On Useful Feedback and Silencing the Inner Critic

December 9, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Camilla Sanderson

Thinking about the first workshop I took as a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, I feel compassion for my fellow writers. I didn’t know what I was doing, was all opinion and ego, and wasn’t even sure what ‘craft’ was exactly. It wasn’t so much that I suffered with bad feedback from others—I had the audacity back then to simply dismiss whatever didn’t resonate. But what I truly regret is not knowing how to give better feedback to my fellow writers.

It wasn’t until years later when I heard Suzanne Kingsbury, the founder of the Gateless Writing Academy say, “Writers need craft, not opinion,” that I had an epiphany. When feedback is opinion, I’ve noticed the tendency for inexperienced writers (women in particular) to change writing to please others. This is our cultural conditioning: to please others. But one of the most liberating aspects of writing is to speak one’s own truth. Conversely, when feedback focuses on craft, instead of opinion, we receive information that helps us to do exactly that: express our own truth while simultaneously strengthening and deepening the craft of our writing.

While immersed in writing and revising a first draft of a memoir in the VCFA MFA program, maybe I was just too inexperienced and overwhelmed to gain more awareness of craft elements, but I do think every writer is well served to understand how feedback can be most useful. In the Gateless Writing Academy, I learned how to focus my feedback on craft elements such as narrative arc, character development, lyrical sentences, conflict in story, scene and chapter construction, setting a reader in time and place, beginnings and desire, structure and scaffolding, description and details, juxtaposition, rhythm, etc.

In a Harvard Business Review article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall elucidate many myths surrounding the feedback process. “Research,” they say, “shows that people can’t reliably rate the performance of others. More than 50% of your rating of someone reflects your characteristics, not hers.” My own experience backed this up: in several MFA writing workshops, when a writer gave feedback––because it was so often opinion––it reflected more about the writer giving the feedback than about the writing being workshopped. Focusing on craft eliminates that kind of opinion.

Not being able to “reliably rate the performance of others” also points towards how the most effective feedback is not about judging something as good or bad, which is a binary tendency we’ve all be conditioned into simply from growing up in the West. 

Effective feedback involves shining the light on what is working. This is what opens the door to learning, and research in brain science backs this up: “Neuroscience shows that we grow most when people focus on our strengths.” In the HBR article they write, “focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” In other words, “getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.” 

These findings are opposite to the dominant patriarchal paradigm, which focuses on “what needs fixing,” resulting in a damaging kind of perfectionism that blocks our enjoyment of the writing process and feeds the pernicious Inner Critic.

Perhaps one of my most important learnings on the writer’s path has been about the Inner Critic. Maybe interfaith seminary first planted the seed: I am not my thoughts; I am the observing awareness behind my thoughts. This helps me to cultivate space and distance from my Inner Critic and not be the effect of it. It’s evident that the Gateless Writing Academy also recognizes how much the Inner Critic effects writers, as they dedicate the entire first month of seminars to learning what it is and how to cultivate space around it.

I find it fascinating though, that a part of me is addicted to wanting to know where other writers may find my writing lacking. It feels impossible to give up the desire: “Tell me where it needs fixing.” But perhaps this points more towards a desire for mastery and the difference between feedback from fellow writers versus an editor’s expertise—the latter being a completely different skillset.

I want my writing to get to the place where it feels like its singing. I’ve had that happen with cooking, where friends have told me the food is singing. But that is never a result of prior meals being critiqued or being told where they think I could do better. It happens when I trust my knowledge of the basic elements of cooking—perhaps akin to elements of craft in the practice of writing—and when I’ve achieved a level of mastery from many, many hours of practice.

Perhaps there’s also simply a mystical aspect to both writing and cooking—that “je ne sais quoi.” Maybe it’s a kind of alchemical energy, a kind of magic. And when we’re aligned with the force of that creative mystery, maybe that’s also when the writing will sing.

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Camilla Sanderson is the author of The Mini Book of Mindfulness (Hachette, 2016). You are invited to subscribe to her Substack newsletter where you may also read the first six serialized chapters of her forthcoming book, The Rising of the Divine Feminine and the Buddhist Monks Across the Road: A Memoir. Camilla also loves to laugh—particularly at her own ego, which she holds like a beloved pet, and by laughing at it when it wants to run the show—which it often does—she is endlessly amused.

I Wanted to Write a Memoir. I Wrote It in Music First.

December 8, 2022 § 4 Comments

Had I written the essays as personal therapy, or did they belong with the work?

By Buick Audra

I walked away from my solo music after the release of my second album in 2011. In the years that followed, I gained clarity around the decision; I just had to figure out how to share it. I took workshops about writing memoir and personal essay and wrote down everything, even the parts I didn’t understand or agree with. I could sort that out later. I was gathering wisdom and experience; I was grateful for all of it. But some people talked about how their memoirs had taken a decade to write. I didn’t have a decade.

* * *

Up to 2019, I’d gladly given all of my time and creative energy in a Metal band called Friendship Commanders. But my solo work had called me back in a recurring dream over the years, and I had finally taken the call.

The idea to make my first solo album in nearly a decade came from five songs I’d written in a wildly transitional season of my life that held a divorce, the incarceration of my only sibling, my relocation from Brooklyn to Nashville, a record deal, and two Grammys. The songs told those stories more or less, but I’d never properly recorded them. I’d left them in demo form for my future self, like a time capsule waiting to be rediscovered. I thought that giving them their due might serve as amends to my former selves, cauterize a wound I’d grown all too used to. There was only one problem: I was no longer the woman who wrote them. I didn’t even sing like her anymore. It would be like cosplay to render and release the work with no qualifiers, no notes. So, I sat down and wrote five songs in response, updating the stories. One for each of the original five. An answer for every question. I had been waiting to tell these anecdotes for years, and now I could. The result was satisfying, healing—and easy. It poured right out of me like I’d been planning to do it all along.

