Every writer I know has had trouble writing during the pandemic. Every artist I know has struggled to create. Sometimes art and stories feel meaningless. Plus, it’s hard to concentrate. But creation is more important than ever right now, as we try to find something to hold on to in the most difficult days. I wrote nothing for four months. That might be the longest I’ve ever gone without writing in my entire life. Even as a kid I wrote poems. Even as a single mom I wrote columns. Those first few months of covid, though, they were tough. I couldn’t hold a thought, nevermind make a beautiful sentence. I took classes instead. Zoom classes, of course. One in particular, with writer Laraine Herring about the processes and effects of grief, opened up a path. I wrote for 15 minutes a day – and not even every day, just most days. I wrote in pieces, whatever I could manage, then connected those pieces together. What I came up with encapsulated everything I’ve been feeling all these months: fear, anger, disappointment, suffering, disconnection. This is what I came up with. Thank you to Pithead Chapel for publishing it.
Sometimes as a writer, you publish something super special, something you’re really excited about, and then the publication goes nowhere. Things happen. Life moves fast. And unfortunately sometimes people even pass on during the publication process. I’ve always loved Crab Orchard Review. Beautiful, sophisticated, with some of my favorite writers gracing its pages (print at one point, mostly online later). So it was a great, great honor to be included in the magazine’s special food issue. Then, tragically, the managing editor died. His death sent ripples through the writing community, as John Tribble was always known as a kind and supportive editor. He was certainly friendly and supportive in his emails to me as he prepared to publish one of my all-time favorite essays, “Goodness,” which I wrote during a workshop with my all-time favorite writer, Bernard Cooper. (Bernard wrote “Wow” in the margins of my manuscript, which now rests in a drawer in my writing room. I will keep those pages forever.) This piece is about church, about growing up in a paper mill town, and about wanting to be seen as “good.” What does it mean to be good? Where do you find your value? Is it in the clothes you wear or the foods you eat? Do you find it in the Bible, in the eyes of God, or do you find it in the eyes of the people who love you, who think you are good even when you’re bad? I’m posting a link to the story here in my blog so that you can read it but also so that I can find it more easily. Scroll to page 134 to one of my favorite essays of all time, “Goodness.”
I love a good essay about vulnerability, about all the ways the world can hurt you no matter how much you try to keep that from happening. Paul Crenshaw knows how to write straight into the center of that vulnerability. I ordered his essay collection, This One Will Hurt You, from a little bookstore in Montrose, California, right after the pandemic started, hoping to help bolster the tiny bookshop my daughter and I love so dearly. In better days, we browsed the shelves at Once Upon a Time, me looking for fiction featuring a mystery or a small town, and her looking for anything that had to do with dragons. Sometimes we had brunch at the cafe next door, which has the best Rice Krispy french toast. And then we’d maybe walk over to the farmers market to look for a homemade soap or a vegetable we’ve never heard of before.
Those days will come again soon. I’m holding onto hope about that.
Paul Crenshaw knows how to write about those feelings, that nostalgia and hopefulness in the face of everyday sadness and risk. Some essays are long and some are short, but each hits that place we all have, that soft spot in the middle of our bodies, the area we try our hardest to protect.
The ones I love best are “Choke,” about truthfulness in the stories we tell and how we chose to tell them; “Of Little Faith,” about an overzealous kindergarten teacher who has her own misgivings about the world; and “Storm Country,” about how people live with the everyday threat of tornadoes.
