott, authors were, most assuredly, all dead.
In third grade, I learned cursive, the grownup way of writing, and took up my pen. “Once there was a girl named Carol,” I wrote. “She lived in a wooden house. One day her house caught fire. After the fire, she could not find her mother.” The tension builds, there’s a resolution, and at the end of 579 words, “they all lived happily [ever] after.” I was on my way.
I don’t know at what point I realized books were still being written, but when I did, I despaired. How would I ever write anything that long?
At twenty-six, I became a librarian. My dream of becoming a writer went into hibernation.
But then, there was the marigold flyer.
For the past two years, I had been trying to write an article about my mental health struggles. After decades of unsuccessful therapy, I learned, at 46, that I had what was then called multiple personality disorder, or MPD. Because the diagnosis was often sensationalized in the media, I kept it under wraps. The more successful I was at hiding it, the more invisible and isolated I felt. I wanted to destigmatize MPD by showing that people like those in my support group were not freaks but ordinary people who had experienced childhood trauma and were trying our best to make it through each day—work, maintain friendships, shop for food, sleep. I had been rewriting the same few pages for months, unsure how to proceed.
I registered for the course.
Three weeks into the ten-week session, I got up the courage to bring in my draft. Comments were along the lines of “Fascinating, but too generic. We want to know about your experience.”
I never considered that my own life would be of interest. I had envisioned an article something like those in The New York Times Magazine, a level-headed overview of the clinical literature, sprinkled with just enough examples from my own experience to illustrate a point. I felt I needed the clinical theory for credibility. Yet in class, I’d listened to feedback on other students’ work and found there was a core of people I usually agreed with—the same people who felt my article wasn’t personal enough.
In my next draft, I put in more of myself but retained the theory.
“This is better,” the class said, “but we want even more of you.”
From the discussion that followed, I began to understand that there was a difference between an article, which I probably couldn’t get published because I didn’t have a platform—I was not a nationally known clinician or researcher—and an essay, which could come entirely from my own experience.
When the term ended, I reenrolled, and with each successive draft, I upped the me-content and removed some theory. The piece was becoming more personal than I was comfortable with. For the class, however, it was improving. “You should consider writing a memoir,” the teacher said.
The essay that appeared (under a pseudonym) in New York magazine on August 4, 1997, five years after I conceived it, was about 85% personal. By then I was in a class at the JCC of Manhattan called Advanced Nonfiction, working on a memoir, and with the help of the instructor, had acquired an agent. The essay led to an auction. Within a week I had a book contract. That was exciting, but scary. My completed manuscript was due in 14 months, less time than it had taken to shepherd one essay through its life cycle.
It took me six weeks to produce the first draft of a chapter. Workshopping and rewriting added another two. At first, this didn’t worry me. Shielded by tunnel vision, I was happy with the quality of the individual chapters.
No longer hesitant to reveal my insides, I wrote about how as a child, I created a fantasy world I called the Atmosphere, where kindly Atmosphere people gave me what I couldn’t get from my family. (My third-grade self had written about something similar, except it was a mother the girl had lost and a policeman who found her mother.) I wrote about how, as I grew older, the Atmosphere people became more real to me than real people, and about therapists who were flummoxed. Comments from the class showed me that though my story may have been extreme, it was also universal. Everyone related to my need to be seen and understood.
I continued putting my insides, unprotected and uncensored, into each chapter, until, all of a sudden, my deadline loomed. With something like whiplash, I snapped out of tunnel vision to assess the whole. Less than a third. My childhood dread rushed back: how would I ever write something as long as a book?
I submitted what I had, along with an outline of the missing chapters. The publisher granted me a six-month extension, then another six, then cancelled my contract. I returned the advance.
Far from being upset, I was relieved. My memoir would be finished whenever it was finished. Only then would I try to sell it.
If I had known it would take another twenty years, I probably would have quit. But I didn’t know, so I continued writing in the morning, going to work in the afternoon, revising in the evening, and re-upping for the workshop. Very slowly, chapters were accumulating. By the time I wrote “The End,” I was seventy-five.
It would be another three years before my book was published. By then I was comfortable going public with a very personal story: Losing the Atmosphere, A Memoir: A Baffling Disorder, a Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood . The only clinical explanation is in the afterword, written by my therapist.
In hindsight, I can see that I needed all that time. I was a work in progress, evolving not only as a writer, but as a person. Early on, I hadn’t felt entitled to comment on other students’ pieces or make conversation as we walked out after class. Gradually, from listening to feedback on my chapters, I discovered I was a person worth discovering. I grew more confident, began to contribute to the discussion, and became part of a writing community. All the while I was still in therapy, healing at the same time that I was writing about healing. If I had finished the book earlier, it would not have had the same ending.
When I think back to my very young self, I want to hug her and say, Yes, little girl, you can be a writer . Then I realize she didn’t need encouragement. She just sharpened her pencil and wrote what was in her heart. So instead, I thank her for showing me how to write what was in mine. Both our stories are about hungering for a mother, but I took 450 pages to say it, and she took 579 words.
COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS: on Lewis Hyde’s Advice for Creativity, and How I Became an Artist in the Modern World, a craft essay by Geoff Watkinson
COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS: On Lewis Hyde’s Advice for Creativity, and How I Became an Artist in the Modern World A Craft Essay by Geoff Watkinson
During the fall of my senior year of college, I took my first creative writing class and began to think that I might want to be a writer. I was a history major, read hungrily, and chose electives like Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Film, Modern Speculative Fiction. I remember thinking that writers (and artists in general) were born. There was a mystical quality to Albert Camus, whose books I’d started reading at age sixteen and Jim Morrison, whose poster hung on my wall and records spun on my turntable. I wondered if I might have that quality, too. I idolized the artists that were altering my worldview one book and one album at a time but struggled with how I, too, could be an artist.
And then, along the way, I discovered Lewis Hyde.
Lewis Hyde, in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World , examines, among other things, creativity and the role of the artist. Hyde writes,
“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art. The future artist finds himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labor in the service of art until he can profess his own gifts.”
This reminds me of a quote from musician Robert Plant that I heard a long time ago: “Every artist is a thief. The great artist is a great thief.” So, I modeled my work after writers I read and admired: I tried to write like Camus. Then Hemingway. Then Salinger. Eventually I developed my own voice. I wrote like me.
Still, I was fearful that I would never make it as a writer, and that trepidation continues to seep into my writing life now and again (even twenty years later)—that I’ll never write again. The truth is, for most of us there is no “making it.” I suppose, in the beginning, I had that spacey notion of publishing a book. I just wanted to get there , as if there would someday be a moment of arrival. I was ambitious without the necessary reflection and the labor to pursue a craft. But Hyde stays with me, reminding us that creating art (writing, in my case) depends greatly upon effort. “Once a gift has stirred within us,” Hyde writes, “it is up to us to develop it. There is a reciprocal labor in the maturation of a talent. The gift will continue to discharge its agent so long as we attend to it in return.”
To be a writer, I had to write. Imagine that! And so, I did—one poor sentence after another until after thousands of attempts—thousands of pages—I indeed improved. I still try to think about writing just one word, sentence, page at a time.
The writing process is a strange amalgamation of labor, will, and spirit. My MFA thesis advisor at Old Dominion University told me, “Just keep writing. Most people quit. If you keep writing, you’ll have a wonderful career.” This not uncommon bit of wisdom remains the most useful about writing I have ever received.
“Work,” Hyde writes, “is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.”
I know this feeling. I’m often surprised when I finish an essay. I know, generally, what I want to write about at the onset, but a piece takes on a life of its own. The result is always unexpected. I have had the sense, as Hyde describes this experience, noting that few artists “have not had this sense that some element of their work comes to them from a source they do not control.”
Despite reflection, labor, and continuity, Hyde seems to be suggesting a muse of sorts—a creative spirit that “moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.” There are no shortcuts to accessing the collective space, he declares, “no technology, no time-saving device, that can alter the rhythms of creative labor.” There is simply the imagination to lean on once an idea has come to the surface. This has taken me a lot of practice.
Tapping into creativity is a learned skill. Several years ago, I had a month-long writing residency in Nebraska. I arrived with a notion of writing an essay about the history of photography, but little plan of how to go about it. I knew that there would be some photographers in residence with me, and so I sought them out and we talked photography. They showed me their work. I read essays about photography. I started writing. The first draft was academic in nature. And then I began interweaving my personal history with the art of photography. A mirroring took shape. By the time I got on a plane to fly back to Virginia, where I called home, I had a 5000-word draft of the most complex piece of writing I had ever assembled. At the time, I couldn’t quite articulate how that happened. That essay, “ Light Drawings ,” was later published in the literary journal Ascent .
I have to remember to have faith, be honest, and take action. And I keep going back to Hyde, who quotes Allen Ginsberg: “You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself…, in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what your self is saying.” I must be resolved, devoted to doing this work, allowing the gift to take hold when it’s ready. And when it comes, I must pursue it, down the rabbit hole of a creative life.
“Having accepted what has been given to him—either in the sense of inspiration or in the sense of talent—the artist often feels compelled, feels the desire , to make the work and offer it to an audience,” Hyde has written.
The artistic process then is one that requires peeling back the onion, exploring the depths of one’s consciousness—often painfully so—and sharing it, shedding the transparent self that has been created. Hyde’s advice is that “…to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next…Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrification, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up.’”
Petrification is also a part of artistic life. But I don’t have to like it. And so, I find myself on a continual journey, and remind myself to accept my artistic pursuits, on a daily basis, allowing the gift of cosmic consciousness to work its way through me. We all have this gift if we want it.
WANTED: TWO WRITERS MUSE ON THE ART OF SAYING NO by Beth Kephart and Stephanie Weaver
They want you.
They want you for free.
Because you are wise, they say. Because you know things. Because they want their people to know your person, to learn from you, with pleasure. They will, of course, be keeping all the cash, but you should focus on the pleasure .
Just an hour of your time, they say.
Then (a few days later): Two?
You say yes because you are conditioned for yes, because isn’t this what you, playing the writer, do—yield what you know and who you hope to be? You wish to be part of the conversation. You wish to be helpful, hopeful, a strike of winter sun or a jar of daisies, a puff of buoyancy. Amenable, in other words. At the very least, not nasty.
Yes, you say, and then (a few days later), they say: Three?
You should stop right there, when they say three.
When have I paid my dues, had enough exposure? Am I—aren’t I—sufficiently exposed ? Isn’t my light, my bouquet, the breath of words trailing from my fingertips onto the page enough to get paid for my time and my thoughts and my wisdom and my labor?
What impels you, what compels you, what are the general regulations surrounding matters such as these? You do not write in pursuit of wealth. You crave stories, language, patterns, the sudden transcendence of the consummate detail. The joy you take from this writing thing is the actual writing thing. So that the memories come, the chimeric dreams, the beguiling assonance of a few adjacent words, and then (only maybe, only sometimes) a book you hope will breathe.
You want someone to notice.
You want someone to see.
So, look at this. You are an invitee.
It’s an honor just to be nominated.
They want me, they’re asking, finally I’m seen. And yet, in flits that unsettled feeling, that not-quite-butterfly in my stomach. I know that feeling. I’ve worked for years to trust it. And I know it’s saying, “They’re taking advantage of you.” I look in the mirror at my unfiltered face and wonder how is it that the platform I stand upon, the one that feels crafted, sturdy underfoot, shrinks to a postage stamp in their eyes? Allows them to ask for all three ?
And honestly? Aren’t you being inconsistent here? Haven’t you wished for other overtures? Haven’t there been podcasts, panels, workshops, anthologies, conversations you would have gladly done for free? To promote a book? To engage? You have yearned and not been considered. You have wanted and not obtained. You have been ignored and didn’t that , at the time, feel like a minor tragedy?
You need to do some work on yourself. You need to understand why this particular request for the one hour, the two hours, and now the three reminds you of something you don’t like about yourself—how you lean toward yes, how you struggle with no, how you feel downright lousy, and for days to come, when you acquiesce to the unmitigated ask.
You need to find out, about yourself, why you do not have a good answer for your son when he asks you where you think your value lies, or what you think your value is , if you perpetually say yes to those who simply expect you to work for free.
I used to think my value lay in my bottomless to-do list of tasks for others—showers planned, meals delivered, errands run. Until illness made me sit in the garden with the butterflies in the winter sun. To survive I whispered no in sandboxes, spoke it in conference rooms, shouted it in arenas. Every time feeling like the first. This no will end the world, rain down consequences so dire they’ll end my career.
And yet they don’t.
I counsel others to hold the line. Every time I do it, I remind the mirror, it’s been fine.
You must respect yourself to be respected. You must turn your wisdom upon yourself. You must let it be known what you want from those who want (one, two, three ) from you.
Because you are not (just and only) an invitee. You are a writer, representing Writers, acting on behalf of Writers, and if you say yes when you know (your son knows) you should never say yes, when you agree to be used for another’s undivided gain, when you allow your ideas and ideals, your reputation, even, to be jammed inside another’s non-negotiable plan, you are not just setting yourself up to fail; you are devaluing every other Writer in the process. You are contributing to a system you don’t believe in, bequeathing all power to the people who ask (one, two, three ), the people who would have no gains if we all decided, finally, to speak of our own needs—kindly, of course. And unwaveringly.
We have learned to own the flash of our brightness. We have learned that holding boundaries, asking for clarity, and saying no paves the way to sanity. We refuse to allow the one-two- three -ers to give us our value.
We have learned that standing up for other writers, shining our light on their gardens, is the kind of integrity we want to grow in ourselves. When we hear—any of us—“One, two, three ?” we can say, “No, no, no,” most happily.
SPECULATIVE MEMOIR: MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE a craft essay by Laraine Herring
SPECULATIVE MEMOIR: MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE A Craft Essay by Laraine Herring
I was eight years old when the tree spoke to me. My dad had just gotten out of the hospital after a near-fatal heart attack, and I would ride my bike down to my elementary school to escape the new person who’d replaced the father who told jokes and let me walk across his back. I always brought a book. I’d lean up against the massive oak’s trunk, nestling in among the raised roots, and let the tree hold me. When she spoke, I thought it was the wind. When she spoke again, I thought it was birdsong. The third time, I knew I was both losing my faculties and gaining something magical. Her bark scratched at the place I couldn’t reach on my back. Her voice crept around the edges of my eardrums.
I won’t tell you what she said because it’s private, and because she’s dead, her voice alive only inside me. She was bulldozed down to make space for more classrooms sometime after we left North Carolina for Arizona in the early 80s. I tried to take my husband to meet her on a trip back home, but I found only concrete and steel, no hints of her whisper in the thick air. I cried on the new playground in the noon heat. She was gone. How had I not felt her leave? How it must have hurt to be rooted and unable to run when the saws came.
When I was undergoing surgery for colon cancer in 2017, I was pinned to a table, breathing anesthesia, unable to move when the knives came. Unlike my tree, I didn’t die, but part of me was sacrificed so I could continue to live. I don’t remember what happened in the operating room, but my body remembers I was not there to protect her when the surgeons drew out my blood. I still feel her fear when I touch the scars on my belly. My skin speaks to me, not in English, but in colors and sounds.
What language should a writer use for these liminal moments? How do we express a truth that is outside of linear time and dimensional space?
The colon’s function is similar to that of a tree’s roots. They both absorb the necessary water for the organism to survive and create a microbiome that helps all the other systems thrive. When roots rot, when the colon gets cancer, the future is unsteady. When I emerged from treatment, the edges of my world had blurred. My borders had shifted, and the story I wanted to tell was pulled from experiences I couldn’t point to on any map. Reality had become fluid; perceptions opening and closing like a fish gasping for air. I was in two worlds, grasping for footing.
I understand my world through what lives on the edges—the whispers of a tree, the energy in an object, the ghost in the kitchen. They are more real to me than rock, steel, and brick. When I write my stories, I infuse them with what I know: sentient places, hauntings, and dreams.
Was there room in literature for me and my story? A fractured person with a severed root system? And if so, what form would best reveal the truth?
I wanted to explore what happened internally after my cancer diagnosis. I wanted to write about my dead father and his dead parents, and I wanted to write into the ghostly arms of grief. My hauntings are my companions. You can’t see them, but I meet them every day. We break bread beneath my tree, and we trade stories of the dark.
“Write a novel instead,” I was told by more than one writer-friend. “Readers of memoir won’t accept that this is real.” I thought about it. I’d written novels before. I love fiction. But calling my inner journeys fiction would be the lie—a disservice to a lived experience. If I denied my tree’s voice, what kind of friend did that make me? If I still feel her, solid trunk, scratching branches, why would I disrespect her by dismissing her presence?
Speculative memoir allows for an explosion of the inner landscape. By utilizing speculative elements to dramatize an internal transformation, a work becomes elevated and opens to stories that transcend the five senses. Through speculating, we gain new vision.
The day after my diagnosis, I started drawing again for the first time in thirty years. At the time, I only had an iPad and my finger—no stylus—but I enjoyed playing with color and shape, and my touch on the screen soothed me. The first piece I created was a silhouetted witch holding a lantern, walking with her black cat on a bright orange background. I knew that no matter what happened with cancer, I was about to go somewhere unfamiliar. I was going under. I was going in .
I printed that piece and pinned it above my computer, and it served as a guide for my forthcoming book, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens. The journey of the book wasn’t cancer, though that was certainly something I experienced. The story of the book, the truth of the book, was how cancer triggered an exploration of unresolved grief and intergenerational trauma. The external period of that year of my life was spent mostly indoors, mostly in the bathroom, and mostly in bed. But the landscape of my interior lit up, and on that velvet-curtained stage, my dead father appeared to me as a raven and began to speak.
Raven brought me a book. Raven brought me a voice, and he brought me here to you, on a bridge made of marks on a screen, suspended on the trestle of magical, invisible Wi-Fi.
We can’t see it or touch it, but we all know it is there.
MAKING THE READER FEEL SOMETHING. PLEASE. SHOW AND TELL, A Craft Essay by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
MAKING THE READER FEEL SOMETHING. PLEASE. SHOW AND TELL. A Craft Essay by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
“Show, don’t tell.”
An old piece of writing advice, generally good advice, but sometimes hard to know how to do it well. Also, confusing, because telling is often part of the showing, especially when writing personal essay and memoir.
The advice stems from how writers can best help readers understand what they are trying to convey—everything from emotions and mental state to the tone of a situation, the nature of a person or relationship, the look and feel of a setting. And much more.
What if I wrote, “I’m so mad!” Do those words and the exclamation point make you feel my anger? They just aren’t enough. I must work harder to convey my anger.
Writing how an emotion makes us feel in our body or how it looks sometimes works. But it, too, might not be enough. Writing “my face turned red” tells you what I looked like (and it is probably better than “I’m so mad!”), but showing by using such a predictable, overused description probably doesn’t help you feel my anger. And I want you to feel it, not just know about it.
There are many other techniques you can use to show and tell. Here are a few:
- Share the narrator’s thoughts and internal dialogue with herself.
- Write a scene when a scene is more effective than a summary.
- Describe a character’s (the narrator’s or someone else’s) behavior/action and/or reaction.
- Use dialogue (indirect, direct, summary, inner) as well as show what is not said, or show silence.
- Bring the senses, details, and description to the page.