I would write some essays to further expand on the narratives in the songs, I thought. I’d simply round them out and release them together. The memoir in songs was already in place; what was a handful of essays?

As the shutdown changed plans and lives all over the globe, I accepted temporary defeat. 2020 would not be my release year after all. I would have to be one of many disappointed and frightened people and wait. In the meantime, I would work on the essays. Classes, talks, and groups all moved to Zoom. I signed up for any I had free access to, and a few that I paid to attend.

I started with a paragraph about the human voice. My singing voice had gotten bigger since I’d written the original batch of songs, and that intrigued me. As drafts and versions unfolded, that paragraph remained. Months marched on, structures emerged and were abandoned; ideas that had once seemed brilliant dulled in the harsh light of a new day or week. Over the course of eighteen months, I wrote a few drafts with too many feelings and too few conclusive points, the last of which was fifty-five thousand words. And then I put it away. I had to return to my other band. We had tours to do, an album to record. The solo album and its essays could wait. Again.

When I came back to the writing, I was overwhelmed. Some of the manuscript, I loved. Some of it was off-track. But off-track from what? I had taken a memoir structure class online. It hadn’t solved the riddle of what belonged and what didn’t. I was still on my own with my tales and tangents. As my music team started to nail down the solo album release timeline for 2022, the pressure increased. Had I written the essays as personal therapy, or did they belong with the work?

The work.

The album. I had drifted away from the album. There was the structure. She stood there, waiting, like a dress form waiting to serve as an armature for something else. I scrapped all of my clever chapter titles and replaced them with the song titles. I faced the working draft and cut, just like I would cut any length of fabric that didn’t belong there. This project was just another piece of art. I knew how to make those. I had briefly forgotten.

I created a new Scrivener project and called it “One More.” And then I followed my gut. When my gut had questions, I followed the songs. The songs never faltered. They knew the way. After all, they had paved it.

By the time the album was nearing its release, the essays were ready. I couldn’t have planned the timeline if I’d tried. Acts of god had been involved, and I had merely used the time. The two projects were released on the same day, as I’d always hoped they would be.

Conversations with My Other Voice: Essays is my first memoir in prose, a book that I can now hold in my hands. But it’s based on my first true memoir, and that’s the one that I wrote in songs. I wrote the first version in my first language: music.

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Buick Audra is a Grammy-award-winning musician and writer living in Nashville, TN. She is the guitarist and primary songwriter and vocalist in the melodic heavy duo Friendship Commanders Her new album, Conversations with My Other Voice, was released on September 23rd, 2022. The album is accompanied by a memoir in essays by the same name.

How Flashdance Started my Writing Career

December 7, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When I heard the news that Irene Cara of Flashdance died recently, the butterflies in my stomach twirled around and sank. Not only did her death bring up the issue of my mortality as she was only a year younger than me, it also brought me back to an empty movie theater on Tremont Street in Boston, where I watched Flashdance for the first time.

That day, the old theater smelled of stale popcorn and butter, with sticky floors and uncomfortable seats, and was nearly empty. I was there by myself, and as I watched, I became riveted. This movie was made for me.

It was 1983. I had graduated college three years earlier, and realized the world beyond the walls and the ivory tower wasn’t so great. In New York, where my peers and I had landed, I discovered that peeling potatoes and cutting up artichokes while wearing a toque, double-breasted white jacket and checkered pants in the kitchen of a fancy hotel really wasn’t my thing.

I moved to Boston and found a basement apartment in Kenmore Square which I shared with roaches and an army of mice. I watched Diana and Charles get married from my bed.

Like Jennifer Beals, I was encouraged by family to work in a safe environment – not to take gigantic risks. So, I went to secretarial school, which I rarely share with anyone, and then I worked in an ad agency as a glorified secretary and then as the head of the “traffic” department. My job was to report on what creative teams were on time with their work, and who was not. I did this at every Monday Morning Meeting in front of all the executives and president. I was a hired rat.

I had originally thought I could move into a writing position there – working creatively on print and TV ads. This was not going to happen. I didn’t have the skill set for jingles and snappy copy. 

I developed insomnia. On Sunday nights, I laid spreadsheets out on the floor in my new one-bedroom apartment between MIT frats on Beacon Street. I checked off those deadlines that had been met and highlighted in yellow those that hadn’t. I didn’t like being a snitch.

One day after work, I walked up Washington Street, between the pillars of the Boston shopping world – Filene’s and Jordan’s – and found my way into the little movie theater on Tremont.

There, on the screen, I saw Jennifer Beals, as Alex Owens, pursue her dream of dancing professionally against all odds and making it. She was a blue-collar steel worker and didn’t come from the world of ballet. And, we were the same age – sort of. If she could put herself out there like that, so could I. I forgot that this was a movie, where things turn out for the protagonist. I was hooked.

Just as Owens wanted to dance, I wanted to write. During my angsty teenage years, I played with poetry while listening to Fleetwood Mac and Carole King (still my hero). But poetry and I parted ways and while I was informing on my colleagues at the ad agency, I took classes in Public Relations where I learned to write press releases. I took classes in feature writing, where I learned how to interview sources. This was not an easy feat for someone who couldn’t speak in public and hid in the back of every classroom. But, I figured, if I could tattle on the creative teams in front of a room full of mostly older white men, I could do this too. I felt smart asking questions of people who knew more than me.

