December 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Happy Third Day of Hanukkah! The season’s closing in–“Festive Winter Holiday” time, as the department stores around Dubai call it–and you may be wondering what to get the writers in your life. Or someone you love has asked that horrifying question, “What do you want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Diwali*/Yule?”
…An agent, book auction and five-figure deal?
…Jesus to show up and explain pointedly, he really meant the part about taking care of the poor and the sick?
…A time machine to peek at 2020 and see if building a survival shelter in the present is a smart idea?
Sadly, none of these items are (currently) available for purchase. But there are plenty of other gifts for the writer in your life, and for you as the writer in someone else’s life.
Classic elegance: Buy their book, preferably from your local indie bookstore, but here at Brevity we also understand the desire to never leave the house again. Fortunately, Powell’s also ships. Double points: buy two and give one as a present to someone else, or leave it in a Little Free Library. Already own it? Review their book online!
Stocking-stuffer: See what books you’ve bought in the past six months but haven’t reviewed yet. Spread some goodwill around by writing some quick thoughts and clicking four or five stars. Especially if the writer is at less than 50 reviews: crossing that threshold really helps their visibility online. Copy-paste Amazon reviews to Goodreads, because every little bit helps.
Fellowship: Take a like-minded friend to a reading at your nearest bookstore, no matter who the writer is and whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. If it sucks, you’ll have text-LOLs for days. If it’s great, you’ve made a discovery. Either way, buy a copy of the book and know that it’s balm to a writer’s soul when strangers come to their reading.
Peace of mind: There is no vision more horrifying than the Blue Screen of Death. Why not gift your favorite writer a large-capacity hard drive or a subscription to a cloud backup service? When the ruin of the laptop lies before us, the sole comfort is knowing your manuscript’s safe.
Creative time: Offer to watch the babies for two hours, once a week, for a few weeks, so the writing parent can get some words down. If you’re lucky, she’ll schedule for naptime. Otherwise, enjoy looking at what the kids see, or finding out what they’re interested in. If you write YA, middle-grade or picture books, this is research–the gift that keeps on giving!
Creative tools: Have they been considering Scrivener? Final Draft? A creativity or organizing app? If you’re not sure exactly which one, there’s always an iTunes gift card, with a personal note saying you thought they liked X, but this is flexible just in case. For special bonus points, find out EXACTLY what kind of notebook they use, and stock them up on a few. (I love these red Moleskines–nice enough to feel special, not so fancy that they’re “too good to use.”) Likewise, do you know EXACTLY what kind of pen they like? Remember, a $935 pen is useless to someone whose words flow from a 17-cent Bic…and leaves them around everywhere.
Literary Citizenship: Sponsor your friend–or make a donation for scholarships–to a writing conference. Gift subscriptions of your favorite literary journals, or ones you know they’d like to be published in. We’re all supposed to be reading where we want to submit, and subscriptions aren’t cheap. Help their road to publication by getting them in the habit of reading in their venue. And Brevity is always happy to accept a donation in honor of a friend.
For yourself: If you don’t have an Amazon list, consider making one. We all try to be good writer buddies by reading for others when we can, and most of the time it’s a trade or a deposit in the favor bank against future need. But every so often, we end up doing professional-level or time-consuming work for someone we’re not comfortable billing. It’s easy to say, “I’m happy to help out, and will you get me something off my Amazon list?” They can choose whether to get you a great new book, a great used book, or that Belgian linen duvet set.
Remember, if you do some holiday shopping on Amazon, starting at Smile helps Brevity with a small percentage of your purchase at no extra cost.
And if you’re stuck awkwardly trying to tell people your desires, or wedged between “Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything” and the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, you do need to get them something? Just send a link to this post. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.
*Yes, I know Diwali was in October but it’s never to early to stock up on tea lights and gold jewelry.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.
December 13, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Shawna Kenney
After my first book was published, I visited a writing class as an invited author. Following my visit, the professor asked why I wasn’t an instructor myself. His question sparked my imagination. I was a cubicle jockey in a mind-numbing corporate job by day, a freelance writer in the wee hours, and a touring author on weekends and holidays. Teaching seemed like it would be a better fit for my writing life.
Plus, get paid to talk about stories all day? Yes, please.