- Find strong verbs.
- Give an example. Be specific.
- Choose sentence length to match the emotion/tone.
Now let me show you a few examples where writers have done show and tell well.
In Ross Gay’s essay “Some Thoughts on Mercy” ( The Sun, July 2013), he discusses racism and writes about a night when he was driving home from work late at night and a cop pulled him over. Gay writes, offering the reader his thoughts , “I wasn’t perturbed by the cop. I had made a decision in the recent past no longer to be afraid of the police.” This is the scene he gives us:
And so, for the first time in my life when a cop came to my car window, I looked him in the eye and asked as gently and openheartedly as possible if he could tell me why he ’ d stopped me. “ After you give me your license and registration,” he said. I handed them over, and he told me simply, “ Your license-plate light is out.” I ’ d had no idea there was such a thing as a license-plate light, and I told him as much, laughing to express my good-natured confusion and gratitude: He wants to do me a favor.
And he smiled—just for a second—then asked if I had any drugs in the car. When I said no, he asked if I had any guns in the car. When I said no, he asked if I ’ d been drinking. When I said no, he asked again, “ You don ’ t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?” (Strange, you might think, for such questions to arise from a burned-out license-plate light.) And I said, looking straight ahead through the windshield, “ No.”
Look at all he accomplished in this short scene. Gay “looked the cop in the eye” ( behavior/action )—showing a wish to connect and also animating his decision to feel no fear. Ross describes how he asked the cop “as gently and openheartedly as possible” why he’d been pulled over. He could have written about using a sharp tone or asking matter-of-factly. But “gently” and “openheartedly” help us understand the author’s mindset. The cop doesn’t answer the question—he tells Gay he wants license and registration first ( direct dialogue) . The tension starts. By the time I get to the cop’s questions in a row (first two are indirect dialogue )—and the nature of the questions themselves—the tension escalates more. Having that third question written in direct dialogue —“You don’t have any weapons or anything illegal in the car I should know about?”—ups the tension even more. And then that last moment—of Gay no longer looking at the cop ( action/reaction ) but “looking straight ahead through the windshield” when he answers no (that is all he says, so note what is not being said/silence—and that ’ s a short sentence, just “no,” which is also effective at showing mindset). This makes me feel that any hope of change in that moment is gone.
In Sam Bell’s essay “The Empty Set” ( The Sun , April 2020), she writes, “I dated a lunatic in college.” But what does that mean? He had outlandish ideas? He liked to speed on the highway? A label is not enough, so she follows with:
Here are some of the things he did: lit a cigarette as we deplaned on the tarmac and, after he was asked to put it out, flung the butt into the circular engine intake, causing chaos, then ran from the attendants, leaving me behind; kicked in car doors with his steel-toed boots in a very expensive neighborhood; came after me with a hammer; stole all my money. You know what? He ’ s not worth talking about.
She gives examples of his behaviors (with great details) , and by the end of the list (even before the end), I agree and understand what she means when she calls him “a lunatic.” Let’s note the strong verbs : “flung,” “kicked,” “stole.” And then those last two sentences—“You know what? He’s not worth talking about” (not just what they say, but also the sentence length )—convey she’s tired of the mental space he has taken.
In Sophfronia Scott’s essay “Why I Didn’t Go to the Firehouse” ( Timberline Review , Fall/Winter 2019), she writes about being newly pregnant:
I loved that time of walking newly pregnant through New York City as the days were getting colder. I liked knowing I harbored my own bit of heat, a tiny ball of sunshine growing within me and waiting to warm its own universe. I lived in a realm of possibility and I remember being acutely conscious of it, of soaking up life and magic all around me—savoring the sugar of a Krispy Kreme donut melting in my mouth, my steps touching down on pavement that seemed gentle beneath my feet. I walked down Columbus Avenue and I saw a dual face, my own mingled with some aura of my unborn child, reflected to me in the smiling faces of strangers who couldn ’ t possibly know I was pregnant. But in that strange law of nature, life attracts life, recognizes itself and feeds there. Every face seemed like a harbinger of grace, of the potential held by the being growing inside me. I felt a strong sense of the whole experience being a gift and I was grateful. I loved being in that golden bubble. It felt like where I was supposed to be. It felt like home.
Scott begins by describing what is going through her mind ( thoughts ), how it felt to be newly pregnant—not the physical sensation, but her emotional and mental state. She picks out sensory details and specifics that reflect a sweetness and peace: the donut melting in her mouth, the pavement “gentle,” and every face “like a harbinger of grace.” I was with her in a glowing, happy picture.
Then that single three-word sentence. Jarring? The blood was jarring to her, and she wanted to convey that. She did in one, swift (short!) sentence —not just by the words, but because the sentence is set in its own paragraph.
Here’s a paragraph from Natalie Lima’s essay, “Snowbound” ( Brevity , September 2019), about her leaving Florida to attend her “dream school” in Chicago, only to experience disillusionment at what she finds. Let’s look at how she uses strong verbs. (Basic verbs describe a general action—like “I walked down the hall” and “I sat in my chair”—versus a more specific and stronger verb such as “I shuffled down the hall” or “I slumped in my chair.”) By interspersing basic verbs with strong verbs, Lima’s prose is more effective; an entire paragraph with all strong verbs might be too much. Here I have bolded the stronger verbs.
The inside of your dorm room is muggy when you plop onto your bed. The heat suffocates your skin, so you unzip your North Face and throw it across the room. It lands on your roommate ’ s desk, almost knocks over her laptop. You want to get up and grab the jacket but your body can ’ t seem to move. You sit still, sinking into the mattress, trying to remember what it felt like to float.
In my own memoir, The Going and Goodbye , I was writing about a love I’d experienced with someone when we were both young and I did not yet understand the difficulties that could come in a committed relationship. Instead of saying that, I tried to show it with this scene in which I had asked him to go with me on a ride in an amusement park:
The ride threw us up, up, and down, down, and our bucket spun so fast we slid into each other, smashed skin to skin, and the fair and everything we could see blurred and washed together in an uneasy glimpse, again, again, and neither one of us laughed as the pace quickened, as we spun so fast everything I had ever eaten tossed in my gut, and round and round we went until the sky was in our laps and our bodies felt as if we could not press harder against the bucket ’ s edges, and up we tossed and down we came and up again and down and up and down and up and down until the dizziness felt like failure.
The ride slowed and stopped. The man ambled over. He lifted the metal rod and let us loose, and we staggered off the ride for which we had paid. We held our stomachs and could not bear the scent of sizzling meat, nor could we look at the fruit in market stalls, their peels broken and the flesh sweltering through. We could not have glanced at scarves swaying in the breeze nor born the sound of water beating against the shore.
We returned to our hotel room and lay on separate beds. We turned on our sides and on our backs, but nothing kept the world from free falling.
I tried to select strong verbs like “smashed” and “blurred” to create an uncomfortable feeling, and I used a long sentence in that first paragraph to show how the ride went on and on. I also tried to use the senses (e.g., “scent of sizzling meat”) to evoke nausea.
Most of this kind of work doesn’t happen for me on the first draft. My first drafts get my ideas on the page, and later drafts are often when I try out the sort of techniques I listed to see what works best for the piece.
If you look at your own writing drafts, you might see where you can revise, using one or more of these techniques. With enough practice and use of these, you won’t need this list. Your writing will show you where it needs to go to make the reader feel what you want them to.
ON REVISION: From story to STORY, With a Little Help from a Doomed Vole and Robert McKee, a Craft Essay by Lea Page
On revision: from story to story, with a little help from a doomed vole and robert mckee.
A Craft Essay by Lea Page
If memoir is sculpture, where writers must strip away the unnecessary to find the shape of the story, then it is my memory that wields the knife. Memory chooses certain scenes and impressions. Memory snips and stores fragments and shadows. Memory does not follow the rules of chronology or of rational cause and effect. Memory puts any old thing next to another for its own reasons and may preserve for example, the dance of a courageous vole in perfect detail, while jettisoning a crucial conversation with a friend who is now gone. Try as I might to recall that moment with my friend, memory carved it away, leaving only shavings on the floor, which I crushed into ever smaller pieces as I paced back and forth, studying what I had left to work with.
A freaking vole? What was I supposed to make of that vole?
I am still new enough to writing to laugh in delight when I hear myself say I am a writer. And, I am also one of those writers who drafts the whole book before I know what the story is. It’s worse than that: I write the whole memoir before I know what the story is, even though I know what the story is because I’ve lived the story.
Because there’s story, and then there’s capital-S Story. It took working through several manuscript revisions before I understood the difference.
My first draft, which included the dancing vole, was the story. It was 100% accurate—everything I wrote about was what I remembered happening. There were no embellishments, no composites, no made-up dialogue, even. What I brought to the page had been seared onto the skin of my soul. I had been branded by the story. It owned me. So, I was surprised when my writing group flipped my manuscript onto the table (proverbial table—we met by video conference) and leaned back in their chairs and said, “We love your scenes and your language, but we’re not convinced.”
But, I told them, it all happened.
“That’s not enough,” they said, “to make us care.”
Damn. That stung.
“Don’t take it personally,” they said. “Literally, this isn’t about you. That’s the problem. Right now, the story is only about you.”
They explained that I needed an underlying current, an emotional logic. I needed the big picture. I needed to answer the “why” and the “who cares,” as well as the “what” and the “how.” I needed a thematic arc to match the arc of events. In other words, a capital-S Story to go with my story.
Shortly after I received this humbling advice, my husband, a lawyer, surprised me with the audio version of Robert McKee’s Story for us to listen to during a six-hour drive. “Maybe this will help you with your revision,” he said.
I was grateful, but worried he’d be bored. “Oh, no,” he said. “My final argument in any brief or trial is only as convincing as the story I’ve told.” As we hurtled south down the highway, we listened to McKee describing his thematic array of values that forms the foundation of a complete story arc.
Start, he said, by nailing down the basic value at stake in your story.
What had I really been after, I asked myself, moving my young family to a small town in rural Montana? A simple life, lush scenery, sure. But what else?
Belonging, that’s what I had been looking for.
And what, asked McKee, is the opposite of that basic value? What negates it?
That’s easy: being bullied, ostracized, shunned. When your daughter is bullied for years and you cannot stop it, no matter how desperately you try. When people avert their eyes, turn their backs and close door after door, all the while telling you that there is “something” about your daughter, “something” about you. You are to blame, they mean, but just why is unnameable, unknowable, and therefore impossible to change or to fix.
And what, asked McKee, is the opposite of belonging but is not negative?
Who knew, as I was living my story, acting and reacting, that my solution would so neatly fit into this man’s formula? But the structure of stories is what it is because life is what it is, and my choice, when I was faced with the impossibility of our ever belonging in our tiny town, was self-sufficiency: the opposite of belonging, but not necessarily a bad thing.
Not a bad thing at all. Our retreat into the community of wild and domestic animals, into the rhythm of the seasons and the sanctuary of our home and garden, was understandable, given our circumstances.
But, said McKee, even that is not enough. In any story, there are obstacles. Challenges to overcome. Villains. What, he asked, is the worst possible manifestation of the negative? What is so savagely awful as to threaten one’s existence? McKee called it the “negation of the negation.” Take the negative, the opposite of your positive value, and turn it on itself, so that the negation, the challenge to your soul, is exponential.
What was the negation of self-sufficiency, of ostracism? What would be exponentially more damaging than mere shunning? How could that harm be magnified?
The “negation of the negation” was that voice that woke me in the small hours of the night and whispered, “Maybe there is something about you.” The negation of the negation was my belief that that voice was speaking the truth: that we deserved it. I didn’t need anyone to ostracize me or to destroy me. I was doing it for them. I felt a sense of triumph for identifying that last piece of the puzzle. But I also felt despair. This wasn’t fiction, after all. It was my life.
When I was forced by the gods of revision to weave a more expansive and emotionally resonant capital-S Story to justify the inclusion of every word, event and character—even that dancing vole—I began to understand that my story didn’t just happen. That even if I felt a bit victimized by events, once I was inside the revision process, there were no more victims and no more villains. There were only choices. I saw that my main character (me) wasn’t simply the target of relentless persecution. My protagonist had made a series of choices—good ones and bad—rendering the larger Story believable only when I set the events afloat on a thematic current.
By examining the big Story, I came to understand my villains through their choices as well. There were reasons they acted as they did—as badly as they did. Their actions reflected their own limitations and misery. I wasn’t responsible for what they had done, any more than the vole was, the one that fought valiantly when my cat caught it, the one that made her jump back in surprise as it bared its tiny rodent teeth, the one that died because, despite its courage, it was after all, a vole, and she was a cat, and that is the nature of things.
And here is what I discovered as I wrestled again with those scenes— I was not that vole. I had a choice in the end, while the vole had none, and I had chosen, and survived.
It wasn’t until after my husband and I were in the car again headed home that I understood there was a fifth and final element in McKee’s thematic array: the bending of the arc into a circle, the redemption. Without redemption, the story—my Story—would be a tragedy, starting at a positive value, belonging, and ending with a negative one, self-nullification.
Regardless of whether anyone would want to read a tragedy, I didn’t want to have lived a tragedy. When we fled the Montana town where we had dreamed of making a life, we left behind a home we had designed ourselves, drawing my grandmother’s kitchen table on a piece of graph paper and working out from there. We left our work, our animals, our trees—we had planted so many trees! It was hard to deny the sacrifice.
But memoir is truth. You can’t make up a better ending, one that you would prefer. When you have experienced the negation of your negation, when you have possibly had a hand in creating it, how, I asked the wise voice coming from the car speaker, how do you redeem yourself?
The answer dawned on me only because I had written it: the act of writing was itself the answer. The opposite of self-nullification is self-expression. It is even more than that: self-expression is an exponentially higher, more positive value of belonging. It is an affirmation of the affirmative: belonging to oneself. And I have revision to thank for it.
LISTEN, STORY, TELL. (NOT ALWAYS TELL) A Nonfiction Craft Essay by Aileen Hunt
The other night I was waiting for my daughter to finish a class. The father of a classmate sat beside me and we chatted about this and that. “How’s work?” I asked, and he began to tell me that he’d been driving his bus one morning when a man ran onto the road and jumped into his path.
“His face stuck to the window,” this dad said. “He was looking straight at me until he started to slide down and onto the road. The counsellor told me it wasn’t my fault. She asked if I wanted to see a video of what had happened. ‘Why would I want to see a video of what happened?’ I asked her. ‘Don’t I see it every night when I go to bed?’”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t know this man well; I was just being polite when I asked how he was. Yet he told me this story, clearly and carefully, as if it was important to him that I hear it, as if it was important to him that I understand.
People tell me things. I meet people I haven’t seen in a while and ask them how they are and before I know it, they’re telling me their kid has been expelled from school or their husband is in an existential funk.
They tell me about friends dying and sons selling weed; about partners cheating and children lying; about crises of faith and black nights of the soul. They tell me how hard life is and sometimes, the brave or deluded ones, tell me how lucky I am not to have such problems.
I don’t ask for these revelations, at least not consciously. I’m not the type of person who instinctively knows the right thing to say when I hear something painful or traumatic. Nor do I cry in public. I’m more likely to think of a comforting remark hours later; more likely to cry in private, days or even weeks later.
Instead, I sit quietly and awkwardly, blank-faced, too dim-witted to head off a confession, too polite to be rude, and people take my silence as encouragement and tell me things.
I work in adult literacy. This year, I have two especially weak students. When I ask them how their week was or what they did at the weekend, they can’t tell me. They cannot tell a story.
My youngest daughter is hearing impaired. She’s been going to speech therapy since she was a baby to work on speech articulation and language development. More and more, the language development work revolves around narrative and the ability to tell a story. More and more it’s seen as essential to social success.
Last week I sat in on a therapy session. The therapist had a stack of twenty picture cards. She put the cards on the table one at a time then read an accompanying story from a script. When she’d finished, she asked my daughter to retell the story using the cards as a prompt. My daughter went through the cards one by one, but when she came to the last card, she ran out of steam.
The therapist looked at my daughter expectantly and my daughter looked at the therapist. She knew something more was required, but couldn’t think what to say. Then, in a moment of inspiration, she smiled, and announced, “They all lived happily ever after.”
What to do with all the stories you hear? Especially the stories you didn’t ask to hear?
Once I was at a parent-teacher conference and my daughter’s teacher broke down and told me her three children were going blind.
I’m not sure when I realized I didn’t just want to listen to stories; I wanted to tell them, too. Maybe it was when I was living in America. I was going through a stressful time and decided to see a therapist. I sat and talked about myself for an hour every week, and the therapist was a perfect audience, interrupting only to tell me we were out of time. I enjoyed telling my story. I played around with it during each session, adjusting the mood, the plot, the payoff. Nothing really changed in my life, but I took great pleasure in being a storyteller, once a week for one hour, until my insurance benefits eventually ran out.
The first time I told my story to a stranger was in the waiting room of the emergency department at a Cincinnati hospital. I’d gone there, pregnant and bleeding, naively believing in the power of medicine to halt the inevitable.
When the doctor shook his head and finally discharged me, I stumbled into the waiting room. A woman approached and put her hand on my shoulder. She was older than me, in her forties, perhaps, and had a kind face.
“Are you ok?” she asked, and her unexpected gentleness had the force of a battering ram. I told her everything, right there and then, the words spilling out of me in great, heaving spurts. She grabbed my hand and began to pray, asking Jesus to welcome my baby into heaven, to comfort me in my hour of need. And as she spoke, I grew more and more distressed, not because I’d told a stranger about my miscarriage before I’d told my husband (although that would haunt me later), but because the stranger had misunderstood me so completely. I had no belief in Jesus, no concept of him rocking my baby to sleep, no concept of a baby at all. The stranger had it all wrong.
She thought I was crying for something I’d lost, but I knew I was crying for something I’d never have. I couldn’t explain the difference that night in the waiting room, but instinctively, I knew it to be true.
I had told my story too soon. And I had told it to the wrong person.
I don’t have much of an imagination. I don’t mean I can’t enter into imaginative worlds or respond imaginatively to life or art. I mean I can’t make up stories. I can only tell stories that have already happened, that I’ve already experienced, which would be fine, except nothing happens in isolation and every story involves someone else.
Years ago, one of my children was very ill, and spent months in the neurology ward of a large hospital. I stayed at her bedside all day, and every night after she fell asleep, I’d make my way down the corridor to the parents’ dorm where I’d crawl into bed, exhausted and frayed. One night I walked into the dorm and saw a woman I hadn’t seen before sitting on the edge of her bed. I said hello and she looked at me blankly.
“My daughter has cancer,” she said, and I sat down opposite her and listened.
I read a first-person account of a woman’s destructive behavior. The writing was harsh and forensic and probably cathartic for the writer. But the story she recounted included her betraying her husband, a man that she insisted was kind and blameless. I wondered how he felt about her public account of their marriage and break-up.
When does being honest and unsparing with yourself become a further betrayal of others?
Every family has its stories. Some are good and fine and admirable. But others are grubby and distasteful. Who has a right to tell these stories? And what responsibilities does the teller have in telling them?
