Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

April 13, 2021 § 4 Comments

Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:

Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…

Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…

Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…

“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?

And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?

Set clear ground rules.

Ask writers what they need.

Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.

Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”

Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?

Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.

Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”

If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:

I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?

Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?

Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.

Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.

Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!

Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

Approach it like an assignment:

This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?

I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?

Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!

Your Voice is You

April 12, 2021 § 15 Comments

By Michelle Redo

About five years ago, I downloaded my first audiobook. It was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. She’d just been interviewed about it on the prominent public radio station I worked for and I thought it would be a great way to test drive my new Audible subscription. I climbed onto the elliptical machine at 5:30 am before the onslaught of my workday and hit play as I began to pedal. The narration opened by clarifying that the introductory sections would be read by the author, but the book itself would be narrated by Debra Winger. What the…? Gloria Steinem shopped out telling her own life story to someone else!?

I was aghast. I found it difficult to continue (although I did… Debra Winger wasn’t too shabby a substitute.) But I loved the experience of listening to a book and thereafter found myself searching for good listens by a single criterion, memoir narrated by the author. True, not every author is a great narrator by default, but they are indeed the keeper of meaning. This simple key unlocked Heather Harpham’s gentle voice revealing the struggle of her baby born with a life-threatening blood illness. I learned what I had in common with Trevor Noah as he told me about his religious mother growing up in South Africa. Shonda Rhimes confessed her year-long experiment to just say yes to all the scary opportunities that came her way, despite her fears and anxieties. As these people generously shared their lives with me, I’ve counted them as my friends. Friends who have sat down in front of a microphone, pretending it was my ear and told me their story. Themselves.

This wasn’t so different from my job at the radio station, working with reporters and hosts to promote their features or shows. One day a new reporter followed me into the sound booth next to my office. She was young but super accomplished. She’d been published in the New York Times and The Atlantic, had a PhD From Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar.

 She looked over the promo script I’d written about her story as I closed the door behind us. We hadn’t worked together yet.

“I know I have a high voice.” Her eyes flashed a pre-emptive confession. “I’ve been told to try and use my chest voice.”

Her voice is indeed high, perhaps obscuring her expertise and experience. But if I had a hundred dollars every time a female reporter said that to me… well, I’d have hundreds of dollars. They’d been told to use a more demure sound. Bring the tone down.

I too had been told this in my twenties. I did sound young. Worse, I sounded insecure (probably because I was insecure.) So I told myself, I didn’t really like talking anyway. I far preferred the scripting, directing, and editing side of the production glass. And in recent years I’ve noticed an increasing number of younger sounding voices on the radio. Voices that convey gravitas through their soprano register. At first, I felt a little resentful at what I’d missed out on. But I decided not to dish out what I’d gotten.

“Well, your voice is high…” I agreed with this reporter, “but that’s who you are. And you’re the expert on the topic of your story. So you can certainly assert what you have to say with confidence. Just hold your own with it.” In the years since, her reports have uncovered hidden toxins in drinking water; articulated nuances in important ballot questions; dug into the science behind the coronavirus in its early weeks. The “high-voiced” reporter has won numerous awards for her reporting.

Now I’m a freelancer, and as I was recently preparing to co-lead a workshop aimed at coaching writers in reading their own work aloud, my partner suggested we ask some writers what they’d most want to get out of such a class. I’d already begun compiling a tip sheet of techniques and practices for them… but their single immediate response? I don’t like my voice! How can I change it to sound better?

Uh-oh! I wasn’t expecting that!

My blunt response: you can’t.

Allow me to play this out…Your voice is your primal auditory thumbprint. It’s why a long-ago friend says, “It’s so good to hear you!” Our voices reveal emotion and meaning that words alone can’t. As with our writing, our voice is a simple thing to aspire to, yet an elusive, delicate piece of ourself to nurture, to coax. A unique gift that must be diligently, bravely unveiled. But simple is rarely easy.

So when you next find yourself in front of a microphone or an audience (let’s hope sometime soon!) remember this: your voice is the perfect vehicle to exemplify you, and bring the story of yourself to life. Your voice is you. I’m your listener friend out here, and I just can’t wait to meet you.
___

Michelle Redo is a freelance podcast producer and thirty-year award winning former public radio veteran at WGBH in Boston. She’s taught audio production at the Banff Centre. She’s at last sitting down in front of a microphone herself as the host her new podcast, Daring to Tell, which features writers reading their true essays, memoir chapters or non-fiction stories of personal daring.

