September 10, 2014 § 147 Comments
What nobody tells you as an artist is that every project starts at the beginning. Not just the blank page, the empty stage, but that you have to re-establish your credentials and your quality every time. You can coast on reputation a little, but it doesn’t last long if you don’t deliver.
What nobody tells you is that praise—a standing ovation, a good review, your teacher’s approval—makes you feel good for a day, but one line of internet criticism from a stranger reverberates in your skull forever.
Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
(I tried to feel bad when that critic killed himself the next year, but I didn’t.)
What nobody tells your boyfriend is that writing 3000 words in a calm, soothing, supportive environment still leaves you too tired to call home at the end of the day. So does doing three twenty-minute shows.
And then feeling guilty about it. But not guilty enough to call.
What nobody tells you, the artist, the writer, is that spending an entire day being paid to do something you love is not the same as fun. It’s often better than fun, but it’s not fun. What nobody tells you is that spending an entire day being paid to do something you love is sometimes a lot less fun than spending an entire day doing something you love for free.
What nobody tells you is that selling out is strangely comforting. That once you’ve decided to package your product and suck a little corporate dick for the chance to show most of what you like to do but structured as a James Bond theme and wearing black and yellow because it goes with the logo, the large check that ensues will feel earned. That paying rent with your art money feels like finally growing up. That you probably can come up with five hundred words about margarine and even feel proud of making it sound like something people would eat. (Please don’t.)
What nobody tells you is that if you believe in yourself and dream big dreams you will still come in second to someone who worked hard. Or to a talentless hack related to the producer. Or to someone sleeping with the editor. Or to your best friend whom you will have to congratulate as sincerely as possible. Or to someone no better than you and there will be no reason at all.
What nobody tells you is that if you believe in yourself and dream big dreams and work hard you can accomplish anything, but if you’re willing to wear a sexy outfit while accomplishing it, or include vampires, you’ll get paid a lot more.
What nobody tells you is that you have to be the kind of person who can hear a hundred no’s before you get to yes, and that if you are not that kind of person, selling your art may not be for you. Here, let’s practice:
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. I’ll call you back. No. No. No. No. No. We went with someone else. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. My cousin will do it for free. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This did not fit our needs at this time; we sincerely wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. No. No. No. No. No. NO. No. No. No. NO. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No response means no. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. NO. Next! No. No. No. No. No. My boss said no. My editor said no. No. No. No. No. No. NO. Sorry. No. No.
Speaking editorially, we should get to ‘yes’ here, but it’s better to experience the dissatisfaction of having our expectations unfulfilled, so we can quit before dissatisfaction crushes us. Or, so we can immunize ourselves.
So we can say, I am blue. My work is blue. The blue of a thousand cerulean seas. The blue of Texas bluebells. The stunning blue of the sky from the top of the mountain. The deep blue of sapphires. The gentle blue of my mother’s eyes. The best blue.
They might want red.
And what nobody tells you is that it’s not up to you to be red, and that whether or not you want to make your blue more of a purple, or draw a crimson border around it, or pass out violet-tinted glasses to all your readers, it is a choice. Your choice. Your choice to change or stay the course, and neither of those are wrong.
It is not a cruel world full of no.
It is a beautiful world in which the one (or many) persons to whom your work–your particular, personal work–speaks are waiting for you. Waiting for you to grow, to revise, to polish, to publicize, to sell, to share. Waiting for you to make art they love and will pay for.
Go and find them.
Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.
September 9, 2014 § 13 Comments
A guest craft essay by Paul Zakrzewski on narrative drive in the segmented memoir:
Recently, I found myself re-reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, a fabulous memoir-in-fragments about marriage and motherhood. And once again, I’m struck by a contradiction at the heart of the book:
How does the author create such narrative drive, such a fully realized portrait of a life, in a memoir whose form would appear to undercut these achievements?
Even if you don’t know Abigail Thomas’s memoir, it’s likely — especially if you’ve gotten an MFA in the past – you’ve heard it name-check. It’s one of those more experimental books, like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which make the rounds in CNF courses. You know, the ones advisers push on you during conferences. The ones your classmates urge you to read in their manuscript margin notes.
The book is comprised of dozens of short sections—some four or five pages, others as brief as a single sentence. And while characters and motifs reoccur, each vignette is self-contained, so that at first glance the book looks more like a collection of prose poems. A disjointed one at that, with jumbled chronology, so there’s often years, sometimes decades, between sections.
Then there’s the narrator herself, frequently switching between past and present tense, or between first- and third-person.
With all that lack of connective tissue, all that shifting of tenses and point-of-view, you’d expect the narrative flow to be constantly disrupted.
Quite the opposite, though. Both times I’ve picked it up, the experience of reading Safekeeping has been the same: the gaps fall away, much the same way as clacks on a speeding train smooth themselves out.
How does Thomas accomplish this?