I loved writing. I missed taking college courses, and this felt like an extension of college. I yearned to write about topics and people I wanted to know about more. Writing was also an extension of me and my interests and thoughts. I loved finding the right word to describe a look, or a place.

But in order to really get better and have a career doing this, I’d have to take a leap of faith, and apply to graduate school. That was terrifying.

Beals, as she danced across the screen, gave me the push I needed. It didn’t hurt that a friend offered to give me $500 if I quit the same day.

I did.

I’ve never looked back. I am not a fancy writer with a world-renowned name and career, but I have written for a lot of publications and I’ve never been bored. I’ve written about child development and parenting and benefitted from a lot of free advice. I’ve written health pieces about miscarriage, sleep disruptions, STDs, and more. I wrote business pieces, where I learned about electric cars and assisted living long before they were commonplace. I’ve written profiles on some of the coolest people – singers, writers, lawyers, actors, and teachers. Most recently, I was the managing editor for a website for older readers on how to live fulfilling lives. I’ve also written personal essays and memoir pieces that resonate with readers.

And, I teach. I work in college classrooms where students are trying on different personas to see which fits best. I guide older writers who are working on their life stories. Some hope to publish and have, but all are compelled to write these stories and be heard. Just like me.

While Irene Cara is gone, Jennifer Beals is still alive. The take-away for me is the same today as it was in 1983. Follow your dreams. Don’t be discouraged by how hard it is. Keep focused, be persistent, and define your own success.
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Morgan Baker’s work has been featured in many regional and national publications both on-line and in print. These include The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Talking Writing, The Bark, Cognoscenti, and Hippocampus. She was managing editor of The Bucket. She teaches at Emerson College and through private workshops. Her memoir, Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Good-byes will be out Spring ’23 with Ten16 Press. For more information visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

On Publishing My Memoir While My Mother Is Living

December 6, 2022 § 19 Comments

I’ve made accusations and judgements.

By Sonya Ewan

“Do you want to hear the introduction to my book?” my mother asked me in a recent phone conversation.

A week after that conversation, as I hit “send” to submit my memoir manuscript to an agent, I flashed back to a web link that had popped up after I googled Educated, by Tara Westover. That link directed me to a book cleverly titled Educating, by LaRee Westover—Tara’s mother. On Goodreads, LaRee writes that she has always known she would write her memoir, and that some of the impetus for publishing it is Tara’s memoir. She feels “a compelling desire to shine a light of accuracy…” and tells a conflicting story to that of Educated.

In my own memoir, I’ve shared a lot about my and my mother’s time together and—spoiler alert—the details aren’t all positive. When people learn that my mother is living, they often ask whether I’m using my real name for my book, Tall: A Memoir of Growing. After careful consideration, I’ve decided that the answer is yes. And yes, I’m nervous about that. I’ve made accusations and judgements and I’ve held my mother accountable. I’ve said that I believe she has narcissist personality disorder. I haven’t used my mother’s first name in the manuscript, but our surname is the same and what I’ve written may make our family, her friends, and strangers think poorly of her (or of me). Regardless, I’ve waited as long as I can to tell my story.

As an undergrad, I experienced a practice run with both memoir and my mother’s reaction after reading it. For an autobiographical paper, I diligently interviewed my mother, quoting her verbatim with the assistance of a Casio recorder (it was 1989), and reporting what she had described to me. Yet she was disappointed with the final product—even angry about some of what I had written—which confused the heck out of me. It was also a valuable lesson that people whom I’ve interviewed won’t necessarily interpret what I write afterward as I expect they will.

While I was writing Tall, my mother re-read her copy of that college paper. This time, she said she loved it. I figured she was hinting that she imagined she’d prefer the college version of my memoir to the modern, post-therapy version.

My mother once told me about Tall: “Write it like I’m not going to read it.” A month or so later, we debated whose memory was more accurate. “I can see I’m not going to like any memoir you write,” she snapped. Later still, my mother said, “I wish I could read your book before you publish it to be sure you remember everything accurately.”

I rolled my eyes. No one remembers everything accurately. But her statement did remind me of Augusten Burroughs being sued by the Turcotte family, whom he lived with during his adolescence and then wrote about in Running With Scissors.

I’ve fantasized about my mother reacting as Mary Karr’s mom did as she was reading The Liars’ Club. I recall from The Art of Memoir that Karr’s mom repeatedly commented, “I was such an asshole.” The reality is, Karr’s mom’s was not the reaction of a narcissist mother, and I’ve acknowledged that.

Reading reviews of LaRee Westover’s Educating, I was reassured by the abundance of support expressed for Tara. And after my mother read aloud her own memoir introduction, I was less anxious about whether she might contradict me and more convinced that she would be writing about experiences that had little to do with me.

There’s no denying that my mother will love and hate anything I write about her. No doubt the experience of hearing my mother’s reaction to my memoir will be challenging. The entirety of our relationship has been challenging. It’s taken me decades to arrive here, but I’m finally at a place where I value myself more than my mother’s feelings. Ariel Leve has said in an interview on her similarly-themed memoir, An Abbreviated Life, that, “It felt like I had to write this book in order to be free.” I second that.

Sonya Ewan has contributed features to Women’s Health and The Hockey News and was a regular contributor to Albuquerque The Magazine and East Mountain Living. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four air-purifying plants. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sonyaewan and read her introspective blog at sonyaewan.com.

Missed Trains and Gender Pains: Nonfiction as a Means to Finding the Self

December 5, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Taylor Grothe

Writing has always been an instrumental tool in learning about who I am as an individual. As a fiction writer, writing nonfiction essays is a new craft for me; I only really began about a year ago, meditating on parenthood, the themes of living through grief and loss, and the potential selves left behind at junctions of an earlier life, like trains missed at their stations.

