By Crystal Byers via Brevity.
It was a day like any other school day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of …Then Fall, Mrs. Byers: Writing That “Single Moment”
I’m having a problem, and this is it. Typing one word and then the next. Forming coherent thoughts. Creating meaning out of nothing. Otherwise known as writing.
So, I’ve turned to other writerly activities. Reading books. Revising earlier works. Looking for publication opportunities.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending time on Poets & Writers, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. I’ve only scratched the surface. They have an alphabetized database of over twelve hundred literary magazines and journals. I’m up to the letter C. Christian Science Monitor. However, it’s
good necessary to actually read the journals and follow submission guidelines, check submission dates and reading fees. And that takes time. Lucky for me, I have some time, and today I read Christian Science Monitor. They’ve published Sylvia Plath. I’m probably a long shot.
Why publish elsewhere?
Well, I’m building my bio. For now, this is it.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has a memoir-in-progress and an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University. Her essays appear at The Porch Magazine, The Houston Flood Museum, and soon with Brevity. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.
And if you are visiting today, thank you! May your words flow, your thoughts be coherent, and your meaning worthy of contemplation.
This past week I had a long phone conversation with one of my childhood friends. We caught each other up about our kids and our lives. The details were a little messy. She told me about a concept called purge emotional writing and later sent me a link to an article with more information. My first thought was, “I write about my emotions all of the time.” Then yesterday morning, I read the article.
Normally, I type my words. Yesterday, I tried something new. I wrote on paper, as directed for twelve minutes, fast and furious. And I realized—I was furious. That’s probably why I was so open to this exercise. Next, I burned the page and watched a small fire consume it. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And then I swept it all from the concrete pavement into the grass. The exercise says to do this for the next five days.
Cue Sunday. PEW Day 2. The sun arose, and so did I. I walked the neighborhood and listened to Black Pumas and Michael Kiwanuka through my earphones. Along the way, I thought about what I might write in twelve minutes. Already, I could feel the difference one day had made. Some of that comes down to circumstances. Some is perspective.
Back at home, I made coffee and grabbed my spiral. I checked the time and started writing. Twelve minutes. Today there were no f-bombs. Today there was more pity than anger. There was some acceptance of things I cannot change. There was some courage to change what I can. I’m still seeking wisdom to know the difference. Part of me wanted to keep today’s words. I walked the page through my front door and burned it anyway. I watched it char black, then to gray ash.
I’m interested to see what happens over the course of the next three days. Already, I’m thinking —
“I’m feeling emotionally oversaturated.”
This morning, I sat on the couch with my laptop, and I drank my coffee. These words jumped off my screen. They resonated.
The words were only part of a sentence, part of a bigger thought from the goop article I was reading, an excerpt from Habib Sadeghi’s book The Clarity Cleanse. Dr. Sadeghi believes in the transformative power of writing to heal from the inside out. He says, “Words have tremendous power, and whether their effects are positive or negative depends on how we choose to use them. I can’t express how powerful a tool free-form writing is to expel negative energy from our minds and hearts. I used it daily during my recovery from cancer. I also return to it whenever I’m feeling emotionally oversaturated.”
I was feeling emotionally oversaturated, and so I read on. Dr. Sadeghi suggests an exercise called PEW 12 (Purge Emotional Writing), writing on paper for twelve minutes about whatever is disturbing my peace. At the end of twelve minutes, he says to take the page(s) to a secure, non-flammable area and burn it. “Fire is transformative and healing,” I read. “Your goal is to neutralize the negative energy, and the fire does that by transforming the chemical composition from paper to ash.”
The doctor warns that re-reading my page would only re-infect me with negative energy. He says never to direct the negatively charged words toward myself. I know these things intuitively. Sometimes I need reminders.
And so I found a spiral and noted the time and wrote for twelve minutes. I dropped F-bombs along the way. Then I ripped out the page and found a lighter and walked through my front door. I lit the page, watched it burn, dropped it on the concrete driveway, and stomped on it. I swept the ashes into the grass.