My nephew was involved in a serious car crash. He was driving on a country road late at night and his car left the road and hit a tree. The car was a write-off and my nephew was lucky to escape with his life. My brother, my nephew’s father, told the story over and over again, showing us photos of the mangled car. As he repeated the story, a hint of admiration entered his voice, a hint of excitement. “Look at the car,” he told us. “How did he ever get out?” The story is on its way to becoming a great adventure in this father’s mind, a great escape, but a different narrative runs through my head whenever I see the photo.
“Jesus,” I think. “What speed was he going at?”
I have a story. Some of it is mine alone to tell; some of it belongs wholly or partly to others; and some of it is so intertwined with stories I’ve read or been told that it’s impossible to know where one begins and the other ends. It will require patience to untangle everything. To decide how I should tell it, or if I can tell it.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived with her husband and four children in a nice house on a nice street. One day, the woman looked at her family and asked: “Who will tell our story?”
“Not I,” said the husband. “I’m too busy.”
“Not I,” said the oldest girl. “I’m moving out soon.”
“Not I,” said the son. “Nobody listens to me.”
“Not I,” said the youngest girl. “I don’t have enough words.”
The woman looked around her crowded kitchen and took a deep breath. “Very well then,” she said. “I’ll do it myself.”
INTO THE WOODS: What Fairy Tale Settings Can Teach Us About Fiction Writing, a Craft Essay by Dana Kroos
INTO THE WOODS What Fairy Tale Settings Can Teach Us About Fiction Writing A Craft Essay by Dana Kroos
Consider the phrase, “We’re not out of the woods yet” meaning “we are still in danger.” This phrase can refer to innumerable types of danger. A doctor may say to the loved ones of a sick patient: “She’s not out of the woods yet;” or in the middle of a trial that seems to be going well the lawyer may say to his client, “We’re not out of the woods yet;” in a traffic jam that seems to be moving again, a driver may say to a passenger, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” The insinuation is that those involved are thinking about being out of the woods—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimpse of something safer, better, or in their control—but it is not yet certain that they will reach that light; there is still a chance that the threat—the woods—will overcome.
In fairy tales the woods is often a manifestation of the unknown that is contrasted with the safety of the village, or home, where the protagonists feel in control of the setting and situation.
In fairy tales the woods is often a manifestation of the unknown that is contrasted with the safety of the village, or home, where the protagonists feel in control of the setting and situation. Protagonists in these fairy tales leave the comforts of home for the unknown element of the woods for different reasons—at times in flight, and at other times in quest: Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods in order to attend to her sick grandmother; Hansel and Gretel are led into the woods and abandoned by their parents; Snow White hides in the woods to escape her evil stepmother; Jack travels up the beanstalk (his version of the woods) to seek wealth and adventure. The woods represent the world over which the people of the village and the protagonists have no control. Here the characters are literally and figuratively out of their elements. The story then becomes about a struggle to gain control over the unknown, to triumph by learning the ways of this other world, or to simply survive and escape: Little Red Riding Hood discovers the wolf’s trick and is saved by the hunter who has knowledge of the woods; Hansel and Gretel use ingenuity and cunning to escape from the witch; Snow White finds unexpected assistance and power from the woods that she uses to return home.
If the woods represents the unknown world, then the village, or home, represents the place where the characters have control over their domain: they live in town (or sometimes kingdoms) governed and tamed by people, protected by both physical and social structures. The opening scenes establish the world where the protagonists feel secure and make the reader aware of the contrast between this known world and the unknown world where the tale will reside.
The idea of the village and woods in fairy tales corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s research about the Ordinary and Special Worlds in the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey.
The idea of the village and woods in fairy tales corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s research about the Ordinary and Special Worlds in the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the protagonist begins in what Campbell describes as the Ordinary World and ventures into the Special World where he or she is faced with new challenges and must develop new skills accordingly. The accumulation of skills and knowledge prepares the protagonist for a final climactic trial. Having succeeded in gaining command of the Special World, the protagonist returns to the Ordinary World and must learn to integrate his or her new skills with ordinary life.
Most fairy tales follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to some degree, including the “refusal of the call”: the stage where the protagonist resists journeying into the unknown; and the “refusal of return”: the stage when the protagonists resist returning to the known or Ordinary World once they have become masters of the Special World, or woods. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of Hansel and Gretel , Gretel refuses the call to adventure in the unknown by expressing her fear of being left in the woods, while Hansel strategizes to avoid this fate—dropping flint stones, then bread crumbs so that they can find their way home. After a series of trials that end with Gretel killing the witch, the two protagonists begin their journey home, but are met by an impassable river that represents the refusal of return. It is when Gretel exerts her newly learned skills and independence to call upon a white bird to help them cross the river that the brother and sister are able to make their way home to their village with the treasure, symbolizing knowledge, they have stolen from the witch.
This schema can be a useful way of conceiving of plot. In present-day settings our fictional characters can venture out of, or be forced from, their comfort zones: graduating to a new grade, leaving a job due to downsizing, moving to an unfamiliar city or state for the promise of better opportunity, missing the bus and testing a new type of transportation. We grow-up, leave the comfort of our parents’ homes, trade roommates and lovers, settle homes, adapt to new co-inhabitants, grow stir-crazy again and flee comfort for independence. Or sometimes we progress more intentionally to seek adventure, or because we need a change, or are looking to find someone or something in particular. We are constantly advancing to master our situations only to decide to move on or to be pushed into new situations where we are again novices. Some people find these moves easy, while other people struggle with even the smallest shift from a known and comfortable state to something unknown and challenging. Either way, we often initially refuse the call to change or find obstacles or other people opposing our advancement; this type of resistance makes sense for our characters and reveals their vulnerabilities.
Eudora Welty’s short story, “ A Worn Path ,” combines elements of the fairytale and hero’s journey structures including a refusal of the call and return. The story follows Phoenix, “an old Negro woman” on a journey from her home, through the woods, to the big city to retrieve medicine for her grandson. She comes from “far out in the country” and is not accustomed to the big city, making—for her—a fairytale-style woods of the city where she is going. As with “Little Red Riding Hood”, Phoenix’s journey through the wood shows her character’s strengths and vulnerabilities; and as with the hero in the hero’s journey, Phoenix also learns from the trials she faces along the way and is ultimately able to use her new skills once she arrives in the city.
Phoenix’s Call to Adventure is the need to get her grandson’s medicine. The Refusal of The Call is “a quivering in the thicket” in the woods, something undefined and ominous that shows her fear. But Phoenix says to the unknown sounds, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals,” both announcing what she fears and denouncing it at once before she continues with her journey.
On her way she faces different tests: a “ghost” that turns out to be a scarecrow and a dog that comes out of the woods and scares her, causing her to topple over and fall into a ditch. While she is stuck, she reflects on the situation and learns a lesson: “’Old woman,’ she said to herself, ‘that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.’” The man who saves her tries to discourage her from continuing with her journey: “‘Why, that’s too far! That’s as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble . . . Now you go on home, Granny!’” At this moment Phoenix turns the tables on the man: she distracts him by sending him after the dog that initially scared her so that she can steal a nickel he dropped. When he returns wielding his gun, she is not afraid, “I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” Here, Phoenix succeeds in overcoming her fear, defying the man’s discouragement, and tricking him out of his nickel.
When Phoenix arrives in the city she is fully in an unknown world—the woods. The first thing that Phoenix does is ask a passerby to tie her shoe: “’Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn’t look right to go in a big building.’” Here she acknowledges the new setting and its requirements. Nevertheless, the new setting is overwhelming, and in the hospital Phoenix is rendered mute and can’t remember why she has come when asked by the nurse. Then: “At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke. ‘My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.’” Phoenix has mastered this new world and gotten the prize of medicine for her grandson that she sought. But before she can leave she has a refusal of return. She persists in practicing the skills that she has mastered and which are only applicable in this new world: successfully manipulating the nurses into giving her another nickel. But she must return home to be triumphant, bringing with her the medicine and both nickels.
The village and woods can also be defined through a-stranger-comes-to-town stories. In this case, the village is transformed into the woods, or the known situation changes, undoing our careful cultivation and making that which we once controlled and understood foreign and overwhelming—the new boss restructures duties at work, the substitute teacher assigns a different seating arrangement, the neighborhood evolves and our favorite haunts are replaced by new establishments. In this way fairytales also speak about the ways that elements intrude upon the comfort of the village or the home, making the known world ominous and unknown. In “Peter and the Wolf” a wolf enters Peter’s yard and Peter must think quickly of a way to save his friends; in the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” a stranger appears to offer help to a village and later seeks revenge when they do not pay him, in “Sleeping Beauty” the forest grows around the castle encasing the kingdom in sleep; in a strange twist “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” presents an intruder from the village who both seems to be in jeopardy and menacing as she makes her rampage through the bears’ house in the woods.
In a Melanie Rae Thon’s retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” entitled “ X-mas, Jamaica Plain ,” two homeless teenagers break into a house where the family is away. These homeless teenagers have been cast into the woods for so long that they have become a part of the dangers of the woods: “I am your worst nightmare,” the unnamed first-person narrator begins the story, talking to the reader, and perhaps the family, as she describes sleeping in the family’s beds, eating their food, trying on their clothes. The narrator and her friend resent the family for having what they lack but also desire the family life represented by the house. As with Goldilocks, the narrator especially fixates on the belongings of the little boy, a child whom she understands is protected and loved. Their youth and desperate situations make them sympathetic and complex: they are at once the Big Bad Wolf and the child protagonists of the fairytales. Temporarily inhabiting that domestic space reinforces for the two teenagers that they do not belong in the home—or the village. Like Goldilocks, the narrator flees in fear.
Fairy tales use setting to present physical, emotional, mental, and psychic tensions as concrete places, characters, and situations. In many of the best-known stories young protagonists face dangers.
Fairy tales use setting to present physical, emotional, mental, and psychic tensions as concrete places, characters, and situations. In many of the best-known stories young protagonists face dangers (what Joseph Campbell would label “tests”) in the woods that force them to learn and develop skills: Hansel and Gretel are at first in danger of being lost and starving, then in danger of the witch who hopes to eat them, then in danger of not being able to find their way home. The characters must grow to meet each of these challenges in order to survive.
In many of these stories the protagonists encounter other characters native to the woods: the witch, the wolf, the hunter, the giant. This is to say that although the woods is an unknown place to the protagonists, it is a well-known place to the characters who hold dominion there. This creates an imbalance of power. Characters who are masters of the woods often use this advantage to trick the young, naïve children who are out of their elements.
Fairy tales raise the stakes of ventures to the unknown world by positioning children—who are or should be cared for at home—as their protagonists. The protagonists are almost always at an age where they are on the brink of independence.
Fairy tales raise the stakes of ventures to the unknown world by positioning children—who are or should be cared for at home—as their protagonists. The protagonists are almost always at an age where they are on the brink of independence. The known place—the village, the family home—is a place where the wellbeing of the child protagonists is the responsibility of adult characters—a place where the child can be a child. The inciting incident is one that removes the characters from this place of comfort, either by force or choice: to save themselves, help their families, or seek adventure. The child is thrust into a world where he or she must accept and conquer adult skills or knowledge in order to survive, symbolizing a movement from the safety and security of a protected childhood to the liberation and dangers of the adult world. In the adult world the child must come into his or her own, gaining skills and ultimately becoming the master of his or her new environment—coming of age.
In addition to the obvious and direct threats that the young protagonists face, thoughtful readers sense deeper conflicts that are not mentioned by the distant narrators of these tales. While these children gain the knowledge and skills of an unknown world, they do so at the cost of their innocence and childhoods, for what child can be the same after pushing an old woman into an oven and watching her burn; or knowing that she was betrayed by her parents; or living in a world with those who wish her deep and unspeakable harm?
These stories captivate us because they make physical the internal and emotional struggles that we face throughout our lives. The situations and settings transcend metaphor to become tangible threats that the characters can describe and the reader can name. In good fiction the tensions, emotions, and fears felt by both the characters and reader are more complex than this, multi-layered, and amorphous; however, by analyzing the characters, plots, and conflicts of fairy tales, we can discover the tensions that excite and enlighten the reader: the power dynamic of a parent-child relationship in a fairy tale could easily be represented as a relationship between a boss and employee, or coach and player; the vulnerability expressed as youth in a fairy tale could also be the vulnerability of coming from a lower socio-economic class, suffering an illness, or entering a situation with less information than your peers; the tensions of risk, sacrifice, vengeance, pity, abandonment, betrayal, loyalty, and desire are tensions that also happen when spending time with family, participating in social clubs, and during mundane shopping trips. As the village is all around us all of the time, so the woods is there too, lurking beneath the surface.
Studying fairy tales that overtly represent the hardships and triumphs that make life meaningful can help us to understand what interests us about stories, the emotions and tensions that we want to explore, and the ways that we can reveal internal and social conflicts in our own fiction.
Image credit: Manja Vitolic on Unsplash
BUILDING MY AUTHOR PLATFORM WITHOUT A SMARTPHONE A Craft Essay by Mallory McDuff
“I hope you’re working on your platform,” wrote my agent last year after I sent a substantive revision of my manuscript. I had previously published three nonfiction books with small presses, but I typically spent more time following other writers on social media than promoting myself. That might not be unusual, but I did have one unique challenge: I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try.
It’s not like I’m a Luddite with an off-the-grid, back-to-the-land lifestyle. From my laptop and iPad, I obsessively followed writers I adored. On Facebook, I’d reposted a link to nearly every Rebecca Solnit essay since the Kavanaugh hearings. I watched the sunrise in Dani Shapiro’s Instagram stories before reading her new memoir, Inheritance . I relished Kiese Laymon’s true-to-life tweets about Trump. But I was a perennial stalker, not much of an original poster.
When my own essays were published or I taught workshops, I shared those links on Facebook, but I rarely posted personal photos or anything else that might allow readers to get to know me. My profile picture was ten years old, which I didn’t even realize until I got my hair cut before the holidays: “I can’t believe how blonde you used to be!” chirped my hip hair stylist when she saw my photo online.
I know writers capture snapshots of their everyday lives and post to a variety of social media—Instagram, Facebook, etc.—using their smartphone cameras and web apps. And many people can’t live without those phones for viable reasons. But my routine was to carry a cheap prepaid phone when I traveled, much to the embarrassment of my two teenagers. Since I wouldn’t purchase smartphones for them, my daughters found babysitting jobs to buy their own devices, an iPod Touch in middle school and a phone in high school.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job. From the late 1960s, my father sold IBM mainframe computers to hospitals and universities, but we didn’t have a computer in our home until I left for college in 1984. During high school, when a few classmates were using their family’s first desktop computers, I typed papers on an IBM Selectric typewriter, using Wite-Out to erase mistakes. That should have been a clue to the lifestyle my parents were slowly adopting, one of needs versus wants.
And since my parents were the focus of the book I was writing, it felt incongruous to purchase an iPhone to promote a book about living a life scaled for a changing climate. As a single mom, I was happy to save that money too. I told myself the other technologies I already had available would do the job. My challenge then was to figure out how to accomplish that.
In North Carolina, I teach environmental education at a small liberal arts college, where I live on campus in a 900-square foot duplex about a five-minute walk from my office. So, it usually wasn’t hard to reach me. Even without a smartphone, I was already online too much of the time. My students marveled that I answered e-mails faster than many professors on campus, but my responsiveness was a deterrent to a focused writing life. I was addicted to social media and e-mail, even without the constant companion of an iPhone. If I had a mobile device, I was afraid I would take it everywhere. Leaving my house and office without one gave me freedom from being tethered to The New York Times and Facebook when I ran on the trails or listened to my daughter’s middle-school band concert.
Maybe the challenge was to live in a digital world without being consumed by it. I recognized many writers depended on their phones for work and family. But in the acknowledgements for her novel NW , Zadie Smith paid tribute to the apps Freedom and Self Control for blocking Internet distractions . From a different generation, Wendell Berry famously wrote longhand and presented his reasoning in the essay “Why I am not going to buy a computer.” His rationale to farm his land with a horse and use pen and paper to construct an argument seemed both poignant and prescient.
I also knew the point of creating an author platform was to connect my writing with its potential audience, what Forbes Communication Council calls “the extended friend group.” My last two books, published with small presses without an agent, focused on the intersection of faith and climate change, topics I continue to write about. But this manuscript was more intimate: It was a memoir about my parents who, among other acts, used the forty days of Lent to give up trash and driving to decrease their impact on the earth.
As a family of six, we aimed for a zero-waste household before recycling ever came to my hometown. However my folks weren’t earthy hippies or radical activists: my mother had a bridge group, and my father sang in the church choir. After we were grown, they learned to live with even less stuff as they walked thousands of miles to complete the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and most of the Continental Divide Trail, with backpacks weighing about 10 pounds each.
The narrative was about their deaths as much as their lives, as they were killed in mirror-image cycling accidents, two years apart, both hit by teenage drivers. The book confronts the question of how we learn to carry the love of people who have died. The lessons from my mom and dad—learning to live with less because they could—would be critical to my daughters who face a changing climate. Here in the valley where we live, summer temperatures have lingered into winter, and floods have resulted in the wettest year on record. My oldest daughter said the world was turned upside down. My girls would need the story of my parents to help navigate the enormity of an uncertain world.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes: “That picture captures your spirit!” one friend said. While I discourage my teenagers from “counting likes,” it was uplifting to know my Facebook contacts were glad to see the new-but-old me.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes…
Next, I needed a website: My 13-year-old whipped up a sample draft on Wix within minutes. Yet, I chose to use modest professional development funds from my college to hire someone who understood my desire for a simple and clean aesthetic. A photographer who is a generous friend offered to take pictures in exchange for a six-pack of IPA, some good bourbon, and a gift certificate to a taco shop. After my initial awkward smiles at the camera, I began to grow more comfortable as the focus of attention. As a single mother, I’d been behind the camera for most of my adult life. Now my story—and my parents’—would take center stage.
Last I signed up for an Instagram account. At first, I had to connect my camera to my laptop, download the images, and then upload them to Instagram via Facebook messenger. By that time, I could have graded several student papers or started cooking supper for my children. The process grew infinitely less cumbersome when I used my iPad to take photos and upload to Insta (yes, I started using the shorthand). Rather than just stalk other people’s stories, I began by posting pictures of the donkey Tallulah in the pasture in front of our house. I tried to share a picture or story daily, and found even my old iPad did the job just fine. Only I would know that I’d forgone an entire decade of Apple updates.
When I perused the photos I’d posted, I saw the small perimeter of the life I’d documented showed me as writer with a life beyond her books. The images reflected the area around my house: the stubborn donkey who grazed in the pasture, my Mom’s wine glasses in the dish rack after book club, and my coffee mug with the inscription: “And also with y’all.” I didn’t have videos of hilarious conversations with Uber drivers headed to the airport or footage of hikes in exotic locations. But even my clunky iPad, which won’t fit in my pocket, could capture the immediacy of my very ordinary life on this small college campus.
My two teenagers were following along: “You should stop posting pictures of the donkey,” advised my youngest. “You went overboard when you called Tallulah your ‘spirit animal’.” My 19-year old religiously liked each photo: “I asked some of my friends to follow you,” she said, feeling sorry since I only had a fraction of her 600 followers.