A Review of Courtney Zoffness’s Spilt Milk

April 9, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Nicole Graev Lipson

On a recent morning, I poked my head into my son’s room during virtual school. It was literacy period, and his teacher was introducing his second grade class to the concept of “mirrors” and “windows.” Say you’re a boy who lives in New England and loves birds, and you read a book about a boy who lives in New England and loves birds. That story would be a “mirror” reflecting your world. But if you’re this same boy, and you read a book about a girl who lives in Madagascar and loves astronomy, that story would be a “window,” opening onto a world beyond your own.

Our reading life should be full of both mirrors and windows, said his teacher.

I loved these metaphors, not only for their poetry, but their order—the way they seized on an activity as mysterious and amorphous as reading and arranged it into tidy categories. As I went about my day, I considered some of my own favorite books, designating each a “window” or a “mirror.” This was satisfying, like organizing a mess of papers into labeled file folders.

It was with this framework in mind that I read Courtney Zoffness’s debut essay collection Spilt Milk. The parallels between Zoffness’s life and mine are striking. She is a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s, and I am a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s! She has two young sons, and I have a young son! She lives in Brooklyn, and I live in Brookline—which is basically the Brooklyn of Boston. If we read, in part, to see ourselves reflected, here was a book thatcalled to me like a tremendous, shining mirror.

But from the very first of its ten searching and exquisitely-wrought essays, Spilt Milk made me question whether human experience can be so neatly divided. Circling around themes of motherhood, daughterhood, friendship, and spirituality, Zoffness’s writing illuminates, again and again, the porousness of boundaries between “self” and “other.” In the opening essay, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” Zoffness evokes this permeability through the lens of parenthood, tracing a thread between her five-year-old son’s anxieties and her own childhood worries and introducing a question that drives much of the collection: to what extent can we control what we inherit—from generations past, and from our culture?

Zoffness recounts turning to medical textbooks to better understand “parent-child transfer.” In its humility and poetry, her own writing emerges as an alternative to these texts, illuminating the interplay between parent and child in a way their “dense, inscrutable” language does not. Through her tender descriptions of her son’s struggles, she evokes the double-edged sensation—so common to parenthood—of feeling at once fiercely protective and culpable. In one achingly poignant scene, Zoffness attempts to comfort her son after a nightmare, but he shrinks from her. He has dreamed, he finally confides, that she was a monster. “He wants reassurance that I am who I say I am. That I’m not a demon disguised as his mom,” Zoffness writes. “He makes me pinky swear. Breath snags on a branch in my throat.”

In “Ultra Sound,” Zoffness flips the parent-child lens, probing the boundaries between herself and her own deeply private mother. In the 1960’s—a past Zoffness knows only from the wall of memorabilia in her childhood den—Zoffness’s mother was a folk singer, part of a duo that once shared a stage with Van Morrison and opened for the Doors. Zoffness captures her life-long yearning to understand a woman who has eluded her, a “paint-by-number profile with only some sections filled in.” As an adult, she finally hears an old recording of her mother singing, her voice sonorous and beautiful: “Each note from the record player is a portal I want to pass through,” Zoffness writes. Ultimately, the essay itself becomes a portal to the understanding she craves, as Zoffness the writer uses her imaginative powers to connect her mother’s creativity and her own.

Empathic imagination is also a theme in “Holy Body.” Here, Zoffness reconnects with a childhood friend who, motivated by compassion alone, has become a surrogate mother. Zoffness longs to uncover the origins of her friend’s generosity, so “unthinkable” in its hugeness. “You will spend the next several months—and likely the rest of your life—considering your relationship to restoration, and also how you can cultivate compassion in your sons,” the narrator reflects at the essay’s end.  Zoffness’s handles the tricky second-person voice masterfully: “you” becomes not just the author, but all of us who yearn to bring forth our best selves forward into the world.

