One Writer’s Covid Holidaze

December 6, 2021 § Leave a comment

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By Jessica Gigot

Most people close to me know I have always been a fan of the holidays. The “don’t play holiday music before Thanksgiving” was made for me. I inherited a love of all things Christmas from my Catholic, mid-western Nana and as my parents, sister and I moved around the country (eventually settling outside of Seattle) I brought her seasonal verve with me.

Fast forward to December 2020. I am home with my husband and two daughters, both under five. We are not traveling to see any extended family in-person because of the pandemic and we’ve pretty much been isolated since March. My second poetry book came out in November 2020 and I’m trying to finish a memoir, but my creative time has taken a backseat to online-Kindergarten and tracking the daily Covid cases in our county. After a stressful election and way too much news-watching, I hit a breaking point.

“I am going to holiday so hard this year.”

After I randomly blurted this out to my husband, I remember being confused. What does that even mean? True, we had established some new traditions with our own children over the previous few years, ones that helped me rekindle my sense of excitement for the season with them, but this felt different.

Then, somewhere deep within my body, I unleashed my inner holiday behemoth. It started, at first rather innocently, with a few quarts of eggnog for coffee. Then a Hallmark holiday movie or two after the kids went to bed. After Thanksgiving, though, I really let loose. Reindeer antlers and red nose for the minivan, house lights!, a Christmas tree (before December), wreathmaking, matching family holiday pajamas, cookie decorating, gingerbread house plans, more holiday movies, drives around town to look at lights!, and a detailed Christmas menu weeks in advance which included a homemade yule log. I even took a few Zoom piano lessons (something I hadn’t done since childhood), so I could tickle the ivory with my own jazzy rendition of “Winter Wonderland.”

In my mind it was all “for the kids,” but now I am not sure. While these experience did offer joy, I am also concerned I might have been quite delusional. Am I ok? Are we all ok? What the hell happened this past year? Why am I in this tent of a nightgown covered in gnomes carrying present to other gnomes holding candy canes?

Bessel A. van der Kolk writes in his groundbreaking book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, “Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality.” I think the most common phrase of 2020 (besides “You’re muted”) was “Is this really happening?” and it’s a question that has unfortunately spilled over into 2021 with the dramatic resurgence of Covid cases.

Divisions over truth, fact, and what is actual reality continue, manifesting in real-time, public debate over vaccinations and masks and we will not fully understand the emotional impacts of these divisions, within communities and families and football teams, for a while.

While I don’t really believe my deep dive into all things holiday was that horrible, I do realize that I was in fact reacting to a long and hard year—widespread societal and personal trauma. I diverted all of my remaining creative energy into the “festivities” instead of sitting down to write and maybe that is okay. Maybe I really needed a break from my own reality?

I eventually finished the memoir and am slowly adding poems to a new poetry manuscript. While I might tone it down this holiday season, I do think that my 2020 holidaze was healing in a strange way and I entered 2021 ready to recommit to my writing process. Like many author-mothers, I am still just trying to do the best that I can. Keeping sane and keeping my family healthy feels like its own full-time job.

Although the holidays might feel slightly more normal this year, perhaps we all need to go easy on ourselves. To weep and grieve the many that have died. To celebrate the brave frontline workers that have saved so many lives. What we discover might not be easy, but instead of running for more tinsel try to sit with that unease a bit. That is what I am trying to do.

Let it snow. Let this year lead us into the next and let the lessons of staying home, of sacrificing, of so many canceled plans, seep in. We are all still surviving one day at a time.
_____

Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and wellness coach. She lives on a small, sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour (Wandering Aengus Press, 2020) won a Nautilus Award and was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Jessica’s writing and reviews appear in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, and Poetry Northwest and she is currently a poetry editor for The Hopper. Her memoir, A Little Bit of Land, will be published by Oregon State University Press in 2022. Find her on Twitter at @shepherdessjess

My Dark Passenger: The Secret Torment of a Writer

December 3, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

It’s unsettling to empathize with a serial killer, even a fictional one, but here we are. I’m watching the Dexter reboot on Showtime with a newfound perspective on the lead character’s inner conflict. Dexter is driven to kill, an urge he calls his “Dark Passenger.” I’m struggling lately to come to terms with my own Dark Passenger — the shadow self of my writer’s identity. My desire to write, submit and get published has spawned the twin demons of imposter syndrome and intense fear of missing out, and the more I accomplish, the worse it gets.

