How to Carve Out Writing Time as a Parent in a Pandemic

The following is a guest post by Laura Desiano, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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In December 2019, my second child was born, a daughter who spent nine days in the NICU while her lungs caught up with the rest of her chunky 9 lbs 4 ounces. Thinking back at what, at the time, was the most stressful in my life, I now know how fortunate we really were. I knew my daughter would come home with no lasting health issues. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic, an American reckoning over racial injustice, corrupt government at every level, there is no end in sight.

When the lockdown began, I was suddenly staring down the long barrel of life stuck inside with two small children. What’s worse, I was barely out of the fourth trimester, those early postpartum months when a mother is still very sleep-deprived and riding waves of emotions. How would I find the time and energy to keep up with what little writing I was already doing? The sad truth is, I stopped writing completely.

In fact, this essay is one of the first things I’ve written in months. And it was two weeks late. I’m not trying to be clever either. It’s hard to write as a parent, and it’s an almost impossible task while caring for two children around the clock. At first I tried to jot down a few lines here and there in random notebooks and the backs of envelopes, whatever was handy. But soon even that ended as the needs of my family outweighed my creative time. Daily life overflowed with cooking, entertaining my children, and never-ending piles of dirty laundry and dishes. 

I’m not the only parent-writer who is experiencing this either. After polling a Facebook group of female-identified writers with children, a majority of them have written little to nothing since the pandemic began. Some could not balance homeschooling with work. Some writers said they needed silence and space. Some just had no energy, and therefore little inspiration to even draft a poem, essay or story.

Not all hope is lost, though. Parents are nothing if not creative problem solvers. Some writers converted small space like large closets or second bathrooms into a room of their own. Others have tried a new genre, which lowers the stakes and allows for a more forgiving mindset. I have had much more success writing short romance stories versus poetry. Lowering the bar is also common: even if you just write one line a day on your phone’s notes app, you could have a poem in a week. My partner plans to rent an Airbnb near our very small apartment where I can be alone to rest and write once he goes back on paternity leave. With all the money we were saving in airfare this year, it is worth the investment. 

If the world needs anything right, it’s words. Writers are our truth tellers, our story weavers, our poetry creators. And if we truly value diverse voices, we must hear from parents. Our’s is an essential voice if we are to avoid similar tragedies in the future. We need writers to bear witness and help us heal, and without parents telling their stories, the literature stands to lose too damn much.

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Laura Desiano’s poems have been widely anthologized and published in journals such Tiny Spoon, Drunk Monkeys, Voicemail Poems, Pedestal, among others. Her chapbook Braiding the Storm was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012 (as Laura E Davis). A 2019 Best of the Net Nominee, Desiano is a freelance writer in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner, son, and two withering houseplants.

Poem as Suitcase—What to Pack, What to Leave Behind

Rebecca Irene'

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Irene, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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After writing initial drafts in longhand, I’m ready to start typing a poem out on my computer. I begin in optimism—sit down at my desk, stare at some inspiring quotes on my corkboard. Encouraging and antagonistic alike (A word after a word after a word is power-Atwood/ The first draft of everything is shit-Hemingway), these mantras remind me to just begin, but dear reader, is there any despair deeper than a winking cursor and the looming void of a new file? Actually, yes, ok, plenty, but the stark white rectangle gets me every time. Numerous authors have shared about the terrors encountered along the way to a decent first draft. Not many promise that it gets any easier. For those of us who must write, we find ways to navigate the revision labyrinth. Since I frequently moved growing up, and still love to travel, sometimes it helps me to think of each poem as essential luggage for a particular journey.

Luggage: Form. Where does the poem want to go? Just as you wouldn’t pack a purse for a ten-day trip to the Arctic, you probably shouldn’t try to force a natural haiku into a crown of sonnets. Choose an appropriate bag (form) for possibility & intention of the specific poem. Denise Levertov reminds— form is never more than a revelation of content. The initial form may eventually change during the revision process, but at least you have gotten started! When choosing syntax/enjambment, ask what kind of movement the lines might take for their particular voyage. I often think of villanelles and sestinas as steamer trunks, apologias tend to be old leather suitcases, sonnets—vintage hat boxes. My free verse regularly gets stuffed into backpacks, and canvas duffels tend to carry odes about my obsessions: cicadas, cattails, and moths.