I went and earned my MFA in a program with pedagogy classes and a 3-year TA-ship. I took my piece of paper and taught American Literature to Marines at Camp Lejeune, photojournalism to teenagers in a juvenile detention center, English composition to immigrant students in community colleges, developmental writing to women in a Catholic college. As an adjunct, sometimes I taught six classes at three different schools at a time, which left little time or energy for writing. Some of my colleagues taught even more. I was lucky to publish two pieces per year with that schedule. Finally I landed the classes of my dreams—memoir and personal essay, which I’ve taught online and in person now for 10 years, rarely more than one or two at a time, leaving much room for writing productivity. Between semesters I am most active, sending pitches, revising essays, and finishing books. I come back to classes armed with stories from the front—samples of editorial rounds for them to see, links to new work, and shares of disappointing rejection.
Semesters have given rhythm to my writing life. Between reading early drafts of other people’s stories, I scratch down ideas for my own to be pursued over the summer or on holiday break. They simmer in my journal and my brain until the metaphorical school bell rings. Then when the last grade is entered, I clean off my desk, file the handouts away, reorganize my books, bust out a good tea, and sit down to write. By then the words are retching up out of my gut like a looming flu virus, eager to infest the page. Of course sometimes there are also fits and starts, the proverbial “shitty first drafts,” and there’s some searching around in the dark for what it was I wanted to say, exactly. When I get stuck, I take on an editing project or take a walk. Remembering that this is my window for self-care, I get myself to yoga three times a week, schedule a massage, make more time for friends. Sometimes I brush up by taking a writing class (last summer it was sketch comedy). Inevitably, I do get words down on the page, partly because there is a syllabus in the distance calling my name.
Yogi Bhajan says, “If you want to learn about something, read it. If you want to understand something, do it. If you want to master something, teach it.” I don’t know that I have mastered anything, but between semesters, I am indeed protecting my inner life, as Lan Samantha Chang advises in her Lit Hub essay. I am teaching myself that this ebb and flow of giving and receiving words works for me.
Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers and co-author of Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
December 12, 2017 § 20 Comments
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me:
Twelve children quarreling
Eleven guests arriving
Ten addiction triggers
Nine Secret Santas
Eight dinners cooling
Seven picky eaters
Six spouses slacking
Five traaaaaa-ffic jaaaaaaams!
Four messy rooms
Three loud screens
Two touchy in-laws
And an obligation Christmas party.
I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live in a country where December is a festive shopping season. I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past ten Christmases, and this one I’ll be in Taiwan.
Not everyone is that lucky. My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”
My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”
An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three pairs of crutches in three weeks. “They’re just going to have to do overtime.”
I suspect, Gentle Reader, you have similar items on your holiday list. In-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was gone the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Writer-friends who didn’t get Cat Person.
But your holiday experience is up to you. You don’t “have to” do anything. You may not like the consequences of not doing it, but it’s still a choice.
So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list right now of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, and choose your favorites. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep and results in a carload of baked goods–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do.
All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.
What a shame our schedule filled up so much–let’s do something in January.
Our budget is gone–it just devastates me we won’t be able to make it.
Goodness, it sounds like that situation really bothers you–I hope it gets sorted out.
Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “I agree, it’s just awful how things turned out. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”
If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)
Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. It’s not even your job to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I love doing. If you’d like to plan it, let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”
Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Betty has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Sally’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.
Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, mutter “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.
And if all else fails? Hit me up. I know a great noodle shop in Taipei.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you want to hear about Taiwan, please do sign up for her bimonthly adventure news.
December 11, 2017 § 49 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
These days, not a lot of writing is happening in my life. Even at the writing retreat I had looked forward to all year, I produced very little; my school needed me—about twelve times—and my family needed me: my adult-ing daughters, my teenage son, my husband. Finally, I surrendered, realizing I would not be doing as much writing as I had hoped. We can’t choose when we are needed. I consoled myself with the idea that perhaps there would something to learn to write about later. Six weeks post-retreat, the need to write is making itself manifest a million times a day. Earlier this week, I heard myself saying to my husband, “Yes, right now,” but in my head, I had said, “Yes, write now.” Writing is everything.
Even when I am not really writing, the rhythms of my life remind me of writing or of not writing.
Awake in the middle of the night, sentences form, but I am too tired to write them down. In the morning, they are gone, geese honking in formation, headed South. Who gives the signal to land, drop back, switch formation, I wonder, hearing their honking. A few nights ago, the first freeze descended on our garden. Beneath the bathroom window, I note the herbs staggering, browned unexpectedly in their pots, branches stretched, desperate supplicants—all the writings I’ve started and abandoned.