Though I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years, I’m new to lit pubs, journalism and the writing community. I enjoy my work as a freelance healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant, but for years felt an itch to expand creatively. I secretly dreamt of writing a memoir, but had no idea how to begin. Then the pandemic upended life and shook my priorities like a snow globe.

I joined an online journaling community and began sharing personal essays. I made friends who invited me into not-so-secret Facebook writers’ groups and felt a connection I was unaware I’d been missing. I found a memoir coach, started my book, took a Zoom course to learn how to pitch editors, and landed my first major byline.

The night I got that acceptance I had my first encounter with my Dark Passenger. I was on social media chatting with friends. Several of us had pitched the same editor after he spoke with our class, but so far none had heard back. Then the first of our group posted her exciting news: he said yes. I was happy for her. Then another friend posted. She also got a yes.

An ugly emotion tickled my brain. Jealousy. I wanted in. It was a wholly separate feeling from my genuine excitement for the others, but it was real. I joined my husband and daughter to watch TV, distractedly checking my phone. And then it happened. The editor emailed. He loved my pitch and wanted my story. In one hour, my emotions had run the gamut from happy to envious to self-pitying to exhilarated. Was this normal?

My taste of success ignited my curiosity to learn more, experiment, be bold. But it was my involvement with the writing community that lit a fire under me and fueled my ambition. It’s no different than when I learned to play tennis — I challenged myself to play with people better than me, and it forced me to level up.

Engaging with more experienced and accomplished writers inspires me to push hard and aim high. I’m a competitive person. I don’t want to be the fangirl relegated to the sidelines, cheering and handing out snacks. I want to be on the court, crushing balls and celebrating points. I’ll still be cheering the other players, but I’ll be fully in the game.

All of this is healthy, right? Yes and no. What I didn’t anticipate was the anxiety that would spread like black mold in the shadow of my desire. Every acceptance, every piece published, is an adrenaline rush — but like any good high, it eventually wears off and leaves me wanting more. And while I love the marathon commitment of writing memoir, the finish line is far in the distance. In the meantime, I see the mileposts of fellow writers getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “I don’t belong here.”

When Dexter’s hunger to kill intensified until he could no longer ignore the urge, he channeled it the best way he knew how: by following a strict moral code and killing only violent criminals who had escaped justice. Once satiated, his Dark Passenger would go quiet for a period of time.

Each time I’ve been published, I’ve basked in the glow of accomplishment, reassured I haven’t lost momentum, that my license to write wouldn’t be revoked. I could shift back to other priorities until the pressure started building again.

Did I just compare my urge to be published to the obsessions of a vigilante serial killer? Sadly, I did. Because here is my ugly truth. For me, it’s not enough to write. I crave the visibility that simultaneously terrifies me. I want to connect to strangers through language. I need the validation of a yes. And when I don’t feed that hunger, it turns cannibalistic, eating at my confidence. My own Dark Passenger, whispering in my ear:

“That brilliant idea you had in the shower? Someone else is submitting it right now.”

“It’s been months since that editor ran your story. She’s already forgotten you.”

“Everyone you know has work coming out. What have you done lately?”

My FOMO is real, but I’m learning to channel it in a positive way.

I can challenge myself to collect rejections. The more I send out, the better my odds — plus, submitting regularly makes each attempt less fraught.

I can remember to have fun. Having a separate source of income frees me to approach creative writing with a sense of adventure. I can explore different genres or go after moonshot pitches, knowing my writing group will be there to cheer my efforts or commiserate with my setbacks.

I can recognize that writing is not a zero-sum game. There’s an endless need for content and room for all of us. I can be inspired by the gorgeous work of other writers and motivated by their success, knowing that ultimately, every writing path is unique.

______

Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, The Manifest-Station and more. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant and once had a column about hooping. The hula kind. Abby is currently writing a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.

No Really, How Many?

December 2, 2021 § 6 Comments

A memoirist recently shared her querying frustration: “An agent really liked my work, but said I didn’t have enough platform. But I have a website and I’m on Twitter and Instagram!”

Out of curiosity, I checked. The author’s website showed she wrote occasional humor pieces, loved knitting and had two dogs. She’d published on a couple of literary blogs. On Twitter she had 400 followers; on Instagram she had 185. Nothing in any location suggested she’d written an intimate, soulful memoir about Culturally Relevant Topic.

