July 22, 2016 § 18 Comments
A guest post from Dina L. Relles
On my 36th birthday, I’m meeting a friend for lunch. The car radio is playing and I turn up the volume thinking, that’s all I ask: a good song. Maybe a good cup of coffee.
I’d like something slow, even sad, a ballad that takes me back. I want to suck the marrow from this moment and only let go when I’m good and ready. Which is never.
Somewhere between the Northern State Parkway and Middle Neck Road, I realize I write not—as Joan Didion, as Flannery O’Connor did—to figure out what I think, but to remember what I thought. To take time and memory, fold it eight ways, pressing firmly along the creases, and tuck it away in a pilling hoodie pocket. To preserve a shirt worn, a street walked, a friend seen, spoken to. A snippet of conversation cut too short, a slice of time and space never to be had again.
Is a life lost to all this looking back?
In late May, a month after giving birth, I sit in the quiet of an empty foyer. Inside the reception hall to my left, people fete my father for twenty years at his job. The thump! thump! thump! of the band’s bass line reverberates in my still-sore belly while the baby mercifully sleeps in the stroller. A social worker with a shock of curly brown hair passes, then pulls up a chair at my cocktail table.
“I’ve read your writing,” she says. “What are you working on now?”
I hate this question. Especially after having my fourth child left me feeling like I’ll never work on anything worthwhile again. I mumble some half-thought about creative nonfiction, about mining old relationships for truth and story.
“Why do you write what you do? Why do you write about the past?”
“I’ve always been a hoarder,” I shrug. “The writing is like hoarding memories.”
“Ahh,” she says, making sense of me. “It’s your way of holding on to who you were. It’s how you fight for space in a life all too eager to edge you out.”
Maybe. I’m not so sure.
Time feels slippery these days. No sooner do I take in the sudden maturity behind the eyes of my middle son than he darts into the next room to help his brother with Lego. I follow, one hand wrapped around the thickening thigh of my not-so-newborn. Four children—each chipping away at my attention span, each endlessly running off in a different direction—making it hard to hold fast to…anything at all.
But I’ve never been one to let go. I want anyone who’s ever loved me to love me still, with that same fierceness, that same can’t-live-without love. Even though we’ve all moved on and away. Even though we’re happy where we are now. I lay claim, I take with. If I spend a night, I feel it’s home. If I loved you once, I always will.
This is not the work of motherhood. This is me.
Perhaps, if anything’s changed, it’s that my grip on what’s gone only grows tighter as I leave more and more days behind.
There it is, as I’m pulling in: the first few chords of a song strummed fireside on camp canoe trips so many summers ago. The shaggy slant of teenage boy hair comes into view, the soft fray of too-long sleeves pulled self-consciously over hands, the electric tension of flirtation, unfulfilled.
So is it a life lost to all this looking back?
Or one well-loved? Tattered and torn from overuse, softened by many strokes, smooth and worn. When the world feels cruel and out of control, here, I’ll say. I have this little corner of earth, captured, kept, mine.
Slow build, volume cranked, I push the gearshift into park and close my eyes.
I write this moment into eternity.
Dina L. Relles‘ writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River Teeth, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. A piece of hers was recently chosen as a finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is at work on her first book of nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
July 20, 2016 § 1 Comment
More and more, the business of book sales is something authors need to understand. Whether you’re self-publishing and doing all your own publicity and promotion, or a mid-lister at a Big Five publisher, doing almost all your own publicity and promotion, or a successful best-seller urged by your publisher to do more publicity and promotion, it helps to know what numbers are out there and what they mean.
Headlines like The novel is dead! Reading lives again! E-books are killing print! Print is not dead! conjure up the image of a zombie literature army without a compass, lurching toward the latest pronouncement.
At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel discusses the problem of sales number murkiness:
This lack of knowledge leads to plenty of confusion for writers when they do sell a book. Are they selling well? What constitutes good sales? Should they start freaking out when their first $0.00 royalty check comes in? Writers should absolutely write with an eye toward art, not markets. Thinking about sales while creating art rarely produces anything good. But I’m still naïve enough to think that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and that after the book is written, writers should come to publishing with a basic understanding of what is going on.
And he goes on to break it all down, starting with the way-more-confusing-than-it-sounds question, “what is a book sale?”
…one of the things that makes the conversation about book sales so confusing is that there are several different numbers thrown around, and often even people in the publishing industry completely confuse them. Here are four different numbers that are frequently conflated:
1) The number of copies of the book that are printed.
2) The number of copies that have been shipped to stores or other markets like libraries.
3) The number of copies that have been sold to readers.
4) The Nielsen BookScan number.
These numbers can all be wildly different.
Fortunately, Michel’s excellent essay not only explains what counts as a sale and why, but how these numbers are conflated to make other numbers, and who is using what statistics to count “sales.”He discusses what constitutes “good” sales for large publishers and micropresses, and for literary books, genre fiction, and story/essay collections. He points out that royalties aren’t the sum of an author’s earnings, which include “money made from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching classes, or other author income streams.”
His very best point? That “even getting a thousand strangers to read something you poured your heart and soul is pretty okay.”