Zoffness’s essays interpose disparate scenes in such a way that meaning wells up subtly, arrestingly, in the white spaces between present and past, self and other. Form itself becomes a vehicle for compassion. These juxtapositions work particularly well in “It May All End in Aleppo,” in which Zoffness conjures her developing relationship with Sol, a Syrian-American Orthodox Jew who once enlisted her help writing his memoir. Listening to Sol’s stories of his harrowing escape from his birth country—and then filtering his memories through her own imagination in order to write about them—blurs the line between storyteller and listener. Zoffness describes:

“Here’s what happens when you slip inside someone else’s body. When you chant alongside his father on Shabbat. When you eat his mother’s lamb pies and pickled peppers. When the glasses out of which he peers get knocked from his face, and his head—your head—is bashed against a wall. Here’s what happens when you assume their nation, their faith: Your eyes change. You feel a sudden affinity for the Arabic writing on your neighborhood storefronts. You smile at the Hasidic women pushing strollers past yours on the sidewalk. No one, including you, looks exactly the same.”

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect evocation of what good writing can do for a reader than this passage, which is to dissolve the barriers that keep us from one another. Could I still, after finishing Spilt Milk, accurately call it a “mirror”? In the end, it seems to me the most revelatory writing—the writing Zoffness gorgeously achieves with this collection—isn’t a “window” or “mirror,” but a combination of the two, a shifting kaleidoscope that transforms what we see and know.

In our own reflection, it shows us a world beyond us. Pointing to the world beyond us, it shows us ourselves.
___

Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River TeethCreative Nonfiction, The Hudson ReviewHippocampusThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.

The 21st-Century Book Launch

April 8, 2021 § 11 Comments

Dinty W. Moore’s latest book To Hell with It Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno dropped early. Happy readers posted selfies with their Amazon-shipped copies before Dinty himself got a published book. Other writers report Amazon jumping the gun, too. Conversely, the wrenchingly beautiful Inside Passage has pushed back a month. My own publication date for Seven Drafts moved from May to September (sorry but thanks for sticking with me, preorders!).

It doesn’t matter.

The one-month launch is over.

A book launch was once a big, splashy thing. Champagne at a fancy restaurant, or dubious cheese cubes and box wine at a bookstore, your publicist flying in, a party. Then you’d wait eagerly for reviews, write a few supporting pieces, do some interviews, and 30 days later, you were done. Either your book had flown or it had flopped.

Now, the process of a book leaving the nest is much more drawn out. There’s the happy Facebook status when you finish the manuscript, start querying, land an agent, land a publisher, or decide to self-publish. The Goodreads cover reveal. The Instagram Reel of unboxing the first copies. Tweeting nice reviews. With social media, authors have much more control over pre- and post-launch publicity (if they want it). Now, after publication, a “book launch” lasts six months. Or a year. Or two or three years, with a revival when something newsworthy and connected to your book happens in year four.

What’s changed? The pandemic was the last straw, but the haystack had been building since the early 2000s. The sheer number of books published has vastly increased. Sure, Hemingway never tweeted. But in 1926, The Sun Also Rises joined about 23,000 new titles. In 2018, there were over a million new books in the USA alone. More books are self-published, alone or through a “hybrid” publishing services company, and their authors must self-promote or hire a publicist. And unlike a traditional publisher’s marketing department, a hired publicist doesn’t quit when the next book comes out…she keeps going as long as the checks keep rolling in.

The good news is, you don’t have to cram all that publication-related stress into the 3 months before and the 1 month after publication. The bad news is that authors end up doing a lot of the launching themselves, into a much busier, more crowded market. But authors also have more outlets—many costing only your time—to get the message out.

What does the 21st-century book launch include?

  • A mailing list. Start collecting emails now. Being invited into the inbox is the absolute best way to connect with readers (after meeting them in person, when we can again).
  • A giant spreadsheet to track launch activities. As my own primary publicist, I’m listing what I’d like to do on each platform where I’m active, and roughly when. Checking off a list is easier than guessing. (I’m making this spreadsheet available next week, btw, please do sign up for my mailing list if you want a copy!)
  • Blurbs. Lots of them. They don’t have to be famous writers—many readers don’t even know who the literati are. Learn to make a quote card and sprinkle good quotes from beta readers and reviews, as well as traditional requested blurbs, across your own social media. Those authors you hope will blurb? Start gently promoting their work through your social network months before hitting them up.
  • Long-term, low-key social media. You’re less likely to wear out your audience by posting about your book weekly for a year, in context with other news, rather than blasting ads for a month while everyone mutes you on Twitter. Post more about your topic than your book. Be a PSA instead of a commercial.
  • Literary citizenship. You’re going to want online reviews, so make sure you’ve reviewed all your friends’ books before asking them to review you back.
  • If your book launched more than a few months ago, look for something newsworthy to cue renewed sales. Write a hot essay. Get a writer friend to pitch an interview with you. Emphasize how your book intersects with a right-now topic. Supermoms. Actively processing past trauma. Female rage.