When Ashleigh Renard (platform expert and author of SWING) and I co-host The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, we’re frequently asked for numbers. How many clicks make a “viral essay”? How many followers show an agent you have “platform”? How many places do you have to publish? How many years will you have to do this?

You knew this was coming: “It depends.”

Followers can be bought, so numbers don’t tell the whole story. Followers can be generated through #writerlifts, in which everyone agrees to follow everyone else and some of them actually do. If you’ve seen Twitter accounts with 20K followers / 19K following, those are not meaningful numbers. People have followed back politely, not because they’re interested in what the many-followed person has to say. What matters more is engagement—how often do people have a (short) conversation with you online? How often do they comment on your photo, not just click a heart? How often do you share information related to your topic, your writing or your book? Does that information get reshared, or discussed even outside your own feed?

Plenty of people have sold books without being on social media. Plenty of people have sold books with 100K followers. Plenty of people with 100K followers haven’t sold a book.

I know all this, Allison, I hear you cry through the ether, but please just give me a number!

  • If you’re writing memoir, it helps to be connected to readers who will later spread the word about your book, at least ten thousand of them. This can be across social media, newsletter, other types of mailing list, public speaking/teaching, or establishing yourself as an expert in your topic. Many of your followers will overlap…so aim for a total of around 50K engaged followers.
  • If you’re writing self-help, business, or wellness (or your memoir focuses on one of those angles) you must have at least one very large following, which could be 100K+ on any single social media platform, YouTube, a podcast, or speaking regularly to groups of 1000+ whose ticket price includes a copy of your book.
  • If you’re writing a “big idea” book (like Malcolm Gladwell’s work) or narrative nonfiction, you mostly need bylines in significant media, like the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harpers, etc. Places where you’re demonstrating that your work appeals to a wide range of people who are ready to have Opinions about your topic.
  • A “viral” essay is 100K plus views, often more.

But I’m going to self-publish!

That’s great! Do you want people to purchase and read your book? Do you want to reach the people who need your message? Every publisher needs platform, even if that publisher is you. Self-publishers would be wise to start with at least half the numbers above.

Two things sell books: interest in the topic and recognition of the author. “Building platform” is simply making as many people as possible aware that you’re writing something they care about, so when your book baby hits the shelf the bookstore aisle will be full of people stopping, saying, “Hey! I’ve heard about that author!” and buying your book. The sneaky algorithms that pump ads into your social feeds and your Google searches are also looking for authors they’ve heard of, writing about subjects of interest. For both people and numbers, your continued, engaged presence in the world is how you become someone they’ve heard of.

Very often, authors publish widely and consistently for several years before landing a book deal. Humorists write columns, or they get their work into the world so someone will let them write a column. (To see what working towards getting a column looks like, follow Lucie Frost on Instagram/Twitter, where she shares fun facts, regularly, in a specific voice.) Literary writers publish essays. Commercial writers publish magazine articles. Very, very few writers generate one magical, beautiful book and publish on the strength of the writing alone. Are you better than Joan Didion? Go for it! But if you’re not, if you know your writing is still growing but your subject is important, focus on making the most of the platform you have.

  • A clean, well-designed website that shows your topic clearly, and establishes your expertise and/or skilled interest.
  • Social media on which you appear regularly and engage in discussions.
  • Getting short pieces into the world, then sharing the best quotes through your newsletter or social media.
  • Starting a spreadsheet NOW for the mailing list you’ll be able to start in 18 months.

Platform takes time and effort to build, and yes, takes away from your writing time. But the good news is, you can do 15 (focused) minutes a day for two years, listening to your audience, caring deeply about other people having the same experience, adding topics as you discover them…and your platform will gradually assemble itself.

Ashleigh Renard and I will be going more in depth on Making the Most of the Platform You Have on the next Writers Bridge, Tuesday December 7th at 1PM EST. It’s always free, always recorded, and you’ll get the Zoom link by signing up here.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of SEVEN DRAFTS.

Go Ahead. Prompt Me.

December 1, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino 

I once took a delightful prose workshop from a noted essayist and poet. His opening prompt was single word, an entry in his word-a-day calendar, and he required us to use it in the writing assignment: GORGONIZE. I was unfamiliar with the word, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect.  I found myself writing about two rustics who found a word-a-day calendar at Walmart in a remainder bin and used the words they’d learned – often improperly, always unsuccessfully – in pick-up lines directed to college women at a bar. After stumbling home a bit inebriated, the younger of the boys was excoriated by his mother for drinking. “Do not gorgonize me with them yellow eyes,” he spat at her, causing her to back off immediately.  

