Why I Write: All It Took Was a Game of Tennis

Jane Hegstrom is working on a number of memoir pieces about her midwestern childhood in the 1950s. She is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Masters of Writing Program and has a PhD in sociology with a specialization in social psychology and gender. Her academic writing has appeared in Sex Roles, Discourse Analysis, and Women’s Studies. She has also published in Bookends Review.

Jane’s nonfiction, “Mary and Carol Ann,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). She read excerpts from this piece at our issue launch in January (video below). In this guest post, which is part of our regular “Why I Write” series, she shares how she began writing.

My path to a writing life started, oddly enough, with an evening game of tennis. I was fifty-nine at the time and had played tennis for thirty-five of those years. I have a love affair with tennis, a sport that mentally transports me to a place where troubles and petty annoyances are lost in the sheer joy and focus of the game—what I imagine Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was talking about when he described the concept of flow.

My doubles partner that evening was a new player to the group. She was probably in her early thirties, the same age as my daughter. We won the racquet spin and chose to serve. I took my place at the net and when my partner served her first serve, our receiving opponent ripped a forehand return right at me. The moment I blocked the ball, an electrical malfunction caused the lights to go out in the tennis facility. We all moved slowly through the dark to the net to wait for the lights to come back on. Then my partner, in front of seven other players (the other court had joined us), asked me in a concerned voice, “Are you all right? I was worried that you’d get hurt by the ball hit right at you—you know, what with your age.”

No one said a word, and I was grateful it was dark because I’m infuriatingly prone to blushing. I forced a laugh and said something like, “We’re all used to having balls hit at us, not to worry.”

My partner’s remark left me feeling disoriented, as though I had walked into a room filled with strangers, a room I had never been in before. Her remark was a one-two punch. First, there was the shock that I was perceived to be old. Second, my confidence as a tennis player had been undermined. I thought, Maybe I’m not as strong, not as fast, and my reactions are slower. A younger player’s remark threatened a treasured aspect of my identity, and at that moment I assumed an altered identity: I was now old.

On my way home that evening, I thought of the French feminist writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir who, at fifty-two years of age, was shocked when she overheard a student say to one of his friends, “So Simone de Beauvoir is an old woman, then?” De Beauvoir’s conclusion was, “Old age is more apparent to others than to the subject himself.”

I began to wonder if other people were as stunned as I was when they discovered for the first time that others thought they were old. I made notes of my feelings and decided that at some point I would write about this particular event. I’m a sociologist whose areas of specialization are social psychology and gender, why not add the area of aging to my repertoire? I dreamily imagined my writing to be a hybrid of Malcolm Gladwell and Nora Ephron.

When I retired from teaching, I hadn’t forgotten about my startled reaction to the first time someone perceived me to be old. I immersed myself in the literature on aging and gathered anecdotal stories from acquaintances. One such acquaintance had a large number of Facebook friends and posted the following question on her Facebook page: Please describe the first time that you felt others perceived you to be old. It could have been a comment, an event, or even a feeling.

After a couple of months of collecting anecdotal data and organizing my thoughts, I was ready to launch my writing career. Except I couldn’t write! My years as a sociologist had produced a voice geared for peer reviewed academic journals and there was certainly no developed literary tone to my writing.

Enter Johns Hopkins University Masters of Writing Program. As a nonfiction student in the Hopkins Writing Program, I continued to draw upon my sociological background for essays on aging, but now I was learning to deliberate about structure, contemplate the importance of beginnings and endings, swap out weak verbs for stronger ones, add simile and metaphor, and remind myself every day not to over-explain—a lingering practice of my academic writing.

Then a memoir and personal essay workshop at Hopkins pushed me in another writing direction—my childhood. The result has been a collection of memoir pieces about my Midwestern childhood in the mid 1950s. And I’m grateful and proud that Little Patuxent Review published the first of my memoir pieces, Mary and Carol Ann.