Now I could also do more of what I cherished online—sharing the stories of others. I got an adrenaline boost from posting on Facebook about my former students who were doing work in line with my writer platform: Kelsey Juliana, suing the federal government to protect youth from the impacts of climate change; Jamie DeMarco, promoting state-level policies for climate action with Citizens Climate Lobby; and Danielle and Mikey Hutchinson, growing organic food on a farm just down the road.
These are small steps I’ve taken, but significant ones for me. By creating my website, using Instagram to share visual glimpses of my life, updating and expanding my Facebook footprint to include more of my life and to shine spotlights on others, I’ve begun to carve out a presence, a platform perhaps. It’s one that doesn’t rely on a smartphone, or I think suffer from the lack of one. From here, I see that I can do more even without a device in my pocket: I just sent out my first e-mail missive and plan to video-chat with followers on Instagram. (Someday I might tackle Twitter, although I worry about my possible addiction to that tool.)
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all.
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all. This seems especially true when our current times call for despair. The key seems to be integrating technology in a way that is true to my life, even if the outcome is a scaled-down version of what it could be. In the end, I think my parents would approve.
THREE SECRETS TO CREATE THE WRITING LIFE YOU WANT, a craft essay by Lisa Bubert
Three secrets to create the writing life you want by lisa bubert.
The question is a familiar one, full of angst and hand-wringing, one I often asked myself but never out loud: How do you do it? How do you become a writer?
There are more questions contained in this question—Where do you get your ideas? What should I write about? Where should I start?—and all these questions lead to the ultimate question: Is there a secret to this thing that I am not privy to?
Yes and no. Yes, there are secrets. It wouldn’t be an art if there were not. But no, they are not secrets you couldn’t be privy to. It only takes knowing who to ask and learning that the person to ask is ultimately yourself.
Almost five years ago, I decided to write for real. I had always written in journals, blogged, tried my hand at stories, poems, even a novel that never got past ten thousand words—but on May 24th, 2014, three weeks after my wedding, I decided that I would not feel whole if I did not make the writing a thing that I did for real. I had an idea for a novel, a very basic one. My grandmother had died the previous year and I was in grief. I had suffered the panic and anxiety attacks of the early “what am I going to do with my life” twenties and had started seeing a therapist. I wanted to write. More specifically, I wanted to be a writer, if only because I didn’t want my life to come to its end without having really tried for it.
So, I started to write. For a year, before the sun came up, 500 words before my day job at the library. My novel stayed very basic. I wrote, re-wrote, tore up pages, re-wrote again, read about false starts and gnashed my teeth. The story changed and changed again. I was learning—but I was also completely and utterly alone.
No one knew how important this was to me. Why I couldn’t stay out late with friends because I needed to wake up early and work on this project no one knew about. I didn’t even really tell my husband what I was doing—oh, the shame of him knowing I was trying at this! And that was exactly it—that I was trying. I was unsure of my work. Nothing I produced felt like it was that great, though it definitely felt good in the making-my-life-whole sense. But if I were really to make my life whole, I needed someone to know I was doing this. So after a year of writing alone, I joined a local critique group.
My first shared reading was a nerve-wracking one. I could see all the imperfections in my work. They were judging me on this one piece. All of this had been private and if I failed, I failed silently, with no one watching. (Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to define what this failure was—being rejected? Never having my work shared? If that was the case, I was already failing.)
Nauseous as I was, they finished the piece and declared it worthwhile—beautiful even. Sure, it had some things to improve on—all drafts do. But the bones were there and that was what mattered. I was hooked.
All of this is to tell you the first secret of becoming a writer—put yourself out there. Find your fellow writers and share your work. Get used to sharing things you know are not ready because you need to learn and you must be in the student’s seat to do so. Tell your loved ones this is a thing you want and that it is important. Because until you can admit this to the world, you won’t be able to convince yourself.
After a year of struggling alone with the book, I declared to my husband and my closest friends that I was writing. I finished the first draft mere months after joining the group.
Finishing a draft is well and good. So is editing that draft. But if a novel is to become published in the traditional sense (which is what I wanted), then I needed to do more. I needed to know how to query agents. I needed publishing credits. I needed to expand my network (we had just moved to Nashville so my lovely critique group was now gone). I needed to become a professional. And to do all this, I needed to become accountable.
Here is where knowing yourself really comes in handy. What I knew was this: I liked goals, lists, checking things off those lists, calendars, spreadsheets, and I was a morning person. (Yes, I am that person.)
Before, I threw my organizational prowess into my job at the library, other projects at home, and everything that wasn’t my writing (because my writing was art! you can’t organize art!). But I wanted this. So when January rolled around, I took an index card and wrote down the goals for the year:
- Finish the novel and begin querying.
- Submit three new pieces to journals.
- Receive more than 100 rejections.
Each of these goals required planning. Finishing the novel required I actually work on the novel. Submitting new pieces required I write them. Receiving that many rejections meant I needed enough pieces to submit widely.
I came up with two ways to remain accountable to finishing my novel and completing the other goals on my list. 1) Stick to a daily word quota (500 words), or 2) stick to a daily time quota (an hour and a half five days a week). When I was drafting, the word quota was the best goal to shoot for. When I was submitting or editing, the time quota worked best. The point was to close out each day being able to say that I accomplished my duty, whether it was the 500 words and/or the time spent at the craft. (Gold stars on a calendar help. As does an internet blocker.)
Let me digress here to share a real trade secret: Duotrope , an international database of publisher, agent, and literary journal listings and statistics.
None of us come with a head full of great journals perfect for our work. We may have a few dream places— Glimmer Train and Tin House to name my two, and yes, I am still grieving the announcement of their upcoming closures—but everybody must start small on their path to greatness. There are literally thousands of wonderful journals out there just waiting for your work. The world is your submission oyster—and Duotrope is your path to the acceptance pearl.
It will give you the low-down on each participating journal—if they’re open to submissions, what kind of work they publish, word limits, editor interviews, how long the wait is for responses, and (the best part) comparative listings of similar journals. So if you’re submitting that weird, experimental piece you feel would only work for Conjunctions, Duotrope can suggest other journals to check out based on where other writers who submitted to Conjunctions have also submitted. And the other best part is Duotrope’s list of top 100s. Top 100 most approachable journals, most exclusive journals, most likely to send a personalized response, most likely to not respond at all. It takes some of guesswork out of submitting and is a godsend when you’re getting started and learning the literary landscape. It does require a paid subscription to access the listings but it is beyond well worth it. I’ve used it for the past three years and it is the singular reason I have been able to submit as widely and as accurately as I have. (I promise they’re not paying me to say this. I just really love Duotrope.)
I got obsessive about my goals. Probably too obsessive. I noted daily word counts and watched them grow. The more I worked, the more I wanted to work, the easier the words came, until the end of the year when I had a novel on query and stories on submission. The rejections came on their own. I finished out the year with 99 rejections, seven requests on my manuscript from agents, and three published pieces in journals I was extremely proud to be in.
Secret, the second: understand that art is work and work is art. It’s magical, it’s allowed to be—but it requires professional diligence only earned by committing time to the task. You have to do the work every day, even on the bad days, and even on the really bad days. All the talent in the world can’t override the fact that you must get up early or stay up late, you must forgo seeing friends, watching TV, you must keep your mind clear, you must put your hands on the keyboard and type. The more time you invest in the work, the more inspiration can find you. Like Pavlov’s dog and the ringing bell, only your work is the bell and you, my friend, become the drooling dog. This is the magic of the work. This is how you welcome the spirit.
Fun fact: Publishing is hard and there are plenty of other writers trying to do it. Being successful has very little to do with talent and everything to do with how you hustle (although talent helps.)
The thing about hustling is that the personal becomes professional. Creative writing of any kind means the world sees you very intimately. You have to be okay with people you don’t know and people you love dearly seeing you in a vulnerable state on the page. Which is why it’s so hard to be rejected.
But that’s why hustling is so important. That thick skin they talk about only callouses up when more rejections and more edits are received. It doesn’t make you love the work any less. I’ve found it makes me love it more because I care about it enough to advocate for it. That’s all hustling is anyway—advocacy.
Which brings me to secret number three: Advocate for yourself by showing up.
The single most important thing I do for my writing is to show up, especially when I don’t want to. I showed up when I joined that first critique group. I showed up when I made my writing public. I showed up every morning in front of the keyboard, when I submitted work, when I went in search of a new writing community once we moved.
In this singular year of showing up, I have become known in my community as a writer to be respected, someone who can be counted on, as capable and competent, as talented, yes, but also as a hustler.
Ultimately, this is a business. Only you are going to bring yourself success (as you define it). Only you are going to advocate for yourself. The more you produce, the more you submit. The more you submit, the more acceptances you will receive. The more acceptances, the more confidence you gain. The more confidence, the more you will produce. And so on and so forth. It’s a vicious cycle. Vicious and delicious.
So show up. Hustle. Tell the world what you want. Ask for help. Ask for celebration. Give help when asked. Give help without having to be asked. Your dream writing life awaits—no special instructions required.
THE BELL DINGS FOR ME: On Writing with a Typewriter, a craft essay by Toby Juffre Goode
The bell dings for me on writing with a typewriter a craft essay by toby juffre goode.
I pack up my laptop and some comfortable clothes and pull away from my mile-high mountain home in Northern Arizona to drive hundreds of desert miles. I’m headed for the women’s writing retreat I attend every January in Palm Springs, California. I’m anxious. The five-hour drive facing me isn’t the problem. It’s the slump I’ve languished in for too long. I haven’t touched my memoir manuscript in months. A few essay ideas poke at me, but I ignore them. My heart isn’t in it. If not for the women I look forward to seeing and the money I paid up front to attend, I’d sit this one out.
I pass through Skull Valley and Yarnell, and keep going beyond Hope. I cross the California border into Blythe and drive on through mind-numbing miles of dry dirt, desert scrub, and sporadic crumbled foundations.
Stuff the anxiety , I tell myself. I’m tired of it. Inspiration will find me.
I arrive at the historic Casa Cody Inn and go in search of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author, teacher, mentor, and my friend who leads these annual retreats. Over the past year I observed this woman of many passions delve into yet another: typewriters. I’ve lost count of the prized acquisitions she posts on Instagram. Where the hell is she putting all these typewriters? Barbara lives in a tiny cottage by the sea in Southern California. Has she gone off the deep end?
I find her in her room at the Winter’s House where she has three typewriters set up and ready to fly. Barbara points out her prized Olivetti Lettera 32, a Royal Aristocrat, and a Smith Corona Classic Electra. She tilts her head and grins.
“You’re welcome to try one out while you’re here,” she says. “If you want.”
I’m rooming next-door to Barbara. During the day I hear her typing. And I love the sound.
One particular night she’s typing while I read in bed. Rhythmic and meditative, the sound soothes me. I want to fall asleep listening. I shut my light. She stops typing. I’m disappointed.
The next day Barbara mentions that she has a Smith Corona electric in the trunk of her car that I can play with. “I’m selling it on Craigslist,” she says. “I can’t keep them all.”
I humor her. I lug the portable typewriter in its case to my room. It reminds me of a bowling ball. My father’s bag and shoes waited for him by the front door every Thursday night—his bowling night with the Knights of Columbus. I’d always try, but I wasn’t strong enough to lift it.
I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.
During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h ; too much and a sputter of hhhhh s spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun . I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.
By day two I’m more than smitten. I peer into Smith Corona’s open heart where metal typebars wait to slap letters on the platen (the roller thingy has an official term, I learn), the way piano keys send hammers flying upward to strike strings. A musical staccato sings out: you’re writing ! Inspiration has come—in the form of a Smith Corona Coronet electric typewriter.
“I want to buy it ,” I tell Barbara.
I wonder about who played on these cream-colored, black-lettered keys before I came along. Did their fingers peck their way, or dance with abandon over the keyboard? Maybe they explored reams of poetry, or stalked stories that were going nowhere yet eventually arrived. I imagine letters of friendship, apology, or long-overdue explanations of love lost. Were pages pulled from the typewriter, crumpled in a ball, and thrown across the room? Or sealed into an envelope and mailed far away? Both actions more gratifying than the lifeless computer functions delete and send .
I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?
In college I wrote essays and term papers on my typewriter. Nothing about it seemed complicated and I never worried that I might break the machine. Now the same simple functions bewilder me and I’m afraid I’ll damage it. I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?
I’m bringing this vintage baby home. I’m excited. The five-hour drive back is a breeze. That night I don’t mention my new typewriter to my husband. I park Smith Corona on the desk in my office and wait for his reaction.
“Is that a typewriter I’ve been hearing?” Phil says a few mornings later. There’s a twinge of amusement in his half smile. He thinks it’s cool, I can tell. He’s not a writer, but I bet the typewriter evokes memories for him too.
Now an integral tool in my writing practice, Smith Corona welcomes me, idea-filled or empty. Of course you’re going to write, it says to me. Why else would you sit here? So, I act as if. I slap keys. Words splay across the paper, add up to sentences, and run into paragraphs. Prompts and free writes still help me, but my typewriter gets me moving out of my own way. Blank whiteness begs for more—good or bad makes no difference.
When I write on my laptop, I revise—to a fault. The trained copyeditor/proofreader in me wants every sentence perfect. Tempted by the online thesaurus, and cut and paste functions, I’m seduced into premature editing. I wander the Internet in the name of research, or more likely in a search for those boots I’m coveting. My creative flow is choked like a gutter full of leaves.
But my Smith Corona sentences read perfectly imperfect, as they should at this point in the process. The snap-snap of the keys scores my mantra: write freely, write freely . My inner critic quiets.
I type away. The bell dings and cheers me on: another line! I may not have a page worth saving. But I love the physical effort required, and I’m proud of the wadded up white paper balls collecting by my feet. They validate that I showed up. I’m in the chair, thrashing in a pool of possibility. I hate my writer self a little less.
A painter layers color with brush strokes. A weaver threads weft through warp on her loom. Artists explore and create with their tools. On my Smith Corona I compose with jazz hands and a cacophony of sounds to silence the controlling, demeaning, perfection-demanding voice in my head. I type through it. Critics be damned , I say. The bell dings for me and I keep writing for the love of it.
Featured image by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash Author photo by William Sulit
YOU DON’T NEED AN ANNA MARCH IN YOUR WRITING LIFE to Know About Getting Burned, a Craft Essay by Anthony J. Mohr
YOU DON’T NEED AN ANNA MARCH IN YOUR WRITING LIFE to Know About Getting Burned A Craft Essay by Anthony J. Mohr
Seth Fischer writes beautifully, and publishers are taking notice. He’s in PANK, The Rumpus, Guernica, and elsewhere. The Best American Essays 2013 listed one of his works in their Notables section. I’ve met Seth Fischer and have taken several of his classes at Writing Workshops Los Angeles.
Anna March and I never crossed paths, but she and Seth Fischer did. According to the Los Angeles Times , March, who apparently posed as a writing mentor, organized eleven workshops during 2016 and 2017, including one slated for Positano, Italy. Fischer signed up and bought a cheap ticket to Italy, but two days before the program’s start, March canceled it—an apparently frequent move. Fischer and some others traveled to Italy anyway, since his ticket was nonrefundable and he figured he already had a place to stay. Wrong. Says the Times , “They learned when they arrived that no rooms had been booked for the workshop at the advertised hotel.”
The article upset me, not just because Anna March grifted someone I know, but because she could have done the same to me had she come across my radar.
The Times reporters painted a picture of a woman who has canceled numerous workshops, has not delivered the coaching, editing, and mentoring writers have paid for, has gone by four different names in four different cities, has judgments against her, has been placed on probation, and has been ordered to receive psychiatric care.
The article upset me, not just because Anna March grifted someone I know, but because she could have done the same to me had she come across my radar. Mostly, I have limited my ambition to attending reputable conferences and workshops other writers I know can vouch for—HippoCamp, Squaw Valley, Kenyon Review, and Sirenland. (Sirenland takes place in Positano too, but when you arrive, the hotel does have a room for you.) But other possible Anna Marches ping my inbox, show up in social media streams, and remind me of the flakes who, before I started writing, weaseled their way into my life over two decades ago, when I practiced law.
At times back then I was so hungry for clients that I took on a few who played me for a fool. Like writers and so many others in the arts, newly minted attorneys can also fall prey to charlatans—clients who skewed the facts dangled big numbers before me, and showed up in my office close to the statute of limitations expiration, giving me no time to investigate before agreeing to represent them. These were the folks who called me all day long, and on nights and weekends, but never paid their bills. They wounded my self-image and made me feel less than competent. I wish I’d sued them, won, and chased their assets until the pips squeaked, but I didn’t muster the courage. Like many who were conned by Anna March.
Where did these people come from? You might as well ask how ants find a picnic.
Finally, one of these swindlers telephoned me on New Year’s Eve and demanded we meet. “You have to cancel your plans. This is important,” he said. By then I was getting wiser. I said no and, on January 2, told him to get another lawyer. It was bracing to throw him out, a boost to my self-esteem.
Anna March lured in equally hungry writers and failed to deliver services she promised. In a tweet, Seth Fischer gave a good description of her modus operandi: “This is where Anna thrived—not in taking advantage of people who didn’t deserve it, but by taking advantage of really hardworking people who do deserve it but just aren’t getting the mentorship they need to succeed.”
I understand why some writers who encountered March and became her victims haven’t done anything. It wasn’t worth the time, mental energy, and possible expense to recover their financial losses. (I’m sure some also took a blow to their confidence as writers.) The problem is serious, especially among the most vulnerable artists among us, people who want so badly to get that part, record that song, sell that book. I’ve heard of writers paying agents who are not agents and others who’ve submitted to literary journals that are not journals. One of my first acceptances was from a “literary journal” which never appeared. After waiting for over a year, I pulled the essay and managed to place it in a real editorial home.
I closed my law practice twenty-four years ago when the Governor appointed me as a judge. I started writing on the side, and while you’d think a judge may be too savvy to fall for a literary scam, who knows? I want to get published, get access to top mentoring, get a leg up in this fickle literary world just as much as the next writer. Thanks to the recent Ms. March debacle, however, I’ve decided to redouble my efforts to keep the fabulists and snollygosters out of my life—but not my vocabulary. Before signing up for that workshop in Antarctica, you can bet I’ll do a thorough Google search, run an online litigation check, and ask writer friends to weigh in. If the feedback feels ambiguous, I’ll run like hell. Every one of us in the literary community needs to take care of each other, starting with protecting ourselves and others from those who’d do us harm by taking our money and doing nothing.
When they sailed past the Island of the Sirens, Odysseus was smart enough to order his crew to stuff their ears with wax. But because he wanted to hear the siren songs, Odysseus didn’t plug his ears, instead commanding the crew to tie him to the mast.
When they sailed past the Island of the Sirens, Odysseus was smart enough to order his crew to stuff their ears with wax. But because he wanted to hear the siren songs, Odysseus didn’t plug his ears, instead commanding the crew to tie him to the mast. The moment the music reached him, Odysseus screamed and ordered his sailors to let him go, but instead, they roped him in more tightly, saving his life.
If you think someone you know is falling for a scam, say something. Sometimes it takes rough measures to avoid disasters. That can be hard for us. We writers are a sensitive group, but one Anna March in a lifetime is too many.
Editor’s note: Melissa Chadburn, lead reporter on the Los Angeles Times story mentioned above, is planning a follow-up and wants to hear from others who are owned money by Anna March. You can get in touch here if you fall into that category .