Using both the assigned word and the real-life circumstance of its discovery – a calendar – in my piece made for a satisfying writing experience, even if it wasn’t the best prose I’d ever written. This experience launched new thinking about prompts; how minimal the spark can be to light up a piece of writing. Finding an obscure, highfalutin word remains for me an occasional way to break a logjam, a portal to freewriting when I am unsure what to write on a given day.

At the other end of the spectrum is David Means’ wonderful short story “Depletion Prompts” (New Yorker, November 1, 2021), written entirely in prompts generated by the narrator himself. They are so highly specific that the prompts themselves form not only a complete story, but also a meta-story about the insecurities of the writing process.

In nonfiction, I have relished using photographs and postcards as prompts, sometimes focused on what is shown in the picture, sometimes on what hovers just behind or beyond it. An old postcard from the Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago catapulted me into a story about my German great-grandfather’s early days in the U.S. A discomfiting polaroid of me in fifth grade seated next to my teacher, Sister Mary Alphonso, bore fruit in a creative nonfiction story about the spelling bee in that class, the photo taken shortly after my crushing defeat.

Often it isn’t what’s in the picture that’s interesting, but what occurred beyond its edges, either in space or in time. Responding to a prompt to write about what isn’t seen in a photo I chose, I wrote about the eventual cancers of the three relatives in it, and my food memories before and during their illnesses, in a recently-published essay called “Cancer Buffet.”

Some prompts encourage the writer to combine unrelated material. For example, one instructor asked workshop participants to combine a childhood memory with a story from the news, from a different era than the memory, that has stayed with the writer. Sometimes it’s futile to force a combination, but I saw at least one magical result in that workshop, from an eighteen-year-old just starting to write.

Most of us who write occasionally from prompts use these middle-ground approaches, prompts that provide a set of instructions somewhere between word-a-day and David Means, and they’re not hard to find. Workshops frequently include prompts. Writing texts often contain them. Entire books can be found comprised solely of prompts. In my experience, they don’t often result in a polished, saleable piece of work, but can be helpful fuel, warming a writer towards creativity and productivity. At their worst, they hem the writer in. Breaking free of such prompts isn’t an act of subversion so much as an act of liberation. 

With that in mind, here’s a prompt for today: Choose a postcard in which the picture has no obvious connection to your life, such as a postcard of artwork from a gallery. Salvador Dali’s art works well here. Now open a dictionary to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word until you land on a noun. Finally, select a relative, living or dead, whose story you’d like to tell.  Beat at low speed until combined; then increase your mixer to high speed and continue until the ingredients form a silky-smooth amalgam. You may not use “amalgam” as your noun. You may not substitute Salvador Dali for your family member, unless he was a family member, in which case you may not use a postcard of his artwork. If Dali’s artwork reminds you of your life, please substitute a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” If that reminds you of your life, please don’t write today.
___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.

Don’t Give Us Anything Today

November 30, 2021 § 36 Comments

It’s Giving Tuesday! A hyped-up commercialized day of charity to balance out the hyped-up commercialized days of shopping! You’re probably getting exhortations from every nonprofit you’ve ever lent your email to, plus the charities who bought your email from them. It’s inbox hell.

Brevity does not want your money today.

Instead, consider the spirit of Giving Tuesday: if you have, give. But for your author friends and your literary community, the gift of your time and attention is far more valuable than a monetary donation. In that spirit, here’s Brevity’s wishlist of Mostly Free Acts of Literary Citizenship for Giving Tuesday:

Free, 10 minutes or less

  • Google an author friend’s name or scroll their social media, and comment on their most recent blog post/article/essay. Let them know someone is reading.
  • Pick a quote you like from your friend’s book or essay and post it on your social media. Tag them. If you know how to schedule Tweets, pick three friends and do one a week between now and Christmas.
  • Phone your local library and request they order your friend’s book.

Free, 20 minutes or less

  • Write a note to an author/writer friend you admire, and tell them why.
  • Whatever app, gadget, or process makes your writing life easier, write 50-100 words about why. Send it to Brevity [ brevitymag+blog (insert @ symbol) gmail.com and yes that’s a plus sign] with WRITING HACK in the subject line and we’ll do a round-up of writing-life hacks in the weeks to come.