Yes, a lot of this sounds transactional. It is transactional. Human nature is transactional. We feel more drive to do favors for people who have done favors for us. Think of it as deposits into the Bank of Goodwill. You may not end up withdrawing the exact same stuff you put in, but when you contribute to a community, the members are more likely to support you, whether you supported them individually or not.

Having a book is like having a baby. Interest peaks right before the big release, but your precious little damp lump also gets 4-5 more months before your cooing starts boring the crap out of your friends. Pick the platforms you actually like—publishing essays, or writing newsletters, or public speaking, if you’re not into social media—and gently participate by supporting other authors’ creations, before, during and after launching your own bundle of literary joy.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching seminars in how to get an agent, joyful platform building, and intriguing first pages as part of Rebirth Your Writing: Publishing and Craft, a 5-day writing intensive May 16-20.

On Continuing to Love and Support My Favorite Literary Journals That Have Rejected Me and Knowing When It’s Time to Cancel

April 7, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Melody Heide

The short essay took several years, dozens of drafts, and multiple peer critiques but finally, finally, it felt ready—the last image, the last metaphor clicked into place to make the whole thing come together in what felt like, to me, a satisfying read.

I sent it out to my top four literary journals—the ones I subscribe to, the ones I read cover to cover, the ones I felt might be a good home for this little essay. Four literary journals is my own personal magic number right now; it is what I have the time and resources for and this past year I decided to try and only submit to the literary journals I regularly read and support.

Rejections came quickly from three of them; I was sad and disappointed but also, if I’m honest, angry. I’ve financially supported these journals for years! I bought gift subscriptions! I talked them up on social media! I even went to journal sponsored conferences! I felt that dangerous You owe me.

I dwelled in this cocktail of hurt feelings for over a week. I thought, I’ll show you! I’ll stop subscribing, I’ll stop reading, I’ll stop sharing. But when I toyed with this decision a wave of grief came —I truly love these journals.

These journals have enlivened my interior life; they’ve given me poems and stories that I’ve returned to over and over, that I’ve shared with friends and with students. They’ve provided opportunities through conferences and workshops for time and space to work on my own writing, to work with brilliant writers and thinkers. In those places and spaces I’ve made life-long friends.

I do not subscribe and support these journals solely because if I do so they’ll publish my work (though of course I hope they will); first and foremost I subscribe and support because they give to the world beauty, thoughtfulness, and a diversity of voices and perspectives. I’ll continue honing my work—I’d still like to see my writing in their pages—but, at least through a cycle of three rejections, I’ll also continue reading, sharing, supporting, and attending conferences and classes.

Yes, a cycle of three rejections. I have given myself another rule because I believe boundaries are important, I believe it’s essential to protect time and resources, and I believe in believing your own work is good and worthy of publication—after the third rejection from each journal, I re-evaluate. Perhaps the things I’m writing do not fit with the aesthetic of the journal, perhaps it’s time to start looking elsewhere, perhaps it’s time to discover a new journal, a new world, a new place for my writing to hopefully call home.

The relationship between a writer and a literary journal is a strange one. Who owes who what? Literary journals can’t survive without subscriptions and support and it’s hard for writers, who generally aren’t getting paid, to survive, to grow, without validation and encouragement. You owe me feels icky—an internalized, Americanized type of transactional relationship. But writers want and need to publish and literary journals want and need subscribers. Even though the literary journal can’t survive without its subscribers, it still holds most of the power.

And that’s why my rules for submitting, subscribing, and knowing when it’s time to cancel and start discovering other literary journals makes sense for me right now. I don’t want to unsubscribe out of anger or even out of a flex for power; I want to say thank you for what you’ve given me, maybe it’s time for me to discover something new.
___

Melody Heide’s writing has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Switchback Magazine, and the anthology Love & Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life. She lives in Minnesota and teaches writing classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

Not a People Person? No Problem. Five Face-to-Face Research Tips I Gleaned From an Extrovert

April 6, 2021 § 12 Comments

Black and white author headshot of Kirsten Voris, a white woman with long dark blonde hair in a black scoopneck top and wrapped patternedscarf
Photo by: Mamta Popat

By Kirsten Voris

When I first decided to write a book about a vaudeville-era stage psychic, my research skills included visiting archives, amassing details, and wishful thinking. Years later, I’m still no professional, but I’ve earned the right to call myself an amateur pain in the rear. I had a few things going for me before I started:

I love making lists.