Clothing: Tone. What kind of tone (apparel) is appropriate for the poem? Just as you wouldn’t advise a friend to wear a bathing suit to their child’s preschool meet and greet, you probably shouldn’t include clipped accusations when writing a love poem. For example, if my poem is a sonnet, I play with musicality (silk scarves) and varied rhymes (hats of assorted color & shape). Have fun thinking of each line as a favorite pair of blue jeans or velvet dress, linen tunic or wool shirt. Sometimes, I even imagine every stanza as an outfit. Do the lines (pieces of clothing) all work together? (There should be some surprise here. I once knew a woman who wore the same outfit for six months, and I have written drafts that remind me of her.) Once the poem’s tone is exciting & authentic, experiment with mood and texture.

It’s true—I can get carried away with this process. (I’ll spare you a diatribe about Accessories: Punctuation until another time.) However, I like to believe that every poem that eventually resonates with a reader remains with them on their life’s journey. You know, like a piece of luggage carefully checked and shelved, permanently stored in the astonishing baggage-claim of the mind. Who knows what circumstance or conversation will be a catalyst to retrieve the contents, only that they will be needed for the voyage ahead.

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Rebecca Irene’s poems are published or forthcoming in RHINO, Carve Magazine, Juked, Atlanta Review, Pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. She was recently named the 2020 Monson Arts: MWPA Poetry Fellow, and has received residencies from Norton Island, SAFTA, and Hewnoaks. Poetry Editor for The Maine Review, Rebecca holds an MFA from VCFA, and lives in Portland, Maine, where she supports her word-addiction by waitressing. Find her tweeting @cicadacomplex.

Using Mentor Texts to Generate Prompts

The following is a guest post by Suzanne Farrell Smith, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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I often get BPS (Blank Page Syndrome), for which I’ve sought prompt treatment: sentence starters, random objects, storytelling cards, dream journaling, and more. Sometimes they work and crack me open. Sometimes they don’t, and after a paragraph I abandon the idea.

Recently, I’ve started teaching Read Like a Writer workshops, one in memoir and the other in personal essay. I want my students to be genre insiders and understand what characterizes creative nonfiction, where memoir and personal essay fit in, and the signs of a successful piece. We read one or two exemplar essays each week, organized by theme, and discuss them in depth.

At first, I collected prompts that matched the weekly theme: Where do you like to go in nature? Describe a significant experience you’ve had in nature. When I tried them myself, I kept abandoning them. The prompts, quite simply, bored me. 

At some point, it hit me—the prompts should grow from the reading. The text should be a mentor text for more than just reading and discussion. The essayist should say to my students, through me, See what I did here? This technique, this transition, this turn of phrase? Now you try.

For our week on nature and science, we read, among others, Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels.” The essay begins, “A weasel is wild.” Dillard follows with evidence to show the weasel’s wildness (e.g., “He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose.”). She reveals how the weasel is “obedient to instinct.” She positions the weasel, right there in the suburbs, as a wild and enviable thing. 

From Dillard’s essay, I created a layered prompt:

  1. List wild things you can observe closely. An animal that frequents your yard? A bug you regularly find in your home? A virus sneaking down your throat? Your imagination? Anxiety? An untamed garden or lawn? Poison ivy? Weeds? A child?
  2. Choose one and, as Dillard does, list what makes it wild. Think of Dillard’s verbs: drag, bite, split, crunch, stalk, kill, eat.
  3. Now consider Dillard’s attention to instinct. In what ways does your wild thing follow instinct rather than rationale?
  4. How does this wild thing bump against the made world? Say, an overgrown lawn submitted to the mower or vaccine-induced antibodies on the attack.
  5. Dillard shares insights about what we can learn from a wild animal like a weasel, how we might clear our minds and act out of need alone. You may not find such insights yet. But you can start to mine for them. For example, what about this wild thing makes you envious? Do you wish to coil around an oak until you, unfettered ivy, have smothered the tree to reach the sky?


General prompts are easy to find. Mentor-text prompts require more effort: select a piece; read close; choose resonant ideas; layer them as cues. Having done this for fifteen essays so far, I can say that the work is worth it. 

Last week, alongside Annie Dillard, one student investigated a deer tick, another pondered her child’s thick hair, and I examined the horsefly that bit my son, drew blood and tears, and transformed me, for a moment, into a wild thing.