Takes More Effort But More Rewarding:

  • Write a review of a new, small-press book for your or someone else’s blog
  • Contact your favorite literary podcast and say you’d like to see the author on it (with two reasons why they’d be great!)
  • Offer to read a friend’s manuscript or exchange pages when you both need feedback

Under $20

  • Buy a friend’s book. If it doesn’t interest you, put it in someone else’s Christmas basket
  • Subscribe to a literary magazine you’d like to be published in (win-win!)
  • Take a chance on a new author—tell your local indie bookstore what you enjoy, and ask what they recommend (bonus points: relationship-building with the store that will one day be recommending your book!)

They’re small things. But they’re not insignificant. As humans, we minimize ourselves and our impact. Particularly in these times, our focus is so strongly on survival and protecting those closest to us, it’s difficult to take outward actions, to engage in a world that has become so actively hostile to our ideals. We tend to think, How much does my compliment matter? Does anyone care what I think?

It does.

We do.

And each time we take action to benefit a friend—or wish a stranger well—we take one tiny step towards our own happiness. In a challenging time, feeling our own power to do good, even in tiny doses, can reaffirm our faith in ourselves, in each other, and in our literary world.

You matter.

Your writing matters.

Your opinion, your thoughts, and your inherent membership in our community matters.

Step forward with your words.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

TYPO

November 29, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Adam Patric Miller           

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Wow. I stopped writing. Funny how that goes. I have something to work with in all the entries up to today, but I’m too tired and irritated to think about going in to shape it up. That will be the summer. Literary time moves so slow you might be dead before things pick up. Met Toby Wyatt at Momus Café to discuss strategy to become the English Dept. Chair—a job I don’t want. But Brad is so bad, he’s causing damage to students. And with Molly Sauereisen as language arts coordinator, she’s trying to fuck up the core books we teach. Why do I care? Should I care? I’m busy collecting agent rejections. Here’s one: “I’ve reviewed your submission with Jonathan and I’m sorry to report that we just aren’t wholeheartedly connecting with your work, despite its many charms. So, we should step aside. We truly appreciate the look, though, and we wish you nothing but the best of luck.” Here’s what I think. That book has zero charms. Scary thought: the book I’ve written is not what I think I’ve written. It is a sugary confection. It is charming and fun. At some point the dementia set in but I kept writing, like now. There have been intimations. I’ll type an email, re-read it, and see typos—I mean extreme typos I used to never make. Or I’ll be talking to class about what is due on Friday—to remind them—and they’ll all tell me, “You said Monday!” Friday, Monday, Monday, Shmunday. I wish me best of luck. Today I’m teaching the end of Mrs. Dalloway. I’ve concocted a Party Quiz—if you don’t know the book, it ends with the snob Mrs. Dalloway throwing her party and the Prime Minister shows up, but, you know, so does Death. I think I tell my students Virginia Woolf thought she heard birds singing in Greek. The hallucination one character has seems too familiar to me. Grace says, “Don’t make everything about you.” And I say, “What else do I have?” I know what she means of course. But Septimus sees his friend blown up in WWI; Dad’s buddy died at Iwo Jima. None of those things happened to me. I remember a funeral for a student. The student’s mom stared at me after I looked at her son in the coffin. She wasn’t crying. Her eyes were filled with the black ink of rage.
___

Adam Patric Miller is the author of A Greater Monster (2014), a collection of essays selected by Phillip Lopate to win the Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize. He’s won a Pushcart Prize and a Notable Essay Selection in The Best American Essay Series. Miller’s work has appeared in River Styx, The Blue Earth Review, Agni Magazine, and The Florida Review. Miller writes and teaches in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @patric_adam

Your Memoir Is a Turkey

November 25, 2021 § 8 Comments

Your memoir is a turkey. The surprisingly beautiful plumage, the majestic strut, the delicious meat beneath the feathers, the hidden goodness all the way down to the bones.

So often, to get to that goodness, we need an axe. As with turkeys, memoirs often call for dismemberment of the past, careful plucking, and a great deal of dressing to present the important parts for the feast. Garnishes. Good china. All so your vaccinated friends can gasp in admiration and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Cousin Sue.

Our holidays this year (again!) take extra effort for community. Effort, perhaps, saved from shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, and the forced gaiety of a table full of kin instead of family-of-choice. This year, anyone you’re seeing, you’re seeing on purpose.