I love archives.

I love details.

I never tire of digging up new information.

However:

I’m not a researcher.

I’m conflict avoidant.

I’m sure I’m disturbing you.

And, I never tire of digging up new information.

Curiosity is good. That’s how stuff gets found. One more archive, I might think, then I’ll stop. Only, I can’t stop. And I don’t want to. Because the next step is synthesis. (Actual writing!) And if you never tire of digging, there’s a lot of material. In my case, archival.

I heart archives. Apart from the librarian who will ask me to open my bag and prove I’m pen-less, I don’t have to talk. If other people show up, they will be quiet people. If they’re not, they get busted.

In the early 2000s, when I began delving, my psychic was long gone and her contemporaries were old. Possibly deceased. Yes, I thought. They’re deceased.

A few years in, I was cornered at the registration desk of a magic conference. I was presenting, and this magician’s enthusiasm for my topic alarmed me. It was familiar. It was like mine.

As I signed in, he grilled me. Had I consulted the index of births and deaths, phone books, census records, court documents, newspapers? The Ask Alexander database?

Had I found the kids? The stepkids? Descendants of pallbearers and housekeepers? Had I sent letters to the current occupants of the last known residence? Had I interviewed anyone?

Nope.

As the dust settled on this second set of questions, I knew myself. I was a microfilm jockey in a sea of prestidigitators. Folks who would be rolling quarters over their knuckles at dinner that night, right up until the salad arrived. They never quit refining. They’re relentless. I’m not. I’ll quit digging as soon as I have to talk to someone.

In fact, I’d found the kids. And the stepkids. And couldn’t make myself contact them.

I had composed a sample letter in my head. Hello, it began. I am a person you’ve never heard of with no credentials. Let’s just call me a researcher. I wanted to ask a few questions about your late stepmother. The one who totaled your parents’ marriage.

My new friend, I would learn, takes it a step further. He asks whether there are publicity photos, scrap books, personal letters, props. A trunk in the attic?

It sounded crass. Like trying to hook someone on a pyramid scheme. I didn’t think I could do it.

He got me to do it. By exerting the same gentle pressure he applies to survivors of show-business families who don’t want to talk to him. (And if you’re writing a book about early radio mentalism, you’ll need what he’s dug up.) He wore me down. And normalized the practice of being a pain in the rear.

Five suggestions I profited from:

  1. Assume family members want to hear from you. Most will be curious about why you’re so interested. Others will refuse to talk to you. Or take you seriously. Or be polite. Just like in real life.
  2. Own your title. A researcher is someone who researches. That, my friend, is you.
  3. Send letters. Better yet, make phone calls. Consider the age of people you hope to contact. Not everyone can comfortably type or text or hold a pencil. The phone is your best bet. Phoning is scary. Decide how you will reward yourself.
  4. Persist. If a letter is rejected or goes unanswered wait, then send another when you have something to share, like information you found or a relevant article you’ve published. Repeat this process until you’re asked to stop.
  5. Befriend other researchers. Especially those mining the same ground. These are the folks who will call your obsession normal and propel you onward with love and goodwill when you feel defensive about the way you’re spending your time. If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would drop my fear of being scooped and collaborate more generously.

Overcoming my fear of contacting people came down to attitude and approach. In the end, the strangers I called shared scrapbooks and photos and some of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. I’ve absorbed more drama and gossip than one book can hold. And one happy day, a woman I had interviewed wrote to say she wanted to live out the rest of her life without ever hearing from me again. At last, I was too much! I’d graduated to close up magic and survived my first coin drop.

Sometimes, I actually kind of love talking to people.

But not in archives.
__

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

April 5, 2021 § 24 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.

I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.

After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.

Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling.  My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.

I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.

While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.

A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding  of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.

But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.

Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.

I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.

By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.

That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.

In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.

Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.

Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.

If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.

“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)

_________________________

Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.

To Blog or Not To Blog

April 2, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

On a whim this year, when I wrote out my New Year’s resolutions, I decided to add the following intention to the list: Blog for the entire month of February.