Through the essay, I gained access to multiple sides of myself, sides that hadn’t seen the light of day or acknowledgement since I was a child. I never imagined that writing nonfiction would help me to solidify an identity I thought had been set—by me, for me, by society at large. Nor did I imagine that the craft would propel me into journalism at Verywell Family, where I write about parenting and gender identity.

My journey began when I enrolled in an MFA program through Fairfield University, signing up for a nonfiction writing course in a fit of pique and panicked desperation to find out who I truly was.

The requirement was at least 15 pages of nonfiction. I barely had that. It was hubris, I knew, to enroll; what did I know about nonfiction? Truthfully, and maybe to my instructor and peers’ chagrin, I threw together the few very short pieces I had, explorations that had only just begun to peek at the truths, eyes squinted, under the well-trodden realm of my most visible identities and environments: children, the home, and the pandemic.

To my surprise, I was asked to write more. To go deeper.

When I was a child, writing in journals was a constant preoccupation, my earliest attempt at nonfiction. My parents never grumbled about the notebooks littering my room, never mind that the ones I started rarely contained more than a few pages of chicken scratch. I’m sure for them my writing time was a welcome relief from the thorny child I was: silence, the sound of a pencil against paper. Scrawls from the heart of my prepubescent anxiety, a way for me to touch upon truths about myself I didn’t know how to name.

One of them that I am rediscovering and naming now is gender.

I was a lovely little girl, but one who liked to run into the woods at the slightest provocation, reveling not only in the tutus, dancing, and makeup of my mother, but the rough and tumble, mud-sprinkled, and more masculine-signaled experiences of the boys I knew. A child who took the gender assigned to me and split it in two.

This duality was true of almost everything in my life then. A good reader, but a failed student. A nervous child, but a confident hyper-fixator with encyclopedic knowledge about words. (My most famous trick in middle school was pulling out a dictionary in the hall to read instead of engaging with the bullies’ taunts.) A pretty girl and a tomboy, these terms not two ends of a binary but the reality of my lived gender experience. I did not want to choose. I wanted to be both and also neither. Not superficially, but as a reality.

Back then, I did not have the word ‘duality,’ nor did I have the word ‘nonbinary’ to describe myself. I might have had ‘fluid,’ but not in the manner one can use it now, to describe the way one relates to gender. Now, as an adult with access to the Internet and its myriad communities, creative and otherwise, I have the words.

Seated at the MFA program’s table, a blank sheet of paper and a timer in front of me, I wrote for the first time about the expectation of gender. Of not-knowing, and deep-knowing, peeling the apple until I got to the flesh and then the core. At its center I found not seeds arranged in the shape of a star, but an embryo, a nascent life I meditated on so infrequently precisely because it was so central to my identity.

Writing about my relationship to gender helped me understand its place in my life. My desire to embody this duality, to be at once everything and nothing—on a page, this tangled issue seemed simpler.

A blank page is a neutral place, existing outside of cultural valence, before its words are introduced to readers. A blank page is safe, but it isn’t the truth. The introduction of one’s true self to others is a political act, an act of agency and courage. 

I won’t say the piece I penned for my MFA workshop was good. I was so nervous to share raw words, raw thoughts to this class of strangers. But my greatest fear, that of rejection and repulsion, was not realized. Instead, my peers and mentor gently suggested there might be other stations to visit, other junctures I had not considered, the first of many movements along a new journey. Writing was the start of undoing something that had prickled me since childhood.

I realized that calling me a “tomboy” had been a way for the adults in my life to elide a cultural obligation to see me as I was, truly and wholly. Now, as a thirty-two-year-old parent of two children, to whom I have a responsibility to raise without the self-hatred I experienced and with all the vocabulary I never had, I find writing about my gender to be an accessible nexus of change. Not only for myself, but also in sharing the gift of fluidity with others.

When I became involved as an assistant managing editor with Brevity, our managing editor floated the idea of a special issue on transgender experience open to those, like me, who are exploring and examining the embodied aspects of their gender identities vis-à-vis writing. I am so excited to say that this idea, only a spark at first, has been nurtured to flame. The Transgender, Gender-Nonconforming, and Gender Expansive issue is now open for submissions, graced by guest editors Krys Malcolm Belc, Silas Hansen, and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram.

But also graced by those like me, like us, who are now finding the words to speak their truths, forgotten things they had long ago folded in the chest of the mind, dusty and overfilled with deeply held secrets. Here, now, a place to cast sunlight, to access the darkest things, and examine them in the lovely, golden rays of truth. To don them, and to step onto the next platform down the line.

___

Taylor Grothe is a non-binary, Autistic writer of horror fiction, on submission with a psychological horror novel set in Iceland. Shorts of theirs can be found in Coffin Bell Journal, Shortwave Magazine, and Bag of Bones Press. Taylor is the graduate Assistant Managing Editor of Brevity Magazine and an MFA student at Fairfield University, as well as an Author Mentor Match Round 9 Adult Mentor. They are represented by Larissa Melo Pienkowski of Jill Grinberg Literary Management.

Healing a Pulverized Heart: Why I Write Nonfiction

December 2, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Chelsey Drysdale

If you’re like me, while writing your memoir, you spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what everyone will think of you once you publish it. You may even make yourself physically ill like I do. Recently, though, I was reminded why I craft my pain into art regardless.