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Suzanne Farrell Smith lives in Connecticut with her husband and three sons. She has authored two books, The Memory Sessions and The Writing Shop. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity and soon to be republished in The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Suzanne teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshopsuzannefarrellsmith.com

  

Trying On Another Voice: Translation as Writing Practice

Susanna Lang

The following is a guest post by Susanna Lang, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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I first translated French poetry into English as a very young woman working with an older poet. He suggested that we co-translate a poem by René Depestre, a Haitian writer, to give me access to a deeply political language. While I had grown up in a political family, there was a high wall between my writing and my activism. I don’t remember how I started to translate Yves Bonnefoy, one of the greatest French poets of the twentieth century and much closer to surrealism, mythology and visual arts than to politics. My mentor had hoped I would follow in his footsteps as a poet of witness and eventually I did begin to write poems that engaged the world. Meanwhile, translating and then publishing Pierre écrite/Words in Stone was an important experience for me during my college years. I had not yet found a voice of my own, and Yves’ meditative, lyrical evocation of the mysteries of the world did help to shape the poet I was then, as my mentor feared. 

I returned to translation when I shifted from full-time to part-time teaching, and was surprised to find my days very solitary. I needed the stimulus of other voices. I discovered Nohad Salameh in an anthology of French women poets, and was later able to meet her in person and visit French bookstores well-stocked with contemporary poetry. At the Librairie Massena in Nice, the bookseller immediately began pulling books off the shelf, talking about each as if it were a friend. There I found Brouillons amoureux by Souad Labbize, which I have translated as Drafts of Love.

The two poets could not be more different, though both grew up in countries where the culture is both Arabic and French, and both now live and publish in France. Nohad was born in Lebanon and worked as a journalist during the civil war. Her poems are lyrical and allusive, her literary roots in surrealism; I’m sure her poems reminded me of my apprenticeship with Yves Bonnefoy. Souad Labbize, much younger, was born in Algeria. Her poems are dense, brief, focused on feminism and other liberation movements, so more like my poems of witness. Both poets enrich my work, though now that I am comfortable in my own poetic voice, you won’t hear their poems in mine as you could have heard Yves in my earlier writing. It’s more like a way to keep myself flexible as my walking practice keeps my body flexible. When I read the translations aloud to hear whether the metaphor and the music are as strong in English as in French, I exercise muscles that I haven’t yet used in my own poems, and think about questions that I haven’t yet considered. This ongoing apprenticeship gets me through the long days when I don’t have an idea of my own to work with. On those fortunate days when the poems come more easily, translation sends me back into my own writing with new tools to use.

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Susanna Lang’s third collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her chapbook, Self-Portraits is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in October 2020. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Prairie Schooner, december, New Poetry in Translation, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Nohad Salameh and Souad Labbize to translate their poems. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com and @SusannaLang16

  

Musical Structures in Creative Nonfiction

The following is a guest post by Will Cordeiro, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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Recently, I’ve noticed a development in creative nonfiction to use structural modes appropriated from music. Or maybe a musical analogy can capture these under-recognized structural modes by way of shorthand. Here’s a smattering of such musical structures with an example or two to help define them:

Covers – In the anthology After Montaigne writers compose “covers” that re-voice and update Montaigne’s classic essays in their individualized voices and in a more contemporary key.

Sampling – Wayne Koestenbaum irrepressibly drops literary quotes, film references, and pop cultural memes in his work like a sound engineer samples recognizable titbits of songs or beats.  

Lip-synching – David Shields’s Reality Hunger uses quotes which are not identified as quotes; he “lip syncs” the quotes as if he were saying them himself.

Remixes – Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me could be considered a remix of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Coates references Baldwin in his work yet also differs more widely from his original—thus, a subtle if not exact distinction between a remix and a cover. Similarly, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage remixes the literary criticism of D. H. Lawrence.  

Litany – Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” follows a pattern of minimalist repetition like a Philip Glass song: each sentence begins “I remember…”

Lament – Aisha Sabatini Sloan describes her operatic essay “D is for the Dance of the Hours” as a “lament.” But, like opera, Sloan’s essays make use of the whole emotional range deployed by arias, mad songs, motifs, recitative, and overtures, too, even as they often reference pop music and divas.    