I figured I would pick a month with the fewest days to make the task somewhat easier. Finding something meaningful to write every day for a month is in many ways no small undertaking.

But why bother? Who reads blogs?

I don’t know if I even answer those questions. Social media has changed the landscape for other online activity – by essentially elevating the primacy of multi-venue feeds, rather than discrete reading destinations such as blogs.

I only know the blog that I started in 2008 as a shrine to my love of the Italian language has long been the only place I can throw up a quick essay or my take on a new Italian film in such a way as these bits and pieces contribute to a larger whole. I can’t command anyone else to publish my work or accept my niche pitches. But my blog? It has no choice.

So I use it to catalog my interests – and literary projects are chief among those interests. The blog is where I might try out an idea; for example, I decided to write a “letter” to Marie Kondo, defending hoarding because, well, I need a lot of mementos from the places I’ve loved. It’s an appropriate forum for rants or observations plucked directly from my diary, and hence not finished writing that could conceivably be published.

And yet does blogging sap creativity and waste time, both of which I could use to further more significant writing projects?

Surely in February I could have devoted more time to nonfiction essays I’ve been struggling to complete rather than resurrecting a forgotten bit of travel writing, for example, about the 24 incandescent hours I spent in Rome a few years back?

I write primarily to publish creative nonfiction essays. Wouldn’t it have been wiser, if I wanted to exercise my writing muscles, to simply review the laundry list of essay ideas, some of which I’ve begun, or to write well thought-out pitches for articles?

Tough to say. Or maybe a better answer is: yes AND no. In the case of the travel essay about a day I spent in Rome, I’d pitched it to several outlets without success (perhaps because Rome is well-covered in the travel writing space), and then I moved on to other writing. So it was a piece of writing that I had spent a lot of time on, which nonetheless languished unseen and most likely would have continued to do so if I hadn’t shared it on my blog.

And reviewing old posts I’d never published and topics I’d been wanting to broach did inspire me to begin a new series that could be fruitful. I also think one published piece may emerge from the blogging since I felt inspired to tackle a topic I’d only mentioned in passing previously.

Plus, it gave me a project, as I came off a month of teaching an intensive course on memoir during which I’d put aside my own writing. So it felt like a way of jumpstarting my writing.

Moreover, blogging – if done well, and if shared via social media correctly (two ifs that aren’t guaranteed) – can help you gauge interest in a topic. I think, for example, I’d like to use my blog as an incubator for journal bits I could develop into proper essays. One bit: words are almost always at the heart of everything I save and everything I remember.

But deciding to blog is not easy. Indeed, the Hamletian note you hear in this entry’s title is purposeful. There is room to waffle on this topic.

Blogging does provide one bit of writing pleasure: putting a thought out into the world. A series of thoughts, rather. Not just a tweet or a Facebook post. It’s more considered than that.

Some writers have established successful blogs. For example, Jane Friedman has a wonderful blog – and one of the topics she’s discussed there is whether writers should blog. What’s her verdict? “The average author does not benefit much from blogging,” she writes.

And yet she continues to blog and also offers a course on blogging for writers. Key caveat: take the writing seriously on the blog. If it’s ‘lesser’ writing, she says don’t bother. She also says blogging can pay off more for nonfiction writers than novelists.

That said, George R.R. Martin, the man beyond Game of Thrones (the book that inspired the TV series), has a blog. It’s called “Not A Blog,” so there you go. He updates it regularly with small bits of writing that feel maybe not expansive or developed enough for an article.

So to blog or not to blog? Ah that is the question. And perhaps it begets other questions: Do you have another way to write regularly in a low-stakes environment? Do you post long strings of thought on Facebook or to Instagram? Or maybe you prefer sites like Medium.

As for me, I will continue to blog because I have a blog. Because I like to track a particular activity – my Italian language engagement – through blogging and I take advantage of the platform to also publish writing about other interests. Essentially, when you come to my blog, you’re around my table. And while other people would serve you a meal there, I’d like to serve you my writing.
___

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

Social Media Doesn’t Sell Books

April 1, 2021 § 5 Comments

Many authors have numbers questions:

Will an agent even look at my query if I have less than 10K on Instagram?
How many Twitter followers do I need before writing my proposal?
Does an essay with 5600 hits count as “viral”?
 