Eight years ago, my UCLA Extension instructor, and now personal friend, accepted a steamy but heartbreaking piece I wrote about my college boyfriend for an anthology she was editing. We took our published stories in paperbacks on a California book tour, including to the Bay Area where my former love now lived. It was terrifying and exhilarating and propelled me to write my full manuscript. Over the years, I have often wondered what the subject of my story would think if he ever read the essay I shared in public with strangers, family, and friends alike. Despite changing his name, I revealed private, excruciating details of our twentysomething selves, like any diligent memoirist would, finding solace my words only appeared in print, never to be found in a Google search.

The other day, I sent him a happy birthday message on LinkedIn, the only place we’re still connected. I hadn’t spoken to him online or otherwise in a decade and hadn’t seen him in fourteen years, since the night I met the woman who would become the mother of his children and, much later, his wife. One night after Christmas in 2008, I had dinner with them when they were in the honeymoon stages of dating, and I was still nursing wounds from a broken engagement and previous divorce. At the restaurant, I admired his then girlfriend’s bright, infectious smile and hopeful, sparkly eyes. Her eyes twinkled like mine did before he broke up with me with little explanation, shocking nearly everyone. I left dinner thinking, “Please don’t hurt her.” That night, for the first time in eleven years, I rejoiced over feeling like I was finally over him, despite the remnants of my heart most likely still swirling around the parking lot outside a certain former coffeehouse, where he once said, “I don’t think this is going to work out.”

In my LinkedIn message, I told him I have a knack for remembering birthdays, and I wished him and his family the best. He wrote, “How are you?” How does one explain the last fourteen years in a LinkedIn message to the man who pilfered her innocence? I gave him the short version: I’m still single. I never had children. I quit my job. My nephew is ten, and I wrote a memoir. I said I’d send him a copy someday when it’s published. He responded, “I would love to read your memoir. Good luck finishing it up.”

“My memoir is finished!” I wrote. “I’m just trying to find a home for it.” (Still.) This felt like an opening. “I actually wrote about you, and everyone liked it because it was a very nineties pre-internet look at a romantic relationship. If you want to read the [published version],” I can send it to you. He said he was “nervous reading a critique of [his] twenty-year-old self, but [he’d] take a crack at it.”

He thought he was nervous.

I sent him the published essay and the material I added to my manuscript when I was working with a book coach in 2017. He emailed he was busy but would “give it a solid read” when his time freed up. “No hurry!” I replied, meaning, “You don’t have to read it. Forget I ever mentioned it.”

The next morning, I received an email when I was in my bathrobe at my desk next to a handyman who was fixing the track on my sliding closet doors. The love of my young life and source of endless sadness wrote, “I have to admit, I really enjoyed reading these. I may have to set my computer on fire to destroy evidence, but I loved reading them.”

Then I received the clarification and apology I hadn’t realized I still needed after twenty-five years. “I’m really sorry how poorly I handled the breakup.” He called his former self “weak” and “super emotionally immature.” He had “needed more time to be free and date other people but didn’t know how to tell [me],” which, of course, most people need when they’re barely an adult. “I’m really sorry I caused you so much grief.”

Nowhere in his email did he ask me to change one word of anything unpublished I’d written, something I offered to consider if he had any major objections—particularly about the time I found him passed out drunk on the sidewalk or the day we passed sexy secrets back and forth quietly in a notebook during a philosophy lecture.

This felt like validation. This felt like the young him had loved the young me after all. This felt like my version and his finally gelled and made sense. We’d collided before he turned twenty and was a “mess,” back when I was naïve and wore my heart as a necklace outside my body—a recipe for a strychnine cocktail. While our breakup was inevitable, its abruptness had steamrolled me, but now I had more proof I wasn’t inherently unlovable.

After reading his email, I left my bedroom to head downstairs and watch the rare rainfall outside the backyard window, lest the old dude fixing my closet door see the tears streaming down my face. I thought about how a memoirist can’t predict a person’s reaction to her words, and in this full-circle moment, I could finally tell that twenty-three-year-old girl whose heart was pulverized for the first time that someday pouring her soul onto the page would be worth it. She would be seen, and she would finally receive the transparency and understanding she’d craved but never expected.
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Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Coachella Review, and others. She edits at drysdaleeditorial.

Saying Yes When the Heart Says No   

December 1, 2022 § 31 Comments

By Heidi Croot

The boisterous host running a women’s networking event in downtown Toronto smiled as she waved her index finger about the room. “And don’t think we don’t know,” she said, “that some of you are already scheming how to duck out early.”

Was she prescient? That’s exactly what I was doing.

Knowing laughter rippled through the crowd.

My fellow “introverts” I would later realize.

It was a label I would eventually claim with everything in me. But not before a good friend ghosted me for my solitude-loving ways.

I last saw Carol more than 30 years ago. We were hanging out in my back yard on a sunny summer day. It had been my turn to host, and I’d dragged my feet in bringing it about. Carol was full of energy and chatter that Saturday afternoon. While happy to be with her, waves of fatigue were preventing me from keeping up.

I was “scheming how to duck out early.” 

At the time, I’d just started a new job as corporate communication manager for big tech, and life was intense, a daily performance. The constant intersection with people—in meetings, in the hall, in my office as I waited on high alert for the inevitable knock or ring—separated me from myself. I typically left work empty and overstimulated. Most evenings and weekends, I wanted only to duck my circle of family and friends and drift. Read. Write in my journal. Exchange the occasional stray word with my fellow-introvert husband.

When many years later I resigned from corporate life and went freelance, clearing space for me to swim in the creative writers’ pond, I finally found my clan. On my first writers’ retreat in Ontario’s Hockley Valley near Orangeville, our instructor laid out the rules: no talking before noon. We were to conserve our energy for our writing.