We see you. We share this strange and challenging time, and we’re glad you’re our community. Glad you read, glad you write, glad you share your words with us, and Brevity’s words with your friends.

Thank you for contributing to our mission with your talent, your attention, your monetary contributions and your time.

And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. We’re here for you. Thank you for being here with us.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Brevity

On Procrastination

November 24, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Geoff Watkinson

In 1997, Charlie Rose asked David Foster Wallace, who had just received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship grant, how Wallace would spend his year off. “If past experience holds true,” Wallace responded, “I will probably write an hour a day and spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.” I identify with this creative anxiety—of the invading despair of a whole day turning into a seemingly unproductive haze, a procrastination stupor. I forget, however, that some of the greatest minds struggle with procrastination. Wallace was a television fiend. This makes me feel better.

When I have days of consistent writing, it is usually because I’m in the routine of identifying topics that I’m curious about, and then jumping down the rabbit hole, researching, taking notes, pulling out quotes, watching a documentary, or calling a writer friend for suggestions. And then I sit down to start the writing, likely without knowing my destination, but trusting the process—the journey. More is always revealed, and this is what makes me excited about writing.

When I have days of inconsistent writing—or not writing at all—I can become irritable and restless, switching between cooking and doing laundry and watching Netflix and going grocery shopping and getting a haircut, and, at the end of the day, it seems that nothing has been accomplished except errands that didn’t really need to get done at all. Creativity is elusive. Motivation is fleeting. Procrastination reigns in one form or another.

In an essay for BBC’s Creativity Collective, Loizos Heracleous and David Robson write “…that creative insights are much more likely to occur after a period of ‘incubation’—in which you focus on something entirely different from the job at hand, while your brain works away behind the scenes. This could include taking a walk, doing household chores or having a shower. Even our procrastination at work—such as watching funny YouTube videos—may be helpful for our problem solving, provided it is done in moderation.” Simple, short-term distractions are catalysts for stimulating creativity. The science says that I’m marinating my ideas while I’m washing the car or making a sandwich. My issue is that bit about moderation. Procrastination can be an aggressive cancer, attacking creativity, overtaking my ability to continue at all.

Procrastination at work has as much to do with the intention—or lack thereof—of an individual’s procrastination. Aditya Shukla, an Applied Psychologist who runs Cognition Today, writes about the two forms of procrastination: active and passive. Shukla writes that “active procrastination means you choose to delay working on a task because you like to work under pressure and that lets you perform better. Passive procrastinators,” however, “are often crippled by indecision and an inability to self-regulate—that gets in the way of completing a task.” This is the same concept that Heracleous and Robson at the BCC propose: “…a period of incubation allows us to gain some psychological distance from our task. When you spend a long time focusing on one problem, you can become fixated on certain obvious solutions. A period of incubation should help you to widen your mental focus so that you can make connections and come back to the problem with a new perspective.” The trick is being aware of procrastination and inviting it into the creative process instead of allowing it to overtake the process entirely.

The research supports the conclusions of both articles. Research finds that “active procrastinators delayed their work just as much as passive procrastinators, but the former group had a better GPA, higher life-satisfaction, more purposeful use of time, and higher self-efficacy. Of all measured variables among the 3 groups [active procrastinators, passive procrastinators, and non-procrastinators], active procrastinators had the highest self-efficacy which suggests they strongly believe in their ability to successfully complete their work and have the confidence that their “process” works.” Prior to sitting down and writing, I try to let the concept of the piece I’m about to write marinate. But during the pandemic, this changed. Passive procrastination overtook my creative process, leading to stress and anxiety and insecurity. I stopped writing. I didn’t think I could write anymore.  

I am reminded of E.B. White, made famous by Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, but one of the great essayists of the twentieth century. In an interview in The Paris Review, White said, “Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words.” White produced volumes and volumes of work that ran the literary gamut. He reminds me that, as an essayist, there is no shortage of topics, and it’s okay to think about it for some time.

I try to think, too, of David Foster Wallace or Leonardo da Vinci for motivation when I demean myself for procrastinating or claim to have writer’s block. W.A. Pannapacker writes, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the life of Leonardo [da Vinci], it is that procrastination reveals the things at which we are most gifted—the things we truly want to do. Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.” I am not a genius. But it’s nice to know that da Vinci struggled too. And so I’ll go for a walk. Make another cup of coffee. Talk on the phone. Watch a TedTalk. I might not find the perfect wave, but I know one will come, eventually, that will take me back to shore.