Image credit: Jamie Street on Unsplash
FOUND IN TRANSLATION: How my Memoir of Life Overseas Turned into a Novella, a Craft Essay by Ele Pawelski
FOUND IN TRANSLATION How my Memoir of Life Overseas Turned into a Novella A Craft Essay by Ele Pawelski
Fresh from having left my international development career and moving home to Toronto in 2009, I wanted to write a memoir. Browsing through the periodic emails I’d sent home over my twelve years away, I pieced together funny stories about life in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. But the longer I was home, the harder it became to recall events without notes or a journal from that time (this kind of record-keeping isn’t my thing). Instead, with encouragement from the writing group I later joined, I fed these remembrances into a novella set in Kabul and found my footing as a fiction writer.
My love for factual writing began back in university where I wrote film reviews for my college newspaper. Overseas, I drafted project proposals and implementation plans, and occasionally helped create communications products. A couple of my real-life stories were printed in Canadian national newspapers, and in the past ten years, I’ve published two academic papers. I definitely enjoy putting together a solid premise or argument based on research and evidence: in some ways, the antithesis of creative writing.
So it was natural to land on a memoir as my story-telling vehicle. I’d read enough to know that successful ones needed a recognized author or a gripping, dramatic story. I’m definitely not the first and while I’d had many interesting encounters and was once almost evacuated from South Sudan, I didn’t think I had enough for the second. Nor could I come close to the riveting tales of working for the United Nations recounted by Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Doctor Andrew Thomson in Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. In this memoir, the three use intersected stories to relate their experiences on the front line of increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional UN missions.
While passing time before a speed-dating event (that’s a whole other story), I wrote down as many comical chapter titles as I could think of that evoked the satirical side of development work: “Airports, Airplanes and Goats,” “Where Taxis Go to Die” and “The Way of the Tea.” Instead of a linear storyline, my plan was to write a series of humorous anecdotes in the style of Bill Bryson. Readers would not be taken through the countries I’d worked in but rather experience my world through scenes tied together by a common topic. For each chapter, I would gather an inventory of my stories and then string them together into a cohesive depiction of life in aid-receiving countries. In my head, it worked. And I thought the chapter ideas were laugh-out-loud funny.
With the outline of a memoir in hand, I joined Moosemeat Writing Group in 2010, a writing group I found online. While its focus was fiction, non-fiction writers were welcome too. This group would form the backbone of my writing existence and transition to fiction writing.
So I regrouped, shifting my thinking back to a linear and more serious approach. I reread Ernesto “Che” Guevara ’s The Motorcycle Diaries and a fellow writer lent me Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin. Both are memoirs of time spent abroad and reflections on the unfamiliar. I developed my stories in the order they happened and renamed my chapters by the country I’d lived in. Instead of writing around topics, I would offer glimpses of my life in each place.
In the meantime, I absorbed more and more fiction scribed by the Moosemeat writers. Each year, Moosemeat publishes a chapbook collection of flash fiction pieces written to a theme. Six months after I’d joined, a call for submissions went out. With a bit of cajoling and an idea about a satirical take on a real event, I wrote my first fictional story, “A Tale of Two Summits.” At 500 words it was short—but completely imagined.
As part of the process, Moosemeat members critiqued my story. Perhaps because it was fiction, I didn’t endure the stress I’d felt when presenting my memoir chapter. In fact, I felt invigorated by some of the suggestions that I knew would make this piece better. With fiction, I wasn’t invested in trying to squeeze out all the details from my not-so-great memory or figure out how to make my true stories more engrossing. How freeing!
Later, at our chapbook event, I read my flash fiction aloud to a room full of family, friends and a hell of a lot of strangers. Here, I was most definitely nervous. But another part of me was intrigued by how the story fit with the other ones. Or least, wasn’t remarkably (or terribly) different. Perhaps, just maybe, I could write fiction…
In the back of my mind, I remembered years earlier attending a meet-up hosted by Quattro Books, a small publisher in Toronto that would eventually publish my novella. Would-be authors were walked through what made for a good story, and what the publisher looked for when selecting a manuscript: a character with a goal, a crisis from mounting tension, and an epiphany at the end. Yet, it still seemed daunting to write a novel. But then, I read a very personal news story.
In January 2011, a suicide bomber targeted a convenience store in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital where I worked in 2007-2008. It was a place where I’d frequently shopped when I lived there. From online photos of the incident, I recognized the ads in the shop windows and could visualize the aisles filled with sugary drinks and snacks. Thankfully I didn’t know anyone who’d been hurt in the attack. But it felt like I did.
And, just like that, I knew the story I wanted to write: the book would happen over that one day in January 2011. There would be three characters, a local politician, a reporter and an aid worker, and each would tell their experience of the bombing, one after another. Through their eyes, readers would see the intensity but also the beauty of life in Kabul. As with my now-put-aside memoir, the story would encompass themes of challenging injustice and doing good as well as the importance of family.
I would aim for a word count in the territory of a novella. This all was manageable for my first attempt at longer fiction. Excitedly, I shared my idea with a writer friend, mainly as a commitment to writing it. But she also thought it was a good premise for a book.
To begin, I sifted through the comical chapter titles and finished stories that I’d crafted for my memoir, looking for bits that could be part of my new story. I also made notes on other remembrances and encounters I’d had which I could envision happening to one of my characters. If I didn’t quite recollect something, it didn’t matter because I could embellish or cut out as much as I wanted. This story was mine to own and shape just so.
As I wrote the politician’s story, I realized that fiction was providing distance, which allowed me to write in a more serious way. My memoir had been all about poking fun at my experiences and the places I lived, which partially reflected my personality but also kept me from being vulnerable in exposing my thoughts and reactions. The truth was, I wasn’t ready (and, in hindsight, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready) to let the world inside my head and heart. But I could explore and exploit vulnerabilities I created in my characters, vulnerabilities that could mimic my own.
Slipping my reality into fiction was not overly difficult for two reasons: first, the story was taking place some years after I’d left Kabul. While I could picture the Kabul, I’d lived in, I also knew it had changed as the Taliban continued to creep up and in. Second, once I attributed a personal anecdote to a character, I found I no longer owned it. Rather, I sought ways to transform it, playing with the facts to fit the narrative. This was the case for all the characters, including the aid worker, who I fashioned after myself. In most cases, I wanted to add details that I didn’t remember to enrich the descriptions or create tension.
Four months later I presented the first chapter at Moosemeat. Many were surprised at the story’s grave tone and substance. This time, unlike my memoir piece, I received a good dose of positive feedback. Enough to convince me that the story had legs.
I’m still astounded at how relatively easily I moved into writing fiction. Well, I worked hard at it. But I’m a more creative writer than my twenty-something self ever envisioned. My novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul , was being launched in January 2018. I already have ideas for my next three novels. And all are grounded in true stories.
Cover image credit: Thought Catalog on Unsplash
IS MEMOIR AUTOMATICALLY THERAPEUTIC? A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health by Leslie Lindsay
I recently finished a memoir manuscript about my bipolar mother and her eventual suicide.
Light, easy writing, right? When I tell strangers about my manuscript, they cock their heads in sympathy as if to say, “You poor thing. ” Some even suggest I’ve misconstrued the events in my own life. Surely your mother wasn’t really mentally ill. You must have it all wrong. Others lean in as if they are about to hear a juicy story. But the majority recoil: Mothers. Daughters. Mental illness. Who would touch such a topic?
My father-in-law said, “It must have been therapeutic to write about your mother.” There was a lilt at the end of the sentence, which led me to believe this was a question. He’s eighty, and it’s not the first time he’s said it: “It must have been really therapeutic to write about your mother?” Every time he does this, I answer the same. “I took a clinical approach,” I assure him. Then he makes one of those “huh” looks, pushes his glasses up on his face, and buries his nose in the newspaper.
But I have also asked myself: was my memoir therapeutic? It all comes down to how you define “therapeutic.” For me, that’s relating to, involving, or used in the treatment of disease or disorders.
Many years ago, when I first began this project, I took drafts to my writing group. “More,” they demanded. “Go deeper.” They wanted the odor of the psychiatric ward, the texture of the cinderblock walls, the color lipstick my mother wore. They wanted the bizarre things she said when she was psychotic.
So I made notes and revised. At the time, I was twenty-five years old and my mother was still living. Soon, the memoir draft was abandoned.
These days, I’m a Child/Adolescent Psychiatric R.N. Hence, clinical. You’d think by now I’d have this all figured out. I’m older. My mother is gone and I don’t have to worry how she will react to what I write. But still, somehow, I worry that by writing I dishonor her memory.
So I use my clinical approach. I scour her medical records. I flip through every doctor’s note, administrative profile, nurse’s note, social worker’s entry. I examine flow charts and vital signs and lab results. I skim mental status exams and even retype admission and dismissal notes. My dad has graciously passed along his thirty-year-old spiral leatherette calendar, the contents of the days scratched-in with his familiar scrawl.
Lynne says she’ll go to the Day Hospital, just to “play the game.” Intentionally decided against taking the girls to church for a year following Lynne’s psychotic break in which she talked about being God. Lynne thinks the lamp will give her energy. She laid underneath it for hours Made spaghetti for dinner for the first time. It was good. Received credit card bill in the mail. Lynne has charged over a thousand dollars in lingerie and perfume.
I am struck by the severity of my mother’s illness. My heart aches. I trudge on, donning my psych-nurse hat, looking at black squiggles and digits with a critical—clinical—eye. When I read portions of my work-in-progress to my family, my dad, who is not a writer, says, “I wonder what the story would be like if it were told from your mom’s point-of-view. Or her mother’s?”
I find his observation quite astute.
For the next day or so, I practice retelling portions of The Story, through my (imagined) mother’s lens. The possible first line:
I keep hearing the voice of God, deep and sonorous, telling me that I must accept His mission.
There is no second line.
You’d think that, as a writer, I’d be able to shift POVs and fall into my mother’s skin as easily as I had been cleaved from her nearly forty years ago. But I can’t. I can only tell my story. And I realize now that there’s nothing wrong with that.
Is my memoir a tale of loss? Yes. Is it a story of serious mental illness? About the struggle between mothers and daughters? About grief? Yes, yes, yes.
But is it a tragedy? That’s subjective.
My first reaction to my father-in-law’s comment about the writing process being therapeutic was irritation, fueled by the realization that perhaps I had spent needless hours, weeks, and months in a state of mere ‘therapy.’ I’ve had scores of therapy sessions where my mother is concerned, from her very first psychotic break when I was ten, to the sessions following her death. I know what “therapeutic” is, and writing was not therapeutic. But it was necessary.
A man in my writing group says with a smirk, “Just who do you think is going to read this?”
Well, maybe not you , I want to retort.
Another man in that group says, “Keep going. This is solid.” He pokes at the paper with his finger, “This line, the one where you talk about the miniature stove not cooking even a morsel of hope, that’s powerful.”
I tell the smirking man that I understand what he means. There can be a sameness to tales of loss, perhaps even a whiny, self-indulgent, victim quality. The key is to make these tales of seem fresh.
And then it comes to me.
In the next draft, I tell my story from a little girl’s POV.
This little girl clamors onto my couch, knobby knees angled, hands intertwined and tells me her story. I take notes, good therapist that I am, churning them into a manuscript. I offer her feedback and suggestions.
I marvel at the little girl’s tenacity, her resilience, and her perceptive observations. I find—and appreciate, perhaps for the first time—her sense of humor and her introspection.
At times I want to fold the little girl into my arms and cry with her, whisper in her ear. I want to say, “You are more than your mother’s mental illness; please don’t let that define you.” But I can’t get emotionally entangled in this little girl’s life. That would be countertransference—and definitely not therapeutic.
In the end, I pat her on the back and tell her, “Thanks for sharing your story. It’s important.”
She nods and says, I know .
THROUGH GIRL-COLORED GLASSES A Craft Essay on Gender and Writing by Dina Honour
In the mid-1990s, my first story was published in a small college literary journal. Tucked away at the back, nestled among the bold, Helvetica names and previous publication credits was this, which I’d given to the editor:
Dina Honour is a senior majoring in Creative Writing. She’s been told she writes like a woman, which she assumes is akin to throwing like a girl.
Twenty years later I can see that line for what it was: a small act of reclamation. A bold, Helvetica middle finger against what I suspect was not meant as a compliment, but a comparison. The dangerous thing about comparisons, of course, is that in order to exist, there must be a standard against which to compare.
There was writing. And there was writing like a woman .
Of course what writing like a woman really means is that my work is both written and viewed through a filter of femaleness. It means my work is likely to resonate more profoundly with the ovarian crowd over the semenarian. Still, the notion, the comparison , rankled. I pushed back, donkey-kicking against the idea that my sex handicapped my writing in any way, that writing like a woman was merely a derivative of writing .
Yet under my small rebellion, a trickle of uncertainty wore a groove over time: if I wanted to play in the publication sandbox with the big boys, if I wanted to be taken seriously, I was going to have to take off my girl-colored glasses and write from a more gender-neutral place. A place not seen through the pink and frilly lens of ‘girl’ but through a beige and precise filter of ‘person’.
I tried. Mightily. I wrote, but my work was blurred and hazy. It was heaps of text with water stains bleeding the edges of ink, making it difficult to read. It lacked clarity. It lacked sharpness. It lacked me.
When I took off those girl glasses, the world became fuzzy.
I lost sight of the fact that to write clearly, you need to see clearly first.
Write what you know. The longer I write, the more I understand what you know is only half of the equation. The other half? What you see . A life viewed through a particular filter which shapes how you look at and experience the world, in reality and on the page.
Each of us hop, skip, and jump through life with a stack of name tags pinned to our lapels. Some are clear and discernible, (Hello! My name is Woman!). Some less so. Sometimes the face we present to the world is masking a hidden identity, an alter ego. When you filter your writing through those identities, rather than around them, something magical happens: writing through the lens of Diana Prince allows you the clarity to be Wonder Woman on the page.
My observations of life are pushed through a sieve of femaleness. Sometimes those spectacles are rose-tinted. Other times they’re so fogged up I’ve got to wipe them on my blouse before I can see beyond my own nose. It took me a long time and a lot of wasted words to understand I need them. To see and to write.
It took me two decades to realize writing like a woman isn’t a handicap at all, but a gift.
Nowadays I use those glasses to my advantage. I use them to add layers, a richness which would be lacking if I only wrote about what I know—the mind, the brain, the intellectual.
I could (and do) write about sexism from an intellectual viewpoint, standing on a platform looking down upon a not-so-scenic realm of misogyny. I can (and do) write true and well about wage gaps and rape statistics. But when I put on my glasses I infuse that writing with my own experiences of life as a woman. Viewing the world through my girl-tinted glasses, rape statistics are threaded through a story of walking home at night, keys wedged between my knuckles. The wage gap becomes a snippet of conversation I had with a woman in tech who described leaving an industry she loved because she couldn’t scrub the toxicity off in the shower.
The lenses through which you see life, your own and that around you, shouldn’t be a handicap. On the contrary, they should help you focus. They should take you from myopia to twenty/twenty vision.
Find your glasses. Pull them out and dust them off. Use them to complement what you know, what’s in your mind, with how you see and experience the world. Put them on before you sit down to write. Then, write like a woman. Write like a man, or a parent; an addict, a teacher, a daughter, an artist.
Put your glasses on. It’s amazing how much more in focus the world—and words—become.
Image credit: Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash
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FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF FOR WRITERS When Dealing with Negative Feedback, a craft essay by Floyd Cheung
FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF FOR WRITERS When Dealing with Negative Feedback by Floyd Cheung
Anyone who has written and submitted anything—poems, stories, essays, books—knows that immediate acceptance is extremely rare. When that happens, we celebrate and try not to let it spoil us. Much more often, we receive negative feedback in the form of outright rejection, advice, and/or an invitation to revise and resubmit (an option much more common in the academic world than in the poetry and fiction publishing scene).
When dealing with negative feedback, I’ve found Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model for handling the five stages of grief uncannily helpful. She developed this model to describe how terminally-ill patients tend first to deny their prognosis; become angry at their fate, their own bodies, and sometimes other people around them; bargain with a higher power or whoever they can for an alternative; fall into depression once bargaining fails; and in the best case scenario accept their changed circumstances. (Although critics have pointed out that this model blurs description and prescription, many people nevertheless find it useful. Some have even adapted it for dealing with other kinds of loss, such as when a spouse mourns a failed marriage .)
The flowchart above both describes my writing process and offers guidance at junctures in that process, especially after receiving negative feedback.
The cycle of writing, revising, and getting help (in the upper left corner of this chart) is familiar to most authors—aspiring and experienced. Writing requires us to put our butts in chairs and churn out words. Some of us do this with regular consistency, while others wait for the right moment. The prescription to write every day has its proponents and detractors . No matter how we produce our first drafts, we revise, often through several more drafts. The poet Mary Oliver admits to revising her poems as many as fifty times. Not everyone seeks the help of others, but I’ve found critical-but-friendly readers essential to my own process. Some find these readers among their family members and friends. Others join writing groups or MFA programs. And a few of us pay professionals like those at Humanities First or consultants who advertise in the back of Poets & Writers magazine.
When the work feels ready, I submit it to the most appropriate journal or publisher I can find. It’s always a good idea to be familiar with work usually published in your chosen venue. Anthony Ocampo gives meticulous advice about how to analyze a journal’s articles before submitting your own work to it.
Once in a while, we receive immediate acceptance and we celebrate, but more frequently we receive a note of rejection or an invitation to revise and resubmit. With rejections, we occasionally get a reason but more often receive a simple “no, thank you.” In the case of a revise-and-resubmit, we usually get advice on how to improve.
At this point, we find ourselves on the right side of the flowchart. Denial is typically my first reaction, and I might tell myself, “My work was so good. It was the result of significant effort. This negative feedback must be off-base.” Depending on the critic’s tone and comments, I may or may not experience anger. If so, I might complain, “This critic is wack. He or she must have a personal grudge against me or this kind of work.”
The first crucial juncture for me occurs here. I must ask myself, even if I’m feeling angry, “ Is the critic right ?” Sometimes the critic is simply wrong, or perhaps I’ve sent my work to an inappropriate venue. In that case, I read over my piece once more to make sure I haven’t changed my mind about anything and, if not, then send it off to the next journal or publisher and wait again. Frank Herbert reportedly submitted his novel Dune to twenty publishers before it was accepted by Chilton, which is better known for its auto repair manuals. His determination and Chilton’s decision paid off, since Dune went on to win the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel and in 2003 was cited as the world’s best-selling science-fiction novel.
Often, however, negative feedback contains some truth. Experienced critics want to accept excellent work, and when a piece falls short and time allows—in the academic world especially—they advise authors on how to improve their work until it meets their high standards. Some of us crave this kind of careful feedback, and it’s de rigueur for scholarly monographs. Ezra Pound was famously critical of T. S. Eliot’s draft of The Wasteland. He suggested cuts and revisions that shortened Eliot’s long poem by half, ultimately bringing out the masterpiece in what Eliot admitted was a “chaotic” manuscript. In spite my knowledge that bracing feedback can be incredibly helpful, I might find myself bargaining , saying probably to myself, “How little revision can I get away with to resubmit what is essentially good work?”