No talking! Permission for interiority! Reprieve from small talk! 

Early morning light found me in my plain, small room, bent over the keyboard as I tapped into the writer’s zone, a creative energy humming through the walls as my fellow writers up and down the hall tapped into theirs. 

It was as if I’d been away, and now I’d come home.

More recently, along came the pandemic offering a retreat of a different order. This time, government laid out the rules. Yes, I said, of course I would do all I could to protect myself and my family. Yes, by all means I would maintain a safe distance. Yes, you bet I would stay home.

Survivors’ guilt aside, I was suddenly sleeping better. Waking up happy, calm, expansive. Measuring time with words on the page.

Brain science explains the dopamine effect, “the ‘feel-good’ chemical that affects the brain’s pleasure center,” says reporter Roxanne Roberts in her Washington Post article, “Meet the introverts who are dreading a return to normal.” Extroverts need more of it to be happy and energized, she says, whereas for introverts, “a little dopamine goes a long way, and too much of anything can be exhausting.”

Introverts, she adds in my favourite line, savour their ability to go “for hours or even days without speaking to another person.”

It’s not that as an introvert I can’t socialize. Oh, on good days I can hold my own and with aplomb—especially if the talk dips below small to deep. It’s that with every passing hour, a little more of my energy slides down the drain like flat champagne.

Which is what was happening on that long ago summer afternoon with Carol.

She resisted when I hinted it was time to bring our visit to a close and scolded me for not making myself more available. I saw myself in her rebuke but lacked the insight to explain, either to her or myself, why my desire to be alone wasn’t personal. So, there we were, two friends on opposite sides of the introvert-extrovert continuum. Me, unable to mirror her effervescence. She, unable to mirror my reclusiveness. Neither of us having the words to bridge our divide.

She left and never came back. When it dawned on me why, I grieved her absence (still do) and blamed myself for being a bad friend.

Now I know I wasn’t so much a bad friend as someone who just didn’t know who I was. Who had more to learn about my obligation as a card-carrying introvert to stop saying yes when my heart said no. 

I may have found an enduring way to meet that obligation. I discovered it in a dictum most writers with writing goals know well: butt in chair. For some, a cracking of the whip. For me, a permission slip to stay home with my keyboard. 

I wear the three words on my T-shirt like a talisman. Like a shield.

No, wait—more like a self-embrace.

I miss the face-to-face visits with friends. My people-pleaser self still pressures me to say yes to every invitation. Life is short, this side of me says sternly.

Meanwhile, my writer self, the engine of my beating heart, gently hooks my chin with her finger, turns my face to hers.

Your butt in the chair, if you please, she says. The one friend you need to please is me. And life is short.

___

Heidi Croot is an award-winning corporate writer and a Brevity Blog editor. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity Blog, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Ontario’s Northumberland County and is gathering courage to query her memoir. You can reach her on Twitter.

Words, Words, Words

November 30, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Marcia Yudkin

During one of my entrepreneurial projects, I stood in a recording studio at Berklee College in Boston performing a script I’d written on increasing one’s vocabulary. Another woman and I took turns saying each word, defining it, then illustrating it in a sentence. During a break, the other woman turned to me and commented, “You really feel words, don’t you?”

I looked at her. Did I?

Euphonious: nice-sounding. The salesman disarmed me by speaking in euphonious tones.

In elementary school, tinkering with words was as natural for me as other kids playing with trucks or dolls. An aunt gave me a hardcover anthology of poems for children, and I was hooked. The sound of words and ways they could rhyme captivated me. I would read verses from The Golden Treasury of Poetry out loud and in a wire-bound notebook scribble stanzas of my own. At age seven, I read two of my creations on a local TV show, swinging into the echoes of “know” with “snow,” of “spring” with “king.” That aural resonance was the thing 

Flaunt: display flagrantly. Though he had so much he could never spend it all, Richie Rich tried not to flaunt his wealth.

From the enchanting sound of words, I moved on to their meaning. With my weekly allowance I bought a paperback called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It cost 35 cents. Before going to sleep, I studied it, learning words like “ascetic,” “querulous” and “vindictive.” I especially devoured a chapter called “Words for Mature Minds” containing words that the author, Wilfred Funk, said nine-year-olds would not be able to understand.

Not long afterwards I injected one of those words—“maudlin”—into a composition for my third-grade class. “You see, I was not the maudlin type,” I wrote, noting how surprised I was that other kids cried their first day of school. “So there, Dr. Funk!” I thought with great satisfaction (although my use of “maudlin” was a bit off kilter).

Apotheosis: culmination or highest point. Marilyn Monroe was the apotheosis of Hollywood glamour.

Words also gathered associations. Today I can’t hear the word “obstreperous” without thinking of my grandfather. Self-educated because he’d had to leave school at 13, he read mysteries and histories in a high-backed wing chair in our living room, tapping the lit tip of his Havana cigar into a beanbag ashtray. Even when we kids behaved well, he called us obstreperous, I think because he enjoyed having that complicated a word roll off his tongue. 

Since I too read like a fiend, I collected phrases from books that stuck word for word in my memory. This might consist of a bombastic nonfiction title, like What You Should Know About Communism and Why, or a snappy line from Catcher in the Rye, such as “If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff.” And as a grownup, I felt thrilled when I was able to insert—appropriately, wryly—Jane Eyre’s “Reader, I married him” into one of my books. With just four words I could breathe a puff of Charlotte Bronte’s passionate intensity into the tale of my own clandestine romance.

Visceral: felt immediately in the gut. Her opponent’s insult had a visceral impact on the governor.