Gentle Readers, I have answers:
 
Yes.
0.
No. (More on this in a minute)
 
Social media doesn’t sell books—that we know of. Nobody walks into Barnes & Noble saying, “I saw this book in a tweet!” Readers don’t tick “Found it on Instagram!” on their Amazon order. You can’t get that information from your publisher. Your publisher can’t get it, either. Mostly you won’t even know who sold the book. Are you an indie bookstore darling? Or were all your sales at Books-a-Million? If they bought through the same distributor, you won’t know.
 
Social media is not a lead magnet or a commercial. Social media is a delivery system, to communicate your ideas, topics, and point of view to your audience. To find out what your audience needs to know. And to reach beyond your own community to broaden your audience at only the cost of your time.
 
You don’t have to buy an ad.
You don’t need a degree.
You don’t even have to put on pants.
 
For authors, social media has four main purposes—but each of these can be done off social media, too.
 
Find your audience: Following discussions (helpfully corralled into subjects by hashtag) shows you exactly who’s interested in what you’re writing about. It’s not weird if you become online acquaintances and spontaneously participate in their conversation. They can directly respond to your joke, question, micro-essay or impassioned political or emotional point, and you can block them if you don’t like what they have to say.
 
Offline, these spontaneous discussions happen at writing and subject-focused conferences, community meetings, and on newspaper editorial pages.
 
Follow “comp authors”: Just as you might list “comparative titles” in a nonfiction book proposal to show the market for your own, you can seek out those authors online. Watch the conversations happening on their social media. Engage with their followers, and some of them (gradually) become your followers, too.
 
Offline, once we can travel again, attend bookstore events and talks on college campuses (sign up for their newsletters!). There, you can meet other audience members, maybe exchange cards to let them know when you publish.
 
Explore new communities: Watching what else your followers talk about, and where else they hang out online, leads to discovering events, classes, and forums. Reddit has thousands of interest-based forums; there’s probably one for your ideal readers. (There’s a 38K-member subReddit focused entirely on eating oranges while showering, so your topic is probably there, too.) Becoming part of a community now means you can tell them about your book in six months.
 
Offline, once it’s safe, Meetup is a great source for interest-based communities. There are likely business clubs, religious organizations, or volunteer groups meeting around your topic.
 
Write better: Sure, an MFA is great, but have you made a joke land on Twitter? Or written a six-part essay on Instagram? You’ve heard me bang this drum before: Social media is ideal to practice writing at the sentence level. Anchor your sentence beginnings and ends with concrete nouns and strong verbs. See what word combinations have punch. It’s low-stakes: there’s no “dislike” button.
 
Offline, sentence-level trial and error with immediate response is rare in workshops, but not impossible to find (let me know if you find it). Or get a professional line-edit on 5-10 pages, then apply that work to the rest of your manuscript.
 
(You may have noticed that when you’re not using social media, all four of these things cost more, take longer, and require more privilege to access.)
 
But I want to grow my following organically…I hear writers moan. They contemptuously dismiss social media as “fake” and “shallow.” But you’re not a spray-tanned influencer. You’re a writer. No-one is forcing you to partner with Starbucks and hawk Unicorn Frappucinos. No-one sternly insists you tweet twice a day.
 
If you want real connection online, be a real person. Join real communities. Listen to what they need. Because “going viral” isn’t 5600 clicks. Going viral is becoming a focus of discussion in the audience you want to reach.
 
 
I triple-dog dare you to read any of those and tell me they’re fake or shallow. Without social media, they would not have created as much serious, emotional and literary discussion as they did.
 
You can absolutely build your entire writing career on the beauty of your writing alone. If that’s your plan, prepare to spend hours, for years, improving your writing and thinking deep thoughts about what to write. It helps to have an MFA. It helps to have a mentor already well-positioned in the literary world. It helps to have started at 25.
 
You can also build a writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:
 
 
Why Bother?

Because right now there is   someone

Out there with

a wound               in the exact shape

of your words.

 

They’re telling you the shape of their wound, every day, on social media.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore for Rebirth Your Writing: A Publishing & Craft Intensive. It’s a five-day virtual retreat May 16-20. We’ll cover writing beautifully—and building platform.

The Present Is Alive. The Past Can Be, Too.