Those abandoned projects reproach me. In the family room closet, I discover a bag of knitting, soft black wool shot through with colors–a shawl started long ago on huge needles. Some pieces call me years later, not yet finished, but patient, knowing a burst of inspiration will bring me back.
Stopped at a light, I watch a neighbor raking leaves, piling them at the curb. It’s a Sisyphean task, really. Rake, rake, scatter. I remember my Dad burning leaves in a tall metal basket, the smoke delicious at the other end of the garden where I clutch my bamboo rake, its teeth scratching across asphalt as I pretend to be Cinderella dancing with the Prince instead of doing housework for the Stepmother. I think about all the words I wish I had time to pile, one on top of the other. A gust blows a swirl of leaves into the street: all the pieces that get away.
I walk on the treadmill thinking about habit, how good it is when my writing habit and my exercise habit are integrated in my daily life, how frustrating it is when one or both lapse, how fragile my well-intentioned routines. “I am not a tumbleweed,” I counsel myself. “I have agency. Nothing is stopping me from walking, from writing. Just get on with it,” I scold myself. It sounds so easy.
I empty the dishwasher, drive our son to school, tidy piles of books and papers throughout my house, talk to my adult daughters. I am moving through my life but fretting, too, about my stalled memoir. Am I stuck because I don’t have time to dig in or am I avoiding the hard stuff?
Recently, I came into the kitchen at 5:30 a.m., started the coffee and got ready to feed the dogs. There, in front of the cabinet where we store kibble, lay a decapitated chipmunk, paws high in the air. Shrieking, I fled. On the other side of the swinging door, I felt embarrassed, trapped, helpless. I wanted to be brave, to cope calmly with this unexpected gift from our cat. Is the rodent a symbol of the tough stuff I’ve maneuvered around? Is it a call to action? There was no avoiding this corpse. I should not be afraid of small dead things, but I am. Reluctant, I climbed the stairs and rouse my sleeping husband, who is annoyed. When he understood the thing was not entirely the thing, he came downstairs. I needed to do the dishes, feed the dogs, make the coffee, I bleated. He knew what I needed was his care. I felt guilty and grateful when the small body wrapped in a blue plastic grocery bag was deposited into the kitchen trash. I spilt the basket of old coffee grounds over it, ashes to ashes, grounds to grounds.
Last Saturday I found myself with several unscheduled hours. My son was occupied, my husband napping. Could it be true? Time to write? Inclination? All those weeks flood onto the page, a dam unstopped. I’m back.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night. Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats. She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.
December 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Lizzie Klaesges
“What was I doing!?” I shrieked, shielding my face with my hands. I was flipping through old photo albums with my mom and stumbled upon a particularly embarrassing photo of my preteen self.
In the photo, I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Genuine Girl, only I put masking tape over Girl and wrote Alien in black marker. Genuine Alien. I wore this to a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser at my middle school. I was also wearing butterfly face paint.
Of course, I knew what I was doing in the picture. I didn’t have to ask. It was the time in my life when I was obsessed with aliens. Not pictured were my little alien dolls, each with full life stories of my own invention. I was a strange child.
I thought of that picture while reading Chelsea Martin’s recent collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life. The collection contains the essential stories of her childhood into young adulthood, in which she describes her younger self as a delightful concoction of strangeness. In one essay, “The Meaning of Life,” Martin reveals how she too was preoccupied by aliens. She describes her attempts to summon aliens, believing they had special knowledge far beyond human understanding. She hoped they would reward her belief in their existence and share secrets with her, most importantly the meaning of life.
The strangeness of a child normally doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but Martin finds a way to present her childhood curiosities logically and with deadpan delivery. She is honest and self-deprecating while maintaining a certain aloofness to her humor that keeps readers unflinchingly by her side. Better still, she captures not only the absurdities of the young mind but also the discomfort. A large part of growing up is the discomfort of an evolving mind, a mind which eventually recognizes former childhood notions for what they are. In the essay, “A Year Without Spoons,” Martin describes choosing to give up spoons for seemingly no reason at all, even though a part of her realizes this is an unusual choice:
I stopped using spoons one day. I was becoming weird, I knew. And it didn’t seem like the good kind of weird, like the eccentric arty weird that could be appreciated by other people. It seemed like the bad, dark kind that could unravel a person if it got out of hand.
Many of Martin’s essays unfold to reveal more tender and complex undertones. The spoons, for example, become a coping mechanism for the lack of control Martin had over her life during a time when she switched schools a lot and had no real friends. Her choice of utensil became a way to practice control and restraint and, in a way, it felt like an achievement.