Riffs and noodling – Luc Sante has described his entire writing process as “noodling.” Likewise, we might hear many of Elena Passarello’s pieces in Let Me Clear My Throat as noodling around or riffing on a subject more than obeying any other structural paradigm.

Shredding – Indulgent, face-melting virtuoso feats of showmanship with squealing whammy bars, pyrotechnics, distortion effects, acrobatics that inflict self-harm and, just maybe, eating a live bat’s head: among essayists, Sir Thomas Browne and D. H. Lawrence are “shredders” as are Ander Monson and Giannina Braschi. 

Improvisation – In Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, Selah Saterstrom uses rituals and trances to improvise writing, not unlike the methods of free jazz.

Études – The locus classicus is Yoshida Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness, but short essays as études (or small practice exercises) are very much alive today in a work such as Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly.

B-sides – We might think of the double essays in Albert Goldbarth’s The Adventures of Form and Content or Michel Tournier’s The Mirror of Ideas as B-sides: alternate versions of the same groove, often flipped around.

Ambient/Noise – Conceptual writers such as Tan Lin and Sophia Le Fraga have experimented with ambient literature and what might be described as “noise,” that is, books or installations that collect scraps of cultural detritus, internet drivel, and bureaucratic textual ephemera. Much like noise music, the appreciation of such writing depends on a taste for interference patterns, weird juxtapositions, the breakdown of technology, and a healthy stomach. 

The emerging rhetorical logics of these musical and performative techniques—as they both pull against and play among traditional structures such as personal storytelling and, lyric forms, have engendered a new energy and direction for today’s creative nonfiction.     

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Will Cordeiro’s work appears in AgniBest New PoetsThe Cincinnati Review, Palette Poetry, Threepenny ReviewTypehouse, and elsewhere. Will’s collection Trap Street won the 2019 Able Muse Book Award. Will co-edits Eggtooth Edition and is grateful for a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Currently, Will teaches in the Honors College for Northern Arizona University.  

I Know a Place: the Importance of Setting in Creative Nonfiction

The following is a guest post by Storey Clayton, whose creative nonfiction work “To See a Rabbit” appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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Non-writer friends often ask me what creative nonfiction means. If it’s all true, where is there room for creativity?

As writers tend to understand, the choices we make as storytellers breathe creative life into our truth. In choosing particular details or focal points, we command the reader’s attention and help shape how they will comprehend our experience. We choose where to dwell and what to skip, and this allocation of observation provides a subjective lens for the objective facts of an event. In creative nonfiction, this process often revolves around internal perceptions: feelings, memories, and reflections on our previous lived experience. As a result, place and setting are frequently overlooked as opportunities to creatively build a world for the reader.

However, place and setting are essential. Just as the precise details of an interaction or line of dialogue can help make a scene relatable, the specifics of a location illustrate the reality for a reader who may only visit in their mind. I find this is easier to remember when I write about travel: the place is unusual for me and thus I notice what makes it unique. It is harder, but probably more vital, to make these observations when writing about locales I find familiar. As humans, we tend to acclimate to our environment, relegating the landscape to the background, memorizing the region and therefore deflating its features. When bringing such a place to life in words, however, we must fight this instinct and make the familiar new again. 

In my experience, the easiest way to do this is to continually remind myself that the reader may never have been where I’m writing about. They don’t know that this giant restaurant looms on the corner, across from the university, frequented by students, houseless folks, and businesspeople alike. They don’t know how far the river is, or what trees stand beside it, or how the branches fall in an afternoon thunderstorm. For writers who tend to write about one place repeatedly – a childhood hometown or one’s longtime city – I recommend taking frequent walks or drives while pretending you’ve just arrived for the first time. What do you notice? What defines the landscape? Is there a structure or natural element that stands as a metaphor for this spot and its denizens? 

This last question homes in on a key asset of taking time to describe place. Your location provides ample opportunity to layer thematic elements in your story, a crucial part of making nonfiction creative. An old car rusting on blocks in the unkempt front yard or a lonely windswept beach awash in clouds and seagulls set the mood in a way that merely telling us you were depressed cannot. The specific texture of our surroundings, keenly observed in detail, is more than just backdrop or context. It is the atmosphere in which our stories swirl, the oxygen that gives them life.

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Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. In the past two years, his nonfiction has appeared in twenty literary journals, including Pleiades, Lunch Ticket, Mud Season Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and North Dakota Quarterly. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid (bluepyramid.org).