___

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in late 2021 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review. Read more of his writing here.

Put a Tag on It

November 23, 2021 § 17 Comments

These traditional Madhubani paintings are only made in Bihar, India, and are, with 35 others, the result of 3 hours of tea-based negotiation.

Some time ago I saw a writing program that looked amazing. You’ve seen something like it: a respected writing teacher/coach works with a small group of students for 6-12 months, with goals, deadlines and feedback. This type of program is for writers who need accountability and welcome feedback, but don’t have the time/money/desire to pursue an MFA.

I thought one of my writer-clients would be a good fit for the program, but I couldn’t find the price on the website. I know and like the teacher, so I emailed.

The response (paraphrased): Oh we don’t tell anyone the investment cost until they’ve applied and been accepted into the class.

You know who else doesn’t give the price up front? Used car salesmen.

You know who else describes their need for your money as an “investment”? Prosperity-gospel shysters. Jesus is gonna return that twenty-five dollar check tenfold, Grandma. Trust me.

I know this strategy: get people engaged and excited about how awesome the product is before getting frightened away by the price. I’ve tried it myself, experimenting with highlighting the deposit on my retreat website and making the payment plan less conspicuous. I had info calls with two writers who didn’t understand that was only the deposit, a waste of their time and mine. Now I put the whole price.

How can you be up front with potential clients for your course, services or freelancing, without scaring off your income?

1) Price your work fairly. For yourself and for the client. You’re not meant to be affordable to everyone, and I’m not advocating for creatives to undersell ourselves. When I lead a class or retreat, I do a spreadsheet: How many hours will I work? What will venues, meals, gift bags, flights, Zoom subscriptions, website design cost? It all gets factored in.

2) Never compete on price. I do a lot of snooping research on what other editors and retreats charge. Mine cost less than some and more than others. I see programs and people I know are at my level or better, who charge more—or less. I’ve been a workshop student, and most of the time, I didn’t pick based on price. Students choose classes because they want to study with that teacher. Or spend a blissful week in that place. Clients book freelancers on how the writer handles the topic. Writers pick editors because they loved the sample edit. Usually, creative clients aren’t shopping for who they can afford, they’re figuring out if they can afford you.

3) Never feel guilty about your price. The magic words: “I totally understand if we’re not a match for your budget.” I know my price is fair for what I offer (see 1 & 2). If I’m way out of a client’s range, I can refer an editing partner who fits their budget and who I know will do a good job; recommend a webinar; or edit 25 pages and give the writer a list of fixes to apply to the whole manuscript (a wise option for most writers even if you’re ready to pay for a full edit, btw).

Charging a fair price lets me offer an occasional discount to someone truly in need, or whose work I adore and want to be part of. I’ve more than once reached out to a writer I knew would benefit from an experience to say, “Just come, we’d really like to have you and I know you’re tight right now.”

4) Put the pricetag where it’s easy to find. By putting my pricing up front, I save MY time. I no longer go back and forth in emails with people who’d like to negotiate the cost, the services, or the scope. Weighing opportunity cost, I probably save 3 billable hours a month by not interacting with people who can’t afford me, but say no to themselves before I have to.

I’ve walked through my fair share of souks, flea markets, mercatos, melas and car boot sales. I’ve sat with tea and a salesperson for hours, working out the price of gold relative to the necklace I have my eye on, or how much the paintings are if I buy 10 of them. I enjoy the ritual of determining together a fair price, meeting somewhere between “I know I’m a tourist but come on, dude” and “Madam, you will ruin me!”

But most writers I know don’t have that kind of time. They’d like to find out what I do and how much it costs, and ask questions from there. Most writers deserve the respect of your fairly determined, confidently stated price.

Save your time. Save their time. Put a price tag where your clients can find it.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. In January she’ll be co-leading a virtual intensive, Rebirth Your Writing: Memoir Large and Small with Dinty W. Moore. It costs $375 and you can sign up (or ask questions) here.

Puerto Rico and Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls

November 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Ashley Espinoza

I grapple with my identity as a Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto Rican, but she was born in America. When my grandfather was eight he moved to New York and when he turned eighteen he joined the United States Army and spent his years as a father moving his family all over America and various countries. Though my mom has been to Puerto Rico more times than I have, she has never lived there. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico but was mostly raised in the United States, in New York and Chicago. I have the Puerto Rican blood, but my culture has been mostly lost.