As my Berklee College script-reading partner had intuited, for me words have one more element. Besides sound, meanings and associations, they have oomph. Words can shoot out of you like pellets of energy or at you like a baseball hitting your solar plexus. “Obstreperous” has oomph. So does “albondigas,” a punchy word from my seventh-grade Spanish class that I loved so much I would say it again and again with exaggerated vigor. (It means “meatballs.”)

Sometimes the oomph is personal. I spent a year working in China at a time when outsiders stood out. When I traveled, kids would run after me and my blond companion, gleefully shouting “Waiguo ren!” (“Foreigners!”). When I rode the bus in Beijing, adults would stare. After eleven months of this, a five- or six-year-old boy leaped into the air with “Waiguo ren!” when he saw me, flicking a switch I didn’t know I had. Without thinking, I stalked toward the boy. Just as quickly, the boy’s father stepped in front of his son. “He’s welcoming you, you see,” he said in Chinese, giving me a worried look.

Catharsis: emotional release. After so much struggle and pain, the funeral represented a catharsis for the poor man’s family.

Ah, words. In any language, they dance, sing, point and sometimes sting. 

__________________

Marcia Yudkin lives in the woods of Goshen, Massachusetts. The author of 17 books, she publishes a Substack newsletter called Introvert UpThink, in which she critiques society’s myths and misunderstandings about introverts. In addition to her newsletter, you can follow her on Twitter

I’d Rather Work for Free

November 29, 2022 § 22 Comments

“Platform” and “literary citizenship” are the same behavior with different hats.

By Allison K Williams

Almost all of them tipped. Sadly, it was in Macedonian dinars.

I blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools in the company of other artists in the same stage of development. I mentioned these learning opportunities are rare for writers: we have plenty of write-your-feelings workshops and respond-to-pages workshops, but not much that goes past schooldays-grammar into building strong sentences and paragraphs. One commenter thought I’d missed the mark–she felt her K-12 education had been rigorous and adult writing classes she’d taken had covered plenty of technique. She also jabbed

But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here.

Ooof.

It hurts because it’s true. I do write blogs here and elsewhere to advertise my classes. I write long posts in Facebook writer’s groups where I’ve personally made the rule “anyone advertising must give immediately useful information; group members should benefit from your post even if they never click the link to explore your services.” I tweet threads breaking down editorial concepts or writing craft elements, then mention relevant webinars. I host The Writers Bridge, a free biweekly series on author platform, and yes, I mention my current offering in the emails with the Zoom links.

One of the things that attracted an agent and a publisher for my book, Seven Drafts, was proving through social media engagement and mailing list numbers that people think I’m an expert. Why do they think that? Because I’ve spent years giving away advice, and I still do. Last year, on a blog about freelance editing, a commenter asked

…do you give free advice online for writers? If so, my question is—do you think it is worth your time and effort?

I responded in part,

I do write blogs and participate in FB groups, and that way writers see the quality of the information I can offer.

That’s how we become experts. People try our free advice; if it resonates, if it makes their life or their work better, they come back for more. Memoirist Ashleigh Renard shows up on social media every day answering every direct message she receives. Her advice helps people. It also lets her know exactly what her audience needs. Love her free marriage counseling? Get some more at her retreat in Tulum!

We stay experts by making our free advice part of our income flow. I might spend an hour writing a blog, or three hours editing other authors’ work (free editing for them!) for the Brevity blog, or five hours preparing and running a Writers Bridge episode. Each time, I sacrifice billable hours for volunteer hours. Creating a new webinar–marketing copy, lesson plan, slides, workbook, execution, follow-up Q&A–is 16-18 hours. Attendees pay $15-25. They say things like “I got more out of this than a semester at my MFA!” and I can deliver that quality for $25 because a few hundred people show up. How do I get a few hundred people? By giving free advice to twenty thousand.

When I was a street performer, we delivered a theatre-quality show with acrobatics, aerial silks, duo trapeze, fire-eating, whip-cracking, audience participation and comedy. After each show, we passed the hat. Our job was to deliver a show so impressive, so captivating, that even though the entire audience could scatter without paying and suffer absolutely no penalties, they would choose to stand in line to hand us money. Plenty of people watched our show without paying. Some of them were cheap. Some of them were unhoused, or in hard times. Some of them shook our hands and apologized for not giving, and we said, “We’re just glad to have you at the show!”

We meant it.

Yes, we were working for money. Yes, it was our real job, and we needed people to pay us. But the joy of genuine communion with the crowd, of sharing regardless of profit, was part of what made the show worth seeing. The great artistic paradox is that the more you write, or paint, or dance, for sheer love of the work, the more monetary reward you’ll see…as long as you’re strategic.

As a trapeze artist, I said it in the hat pass: “Our greatest gift is your smiles, your laughter, and your applause. Unfortunately, we can’t go to our landlord at the end of the month and go”–clapping–“Good apartment man! Good apartment! Go power bill!” I’d say that the people who can pay subsidize the people who can’t, but everyone gets to see the show. I watched people look around, assess how many people were present, and pull out a ten or a twenty instead of a five.

In my editing and teaching career, I rarely say it out loud: Writers who pay me $3595 for a program or $4495 for a retreat subsidize every free blog post. Writers who buy an $1850 edit or a $685 book proposal evaluation have subsidized 50+ episodes of The Writers Bridge. I have privilege from income, whiteness, lack of children, and a supportive spouse, subsidizing my ability to lie in bed for an hour dispensing writing advice on social media and answering blog comments. I’ve made the calculation: I’d rather charge for value delivered than hours spent. That means doing about 1/3 of my total work hours for free, and pricing paid hours high enough to stay joyful and excited about volunteering. And I’ve learned that part of not feeling guilty about charging high prices (or advertising!) is not bothering to work for cheap–just happily working for free.