Dr. Sadeghi suggests doing this every day for five days before moving on to the next step. Except I don’t know what the next step is. His book is on my to-read list. I suppose I have four more days to find a copy.
In a lovely little chapel on the campus of Houston Baptist, I received kind words, a pen, and a pin. This was the last Friday night in May. I had taken the classes, put in the work, and completed requirements for my MFA.
Now, I hear Frank McCourt in my head, and he says, “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it.” I notice his two polysyllabic words and the strength of his monosyllables. Now, I will work with my tools, read books, study language, and hone my craft. I will put my bloody manuscript in a drawer and let it rest. Same for me, sans drawer, just rest. I’ve learned that good art takes time.
Even though my angel mother grew up in the Baptist church, the “B” in HBU filled me with trepidation. I leaped with faith anyway. God played a role in my story, and I wanted to do Him justice. Still, I never imagined I would find my tribe of like minds at HBU. Now, I see God’s plan. I’ll be forever grateful for these people—my cohort and professors. They became my friends and family, encouraging and inspiring me with their ideas and insight, persistence and growth, love and prayers. All of this without judgement. Even their criticism was kind.
At HBU, I’ve learned to make time and space for my writing and for me. And I’ve realized we all feel like imposters sometimes. I’ve learned to be scared and do it anyway. And I’ve realized the power of continued progress. Anything is possible with belief and persistence. I’m still learning trust and patience in God. At the same time, I believe He is using my story in a way I never could’ve imagined.
Funny how we absorb — the good, the bad, emotions, behaviors — such is life. Things subconsciously stick. Bad things happen, I get it. But we can make choices in handling those experiences that are beyond our control. We can surround ourselves with whatever we want to absorb.
You want to be a better writer? Surround yourself with words.
Read above your usual level and absorb the techniques of the experts. Absorb their words, sentences, paragraphs, style, and structure — details of time and place, character, dialogue and gesture — inspiration and imagination, understanding of the human condition and more. Name it and notice it.
This April I’ve been devouring memoirs. Maybe you’re looking for something to read next.
This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession is the debut of Cameron Dezen Hammon. On page one, Hammon takes the stage at a suburban megachurch to sing at a funeral for a teenaged girl. Her cell phone buzzes in the pocket of her dress. It’s the man she might love, not her husband and father of her daughter. And from the opening scene, Hammon’s honesty and bravery hooked me. She grapples with misogyny in religion, infidelity in marriage, and doubt in faith. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I can’t stop thinking about this book.
Educated by Tara Westover had been on my to-read list for a couple of years. I listened to it on Audible, but I wish I had a copy. Born to Mormon survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Westover was 17 the first time she stepped into a classroom on the campus of BYU. The following passage strikes at the heart of this book and the ideology of Westover’s childhood. This conversation is the steppingstone she needs to further education—at Cambridge, then Harvard.
“By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in a room next to the kitchen. This caused a kind of crisis in me. My love of music and my desire to study it had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not, and yet they called to me. A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester. ‘If you were a woman,’ I asked, ‘would you still study law?’
Josh didn’t look up. ‘If I were a woman,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to study it.’
‘But you’ve talked about nothing but law school for as long as I’ve known you,’ I said. ‘It’s your dream. Isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ he admitted, ‘but it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.’ He smiled at me as if I knew what he were talking about, and I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds, we were in agreement.
Then, ‘But what if you were a woman and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?’
Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, ‘I’d know something was wrong with me.’
Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club was a trudge for me. There are funny and heartbreaking parts. I enjoyed Karr’s vocabulary and sentences and images, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel compelled to turn pages. In connection with the other two memoirs, all three authors goes through tough injustices. Hammon and Westover both triumph and learn something about themselves. As for Karr, I prefer her book The Art of Memoir, especially if you’re interested in writing one.