If I’m feeling weak or the advice is too difficult or distasteful to follow, I’ll fall into a state of depression . I might say, “True revision is so hard. Why should I bother? Maybe I should give up?” At this point, I find myself at another crucial juncture and need to ask myself, “ Is this project worthwhile?” Not all projects are worth the time and energy to revise. (Maybe I don’t care about this subject as much as I did three years ago when I started working on it? Is additional devotion to this project stopping me from doing more worthwhile work?) At her 2013 commencement address at Smith College, Arianna Huffington advised, “Sometimes the best way to finish a project is to drop it.” When I heard this, I felt like she had granted me permission. In fact, I did give up on a big project that was going nowhere, turned my attention to other projects, and have enjoyed some publishing success and less guilt over the past few years.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that resilience and grit aren’t important. They certainly are, according to this TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth. She argues, for instance, that practice and persistence often account for success more than talent. But it is also possible to be too gritty and persist in behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive as Gale Lucas has shown in her research . She encourages us “to know when to quit and reevaluate rather than blindly push through.” When giving up on a project, however, it is important to keep faith in yourself and get to work on something else . Some writers and artists make sure to have several projects going at once so that not all of our emotional eggs are in the same basket, hence distributing our hope.
When I’ve decided that a particular work is worth revising, I arrive at a sense of acceptance. I might engage in self-talk like this: “There’s actually some truth in this criticism. It comes from a source that wants to help me improve my work, even if his or her tone could have been kinder. Let me engage with this feedback seriously. The hard work of revision will be worth it.” At this point, I have kept faith not only in myself but also in the project, and I reenter the cycle of writing, revision, and getting help until I am ready submit again.
As good a metaphor as Kübler-Ross’s model might be, it is worth emphasizing this difference on the matter of acceptance: accepting a terminal diagnosis is not the same as accepting the need to revise.
In the case of writing, accepting negative feedback and deciding to recommit to improving a work means a new lease on a project’s creative life. If I’ve made it through these five stages all the way to acceptance, I know both that the project is worth revising and that I can do it.
Image credits: Flowers by Charlie Harutaka on Unsplash . Chart by Floyd Cheung
You may also enjoy:
TIME HEALS, EVEN YOUR DRAFTS: Three Key Realizations for Revising Your Novel, A Craft Essay by Wendy Fox
ACROSS THE DIVIDE AND BACK: How Writing Poetry Is Changing My Nonfiction, a craft essay by Vivian Wagner
Becoming an outlaw or: how my short fiction became a memoir, a craft essay by andrea jarrell, turning out the lights: on cuba, writing, and the ecstasy of planetary topography, a craft essay by tim weed.
TURNING OUT THE LIGHTS On Cuba, Writing, and the Ecstasy of Planetary Topography by Tim Weed
The blackout was a revelation. It happened at around eight PM, in Trinidad, Cuba, on one of those moonless tropical nights that fall so suddenly you barely notice the dusk. This was several years ago—before the loosening of travel regulations that occurred under President Obama—and the number of American tourists remained small. In common with many others who’ve dedicated their lives to the dream of producing enduring literature, I’ve had to make my living by other means. I was a Spanish major in college, and through a series of happy accidents I ended up developing a parallel career as an educational travel guide with specific expertise in Cuba. Before the resumption of diplomatic relations, organized cultural travel programs provided a highly sought after legal method for Americans to travel to the country, and my knowledge base was much in demand. At the time of the occurrence described in this essay, I was traveling to the country with cultural tourism groups at least half a dozen times a year.
Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a remote city nestled into the base of the Sierra de Escambray mountain range, overlooking a notably depopulated part of the Caribbean. For much of the Spanish colonial period it was a wealthy sugar capital, but in the second half of the nineteenth century—with the end of slavery and the economic devastation that came with the wars for Cuban independence—the city entered a long period of desperate poverty and near-total isolation. This period only ended with the construction of the first highway linking it to Havana in the 1950s, and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 ensured that Trinidad, along with the rest of the island, would remain closed off from the main currents of the late twentieth century world economy. As a result of all this, the city is a living time capsule. Horses clop along the cobbled pedestrian-only streets in the hilly upper reaches of town. Through the wood-grated windows of the high-ceilinged colonial houses one can still see the original nineteenth-century furniture. In a few of the interior courtyards horse-drawn buggies remain parked, as if waiting for their owners to come back and rig them up.
Cuba is not a brightly lit country to begin with. The electrical system is antiquated, and although blackouts are less common now than they were during the deep economic depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, they do still occur. Trinidad is far removed from any other source of ambient light, so even without a blackout, on a moonless night, the stars emerge in a brilliant textural canopy.
When the electricity cut out I was “off the clock,” eating dinner on my own in one of the dozen small restaurants near the Plaza Mayor. There was a moment of cave-like blackness accompanied by silence. Then the quiet conversations around me resumed, and a few candles flickered to life in the surrounding establishments. Before long the center of town was dotted with spheres of trembling amber light. A horseman trotted by, the iron-shod hoof-beats ringing clearly across the square as if to complete the illusion of having traveled backwards in time.
Finishing dinner, I wandered out to sit on the coral-stone steps of the cathedral. A pleasant breeze blew up from the sea. The steps still radiated the warmth of the tropical sun.
And the revelation?
Well, before I can describe it, I have to explain something about my state of mind. Making a living as an international travel guide may sound like a sweet gig, but like any other repetitive job, it can get old. You’re always “on,” for one thing, which is a daunting prospect for an introverted writer: Imagine hosting a nine-day cocktail party. Then there’s the boredom of following the same crowded itineraries, meeting with the same interesting locals, and participating in the same festive activities year in and year out. In my personal life I treasure the opportunity to be active, but most high-end cultural programs are surprisingly sedentary, featuring long air-conditioned bus rides, a great deal of passive spectating, and twice daily, multi-course group meals in five-star restaurants. So even though my “day job” was bringing me to some of the most interesting and picturesque places in the world, I was only half-experiencing them. I was preoccupied with logistics, small talk, and the draining, insincere gregariousness the host role demands. My off hours were spent walking in numb distraction, dining alone at a familiar bar, or hiding behind potted plants in a hotel lobby checking my email. I’d become jaded.
This gets us back to the blackout—and the revelation I had while sitting on the steps of the cathedral in Trinidad. After my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I was suddenly overcome by a sharp awareness of my relationship to the physical landscape. Not just the abstract knowledge of where I was geographically. Not the conjured image of a point on a map, nor even a self-conscious awareness that I was sitting in a socio-politically unusual location: a remote, historic World Heritage Site in a poor region on the south-central coast of the western hemisphere’s only communist country. This was different. Suddenly, I had a visceral sense of my exact location in the three-dimensional topography: sitting at the head of the cobbled plaza at the center of a centuries-old town, at the base of the towering karst mountain range that formed a jagged ink-black wall in the night sky at my back, on a sort of elevated shelf overlooking a tropical sea that glittered faintly in the distance beneath the overspreading stars.
The intensity of this shift in perspective took me by surprise. All at once I’d recovered a sense of connection that I hadn’t even realized was missing. It was a big, reassuring, exhilaratingly physical feeling of communion with the land and the sea and the universe of stars.
When the electricity came back on, the three-dimensional majesty of the nighttime topography evaporated, leaving me with a sense of emptiness and loss. We’re used to blaming our technological gadgetry for keeping us at arm’s length from what we call “real life,” but for me, the blackout was a reminder that the problem goes deeper than the latest generation of smartphones. Electricity itself—that clever sine qua non of advanced industrialized society—is a force that imprisons us, because it prevents us from seeing out into the darkness. The live current we’ve tamed and channeled may provide a reassuring background buzz, but it keeps us from experiencing the sublime truth of the material universe and our precise location within it.
Absent fortuitous blackouts, depending on the kind of person you are, receiving this kind of visceral reminder of the true nature of existence may require either drugs or a deep-seated commitment to silent meditation. Wilderness camping might do it for you, as it often has for me, especially for multiple nights in a row. Even for a brief time, immersing yourself in one of out planet’s sublime landscapes is also a good bet. I’ve had moments of heightened awareness blossom back into my consciousness on hikes in the red rock deserts of the American southwest, on skis in snow-blanketed Rocky Mountain conifer meadows, and sitting at the rail of a small ship cruising through the Beagle Channel as the jaw-dropping peaks and hanging glaciers paraded magisterially by. If you haven’t been fortunate enough to experience one of these jolts recently, it’s possible that you may have become jaded. As with any rigorous pursuit, unused muscles can atrophy. Sometimes you have to exert your willpower to rekindle the connection.
And this is where writing comes in. I once heard the poet David Baker say that literature can be divided into two categories: the ironic and the ecstatic. Ecstasy is transcendent, mystical, implying a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other end of the continuum, is social, worldly, rooted in the intellect. In blackout terms, irony is electricity, and ecstasy the unmediated tropical night.
Irony is essential in literature as an antidote to sentimentality, but in my view the most immersive writing is to be found on the ecstatic end of the continuum. When we write, we want the reader to forget all about those black marks on the page and tumble headlong into the narrative as one would fall into a trance. Good descriptive writing is what triggers this loss of conscious control, this benign fugue state; it’s what puts the vivid in John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream,” and it’s my belief that in order to produce good descriptive writing a writer must, at least intermittently, have access to something analogous to my blackout revelation. She must be able to turn off the electrical currents of irony and intellect and connect to the surrounding world in a way that is intuitive, instinctive, and ecstatic.
These days, if I happen to be talking to a group of aspiring writers, I may be tempted to give them some version of the following advice. Close your laptop. Turn off your smartphone. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a blackout, don’t forget to look up and notice your surroundings. And if there’s no blackout, just turn out the lights.
Images of Trinidad, Cuba courtesy of Tim Weed.
LIES I TELL MY STUDENTS, a creative nonfiction craft essay by Liz Stephens
CREATIVE LIES I TELL MY NONFICTION STUDENTS by Liz Stephens
I teach memoir, which we writers file under the umbrella—with other juicy and lively forms—of “creative nonfiction”. What is creative nonfiction? We don’t know. Mostly, like obscenity, we know it when we see it. BUT HOW CREATIVE CAN IT BE? is something, I hear, in an all-caps game-show voice. I hear it when I wander near the edge of the cavern of the limits of creative nonfiction, limits that sneak up like un-programmed, undesigned space at the edge of a labyrinthine video game.
I am called to answer every day.
Pat answers are the comfort of some other disciplines. We who write and teach creative nonfiction don’t get that luxury. Ours is more like: philosophy, but with consequences. No one’s life is riding, as far as they know, on math, yet in writing classrooms and around workshop tables students may approach us like hotline workers, hands out for the right word, the final word, the bottom line, the prophecy, the truth of their life stories, and thus, their lives.
What do I say to earnest truth-seekers, at that moment when their head blows off and they see that truth is subjective , and memory is not a vault but a maze? That before it sets you free, memory makes you run a gamut of trapdoors? When they ask if they can write whatever they want about their family? When they ask if it’s okay to paraphrase dialogue. When they wonder what to do about incomplete memory. When they question perception. When they ask me if they can write what they believe to be true, without checking or getting permission from others. Whether they should wait until the people who they are about to tell tales on just die .
I don’t know, my dears, I don’t know.
I have tried it all. I have written about family and regretted it deeply, in spite of Anne Lamott’s sassy no-doubt-true contention that “if they wanted to be written about warmly, they should have behaved better.” And in spite of no end to my own hard-earned literary critical ways of explaining that as the narrator, I had to write in present tense about realizations I’d grown past in real life. Family didn’t get it, not when I did it, and really, they didn’t have to; they don’t want to write creative nonfiction themselves so why give a shit about anything I’ve put on the page, anything but the bald words stripped of caveats.
I’ve paraphrased dialogue, and wondered forever not about the ethics but what I’ve lost in the translation, proving right my friend and writing mentor Mary Blew, who has written that once you write anything down, you have traded the real event for your new print version. Your delicate sense of the tone of a loved one’s voice has become, once written down, concrete, unfleeting, stable not only in meaning but in shade and quiver. As I try to write down once-issued sweetnesses—words my daughter said about when I am old, the phrase my mother used about her childhood, the way my father describes the ice truck—even these chiming phrases race away from me, and I suspect these will be the very words that fall before me last, as I go at the end of it all.
Perception I cannot even begin to account for, my dears. Science fiction comes alive for me here. My world lies upon yours, and both lie on history. The word palimpses t must be invoked.
And by all means, of course you may write subjectively what you believe to be true. Others also may write what they believe to be true, and though I have not yet had a truth-telling duel in writing, I am waiting for the other shoe to drop on that too. There are murmurs among the troops—the local people of a small valley I wrote about, the family members who begin to hover at the edges of my work, the strippers, the waiters, the colleagues, the students, the tattooists, the canyon dwellers—who are more often populating my work as I dig further along the tunnel of my tunnel vision, and they may someday appear with their grudge wound up like a hardball. I myself may have taught them how to throw down in the written word, and so I am waiting. I am not comfortable being talked back to in person, and so I don’t expect to like it any better in print.
Luckily I try to say the meanest things only about myself, but see above, re: perception. Who knows what may insult anyone? Hair color, facial expression, year of event, what do I know? What do any of us know really? Relatively speaking. The whole enterprise falls apart if you look too hard, doesn’t it?
Or does it?
This brings me to memory.
With all of my maudlin and fragile and temporary heart, I wish for you, writing students, that you can believe in memory. I, like faith, like God itself, don’t know what I believe in anymore. Raised to count on the infallibility of my past, and the easy recovery of its embrace, memory was always there unexamined.
But oh the day I examined it.
I don’t have abuse in my past. My skeletons are merely dead pets, the ebbing loss of my girlish self-confidence at the mercy of grade school kids, and my own myopic treatment of others. Unfulfilled potential, lost direction, a dozen years on a couch in Los Angeles thinking the glorious future would come to me. The future came, of course, but simpering along, unlovely and unpredictable, more of a wincing golum than a winged angel.
Other than that general knowledge, my memories typically flee my direct looks. I have to sit very still for the wild animal to come close.
And yet some facts, disguised as memory, are immutably true. Or at least among us creative writers (we are not, after all, statisticians), some memories are true enough , and conveyed in the way we want them to be: with the kernel intact, the heart represented with the head as translator. To those of us self-selected to want it, memories represented with a voice that yowls or whispers or sings itself feel truer than fact. Fact is a cold thing on the surface of it. But fact has always seemed to me to want to be held, to be listened to with your ear against its mouth, to be allowed to say, “What I really mean is this .”
Our memories are behind a screen of science. We can only feel them. We do not replay them like music tracks or films. We do not take out the file that contains them, cannot bring up the program that reads them back to us. Our brain hides things. It occludes, disguises, erases, highlights unchosen bits of matter tacked onto our circuitry. Will I need to have remembered the French word for umbrella? Why is it there and how the hell do I get rid of this parapluie ? Give me instead the words that have slipped away. When my daughter shocked me, at seven years old, by whispering in the auditorium of a performance hall, as an elderly woman sat down across the aisle from us, something close to: “I will help you then, when you are that age,” or was it “I’ll be there to bring you places,” or was it….in truth, I only hear Nabokov’s murmuring school tutors at the picnic table under the elms, conflated by the brush of his imperfect memory into the murmuring of bees.
Then she listened to the music while I gripped the seat handles, tears sprung, thinking too desperately, hold it, hold onto it , as the echo slipped away, and I knew I would never feel that particular sweetness again.
But the immutably true? It is the universal Memory. The sense of an ambiguous past with physical weight that can alter our health it is so heavy, the ghost-like touch of emotions rushing against us looking if anything like film played backwards with the projector, maybe, with a bulb out, and feeling like a chill. The sense that these half-called-back essential building blocks of our personality form an ambivalent Greek chorus of our fears and triumphs. (Don’t we all have this? Both the mocking knowledge that we’ll never know how we were formed emotionally, not really, and also that we cannot live without that integral try to call it back and know it?) That universal Memory is our very scaffolding.
That’s my answer, dear student-writers, which, ultimately, is all of us here. It’s a circular answer, one of those big answers like I give on a day when I lecture for an hour on the annealing power of crafting sentences about your life when someone has asked about memoir and afterwards you ask, how long should the paper be , and I sigh and say look at the syllabus .
But maybe if you see me come to you, hands-out, hotline-style, to ask, what are your memories, you will at least know the answer is important, and not stop trying to seek it, even when it hurts or perhaps worse, bores you, important enough to shape your life, and through that, ours, our collective memory, our sense of self, our time.
CHILD’S PLAY: How Creative Play Helped Unlock My Nonfiction Writing, a craft essay by Megan Culhane Galbraith
CHILD’S PLAY: How Creative Play Helped Unlock My Nonfiction Writing by Megan Culhane Galbraith
I’ve been writing essays about finding my birthmother and revisiting a forgotten New York City through her lens , and about struggling to square my child identity as an adoptee within my family. I’ve learned that every family has an oral history of storytelling punctuated by some form of grief, shame, or trauma, and that embellished memory acts as a coping mechanism. My birthmother’s stories are great examples. She embroidered them in enchanting fairy-tale-like ways: there were out-of-wedlock births, fallen women, secret intra-family adoptions, deathbed confessions, and foundlings. She created myths for me, and about me, because the truth was too traumatic.
It’s no wonder then that my adopted child-self loved stories like Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina , about a “graceful little maiden” born from a piece of barleycorn to a woman unable to have children; or Sophie in Roald Dahl’s The BFG , taken from the village orphanage and befriended by a dream-hunting giant; or The Lonely Doll , whose author posed her doll Edith for photos with her best friend Mr. Bear. It’s been said that The Lonely Doll series was, “to a large degree, an autobiographical exercise in wish-fulfillment.”
Most fairy tales involve trauma or abandonment: a young girl lost in the woods or trapped by animals or trolls, a mother having her child taken away. But creativity can turn terror into delight, which is the reason fairy tales work on many levels; they’re creepy and fascinating.
As a child, I often played with 1960s-era plastic dollhouse furniture at my grandmother’s house. There was no dollhouse, but I remember sitting cross-legged for hours arranging furniture into imagined rooms of an imagined house—my child-self trying to convey something I couldn’t yet put into words. I recognize now that I was creating tiny homes for myself because I felt displaced, felt an “otherness” in the home I was adopted into, apart from a family I otherwise loved, but that wasn’t my biological one.
This duality was something I didn’t understand at seven, but I do now, at 50. Is it any wonder that I returned to playing with dolls when I began to write seriously about my adoption?
Along the way, I bought a 1960s-era Louis Marx “Marxie” Mansion and began a project called The Dollhouse . At first, the play seemed simple and fun, but it soon became clear that I was creating worlds I could control: re-enacting my abandonment and that of my birthmother.
Recently, I viewed an exhibit of dollhouses through the decades called, “ Small Stories: At Home in the Dollhouse ,”at The National Building Museum, and stayed to hear Dr. Ruth Westheimer, an avid dollhouse collector, talk with NPR’s Susan Stamberg. Westheimer was ten when she fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in a Swiss school with fifty other children. It later became an orphanage. She never saw her parents again. Her father died at Auschwitz, her mother went missing, and 1.5 million children perished in The Holocaust.