Some of the many topics of Martin’s “Lowbrow Life” include her sheltered small town, troubled relationship with her stepfather, living with mild Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, meeting her biological father for the first time, attending art school, and various romantic endeavors. Martin often manages to capture the essence of her quirky former selves in just a few words. As I breezed through the pages, I was often left thinking, how did she do that?
In the essay, “Ceramic Busts,” we observe teen-Martin’s attempts at flirting with a boy named Sandy at driving school:
“My favorite Beck song is ‘Thunder Peel,’” I said. ‘The one that’s like, Now I’m rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans.
I had practiced the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I’d hoped that it would make him smile.
“Oh,” Sandy said.
After finishing driving school and leaving that town behind, having had no meaningful interactions with Sandy, Martin goes on to create many artistic renderings of him, mostly ceramic busts. She eventually submits these for her application to art school and gets accepted.
In an essay titled, “Goth Ryan,” Martin attempts to communicate through facial expression:
Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and Like at all, and Anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and But in all seriousness, I really don’t care.
Martin’s subject matter becomes more serious towards the middle of the book as she describes meeting her father for the first time at age sixteen, which she says is “an age that is known for being awkward and unbearable and confusing.” It’s already clear to readers that Martin has a difficult relationship with her stepfather, Seth, and it’s apparent early on that Martin’s relationship with her father will also be flawed to say the least. Martin strikes the perfect balance between funny and fraught while talking about her father’s relentless disapproval of her. He criticized her for everything from how much sour cream she eats with dinner to her acne.
I tried to understand what the problem was. My dad wanted to change what I did and said, and also the ways in which I did and said them, implying that possibly everything about me was, if not outright wrong, somehow off, in need of correction.
As writers, we are naturally wondering about the potential repercussions that can come from writing about people we know, especially those related to us. This, Martin addresses in her final essay, “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” in which she expresses her decision to take a break from her relationship with her dad and eventually choosing to write about him:
“You’re going to thank me one day for giving you all this material for your writing,” [My dad] said when I stopped crying.
I avoided eye contact and silently promised to never write a damned thing about him.
I love the irony here, how Martin writes about never writing about her father. She concludes the essay, and thus her collection, with: “And though I’m comforted by the fact that this past self seemed to know that it was always her story to tell or not tell, I have to admit that what she didn’t yet know is I never keep promises to myself.” I can’t help but think that this was Martin’s pre-emptive response to our pressing question: it was always her story.
Although I love Martin’s detailing of her poorer, less cultured hometown and lifestyle, this collection gives us more than simply “Essays from a Lowbrow Life,” as the subtitle suggests. These essays are also about the common rites of passage that face most of today’s young people. This book is about leaving home and coming to terms with flawed relationships. It’s about being friendless and making weird fashion choices. It’s about learning to bullshit. It’s about becoming be self-reliant and making countless mistakes along the way.
Like looking at childhood photos, this book is as uncomfortable as it is humorous. It reads like a memory we might have been a part of in another life and reminds us of our shared humanity through even the most painful times of self-discovery.
Lizzie Klaesges is a Minneapolis-based writer and marketer with recent publications in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Allegory Ridge. She definitely does not still think about aliens.
December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments
Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.
Not any more.
For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.
Here’s how it works:
At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”
Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:
- hawk died
- what if I never had kids
- the art of napping
- no longer know people in People mag
- when dad’s work bench turned messy
- birds – make them come to you
- wearing uniforms
- computer passwords
- phantom pony tail
It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.
This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.
But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.
Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.
December 6, 2017 § 1 Comment
Julija Šukys continues her interview series “CNF Conversations” this month talking with David Lazar. The discussion focuses on Lazar’s new book, I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms. Topics discussed include: the role of form in writing, lyric vs. lyrical essays, the interview as essay, the changing landscape of creative nonfiction publishing, white space, images, and what it feels like to have earned the first ever Creative Writing PhD in nonfiction.
I almost never lead with form—it’s not the way my mind works. I start with whatever I’m thinking about and see what kind of trouble I can get into. Before you try to find a way understand what it is you’re trying to defuse, I think it helps to toss in as many monkey wrenches as possible, write the most complicated version of your dilemma, your set of ideas, your confessional conundrum, whatever version of essaying you’re doing. After those feverish early drafts, that’s when form kicks in for me, as a way of creating order, cutting extraneous material, finding the heart of matter.
You can read the full interview here: http://julijasukys.com/?p=4504