___

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. OH LOOK SHE’S ALSO SELLING SOMETHING: Just cranked through NaNoWriMo? At the end of your draft and unsure what’s next? Please join her for the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Book December 14th. It’s $25. If you prefer to track down and print out every blog Allison’s ever written about story & structure, put them in a binder and work from there, it’s free!

Mapping New Essay Terrain

November 28, 2022 § 2 Comments

An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

By Erin Vachon

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

I am considering relocation to another part of the country while reading Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s new essay collection Halfway From Home, a lyrical search for home across geographical landscapes. The serendipity astounds me and sets my pen curving red topographical lines around paragraphs on each page. “Everyone can be a cartographer,” she writes. “Roaming makes coming home richer, for when we explore places beyond our understanding and experience, we see connections between places we never imagined.” The essays in Halfway from Home roam across California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, deftly unpacking violence, grief, and nostalgia through their diverse habitats. In an interview wandering through the rich terrain of her writing, Montgomery and I explored the purpose of making your own map when uprooting your personal history.

Erin Vachon: On Dirt: In Halfway From Home, the ground unearths surprising truths through artifacts, graves, and time capsules. How has the passage of time changed the way you write about long buried events?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery I’ve always been interested in digging up what has been buried. As a child I dug for treasures — rocks, pennies, old trinkets. As an adult I dig for histories — familial, political, environmental. Lately I’ve become less interested in the artifacts and more interested in the acts of burial and unearthing, in the transformation of stories and selves over time. I’m interested in refocusing the work on this evolution, on the reasons we bury or uncover, on what happens to us through the act of concealing or revealing.

EV: On Sea: Overall, this collection examines unseen violence from family, partners, and strangers through lyricism. In particular, “Carve” is a tidal wave against bone-rigid gender violence: “How to hide in the sea with your bones on display, your hurt exposed and inviting. How to survive when your weapon is a wanting.” How does lyricism’s heightened beauty function when reclaiming violence?

SFM: We often ignore brutality because it is too painful, too pervasive. We recognize certain narrative structures and styles and stop reading in order to save ourselves from personal pain and collective responsibility. Lyricism is a way to command a reader’s interest and compel them to engage. This isn’t to say that I use lyricism to soften or distract from violence. Instead, beauty becomes a way to present violence more viscerally. I use lyricism when writing about brutality — domestic violence, social and political violence, gun violence, environmental violence —because it is the only way I know how to make a world inundated with grief take notice.

EV: On Grass: “To me, the Plains are neither cruel nor kind. They are indifferent.” You write lovingly about the unpredictable Midwest landscape, a place existing to “remind us of our impermanence.” How is writing about the character of a place different than writing about a person?

SFM: Both people and place invite intimacy, but we are often more accepting of place. When we accept the indifference of place, we also accept our unimportance. Place invites us to be insignificant, a process that encourages us to broaden our stories beyond ourselves. When we write about place, we decenter ourselves from the story, focusing instead of ecology, geology, natural history, community. It’s harder to do this when writing about people. When writing about the people in our lives we often become the center of the narrative and this can reopen old wounds, invite resentments and sorrows. Writing about place teaches me how to write about people. It invites me to set aside judgment in order to encourage compassion, empathy, in order to understand how a particular human stories fits within larger communities.

EV: On Forest: You write, “Trees hear one another because they listen.” Halfway From Home acknowledges the frustration of the ongoing pandemic as a single tree in a forest, emphasizing the need for community and resilience. Now that the collection is published, have these essays made the world feel larger or smaller by comparison?

SFM: Initially I hoped these essays would expand small portions of the world — the California grove of eucalyptus trees where most of the world’s monarchs spend each winter for warmth, a stretch of unbroken Nebraska prairie, the wetland woods that surround my Massachusetts home. I wrote much of this collection in the early days of the pandemic when my entire world was confined to my small home. By noticing the rich abundance of my small stretch of forest, I was able to expand my experience beyond the borders of my home. I learned trees, for example, are connected by a rich underground fungal network that allows them to share resources and take care of each other in order to ensure survival. During the pandemic this seemed — and seems still — a small lesson that we could invite in order to make a large difference. Now that the collection is published, it’s not so much that the world feels larger or smaller, but that we have rushed back to a “normal” where we don’t allow the small things — tide pools, prairie birds, moths — to be important, where we don’t learn what might be possible if we were to simply take notice.

EV: On Stone: In “Tumble,” you explore the relationship to your father alongside the meanings of crystals. What do you think Halfway From Home’s personal crystal might be?

SFM: I’ve long had a fascination with rocks. My father was a fence builder who taught me to dig in order to see what stories exist beneath the surface. At work sites, he pulled treasures out of the ground and taught me to use a rock polisher to make what was ordinary shine. If this collection were a rock, it would be obsidian, a stone associated with truth. Obsidian is formed when molten lava cools, when what erupted with violence cools to gloss. It is not actually a rock, instead glass, meaning the story is not what it first appears. Obsidian can be sharpened as a knife. It teaches us that what is beautiful can also wound. It is not showy like quartz or amethyst, does not boast colors like fluoride or citrine. It is dark and opaque, black like nothing. But look closely and you will notice how it reflects your own image.

___

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Erin Vachon has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Brevity, and more. They are Hybrid Editor for Longleaf Review and an alum of the Tin House Summer workshop. You can find more of their writing at www.erinvachon.com or Twitter @erinjvachon.

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