Dr. Ruth was twenty-eight when she came to the U.S., and when she could afford to, she commissioned her first dollhouse, built to represent her life before the war because she “wanted to preserve and reflect on the happy years of my childhood.”
“These are worlds we build for ourselves,” said Dr. Ruth. “With dollhouses I have control. I put the parents and the children there and they are going to stay there, they are safe, and they are together.”
Children play to control the world. Tiny themselves, they create even smaller worlds populated by figures, friends to have tea with, monsters to defeat, new microcosms to explore. My dollhouse allows me to create a world where women rule, at least on the 1:12 scale.
My dollhouse opened a portal to my child-self and allowed me to access adult feelings I’d largely been numb to—that being separated from my birthmother had legitimately traumatized me, and that the deep physical shame I felt about my body was the byproduct of the shame she had carried being nineteen, pregnant, and unwed in the ‘60s. This explains why my dolls, manufactured in the ‘60s, are hyper-sexualized and constrain their female citizens to Madonnas or Whores – a narrative I try to turn on its head. My dollhouse play made me aware that I was the embodiment of that shame, but I’m now accepting that her shame wasn’t even mine to carry.
These are my truths that I uncovered through play. By staging scenes that were tiny utopias, whose protagonists were all female, I was also watching a metaphorical narrative unfold. The more I played with the dollhouse, and photographed the scenes I staged, the more I realized it was telling my story, so I began to listen harder to what it might be saying, and how I could translate that on the page.
When I learned at twenty-nine that my birthmother, pregnant with me, had been sent away to a home for unwed mothers—The Guild of the Infant Saviour, in Manhattan—I realized we had more in common than just the circumstance of my birth: we both had disappeared inside a fantasy world. Mine was tiny, imaginary, and voluntary; hers was real.
At an artist’s residency last summer, I became immersed in the writing of Carl Jung thanks to deep conversations with artists like Samira Abbassy , whose art also deals with duality, myth, mother figures, and shame. We were fellows at The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts , whose founder had been a devotee of Jung. My studio was full of Jung’s books and I devoured them, particularly his work on the archetype of the abandoned child, and the “symbolism of symbols.”
For example, dolls and dollhouses may represent family and home, “a child’s self at regressed stages of development, and child-parent interactions and relationships.” The use of cameras “may depict a still frame of the play image to freeze the visual image as proof, validation, and confirmation of the memory.” According to Jung, this is how our unconscious reveals itself. This is what creative play can do. It can lubricate the mind and allow for the space needed to reveal and work through concerns, ideas, and trauma.
Playing in my Dollhouse has been important to my writing. The scenes, photos and videos I make match the imagery of the color Polaroid photographs of the 60s. I have a deep affinity for the babies, in particular. Staging a scene mimics the feeling of writing the first draft of an essay, achieving a mythic freedom on the page where my voice is alive and unconcerned with self-editing. I remember playing this way as a child, immersed in my fantasy world, and utterly happy. Children are metaphor makers and their language is play.
An unintended consequence is that play has allowed me to see in metaphor and to “play out” problematic issues in a safe space, before and during various writing stages. It’s freeing to transfer fear, anxiety, and sadness on to objects. Play creates a veil of anonymity that is a bit like writing under a pseudonym.
I write essays, which are exercises in interrogating my self. Most times I have no idea where an essay will take me, but diligently listen to what it’s telling me. In a similar vein I have no idea where The Dollhouse project is going. I simply play along. Ultimately, I aim to create some sort of hybrid narrative that connects the images with my in-progress essay collection, The Guild of the Infant Saviour .
Doll posed over a photo of The Guild of the Infant Saviour, c. 1940s.
When I feel stuck on the page, instead of castigating myself, I cut out paper dolls, or stage scenes in my dollhouse. By photographing the scenes I can return to them later and ask myself what I was thinking and feeling at the time. What inspired me to do that thing? It has become a visual diary of sorts.
If you find yourself stuck, or need to get away from the page for a bit, or need a foil, a way to unpack feelings, or motivations for why you write, or help with character development, I encourage you to explore some form of play: Sketch, play with dolls, mold some clay, color something. Creative play can fuel your writing by freeing you from the fear of the blank page. It can open new ways to explore a subject. Play has helped me unlock ways of expressing the paradox of my identity as an adoptee, while exploring memory, trauma, erasure, and the myths and family lore that so heavily factor into my adoptive origin story.
ACROSS THE DIVIDE AND BACK How Writing Poetry Is Changing My Nonfiction by Vivian Wagner
I started out long ago as a poet, as many young writers do, in high school. I liked the brevity, simplicity, and mystery of poetry. But in the intervening years I’ve become a nonfiction writer, focusing on creative nonfiction, memoir, journalism, and academic writing. That has been my professional and personal identity, and I thought that’s the way it would stay.
That is, until I volunteered for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, committing to write a poem a day for thirty days. I signed on to the project spontaneously, never thinking it would change my identity and my writing practice. But the experience ended up radically altering my perspective. The challenge brought me back to poetry, and it’s transformed both my nonfiction prose and my writerly identity.
The first obvious thing is that when writing nonfiction, I have much more room and space to fill. That sometimes leads to carelessness in word choice, because I’m often trying to meet a particular word count, measuring my output that way. Writing poetry has reminded me that every word matters and has value. There’s no time or language to waste. As a nonfiction writer, I’m constantly looking at the little number counter on the bottom of the page in Microsoft Word.
What I’ve found—or remembered?—with writing poetry, however, is that it’s not about the number of words, but their quality. Much of my poetry starts in handwritten form, and when I commit it to the screen, I’m more than likely cutting, rather than adding. I never look at the word count when I’m writing poetry. It just doesn’t matter. The fewer words, the better.
This is not likely to change the fact that I have to pay attention to word count while writing nonfiction, but—especially in the revising process—I’m now thinking more about the life in those words. I’m lingering with them. I’ve always loved freewriting and taking tangents, and this technique is still a good way for me to get my original material on the page or screen, both for nonfiction and for poetry. But writing poetry is teaching me to understand the joy in revising, cutting, and condensing. Expanding inward, rather than outward.
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical.
It’s as if my nonfiction is now being written by a poet.
Imagery, too, has become more important to me. Imagery is there in my nonfiction, but it’s often secondary to story, scene, and character. In poetry, concrete, vivid imagery is central, and when meaning is there, it often expresses itself through imagery. Even my lyric essays focus on narrative, but I’m learning that those stories can take shape through images as well as through dialogue and scene and character. So just as my Tupelo 30/30 Project poem, “On Doing Yoga in the Basement of the United Methodist Church on High Street,” since published by Grandma Moses Press, weaves together imagery and narrative, my lyric essay, “Displaced Person,” tells its story through a series of images. In other words, imagery is no longer a secondary consideration for me in nonfiction. Images can express layered meanings, pushing a story in many ways at once.
I’m also finding that many poetry practice books lend themselves just as well to writing nonfiction as they do to poetry. Two of my favorites are Scott Wiggerman’s and David Meischen’s Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop . The excellent prompts in these books—including creating word lists and timelines, gathering word hordes, collecting synonyms, and crafting collages—work just as well for nonfiction as they do for poetry. Many nonfiction prompts focus on storytelling, but these poetry prompts have been pushing my nonfiction in new and unexpected directions. This year, I’m also working my way through the wonderful book, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice , by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, and moderating a Facebook group for others doing the same. Most of the pieces I’m writing for this project are poems, but some might be classified more as lyric essays or prose poems. Honestly, I’m not too worried about genre anymore. I’m just writing.
It might be tempting to think of ourselves as belonging within the boundaries of only one genre, but I think it’s more helpful to embrace the possibilities afforded by crossing borders between genres. Creativity, after all, thrives in hybridity. Art lives in the spaces in between.
Image credit: Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
BECOMING AN OUTLAW Or: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir by Andrea Jarrell
I began as a fiction writer, naturally drawing from my childhood as my mother had told it to me, working hard to bring her stories to life through scene, dialogue, and sensory detail, pacing them as mysteries. The memoir that many of these fictionalized stories eventually became is better, I think, because I didn’t start out writing memoir, trying to “remember.”
Like a bedtime story, my mother often told me of our escape, fugitives from my father, a man as alluring as he was violent. She was nineteen, a girl-woman, scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do if my crying got too much or yet another man admired her beauty. She used to say that the day she first felt me move inside her, she began plotting to leave him.
Our getaway car was a teal blue Corvair. I was just a year old, literally and figuratively strapped in beside her. The car that delivered us to our freedom was famously recalled by its manufacturer for its tendency to lose control. Shed of my father, she said she felt as if I’d been hatched—a being she’d conjured, like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. In the narrative she invented for us, I had as little control as our faulty Corvair.
In the essay, “Outlaw Heart” Jayne Anne Phillips writes, “often we were precocious, overly-responsible children—not in what we accomplished, necessarily, but in what we remembered, in the emotional burdens we took on. Many of us were our mother’s confidantes, the special children with whom hopes and betrayals were discussed.”
When my mother recounted the story of her bruised flesh and the father I would later meet and come to think of as a wolf, she could not have known I would one day become the “outlaw” writer Phillips described, the “precocious, overly-responsible” child “awarded possession of a set of truths, enlisted to protect someone’s version.”
Captive to and captivated by my mother’s story, for many years I was cut off from my own.
As a fledgling fiction writer, I created men and women with secrets and sex lives, fears and distinct personalities, based on but not actually my parents. In one story, a young wife has an affair with a powerful paramour who offers to kill the woman’s abusive husband. Nothing like this happened to my mother, but writing that story helped me see her not just as my father’s victim, but as a woman who freed herself through intelligence and financial savvy.
Imagining characters whose heads, hearts, and souls I could inhabit let me be both more generous and less precious when, later, I tried to summon to the page my actual parents, lovers, friends, and extended family.
Seventeen years ago, during my first semester in the Bennington MFA program, I wrote some form of a line that now appears in my memoir: “The day my mother first felt me move inside her, she began plotting to leave my father.” I thought I was writing a novel in stories, initially titled Hatched. By third semester, I’d been praised for vivid writing but I had yet to produce a satisfying short story. The prose purred but the stories didn’t go anywhere, I think because I was still writing as my mother’s daughter, trying to drive from her passenger seat. My work didn’t improve until I started a story in which the mother is literally whisked away.
One night in the campus pub, I regaled some classmates with a tale of my teenage self traveling with my beautiful mother and getting separated from her at the Florence train station. Feeling always in her shadow, I had sparked an argument with her over the attentions of men and suddenly, as she and our train moved on to Rome, at fifteen, I was stranded without money or passport. I had to find my way back to my mother, but first I was wooed by three young Italian men and even briefly considered going off to a party with them.
The next morning, in my narrow Bennington dorm bed, I woke with the sound of train whistles and flirty Italian voices in my head. The whole story played before me as a panorama. I flew from my bed to my desk to capture it before it got away. That true story was my first “fiction” that really worked, winning me a small fellowship and a contest placement.
After that, my mentors were impressed with how quickly my work improved. “It’s as if you just needed to be pointed in the right direction,” one said.
I graduated from Bennington with seven true-ish stories, determinedly sending them to literary journals but finding no takers. Even though they were autobiographical, it never occurred to me to write them as memoir. The stories I’d grown up hearing felt old and tired like chewed gum that had lost its flavor. Fictionalizing them freed me to explore my material, but it also left me feeling rudderless. What meaning did my made-up stories convey? What was I trying to say?
Then, I discovered Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth , a collection of nonfiction pieces that read like a book of short stories. Using tools I thought exclusive to fiction, Beard broke rules in ways that fascinated and delighted me. In “Coyotes,” she writes as a coyote, down to the taste of the fur in his mouth. In “Cousins,” she presents dialogue between her mother and aunt, though at the time she is a gestating fetus in her mother’s womb.
Rather than confining me, real life now felt like an unmapped secret world that I was ready to explore. And because the impulse to tell my story had begun in fiction, a playful approach to the narrative was already baked in. The fragment of a short story I’d started years before about a woman who doesn’t think she deserves her husband, and so begins choosing a second wife for him, became an essay (“ A Measure of Desire ”) published in The New York Times “Modern Love” column. It’s a lyrical essay crafted entirely from life.
I experienced a shift in thinking that Allison Green, writing for Brevity Magazine’s blog, describes: “I found that creative nonfiction was the home I didn’t know I needed. It provided structure and focus. Now I liken it to form poetry; the truth as I remember it constrains the writing in the same way the sonnet form constrains writing. Unexpectedly, that constraint fosters innovation and surprise. It frees rather than limits.”
Like Green, I found memoir was the writerly home I hadn’t known I’d been longing for.
As I began to publish more memoir, I faced the classic conundrum: What’s mine and what’s theirs—not only material but my motives for using it? What were the ethics of answering my creative call at the possible expense of hurting others, especially my parents?
My mother and I had always been close but I’d never told her that in my writing, I’d been exploring her relationship with my father and its impact on my life. But the Times required permission from anyone mentioned in the essay. Getting an “ok” from my husband to out him as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and to reveal aspects of our sex life was far easier than the call to my mother.
I read to my mother what I’d written about her—a view that made clear how unsafe I’d felt as a kid and how relieved I was to be living a life different from hers: married for over twenty years, living in the suburbs with two kids. I asked for her blessing. She consented because she knew how important it was to me and because she loves me, but we both knew what I’d written had hurt her.
If my mother had known I would write it all down, would she have entrusted me with her truth? Especially if she knew I would take ownership of her story, give myself permission to shape shift it into mine, make my own meaning? The delicate balance we struck over the Times essay shifted as I began to piece together more essays to forge a bigger story in a book-length manuscript: As Anne Lamott says in Why We Write About Ourselves , “All writing is collaborative, including memoir.” Now I needed my mother’s help.
My emails often began, “I just need to ask one more question.” I imagined her in her New York City office, feeling confident and successful, scrolling through email, only to be sucker punched by my digging and fact-checking details about earlier struggles.
Me: Sorry to bother you. Am I correct that you worked in a bank when you first moved back to Fresno? Can you remind me what your job was when A— came to see you and you smelled his cologne in the elevator? Again, sorry to dredge this up. 🙁 xoxo
Her: I was a clerk typist in my first law firm. Even now, just thinking about it my instinct is to throw-up from fear. This book is about your life – right?
By then, I could respond, “Yes, it’s about my life.” By then, I knew that my parents’ story might be an embedded folktale within mine, but not my memoir’s dramatic trigger.
The arc of my story came into view when I understood where its action began, and grasped the narrator’s vantage point—what she knew in the opening essay and came to know by the last. Understanding the narrator’s trajectory let me set down the burden of my mother’s truths, and move past the child entrusted with them.
I had been biting off my story in essay-sized chunks—nearly thirty pieces focused on sex as a cautionary tale, beauty and desirability, addiction and recovery, how to be a mature marriage partner without role models. My themes were clear but I struggled with how it would fit together, become more than the sum of its parts. When I recognized my story’s “inciting incident,” all the essays linked up like boxcars behind the locomotive leading them.
My story opens with a murder. In my thirties—a mother myself with two small children—my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the small town of Camden, Maine. The murdered woman, a single mother, was killed in the house across the road. Her son went to the same preschool as mine. Though I didn’t know the woman well, upon hearing the news, I came completely undone. Pondering my reaction set my memoir in motion.
The woman’s fate—shot by her jealous boyfriend—hit me hard because her tragedy was the one my mother and I narrowly escaped. A shadow tragedy that had always hung over me, hovering at the edges of my awareness, informing my choices in lovers and friends, influencing the way these relationships played out.
To stop telling my mother’s story and start telling mine, I had to understand how desperate I’d always been to escape her choices. Only then could I write a book of essays about the difficulty that daughters have separating from—while still honoring—their mothers. About making a successful marriage without a map, and the perils of breaking the hereditary cycle of addiction. About how experience teaches us to live better lives than we imagined we could.
My mother is not sure she can read my memoir when it’s published next year. Yet when I told her its title, I’m the One Who Got Away , she smiled. “That’s perfect,” she said. It’s not her tale of hatching a savior and getting away in the teal blue Corvair—but mine.
Image credit: Candice Seplow on Unsplash
IN THE MINES, A Craft Essay on Creative Nonfiction by Linnie Greene
IN THE MINES A Craft Essay on Creative Nonfiction by Linnie Greene
I. Towards a New Empathy
A couple of years ago, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose debated in The New York Times about whether or not it’s ethical to use your children as literary fodder. They discussed the demerits of transforming real life into words on a page in a pair of pieces titled “Is It O.K. to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material,” and the conclusion seems to be this: that real people get stuck on the page, often one-dimensionally, trapped like mosquitoes in amber.
I know a few real people I’d love to trap. For all of its hardships, writing’s appealing in no small part because it allows one to pin down an idea like a butterfly in a shadowbox, to memorialize whatever or whoever you find worth remembering, in whatever state you might remember them. That prick you knew it high school gets his comeuppance, even if it’s only to an audience of several Facebook friends or readers of a literary magazine.
Tempting as it is to play God (albeit a fairly unimportant one, bound to the MLA Handbook), it was memoirist and poet Mary Karr who instilled in me an appropriate fear and reverence. In a piece for The Fix , she said, “Everybody I ever wrote about, including David [Foster Wallace], I talked with in advance and said, ‘This is what I wanna do.’… I wasn’t going to use his name, then after he died, I’d talked to him before he did it and included him enough that I was gonna give him a pseudonym—which he said he didn’t care about…” I puzzled over this in the back office of the bookstore where I was supposed to be doing other things. What do we owe the subjects of our work, especially those without masks? I’d always found Mary Karr brave for the way she broached her subjects, receiving the permission of her wild and alcoholic mother (with whom she’s reestablished a relationship).
Caught in this web of ethics, it might seem that the question of how and why we write about other people — especially people we love, or loved, or might have loved — could be sidestepped like a pile of dog shit in the street. It’s so easy to shunt these people out of a story; why bother?
There has also been a rash, in recent years, of confessional memoirs whose use of the pronoun “I” reads like the staccato, relentless sound of rain. I I I I I I I I. I thought, I felt, I sensed, I cried, I wondered. These books are an exercise and an exorcism, committing to paper every demon and insecurity that can be penned in so many words. As readers, we get to know one character, the ego at the center of the story, who is orbited by a few bare-bones personas, included for their impact on the narrator’s life and not much else. Oprah’s book club goes for these (see: Wild ), as do hundreds of thousands of readers and bookstores that report to the Times’ bestseller list. They’re successful, despite what some of us (see: me) perceive as a dangerous self-centeredness, a vapid belief that the “I” at the center of a story will always be the most important and riveting thing.
I’ve thought about writing a lot since my first second grade poem, the one about the racist crayons who eventually came to celebrate their superficial differences. Until adulthood, those thoughts were fleeting and unimportant. In college, there were rules: “Write what you know.” “Show, don’t tell.” More recently, with my undergraduate fiction classes in the rearview mirror and 40 hours a week in a bookstore, the thing that I search for in novels and memoirs is an ability to escape myself. “Write what you know,” my favorite professors always cautioned. They weren’t necessarily wrong is steering me around the usual amateur pitfalls – over-ambitious trans-European epics, intimate short stories about divorces and adult things of which I was, then and now, ignorant. But is it the only advice?
