September 10, 2014 § 134 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 § Leave a comment
Sundog Lit has a road-thumping, tire-biting, asphalt-meltingly wonderful new issue — (Letters from) the Road – edited by Brevity contributor Jill Talbot. We especially love the digital work by Eric LeMay (full disclosure, he’s on the Brevity Board of Directors) and the video essay by William Hoffacker, as well as work by Pam Houston, Marcia Aldrich, Lee Martin, Nicole Walker, William Bradley, B.J. Hollars … oh, cripes almighty, it would probably just be best to list the entire table of contents. As for the theme, Here’s an excerpt from Jill’s marvelous intro, followed by a link to the issue itself:
A gas station in Beatty, Nevada in 1973. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. Who knows what’s really going on here? The blue sky looks so brilliant against the yellow sunflowers in a South Dakotan summer. A flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The night train from Venice. Around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard. The road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges. A road after a flash flood in San Angelo, Texas. The stacked stones of a roadside liquor sign in Ohio. We are half-way there. Speeding the curves of a road braced by the blue light of snow…. It is staggering to be here.
September 9, 2014 § 12 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 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
As we noted earlier in the week, the annual Best American Essays now features work published online, and Brevity is way proud to have two Notable Essays listed: “Field Guide to Resisting Temptation” by Sarah Wells and “Fracking: A Fable” by Barbara Hurd. Those writer ladies make us mighty proud.
We we also noted, on that Facebook thing, that “if we were to list all of the past Brevity authors who are listed for work published last year in other fine journals, we would have a list up in the dozens.” Notice the use of ‘list’ three times in that one sentence. Anyone want to guess which moron on our staff wrote that one? Hint: He’s named for a comic strip character.
But we did it, and here they are, all of them past or forthcoming Brevity authors, all of them listed for having published Notable Essays in 2014 (by and large, in other journals, but fine journals all the same):
Karen Babine, Chelsea Biondolillo, Sven Birkerts, Frank Bures, Jill Christman, Paul Crenshaw, Renee E. D’Aoust, Brian Doyle, Philip Gerard, Robin Hemley, Sonya Huber, Barbara Hurd, BJ Hollars, Judith Kitchen, Sean Kilpatrick, Kim Dana Kupperman, Lance Larsen, Sonja Livingston, Lee Martin, Rebecca McClanahan, Brenda Miller, Dinty W. Moore, Ander Monson, Adriana Paramo, Lia Purpura, Wendy Rawlings, Mimi Schwartz, David Shields, Ira Sukrungruang, Jill Talbot, Alison Townsend, Julie Marie Wade, Nicole Walker, and Sarah Wells.
Hooray for all!
September 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
It’s easy to find encouragement to write on the internet. Go forth, brave author! It’s never too late! Lots of readers are your age! And, for the struggling memoirist, Yes, but now you have life experience and something to say.
But support for quitting? For realizing that maybe you’re not a writer, maybe that’s not your job, maybe there’s…something else?
Not so easy.
“I failed at a very high level,” writes Alison Manheim. After her MFA, a stint at a noted artist colony, three manuscripts and an agent, she hadn’t sold a book.
When this last novel failed (number three, but who’s counting?), I seethed for a bit, confident that the germ of an idea for a new project would soon surface. They always did. But this time instead of plunging into a retelling of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” set in present-day Malibu I decided I’d had enough. My ego might have weathered another book, but at 43, my body couldn’t do it anymore.
Manheim listened to her body–and made another choice.
September 3, 2014 § 1 Comment
Burlesque Press has announced its second annual Literary Festival with Keynote Speakers Joy Castro and Lee Gutkind. The Conference will be held December 28, 2014 to December 31, 2014 at the Maison St Charles, in New Orleans. Yes kids, you heard us right! Visit New Orleans for New Year’s Eve, and call it professional development.
This year’s festival theme is Silver & Gold: Wealth and Economics in Creative Writing and Literature. The Masquerade Ball will also have a silver and gold theme. Presentations are, however, invited on any aspect of creative writing and contemporary literature.
Suggested topics include, but are not limited to the following:
- Economics in Literature
- The role of wealth in fairy tales
- The use of “rags to riches” plot devices
- Creative Writing Pedagogical Issues
- Creative Writing in the Composition Classroom
- Analyses of Contemporary Literature
- Contemporary Author Spotlights
- Southern Literature Past, Present, and Future
- YA, Fantasy, Crime Fiction, and Sci-Fi
- Online and Traditional Publishing
- The Current and/or Future State of Publishing
- Individual or Group Readings of Creative Work
Students at all collegiate levels are invited and encouraged to submit proposals.
We will also feature a book section where presenters, local publishers, small presses and others are welcome to display their work. Contact email@example.com for more information.
To submit, include a brief description of your proposed panel, reading, or paper in a word document along with the names of fellow presenters or panelists and submit it free via Submittable: http://burlesquepress.submittable.com/submit/27866
To register for the conference, or to learn more about the Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball, or for any and all inquiries about the conference, please visit our website www.burlesquepressllc.com or contact the director of Burlesque Press, Jennifer Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.