Staff Pick: Meg Files’s “Green River”

Raima Larter is a fiction reader for the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). Meg Files’s “Green River” is available for reading at this link.

Whenever I hear breaking news about yet another mass shooting, I find myself wondering about the parents of the shooter. What must it be like for them? It’s hard to imagine the pain that parents must feel when their children become victims of a shooting. It’s even harder to imagine what the parent of the shooter might feel.

Meg Files has written a story that explores something similar—not a mass shooting, but an equally horrific event. From the first sentence of the story, it is clear the protagonist, Elizabeth, is trying to escape something horrifying: “She decided to go out into the world so as to leave the world behind.”

We don’t know, and won’t know, for many paragraphs, exactly what she’s trying to escape. Hints are deftly dropped into the story as it slowly unfolds. Elizabeth is driving west from somewhere in the Midwest. When she reaches Kansas, she decides to trade in her car. She wants to ask the man at the car dealer, “Would you like to be my son?” She trades her car for a cheaper model and continues driving, reaching Denver. “Denver was a big place. A body could get lost there,” she writes. Elizabeth continues acting strangely, buying a large empty book, “Grandma’s Brag Book,” and filling it with photos cut from another book.

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Meet the Editors: Q&A with Dominique Cahn

In this post we ask LPR’s nonfiction editor, Dominique Cahn, some questions on being a nonfiction editor and on what makes a great piece of memoir or essay.

Dominique Cahn was born in Haiti and moved to New York City when she was six years old. She majored in Politics and Latin American Studies at Princeton University and earned her Masters in Public Health Degree from Yale University. After graduate school, Dominique moved to Washington, D.C., where she embarked on her career in health care policy and government relations. She conducted health related studies in Haiti and Belize and represented the medical device and biotechnology industries on U.S. regulatory and and legislative issues. She lived in Kazakhstan and traveled to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Republics.

Q: When it’s time to start reading the nonfiction submissions for a literary journal, what’s your process?

If I think a piece is worth while, I’ll read it a couple of times, put it aside. Sometimes I’ll discuss it with other readers if I need to clarify my thinking about it. But, after the third reading, I’ll get stern with myself and make a decision. Editor Steven Leyva and I then confer about the final choices. We are fortunate to have two volunteer readers on our team, Emily Rich and Heidi Brotman, who critique submissions in this category, as well. This last round, Anthony Moll joined us as Guest Editor.

Q: I imagine there’s not necessarily something you’re “looking for,” a priori. But in your experience, what are the sorts of things in a memoir or essay that interest you and catch your attention?

I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like “the pleasure of reading a personal essay lies in the enjoyment we get from the well-ordered thoughts of another’s mind.” I find that to be true, and I am often drawn to voices that, at the very least, seem to have full knowledge of themselves in the stories they tell. Of course, the usual things are important too — a hook in the introduction, plot, characterization, climax, resolution of conflict and ending — all those are essential to works of creative nonfiction, memoir, and biography.

Q: How quickly in reading a piece do you generally know if it’s something you want to publish, or not?

Immediately. It’s incredible how quickly as a reader you develop an instinct about a submission. Sometimes you can work through the bits that strike you as emotionally false, but other times, the issue is not the narrative but the writer. People feel more license in fiction, but in anything autobiographical, people tend to deploy fiction for only one reason, and it’s usually not to enrich or complicate the characters on the page. In other words, it’s like literary airbrushing. The result is that there are emotional gaps. Sometimes it’s fun to do the work of filling in those gaps. Other times it feels lazy and deceitful. Of course, there are some works in which the story and writing are so strong that we know immediately that the submission will be among our finalists. We rarely make a decision until the submission period ends and we have had a chance to review all the works.

Q: Do you work with writers to improve a submission that you would like to publish, or do you generally accept as is or reject entirely?