In her MFA vs. NYC essay “The Invisible Vocation,” Elif Batuman argues that the classic maxims “Write what you know” and “find your voice” are sometimes damning, convincing writers that if they don’t know some sort of spectacular, novelistic trauma or oppression, their stories aren’t worth telling. She writes, “Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the nonpersecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.”
Is it always good advice? Doesn’t it limit our empathy? Doesn’t it steer us relentlessly back to ourselves? If we limit a story by failing to insert ourselves into other people’s circumstances, or simply leaning back and watching the world outside ourselves, aren’t we narrowing the scope of literature (and memoir) to a dangerous degree?
It means that extending the focus outward, from ourselves to our friends, neighbors, and ex-husbands, is crucial. It’s what makes Mary Karr’s books so salient. In The Liars Club , she’s the narrator, but her parents are the main characters, personalities so large and intricate that you carry them with you like old friends. Her treatment always seems fair. Her remembrances are balanced between trauma and hope, and she employs them in near-perfect, equal measure. There’s no more crying at feeling broken than there is celebration at knowing how to surf on a piece of cardboard on the muddy Texas plain.
II. A New Metric
With its importance established, how do we form a metric for writing nonfiction that respects and explores subjects other than ourselves? The very language we deploy to talk about the people in literature wrests their identities away, like writers are a gang of playground bullies. We call them “subjects,” “characters,” “personas.” It’s a process of objectification, and as Jamison puts it in her New York Times op-ed, extraction.
In a metaphor that troubled me for days, Jamison writes, “But what if this process wasn’t necessarily one of extraction? Perhaps we could imagine it as alchemy, or confrontation — like coming upon one’s own life as something glowing and mysterious in the dark. What if these alternative models suggest not strip-mining but some kind of agriculture, planting what was in order to watch the growth of what might have been?”
It all comes down to semantics. Which is fine and good, unless the subject of the missive or doting essay doesn’t see that process in quite the same way. Jamison’s metaphors only work from the perspective of the writer; the reader will interpret as they will, and our lack of control over that reaction is the very crux of this issue.
For my part, I believe in the amber of the written word. I believe that the boundaries a writer sets should hew to their own ethics , as varied as they may be, and that it’s the job of the literary community to hold its own accountable for misrepresentation. When it comes to the individuals that commonly populate memoirs — parents, siblings, those powerless to counter whatever narrative their writerly friend or family-member might disperse — there is no way to universally patrol the veracity of their portrayals. The deadbeat father who abandoned you at age five probably won’t like the way he looks in print, but should that mean the story’s never written? The awkward sex you had at sixteen might make your paramour look foolish, but if you’re just as vulnerable there on the page, isn’t it worth taking that chance, with or without their explicit approval? Good narratives change lives, and if we restrict non-fiction to the verifiable and the permitted, we lose so many potential life-changing pieces of writing.
Nothing is foolproof, but in an age where self-centeredness and that ever-present “I” bob in the wake of best-selling memoirs like a buoy, narrative non-fiction should encourage its participants to lean on the side of exploring (not exploiting) the O/other. Let’s blur the line between subject and self, at the risk of pissing off a relative and stepping outside the narrow confines of your own psyche. Mine away, you spinners of truthful tales. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Image credit: obelixicek on Flickr
THE MAN ON THE COUCH AND THE MAN WHO SPEAKS POEMS by J.G. McClure
I pay a therapist an hourly rate to listen to my feelings. I pay literary journals reading fees to read about my feelings. My therapist says she’s struck by two parallel versions of me: the Man on the Couch who seems pathologically unable to feel, and the Man Who Speaks the Poems who feels all too deeply. She wonders which is real, or are they both?
One of me finds a parallel in art to go with this question from life. In his classic short piece “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges talks about two versions of himself, whom I’ll call Borges the Famous Author (who wins awards and has deep thoughts) and Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee (who reads with befuddlement about the exploits of Borges the Famous Author). Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee enjoys the prose of Stevenson—a wry allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a little joke which tries to establish the separation between art and life by using an example from art beloved by the Borges from life. The lines become hopelessly blurred, and in the end Borges can’t decide which Borges is the Borges writing “Borges and I.” (Idea for a terrible poem: “Borges and I and I and I.”)
I loved a woman named Ariel, who told me I was too sad to live with. She wasn’t wrong. She told me too that I didn’t appreciate her, and again she was right—I was glad for the breakup, because she didn’t fill the yawning emptiness in me and now I was free to chase the abstract possibility of someone who might. But upon losing her, I began writing poems about the loss, and suddenly it became real to me. Holy shit! I thought, I love her after all! Bummer.
But I have to wonder whether I actually love her, or if I love the Idea of Her, or even The Idea of Having Lost Her. After all, a poem always treats the idea of its subject, never the subject itself. You know the argument: signifiers beget signifiers, never reaching a signified. When I write about chipmunks, furry creatures don’t pop into being; when I write about Ariel, she doesn’t feel it.
If I’m writing only about the Idea of Ariel, does the Man on the Couch actually have an emotion, or is it just another one of the Man Who Speaks the Poems’ beloved abstractions? Has art let me in on a truth of life, or is it just re-inscribing the same pattern of abstract desire that led to the loss in the first place? In attempting to answer this question, I end up at Thomas Hardy’s “The Self Unseeing”:
Here is the ancient floor, Footworn and hollowed and thin, Here was the former door Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair, Smiling into the fire; He who played stood there, Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream; Blessings emblazoned that day; Everything glowed with a gleam; Yet we were looking away!
The opening line establishes the three-beat rhythm that will carry throughout the poem, and sets up a kind of certainty: here is the floor. But in the next line, as the poet attempts to really see the floor, the verse accelerates: the beat pattern allows only so much time spent looking at the floor, and the syllables are crammed together to squeeze the observation into that space. Art foreshortens life.
The next couplet enacts the same drama: here is the door (okay) and (uh oh, wobbly meter!) it’s where the dead feet walked in. At the level of form, we see the act of observing and memorializing undermine itself. The poem is an act of remembrance, and in some way it seems to make the past exist: here is the ancient floor, right here! Yet despite all that, the feet remain dead.
As the poem enters the final stanza, the tempo doubles. Up until this point, we’ve had two lines per clause, then a semicolon, then another two line clause. (The first stanza uses, oddly, a comma instead of a semicolon, but the pacing is the same). But by the final stanza, every line is stopped: we get only one line per clause—time is accelerating, the past is slipping away, the form of the art enacts the very loss it tries/fails to prevent. The poem serves at once as a bulwark against loss and the loss itself; it at once laments the inability to hold on to a fleeting moment of life and enacts that inability. The inability to hold onto the moment is, on some level, caused by the accelerating form of the verse: art gives and takes life at once—it ransacks its own temple.
What does all this mean? I’m not sure. Perhaps it means simply that I can’t make sense of life without art, can’t parse the concrete without the abstract. But that approach carries its own risks. I wrote this poem some time ago, about The Man on the Couch’s first girlfriend and his failures in life due to naïve readings of art:
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Surrounded by Portraits of the Artists as Young Men
If Petrarch told the story, I would gaze on her from afar and at once her countenance would turn icy fire;
my heart would wither, and writhing in courtly shame I’d know I loved her.
If I were Dante she’d be an angel and through the span of three epics we’d reunite in glory,
and if I were Keats I’d have tuberculosis and would be more interested in nightingales.
In fact, I was interested in her, my first girlfriend’s friend— at least that night I thought I was, though now I suspect
I was more in love with the idea of loving someone other than the person I was
already supposed to be in love with, because such longing seemed like
a very poetical kind of longing, and I was nineteen, an age when it seemed vital
to amass very poetical longings—as if the universe would not mete out my portion of misery
unless I worked for it with great care. The next day, wading through the soupy clarity of my hangover,
I thought that if I were Bécquer I’d reject all mortal lovers and pine instead for an imaginary friend,
a phantom of mist and light who would proclaim “I cannot love you!” making me swoon many
picturesque swoons. What I should have thought was if my Laura/Beatrice/Phantom told the story
she wouldn’t be my anything; the story would be how her friend’s drunk boyfriend spilled the wine
and slurred some come-on featuring a bit of Shakespeare. Or I should have thought that if my girlfriend told it
the story would be what a dick I could be and how she deserved better, and she’d be right,
but that wasn’t my story either. I’m not convinced, now, I had a story—more a rough collage of cut-outs
from the Great Dead, held together by gluestick and insecurity, festooned with
glittery narcissism. But that morning Bécquer— his sonnet, his stupid and heartbreaking thirst for the Ideal—
moved me greatly. I knew enough to know I was alone, and to convince (only) myself that
to be lonely was a gift: the gift of sadness and a story: my story, the story of me and me alone.
Bad art, or bad reading of good art, can affect others’ lives as well as one’s own, re-inscribing damaging ideologies. For further evidence, let’s stick with Joyce for a moment: take “A Painful Case,” in which the protagonist’s abstract and stubborn belief in the incurable loneliness of the soul leads him to hurtfully reject the one person who could love him, because her expression of love feels tawdry in light of his philosophy/aesthetic. But this is just an emotional reaction to an ideological problem: to accept her expression of affection would mean to accept that we are not incurably alone, and this the protagonist cannot bear. He’s too right to be happy.
Yet I still believe in the necessity of art, of Ideas. Something in the act of making art makes the stuff of life real: the Man on the Couch feels nothing, but the Man Who Speaks the Poems feels all too much, and some of that must bleed back into the Man on the Couch. Art distorts life, art damages life, but art also reifies life.
If we are broken, if our lives don’t feel real unless they’re abstracted through the lens of art, then the crucial thing is to make sure it’s a good lens. We ask art to make our hollow lives full, and in doing so, we ask of art more than it can possibly provide. But art—stupid, heroic, wonderful art—at least attempts to make for us a bearable world.
J.G. McClure’s work appears in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and The Southern Poetry Anthology , among others. He has an MFA from the University of California-Irvine and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com .
Image credit: Unsplash
THANK YOU, JUDGE JUDY by Jen Karetnick
I’m a poet and fiction writer by vocation and a journalist by trade. The first two I learned in school, ultimately ending with two MFA degrees, one in each genre. Journalism I was taught on the job, trained by several editors. But seven years ago, when the economy crashed and the future of print journalism was a serious concern, I took a job in a charter school for the arts, charged with creating and teaching a program for grades 6-12 that included poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction.
For poetry and fiction, I had few worries, but for personal essays and memoir, I had to expand my repertoire. That’s when I began to watch the television show Judge Judy , and found that everything I needed to know about writing and teaching creative non-fiction was an oft-repeated truism that came directly from the Honorable Judith Sheindlin’s lips.
I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. At first, I started to watch the show because it was on when I got home from school. I was so exhausted from my unexpected new career path that I immediately took to my bed, unable to do anything else but gaze in stupefaction at the television.
I settled on Judge Judy because she belittled her litigants so much more than I yelled at my students that she made me feel better. Plus, those who appeared before her were so ill-equipped to deal with the world that it gave me hope for those who came to my classroom each day, even the ones who clearly would never become writers. Or ones who asked me what country we lived in when I taught them how to write self-addressed stamped envelopes. Or who thought they could only use apps like email or Dropbox from their own computers because their parents had set it up for them to open automatically.
Before long, however, I noticed how many similarities there were in Judge Judy’s court cases to the elements I was finding in both the good and bad student personal essays. I started jotting down her phrases, which she often repeats from show to show, not just because, as she’s fond of saying “it makes good television,” but in honest, caustic exasperation. And soon I knew just how to teach my students, as well as myself, to write memoir. Don’t believe me? Let me prove it to you.
1. Swear to Tell the Whole Truth. Readers don’t relate to artifice. Even when people suspect they are being manipulated—i.e, in reality shows such as Master Chef or Real Housewives of whatever urban metropolis—they need verisimilitude. A good personal essay, even when it’s something reconstructed from so long ago it couldn’t have been completely recollected, or it’s related by a narrator whose age couldn’t have led to certain insights, has the appearance of truth.
Whenever I find myself tempted to cheat—after all, who would know but me?—I think of the Judge Judy slogan: “The cases are real. The people are real. The rulings are final.” And it’s true: Readers will make their judgments based on whether, in the end, they buy the story or not.
Judge Judy herself is a big believer in the truth. She directs her litigants to face her directly when they testify.
“Look at me when you’re speaking. Not sideways. Not at your papers. Not ‘over there.’ Here,” she says, pointing with two fingers back at her own two eyes. Then she admonishes them. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember the story you made up.”
It’s a good lesson for those of us who are tempted to embellish a memoir just to make it more appealing or dramatic for the reader. Personally, I don’t buy this “mixed genre” attitude towards creative non-fiction, largely because of my 23-year journalism background, and those to whom I teach creative writing (ages 10-18) are too young to tell the difference between a white lie and a big whopper. If they stray at all from the truth, I tell them, it immediately becomes fiction. If the bedroom wall was red, it stays red. It can’t become blue because metaphorically, later in the piece, blue means something more. Nope, red will have to do, and they will have to find another way to attest to the reader, either literally or figuratively, whatever it is they need to substantiate.
2. The Burden of Proof . Here are some other things you can’t make up: Dates. Addresses. Births and deaths. Marriages and divorces. Many of these details can be easily obtained in documents that are part of our public records system.
Writers should bring a keen journalistic eye to their personal essays. If you don’t know something, you can’t just guess. Just as the burden of proof is on a plaintiff in a lawsuit, so is it on a writer. Provide documents, photos other evidence. Think of the memoir as a case that has to be proven, or a scientific theory that has to be field-tested and corroborated, and prove it.
Judge Judy nearly always, unless a litigant is unbearably rude, constantly interruptive, or she suspects them to be on drugs, allows both sides the opportunity to present their documents and back up their points. (I actually once saw her interrupt the show to administer a drug test to a plaintiff.) Usually, both parties have gigantic files of papers with them that they frantically flip through during the lawsuit. Occasionally, though, there will be a plaintiff or defendant with nothing in front of him but the water carafe. That’s when Judge Judy will look at him and say, “Where’s your proof?”
I didn’t think to bring it. I couldn’t get what I needed. I didn’t think I would have to provide that.
These are all frequent, and obviously idiotic, answers. The cut is quick to come.
“This is a court, sir!” Judge Judy exclaims. “Where did you think you were going today, the beach?”
When writing memoir, especially about sensitive or potentially disputative subjects, a writer should never assume she’s merely going to the beach.
3. Bring Witnesses. Judge Judy often asks litigants if they’ve brought witnesses, especially if the cases involve car accidents or fights or loans or dog bites. Some claim their witnesses couldn’t make it, but offer emails, letters, or other written statements, to which the Judge will respond, “I don’t read [emails/letters/statements]. I talk to witnesses.”
Writers should always do what these unfortunate litigants didn’t: produce characters to lend credence to your words. People your essays. Don’t expect a reader to believe a narrator exists in his world alone. Avoid third-party statements— I was told, I heard, I was informed . Instead, introduce the third party and let that character speak for him or herself. Otherwise, as Judge Judy says, “That’s hearsay!”
4. Use Your Words. Too often, whether it’s a student writer or professional, I see a whole lot of explanation where one or two lines of dialogue would do. In non-fiction, as in fiction, dialogue can progress a narrative and expand it spherically at the same time. Dialogue gives characters shape, dimension, and color.
Sure, it’s easier to sum up a conversation than to write it out. Judge Judy knows this better than anyone, which is why she always demands a recounting. She says, “Don’t tell me what she said. Give me the actual conversation.” Until she hears the original diction and syntax it’s almost impossible for her to assume the veracity of the statements. Dialogue lends itself to truth, and it also reveals the lie.
It’s difficult in memoir to reproduce dialogue because memory is faulty by nature. But as long as we remain accurate about the nature of the conversation, and faithful to the diction and syntax of the folks engaged in it, we can come close enough to satisfy the demands of reconstruction.
5. Don’t Lose Your Reader. When a defendant rambles or a plaintiff is redundant, Judge Judy will look at her bailiff, Byrd, and ask him, “Do I have to hear any more of this nonsense?” or “Hurry up. I’m old, and there’s sushi for lunch.” These are warnings that she’s about to declare victory for one side or the other. Or outright dismiss the case—sweep up her robes and depart from the bench.
This is a great way to illustrate how quickly lack of clarity, or too much telling and too little showing, can lose a reader. I advise my students to imagine their personal essays in the hands of Judge Judy. If she gets to the second paragraph and she’s already shaking her head in confused disbelief, looking at the writers over the tops of her reading glasses, they’ve lost.
6. Less Is More . A personal essay is not a church confessional. Readers, however voyeuristic we may be in this know-everything, hear-all, see-all age, don’t necessarily want every last salacious detail. And presentation is as important as what is being said. Judge Judy will almost always tell an overly emotional, poorly spoken, improperly attired litigant, “This is not the Dr. Phil show. I don’t want to hear your life story.”
What she means is that naked emotion, augmented by dramatic and extraneous asides and the gratuitous offering of indecorous detail, is simply overwhelming. Too many details will overshadow the main conflict. I like to record the episodes that feature characters who receive this admonishment and play them back for my students. Then I ask them to imagine the litigant’s testimony as an essay, and how they might critique it in workshop. The prospect of being assigned such an exercise elicits groans of protest.
7. Rest Your Case. One of the most important questions a reader asks himself when he finishes reading an essay or memoir piece is, “Why did I read this? Did I learn something? Have I gained an insight I didn’t have before?” If the reader has no real idea what, if anything, he picked up, then the writer hasn’t done her due diligence. She hasn’t developed a theme or thesis; she hasn’t convinced the reader with support materials; and she hasn’t borne any sort of conclusion. On television, when the gavel falls for the final time, and Judge Judy says, “I’ll prepare the order,” at least one side usually sighs in satisfaction and says, “Thank you, Judge Judy.”
If you can’t picture a reader expressing gratitude at the end of your essay, then Judge Judy is ruling against you.
Photo credit: photopin
For most writers the task of writing is a question of content. What is this paper about? Who is the audience? Who are the experts? How do I use sources? What do I want my reader to remember? These are all good things. Important things. Essential things. But writing should be about more than just content, it should also be about the process. How do we do this thing called writing? What are the places where good writing happens? What environment helps me to become a better writer? Why am I writing? For many writers—especially students—writing loses something essential in the focus on content. It loses the element of play and experimentation that is essential to good writing and good thinking. There is a sudden absence in the process. A lack of curiosity; an edge of anticipation. The nudge that spurs a writer to create something unique and satisfying. Not just for a teacher, but for themselves. This is what all students of writing should strive for. The need to engage in the process of writing, not just once or twice, but again and again and again, until you have explored something important and holy and true about yourself and the world around you. So write. Write about writing, about what makes you want to take the leap onto the page. Write an essay; a short one, just a page or two about what makes you want to write, and how your students can engage with ideas and the world around them. Let us know what the practice of writing means to you. Give the reader advice on how to write. What has worked for you? Describe it in beautiful, fully rendered, poetic detail. Flesh out the world of writing that we want all of our students to see and engage in. People say that writing matters, that art nourishes, and that expression can feed the soul. Get busy, start cooking, and serve us up your very best meal.
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