In at least four ways:
- Tight thematic control. As students of the genre are often reminded, the secret to a good memoir is some kind of focus—a subject, theme, or era, for example. Here, the narrator is squarely focused on the subject of grief. In a terrific essay called “Getting Started,” Thomas recounts how the book’s experimental form grew out an intense period of reflection:
When I began writing Safekeeping, which is, for lack of a better word, a sort of memoir, I had no idea in hell what I was doing, all I knew was I couldn’t stop. What were these little pieces I was feverishly scribbling? They had started coming a few weeks after an old friend died, a man I’d been married to once upon a time, someone I’d known half my life. The pages piled up.
The power of that grief is what pulls things together, giving the book its emotional stake, its sense of urgency.
- A strong narrative persona. Married for the first time at 18, remarried at 27—Abigail Thomas’s life was full of wrong turns. She’s got a lot of living under her belt. Yet the narrator here keeps things light and crisp, avoiding the trap of becoming overly self-judgmental. Instead, here the persona is vulnerable, startlingly honest, unsentimental, wry, and above all, entertaining.
In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes how great memoirs feature a “truth-telling” narrator. We trust the voices of writers like George Orwell or J. R. Ackerley or Annie Dillard because they seem so honest and self-aware. Thomas’s is one of these.
- Effective use of reflection. By nature, I fall more on the side of meditative essays than memoir. I don’t think in terms of scenes, at least not initially, but I can cogitate endlessly. It used to get my essays all tied up in knots. One thing that’s helped is to understand that reflection is more effective when it arises directly from action in scenes. As in this example, toward the beginning of Safekeeping:
…She looks at her watch. Two-thirty in the morning. She is tired, but nothing is wasted, she uses it to remember the old days. Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master. She looks out her window, uptown, at the water towers, at the squares of light in other windows. Where a man she hadn’t met back then, a man she was about to meet, a man whom she would love and hate and love again, a man with whom she would spend the next thirty years, give or take, has died. Died. It seems impossible. She can almost see his windows from her window. She can almost hear his voice. Anything might happen. She doesn’t want to go to bed.
Apart from some breathtaking lines (“Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master”), notice how Thomas weaves reflection in and out of specific moments. It’s nearly seamless.
- Strong endings. Thomas uses the short section or vignette as the basic building-block of her book. But like chapters or scenes in a more conventional memoir, each of these builds toward some epiphany, some moment of resolution. This propels the reader forward. Here’s one example, titled “Something Overheard,” in its entirety:
It was at a party in what was to become SoHo, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn’t catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, ‘Oh honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security.” Everybody laughed, but I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. What was so funny? What did it mean?
Now I get it.
Notice how that long sentence at the beginning pushes forward, not just setting the scene but filling in telling details, growing more specific as it tumbles along. That, along with the repetition in the final sentences, sets us up for the narrator’s epiphany.
Thomas is also a master at conveying the multiplicity of time. Phrases like “…where a man she hadn’t met yet” and “what was to become Soho” create a bumping, vertiginous, cinematic rush. Even as we’re pinned to the here and now, memory reaches across many other moments in time.
* * *
Thematic control, a truth-telling persona, the effective use of reflection, strong endings. These elements are the building blocks of good memoir writing. Haven’t I been studying and reading about each of these for years? In countless workshops?
I just didn’t get it while I was reading Safekeeping the first time. I mean, I noticed some of these, but I was much more transfixed by the book’s unusual form.
Now I get it.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more about his SoCal writing workshops at http://www.pzak.net/workshops.
September 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Some of the bravest and most memorable memoir and creative nonfiction were never intended as “literary” or even meant for publication. But the honesty and openness of those who are about to die, saluting a specific or an imagined reader, are powerful on paper.
From Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s last letter to their sons:
Only this morning it looked like we might be together again after all. Now that his cannot be, I want so much for you to know all that I have come to know.
Unfortunately, I may write only a few simple words; the rest your own lives must teach you, even as mine taught me. At first, of course, you will grieve bitterly for us, but you will not grieve alone. That is our consolation and it must eventually be yours.
September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments
We were barely unpacked from our summer vacation in Southampton, consumed with reopening Brevity submissions and screaming at the new interns to take their feet off the mahogany desks in our recently-renovated corporate towers, when we received notice of the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.
We plan to read the entire issue once we’ve unpacked all the seashells and surplus cases of champagne, but we did dive into Ned Stuckey-French’s brilliant essay on the essay, “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” Not only is Ned an absolutely essential resource on the tradition of nonfiction and the essay going all the way back to that peculiar French guy wrote about his own body odor, he also just saved us about an hour the next time we teach a workshop and someone asks, “Can you define those terms?” Here’s an excerpt followed by a link to the full and amazing and thoroughly fascinating essay:
The personal essay arrived almost two millennia after Aristotle wrote the Poetics, and after several centuries of perhaps too much universality and church doctrine, too many answered questions, too much deferral of particularity and the self, and too little democracy. As a consequence, Montaigne flipped Aristotle’s assertion, arguing instead, “Chaque homme porte la form entire de l’humaine condition,” or “Each man [or person] carries [or bears] the entire form [or impress, or stamp] of the human condition.” For Montaigne, history isn’t less than poetry, because history carries the universal within it. Any living individual can represent the whole of humanity, the possibilities within each of us. Montaigne did not apologize for himself and his new approach, but laid down a challenge instead: “If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves.”