March 31, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Maggie Pahos

My mom died when I was twenty-two, and four months later, I boarded a plane for Ghana—to try to find solid ground, to be touched by something other than my own life, to remember what was still beautiful in the world. For eleven months, I traveled with my boyfriend, Will, onto South Africa, and then to Europe. When we landed back in the States, I applied for MFA programs, and the following year, I started as a nonfiction student at Chatham University, where I began the manuscript for She Made You That Way—the story of my mom’s life and death and those eleven months Will and I traveled.

My mom had died two-and-a-half years after a re-diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a slow process, and painful and beautiful and bewildering and harrowing and surreal and a mess, in the way slow deaths can be. I’d just graduated college, and my mom was becoming my best friend, so her death completely devoured me, that age-old description of grief as a wave, a tidal force so powerful and consuming all you can do is hold your breath and hope you live long enough to again, one day, find air.

When I started writing the manuscript, my instinct was to write in present tense. I love reading and writing present tense narratives. There’s an urgency I find compelling and alert in the present, a language not tamped down by distance and time. But as part of my courses at Chatham, I was starting to study memoir in earnest and noticed most memoirs are written in past tense. For good reason. Much of the joy and beauty of memoir is its ability to shed light, offer insight, and infuse wisdom based on the unique human ability to make meaning out of trauma and chaos and heartbreak. By creating vantage points at various places in time from which to perch and convey these insights, a writer can create complexity and differing perspectives for the reader. Present tense, so scene-based and immediate, can make it harder, though, of course, not impossible, to do this.

But that kind of reflection and wisdom offering memoir can provide wasn’t my goal. I knew I had no wisdom to give. I wasn’t capable of reflecting. Each time I tried to write in past tense, I grew a feeling under my skin, a physical sensation—a man following behind me at night, a bad phone call about to come in, a foreign sound on the dark porch—telling me something was wrong. I abandoned the past tense as quickly as I tried it each time.

There was that lurking sense of unease but also a crush of dishonesty. It felt instantly like I was writing fiction instead of my own life, writing about a stranger named Maggie who went through something I didn’t know. My mom’s death still completely calibrated my life, so present it defined my every move. To act as though I could look back on it as something of the past, something separate from me, was like shoplifting or cheating on a test, a violation and probably not worth it. The alarm bells of inauthenticity screamed in my ears. My skin felt like someone else’s, and it disgusted me. And it seemed a disservice to her. I was going to make a packaged artifact of her life in the form of a book? An inert, unfeeling thing in past tense, deadly finite?

So, in present tense, alive and breathing and full of moving possibilitiesfull of herI stayed.

Every so often, I would change a couple sentences in the manuscript to past tense, just to see how they read, and each time, that feeling. Then one day, a few years into writing, I tried it, and nothing happened. I converted a few more sentences, waiting to feel ill, and still no ick, no urge to jump ship. I did this for a whole paragraph, read it back to myself, and for the first time, it sounded true. I could suddenly see all the doors it would lead me to on top of its truth, the lateral movements and jumps in time. Maybe I would even find a way to reflect.

Eventually, I changed the entire manuscript to past tense, and that’s how it will stay. But I know why the present tense felt like the only true way for so long. Part of me thought I could keep her alive if I wrote about her as if she actually still were. She is sleeping, she walks to her closet, she tells me, “I love you so.” No “ate” or “snored” or “laughed.” No. Those verbs were for dead people. I could keep her with me if she was active in the present. I could make it so she wasn’t fully gone. She could still breathe beside me. I could still stand with her in a room.

I won’t go so far as to say I offer any kind of wisdom in my manuscript, past tense as it now may be. But I do feel like I’ve finally done justice to her, to my family, to Will, to myself because I’m able to explore us all through the many dimensions we contain, to show development, change, and regression across time and space. While past tense isn’t the best way to tell every story, not by a long shot, it seems to be working now for this one.

I’ve been able to track my grief through how I’ve been able to write about it, and it’s been a humbling and gratifying experience, one that’s held my hand and kept me on some kind of path through the dark woods. Even in the past tense, I get to sit down with my mom each day at my computer, to hear her words, and see her smile. “I love you,” she said. She says. She pulls me to her. “You’ll always be my baby.”
_____

Maggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hippocampus Magazine, Bark, the Rumpus, Flyway, Nowhere, Hobart, and elsewhere. In the summers, she leads trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions. You can find more of her writing at www.maggiepahos.com.

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