Some submissions you have to reject entirely. It’s not always worth wading into typos, or trying to sort out messy narratives. Some submissions suffer from a lack of introspection, or a self-consciousness. Some, from too little of the latter. But perfecting the the kind of writing we publish is about clarifying the writer’s vision of their own story, and helping them to find narrative meaning beyond the biographical details. That’s work you can’t do without the writer, and so when I believe in a piece of writing I’m often excited to work with its author. Its wonderful and very satisfying when a good story can be sharpened into something impactful.

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Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jay Wamsted

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jay Wamsted, whose nonfiction, “Walls,” we published in our Summer 2017 issue.

The Best American Essays 2018 edition, published this month, named “Walls” as a “Notable” in its collection. Jay is a math teacher in southwest Atlanta, and the majority of his writing centers around race, racism, and the urban school. His essays and articles have been published in various journals and magazines, including Mathematics Teacher and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at The Southeast Review, Under the Sun, and the TEDx YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.”

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Did you have any expectation of receiving this honor? What’s it been like for you as a writer to return to a piece after it’s been published for almost a year and a half?

A: I was stunned when I received the email. I knew, of course, that there was a lottery-ticket kind of probability I could get that news, but I had to read the email from Steven Leyva three times before I finally got it into my head what was happening. Coming back to the piece has been delightful. Alexis was an important part of two school years for me: the one where I taught her and then the subsequent one where I wrote about her. Getting to revisit her story somehow has been both sobering and encouraging.

Q: It’s my understanding that this piece went through some editing before publication. What was that process like?

A: The biggest thing is that in its original form the essay was in second person. Dominique Cahn, LPR’s nonfiction editor, rightly suspected that though effective at evoking emotion, this constant “you…you…you” was sidelining Alexis’s story in favor of the reader and writer. Dominique suggested we move it to first person, and we had this big a-ha moment: finally the piece felt like it was primarily about Alexis because the pronouns weren’t getting in her way.

The other thing I’ll note is that I have received at times some pushback about being a white writer whose only stories come from teaching black children. I completely understand this fear of a modern-day sort of colonialism, and I try to guard against it in my work as best I can. At the time of “Walls,” however, I was going through a phase where I was muting the subject of race altogether and trying to elide it with the problem of poverty. Dominique saw past that, and surprised me by asking for more about the Mays community in general and about Alexis in specific. For example, she encouraged me up to describe Alexis physically—to let my reader know she was black. I had been reluctant to do this prior, but it was such a gift to write about this young black woman with some sort of candor, to describe her the way I like to imagine a friend of hers might have described her.

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Review of How to Sit, by Tyrese Coleman

This book review is written by Raima Larter, a Little Patuxent Review fiction reader. 

Local publisher Mason Jar Press of Baltimore has just published the debut collection, How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, by Tyrese Coleman, a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Coleman has a strong engaging voice with important things to say. Her collection of stories and essays is unique in the way it combines fiction and non-fiction to create a true memoir. I was struck by the way the story builds from chapter to chapter, some fictional, others not, showing us how one young girl became a woman while growing up in a world that might have broken a weaker soul.

The book takes its title from the opening story in which the character we later come to know as “T” is taught by her grandmother how a young lady is supposed to sit in Grandma’s house, a home filled with a constant parade of older men, most fueled by alcohol. We follow T to prom night, to college, to motherhood and beyond, at one point exploring her family roots through a DNA analysis that reveals more than a few surprises. The memoir returns us to Grandma’s death bed where T must finally confront what is real and what is fiction. She says, “If this were fiction, we would’ve gotten to this part by now. The part where T pulls back the curtain and sees her dead grandmother’s body…”

All through this book, it is never clear what is truth and what is fiction. I thought this might be a problem, but that was before I read the book and found that it is actually one of its great strengths; Coleman shows us how the truth about one’s own life is sometimes revealed more fully when we take a step outside ourselves and look at our life the way someone else might see it.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Coleman about the experience of writing this book. My questions (RL) and her answers (TC) follow.