The essay sits somewhere between an edited, organized, largely voiceless, researched, fact-based, history-based article and a narrated, made-up, speculative, climactic, imaginary story. It offers a third way, another way to find everyone’s story in one person’s story. The personal essay differs from the inverted checkmark story in that it doesn’t tell (or just tell) the story of an event. Instead it lets you into what a particular person thinks about an event…or a subject, person, place or problem. It offers – or essays – an answer to a question, a question such as “What is an essay?” As a consequence, an essay is more digressive and meandering than a story. It may be a story, says Hoagland, but it is the story of a mind thinking.
Read “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” at Assay.
August 31, 2014 § 3 Comments
August 28, 2014 § 10 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore was invited to participate in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR by Thaddeus Gunn, a truly remarkable individual (ask him sometime about Kurt Cobain’s ashes) who also happens to be a kick-ass writer, and author of essays such as “My Life With The Bat Children” and “Slapstick.” Thaddeus was invited by Lauren Westerfield, newly-minted Assistant Essays editor at The Rumpus, Beyond that, the lineage isn’t sure, though we do know (from an authority) that Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat Judas and Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar.
Dinty’s answers to the four Blog Tour questions follow below, and his nominations come after that:
1) What are you working on?
I’m finishing revisions on a book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: A Writing Guide of Sorts, or, Curious Meditations on Life, Love, Cannibals, and the Imminent Polar Bear Apocalypse, to be published in 2015 from Random House/Ten Speed. Among the odd things about this book is that one of the chapters is an essay written entirely on cocktail napkins – written in a bar, in fact – and the Ten Speed editors want revisions, so I have to go back to that bar (poor me), steal more napkins, and revise. I am also working on a new essay, about how our sinuses work and why they produce so much awful goop. Sounds fascinating, eh?
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Um, bar napkins?
3) Why do you write what you do?
Partly, because certain things fascinate me and writing about a subject is a way for me to explore my fascination and expand my understanding. Partly, especially in the work that I do that is classified (or could be classified, if someone were so inclined) as humor, I write to amuse myself. I hope that I amuse others as well. I also had a screwed-up childhood, which is nothing unique, but every screwed-up childhood is screwed-up slightly differently, so I write about mine and try to assess the ongoing damage.
4) How does your writing process work?
I am a stubborn writer, and that is the only reason I’ve survived and published stuff. I write horrible first drafts, disappointing second drafts, third drafts that show little promise, and fourth drafts that whisper “kill me, kill me” in a strange, squeaky voice. But I don’t kill them. I keep revising, until some glimmer of an interesting phrase, or idea, or image, starts to raise out of the pile of incoherent words.
My Nominations for the next leg of the BLOG TOUR:
I’ve nominated two dumb guys and two smart women, even though I’m only supposed to nominate three people. Read below and my reasoning will become crystal clear:
Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner are so stupid it takes two of them to run one blog, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. Set aside for a moment the fact that Bill is the author of nine books, has won both the Flannery O’Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize, and is about to embark on a nationwide book tour for his newest, The Remedy for Love, or that Dave is also author of nine books, including The Tarball Chronicles, winner of numerous awards, including the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012, the truth is these two guys are pretty much the Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers of literary nonfiction. Neither can operate a digital camera, so their blog author photos are hand-drawn by Gessner. How lame is that?
Eva Langston blogs at In the Garden of Eva. She has published prose and poetry in a wide array of outstanding literary journals, recently landed an agent to sell her first novel, and in addition to writing, tutors Ukrainian students by Skype, designs match curriculum for teachers, and practices a lot of yoga.
Sonya Huber, another smart blogger, has published two outstanding books of creative nonfiction, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and Opa Nobody, as well as a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. She teaches in the Department of English at Fairfield University and once made me laugh a lot in front of Joe “Fredo Corleone” Mackall.
August 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
Dani Shapiro writes for The New Yorker on how forging a literary memoir is different from posting to social media, which can often feel “thin and undigested, a skimming over of data rather than a deep sink into the specificity and emotional reality of human experience.” Here is an excerpt followed by a link to her powerful, brilliant, brief piece:
My parents were in a car crash in 1986 that killed my father and badly injured my mother. If social media had been available to me at the time, would I have posted the news on Facebook? Tweeted it to my followers as I stood on line to board the flight home? Instead of sitting numbly on the plane, with the help of several little bottles of vodka, would I have purchased a few hours of air time with Boingo Wi-Fi and monitored the response—the outpouring of kindness, a deluge of “likes,” mostly from strangers? And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?
Dani Shapiro’s full piece can be read here.