I get down on myself a lot about all the things I should be doing – I should be publishing more, I should have a book out already, I should be doing residencies and workshops and getting more grants. Most writers, especially those of us who are also parents, can probably relate. We watch our writer friends having book launches and signings. We watch them go on great retreats in the woods, alone with their novels and thoughts. We watch them get book deals and reviews and magazine spreads. Meanwhile, we struggle to edit a few pages from the drivers seat of the school pickup line. Maybe you beat yourself up too. Maybe you have lots and lots of “shoulds.” This week, while applying for a writing grant, I stopped and took count of the things I’ve published in the last ten years. The number surprised me. Fifty. I’ve published fifty separate pieces since 2010. I also wrote a memoir and finished a novel. I’ve also managed to keep my child alive, health and happy for thirteen years. Not bad. Guess I’m doing more than I’ve been giving myself credit for, and I’m sure you are too. I know the “shoulds” will creep back in soon enough. In fact, they already are (I should be revising, submitting that flash piece!). But it felt good to stop for a minute and look back and see that I’m doing much more than I thought I was – and more than I’ve been giving myself credit for doing.
I like to start my yoga practice by thinking of an intention. Maybe it’s something I’m grateful for. Or maybe it’s the reason I came to my mat that day. But more often than not, it’s usually just a word. A focal point. A place to put my mind when it wanders.
This morning, three words popped into my head. The first was “listen.” The second was “safe.” The third was “here.”
I thought of listen, I think, because it’s a rainy day here in Los Angeles. The roads are flooding. Traffic is snarled. My daughter probably got soaked on her walk to school. It hardly ever rains here in LA, but it has rained twice in the last week alone. I love this weather. I like to wear my shiny yellow rain boots and turn up the heat, do some baking and drink my coffee extra slow. Today, my yoga mind wanted me to listen to the rain. To enjoy the way it sounds when it hits the roof, when it comes down in sheets, when cars splash through giant puddles outside the studio.
The second word is something I am always reminding myself that I am. You are safe. Your family is safe. Everyone is safe. The reason for that is anxiety. I have anxiety. I’m always worried that something bad will happen – to me, to my daughter or my husband. To someone that I love. My worried mind is forever telling my heart that everything is okay.
The third word is a reminder, I think, to be where I am. To be fully present. It’s the holidays and the end of the semester. There are many things to do, people to care for. I’m also writing a book, which feels overwhelming sometimes. I’m reading through the manuscript, looking for places to revise, and the pages are never-ending. My yoga mind is telling me to be here now, to accept where things are at and appreciate their incompleteness. To have faith that I will get there, that things will get done in their own time.
Listen. Safe. Here.
Writing Into The Blur: Using Brain Science to Write Your Memoir
with Wendy Fontaine
Sunday, January 21
1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Writers At Work
4022 Fountain Ave., Suite 202, Los Angeles, 90029
$50 preregistered (by Jan. 15)
$60 at the door
Light refreshments will be served
Memoir is a genre composed of personal memories, but what happens when those memories are blurry or missing altogether? Your brain goes to great lengths to protect you from reliving painful experiences, but what does that mean for your memoir? Can you still write about what you don’t remember?
In this workshop, we will discuss ways in which memory is biologically prone to distortion, based on research by neuroscientists and psychologists. We’ll examine briefly the works of writers who have used memory distortion as literary technique. And through a series of writing exercises, we’ll identify our own challenges with memory and practice rendering our experiences to the page.
Participants should bring instruments for writing (pen and paper or laptop), as well as one photograph that relates to a current or future writing project. Writers will leave the workshop with a deeper understanding of why their memories have been inaccessible, as well as a plan for how to put difficult experiences into words once they get home.
Wendy Fontaine is a writer and writing instructor in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines including Hippocampus, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Passages North, Readers Digest, River Teeth and Tiferet. She recently completed a memoir manuscript and is currently at work on a novel and a screenplay.
Register at wendyfontaine.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Space is limited.
Good read. Lots of suspense. I liked that just when I thought I’d figured something out, there was a twist. Some things I did figure out. And some I didn’t. Very good pacing. I thought there was a bit too much reflection and inner monologue on the part of the narrator, Clara – to the point of being repetitive. It felt like the author was going over things too many times. In order to create more suspense? To create intrigue? To illustrate Clara’s confusion? Not sure, but whatever the reason, it was annoying and I found myself skimming broad chunks of inner thought narrative.