* * *

RL: The structure of your book is one I haven’t seen anywhere else—a mosaic of fictional and non-fictional components that add up to a memoir. How did you get the idea to use this structure?

TC: Honestly, it was not a *completely* deliberate thing. At some point, I looked back at my work and realized that I was writing about the same topics and about my childhood, parenting, or grief and that there was a through line that existed with several pieces of my work. I’d tried and considered different formats of how to do a collection. One iteration was a chapbook of flash creative nonfiction and another was a collection of short stories. I was afraid to put the fiction in with the nonfiction until I realized that other writers had done this. For example, David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever combines some of his stories and some of his essays. That is a completely different sort of collection from mine, but knowing that a book could contain both stories and essays opened my mind up to the possibility that putting these two seemingly different types of writing in the same book wasn’t actually too crazy of an idea. When I first discussed this with Mason Jar Press, we had thought to say which stories were fiction and which were nonfiction, but ultimately decided to leave it a mystery for the reader.

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Staff Pick: D.E. Lee’s “The Silence of a Sound (San Marco)”

Lisa Lynn Biggar is the fiction editor of the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

There is so much to love about D. E. Lee’s story,”The Silence of a Sound (San Marco),” from the most recent issue of Little Patuxent Review (Issue 24, Summer 2018). Starting with the poetic title, the lovely alliteration. Right away I knew this would read more as a prose poem and it did, replete with sensory imagery and lapidary precision in word choice: “Smarty drifted around the oaks, down the sidewalk, and between two cars to a wooden pole with a thousand staples stuck stuck stuck all over it.” All of our senses are awakened in this piece: “We . . . walked from the square beneath a clear night sky to Hendricks Avenue, past the white facade of Southside Baptist, which seemed to us to be the wall of a fortress or monastery, and touched every red-ribboned lamp post we passed.”

San Marco is so alive and so are these two characters who hide in the shadows as if they could stop time for these two short days. It is as if they are on the precipice of time, waiting for something, or nothing, to  happen. When it does happen, when the tension builds to Smarty revealing what is behind her “unfathomable look,” the sound of a passing train obliterates her words: “Her lips moved in ovals, oblongs, and circles and then closed in silence like the vanishing train.” It is the quintessential what-could-have-been moment. Those words gone forever to never be spoken again; those few days never to be relived except in memory. The closeness of these two young characters is palpable, the dialogue, free of quotation marks, so natural, woven in with the narrator’s thoughts: “You didn’t answer my question. I know. You can tell me. Couldn’t she guess?” In the three short pages of this piece we are taken on a journey of playfulness, yearning, passion, and then disappointment and disillusionment: It is reminiscent of Joyce’s “Araby.”

Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Ann Olson

Ann Olson has been teaching literature and writing at Heritage University on the Yakama Reservation in Toppenish, Washington for twenty-five years. She holds an MFA in creative writing and a master’s in English literature. Her essays have appeared in When Last on the Mountain anthology, North Dakota Quarterly, Emrys Journal, and the Raymond Carver Review.

Olson’s nonfiction, “Mosquito Hunt,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: I love the structure to “Mosquito Hunt,” in which one sleepless night provides a frame for struggles and memories of an entire lifetime. How did you come to this structure?

Well, I’ve lived through nights just like this, and I suspect many people have had similar sleepless times when our minds simply won’t give up on all the little things that we can distract ourselves from in the daytime. Why is it that all the worst parts of our lives want to present themselves at 3:44 a.m.?

Q: When you were living through this particular night, did you have a sense that you would be writing about it? And if so, did that change anything about the experience for you?

Oh no, not at all. In fact, it probably would have helped if I HAD thought about writing down the experience while it was happening (but perhaps that would have ended the worrying and I’d have gone to sleep instead?). But I think being there was necessary to see how those thoughts and worries were as constant and irritating as a mosquito buzzing in the ear. It helped me to compare the icky part of that night to the hunt and subsequent bloodiness of the mind’s “mosquitoes.”

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