On Observing A Blossom On The First Of February 1796 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge Sweet flower! that peeping from thy russet stem Unfoldest timidly, (for in strange sort This dark, frieze-coated, hoarse, teeth-chattering month Hath borrow'd Zephyr's voice, and gazed upon thee With blue voluptuous eye) alas, poor Flower! These are but flatteries of the faithless year. Perchance, escaped its unknown polar cave, Even now the keen North-East is on its way... Source: The Golden Book Of Coleridge Copyright 1914 London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Even the sweetest of flowers weather storms.
Observe your own thoughts.
A wise woman once told me (click the link to see)—If you are angry, most likely your mind is stuck on something in the past. If you are anxious, you are probably worrying about the future.
Stop and smell the roses.
It’s not about roses, you know. It’s about staying present. Seek beauty and goodness, and you will find more of the same. And so I send you good vibes today. May the rest of April bring you joy, fulfillment, perspective, and hope.
One year ago, and for the first time ever, I blogged A-Z during the month of April as part of a challenge. I committed at the very last minute, wrote my first post A is for Apple on April 1st and posted it on the 2nd. I chose a theme of gratitude, which seemed important at the beginning of a pandemic and in keeping with the nature of my blog:
Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope.
Other than that, I didn’t have a big plan. I chose an attitude of gratitude for twenty-six days according to each letter of the alphabet and posted on the fly. It was all part of keeping my own sanity.
I missed this year’s big theme reveal day on March 8, and I read that technically I don’t have to stick to a theme. That’s what I love about blogging—freedom of voice. Whew!
This semester my MFA program comes to an end, and the deadline of my thesis looms on the horizon—April 26. Revisions continue on my memoir, a quest for help for my son who has a severe brain illness and a coming-of-age story of a middle-aged woman who realizes the only person she can truly help is herself. I see my work as a playbook of sorts for someone in my position and hope it’s relatable despite a person’s circumstances.
During the spring semester of 2021, I’ve submitted the first two-thirds for feedback from my professor, and the next third is due at the end of March.
Parts I-III: 20,650 Words and 74 Pages
Parts IV-V: 23, 271 Words and 87 Pages
Parts VI-VII: 23,882 Words and 84 pages
Grand Total Today: 67,803 Words and 245 pages
Then, two more rounds of MAJOR revisions on my part, and after that three more professionals will read for extra opinions. So I might be mad to even consider a challenge. Then again, if I go for it, I might be building my audience of potential readers when the time comes to publish Help in the Time of Schizophrenia.
This past week, I googled Dr. Wayne Dyer quotes. If you ever need inspiration, he is an amazing go-to. Anyway, while scrolling, this one spoke to me:
We tend to pity ourselves when we perceive that fate is against us. I know a person whose son battles a severe brain illness, and her house flooded from a hurricane a few years ago. Recently her mom died, and just a month later her dog died. I understand how she might say, “Poor me.” A person can dwell on those thoughts or reframe them. “We are alive. My home has been rebuilt. My memories bring comfort and joy, and I am blessed to have them.”
Both Dr. Wayne Dyer and William Wordsworth proclaim the ability to create our own realities—through thoughts and intentions. How encouraging is that idea when it comes to our writing?
We can create our thoughts: “I am a writer. I am good. I am improving.”
Our thoughts can create our intentions: “I’m going to read at least three books a month with the goal of improving my writing, and each weekday I’m going to practice writing and check in with my writing group.” Our intentions create our reality. Little by little, in the same way that Wordsworth set out one summer with the intention of crossing the Alps. He didn’t even realize he accomplished his goal. He just had the thought and showed up and put one foot in front of the other. In the words of my friend Narayan Kaudinya—
Self-pity will inevitably sneak up, self-kindness is a practice, and I know what Dr. Wayne would say—
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.
Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.
That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.
Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try. I’ve used this one before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”