So when I picked up the book Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz and read that it was a book about her life in Puerto Rico and Miami as well as Puerto Rico’s history with colonization I knew it was the book for me. Díaz is Puerto Rican, like me, my mother, and both of her parents. Though, unlike Díaz, I have only been to Puerto Rico twice in my life. Once when I was two-years-old and have no memory of it, but plenty of photos to prove I was there; a photo of my mother and I jumping into a lake, me at a payphone, and more photos of me visiting a family-owned grocery store. I visited again at twenty-two when my grandpa invited me to Puerto Rico over Christmas break. I had the chance to visit a family orchard, to eat oranges picked right from the tree. I took shots of pitorro, a moonshine rum, at each home I visited.

Jaquira Díaz grew up in Puerto Rico until she was eight years old, then she moved to Miami. She writes about Puerto Rico in details and memories like those of my mother’s, like hearing the coquis, small frogs, sing at night. Díaz gives a description of Puerto Rico that makes me feel at home, although Puerto Rico has never been my home.

The year after I got my bachelor’s degree I visited the island I heard about my whole life. I went to the famous-in-my-family ice cream shop in Poncè and ordered the most delicious peanut ice cream. I still dream of going back just to eat that ice cream one last time. My grandfather showed me downtown Poncè, and when we saw a church he told me that maybe someday I could get married there, or somewhere like it. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t plan on getting married. I could not break his heart right there in his hometown. He dreamed of my wedding day, I did not.

While I was visiting Puerto Rico we stopped at Wal-Mart and checking out a lady made a remark to me in Spanish. I smiled as you would to a stranger seemingly telling a joke. I had no idea what she said but at that moment I was proud, I was Puerto Rican. She couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was from Colorado and that I didn’t know Spanish. To her I was just like any other Puerto Rican on the island. I never felt more Puerto Rican in my life. Except for the fact that I had no idea what she said and I couldn’t respond back.

I often wonder what my family in Puerto Rico thinks of me. Not many of my family members spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish. My great-uncle didn’t speak to me most of the trip. He only talked to his brother, my grandfather, in Spanish. The day before I was to leave he started talking to me in English. I did not know he spoke English at all. I wonder if he thought of me as a spoiled American girl who knew nothing of her culture.

Throughout her memoir, Díaz gives her readers the past and the history of Puerto Rico. In 1937, citizens of Poncè, Puerto Rico wanted independence from the United States. Cops surrounded protestors and shot them in the streets. In Poncè, Puerto Rico in 1950, a date that resonates with me as both of my grandparents were born in Poncè in 1950, citizens were not allowed to speak out against the US government or fly their Puerto Rican Flags.

Towards the end of her memoir Díaz visited San Juan and stopped at the prison that was called La Princesa, but instead of a prison when she visits, it’s a tourist location. D́iaz writes about a moment when she is standing in a prison cell and someone asks her to take their photo, without thinking she asks for her photo to be taken as well. Then she writes “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Those words ring true in a thousand ways. I too have stood in that same tourist location. I have photos of me in those prison cells. I too fell into the trap of contributing to the erasure of history. Is this what my great uncle thinks of me? Some tourist coming into his home and forgetting Puerto Rico’s history?

My great aunt only spoke one English sentence right before I left Puerto Rico. She grabbed both of my hands and said, “Come back, and when you do you will know Spanish.”

“Yes.” I said.

“Promise?” She asked as she held my face in between her hands.

“I promise.”

I think of that promise often. Sometimes I study Spanish really hard to keep that promise. Other times I forget. I have one problem; I have no one to talk to in Spanish to practice. My family prefers to speak in English and only a few Spanish words come out every now and then. Not enough for full conversations.

I want to keep that promise for my great-aunt and for myself. But most importantly for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up with dark hair and big brown eyes and for her to feel insecure that her mom never taught her Spanish. I don’t want her to visit Puerto Rico and feel insecure with each family member that she meets. I want her to feel her Puerto Rican culture. I want to feel it too. I hold Ordinary Girls in my heart. For its history of Puerto Rico, for reminding me what the island feels like, and for giving ordinary girls like me a chance to see themselves in a book.
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Ashley Espinoza is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work has been published in Hobart, Assay, The Forge Literary Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is a nonfiction editor for The Good Life Review and is currently writing a memoir.

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