Lincoln Michel’s piece is a terrific, understandable explanation of something every author should know, no matter how much or how little of your own sales are your responsibility. Go read it.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments
By e.v. de cleyre
A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.
Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”
The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.
Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”
Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”
Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”
Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”
e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.
July 19, 2016 § 6 Comments
My beloved life coach sent me a link to Shut Up And Write–business consultant Karyn Greenstreet heard about a method for generating work in silent company with other writers, and she’s now (mildly) monetizing it for writers who need to get their work done.
People who had to write their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation would agree to get together on a regular basis, spend a few minutes getting settled, and then “shut up and write” for 25 minute sprints. Then they’d take a 5 minute break and do another 25 minute sprint.
This technique of 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break is a proven method for working within your brain’s normal rhythms. Add that to the group support and accountability of working quietly together, it’s a real win-win.
Greenstreet charges $20 for five sessions–about what I’d save on coffee if I Skyped into her meetings instead of running down to Starbucks for the afternoon.
I mentioned Shut Up And Write to a writer friend, who wrote back “Sounds like a great way to collect money for doing nothing. Pay me 20 bucks and then stfu and do what you should be doing by yourself.” A bit snappish, yes, but is that true? Should writers be doing it by ourselves? Are we less-able if we rely on the real or virtual presence of another person, an appointed time, outside accountability? Is creation solely a personal responsibility, to be generated through will alone?
Tools to support writing abound. Apps that turn off our internet or blacklist social media sites. Apps to keep writing steadily (or lose your work!). Approving kittens. Over at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost reviews the Freewrite, a “smart typewriter” that he describes as
…the latest and most extreme entry in the distraction-free writing wars. The idea: by stripping down a computer to its basics, writing can be simplified and improved.
…the mechanical keyboard inscribes text to an e-ink screen (like the Kindle’s), and a physical Wi-Fi lever activates networking—but only to send your documents to services like Dropbox or Google Drive. The lowly writer, plagued by the torment of Facebook, Twitter, and browser tabs, can finally get down to business and just write.
Bogost talks about the effect of writing tools and methods on the writing itself, going back to Nietzsche on typewriters–“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts;” tools change their users. Brevity‘s own Dinty W. Moore strongly recommends his workshop students write in-class exercises by hand, since the veins in the hand flow up through the arms, connecting to the heart. Many writers would say they need a certain notebook, a particular pen. I don’t know how I’d finish this essay without being able to websearch every few moments–to check a quote, find support for a point, look up another word for trick. What’s a crutch or a ploy or a gimmick and what’s an assist from a teammate?
Writers and painters are the most solitary of artists. No matter how we get the work done, in the end, one person (usually) is responsible for what ended up on the paper. Dancers and musicians and actors go into a room together. Rehearsal has a beginning and an end and a structure enforced by a leader. Shit gets done. If you’re not on your A-game today, you fake it as best you can, someone else picks up the slack, and you do the same for them tomorrow or next week.
I realized a few weeks ago, I work on the rehearsal/performance model. I want to pound out work in a sixty hours before a hard deadline, then lie around and play Bejeweled for a week to recover. I’ve known for much longer that I, too, am a Shut Up And Write person. My writer friend in Florida, my writer friend in Louisiana, my writer friend in Dubai–we sit together in a coffee shop, sometimes different coffee shops with Skype on. Write for an hour, chat for a few minutes or read what we have so far, write for another hour. I can do this six days in a row, and writing with a teammate makes me show up, helps me start. The presence of another person encourage-shames me into continuing to type past when I’d quit alone. Sure, it’s a trick. But the rabbit coming out of the hat is pages.
It’s not the only way I write. “Need to post a blog for Brevity” is a strong motivator. So is “I want to finish this book so I can sell it when I speak at a conference next month.” Or a contest deadline. And sometimes, on a lucky day, “Because I’m passionate about this project and sitting down to work feels good.” Those days are the best, the most joy-filled, the most creative. But they wouldn’t add up to much if they were the only days I worked.
Why trust to luck when I can stock a toolbox? Carpenters don’t think less of the cabinet that needed a bandsaw as well as a screwdriver. Stockbrokers aren’t shy about whipping out calculators and whiteboards. Dancers show up to rehearsal whether or not they’re in the mood, because rehearsal is the tool to get work done. They don’t look back at the choreography and say, “Yeah, but someone had to tell me to show up to learn that.”
Writers (and visual artists) often work without any of the tools we see as a “normal” work framework. No hours, no co-workers, no desk where someone will notice if you’re watching Samantha Bee. So why should it feel weak or dishonest to use tools most everyone else uses to get our work done? Because art is supposed to feel like “play”?
We can desperately want the feeling of having created, we can love the passion of wanting to create, and still have a hard time sitting down to work. Writing can feel like a job as well as a joy. And it’s OK to need a tool–even one that feels like a trick.
July 18, 2016 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Keema Waterfield:
Recently Hillary Clinton offered a personal farewell to The Toast, a website that, among other things, offered a safe haven for women-folk writing and talking about the intersection of literature and women-folk related things (e.g. everything). In her toast to The Toast, Mrs. Clinton encouraged forlorn writers, readers, and contributors mourning its loss to continue to, “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you… And if the space you’re in doesn’t have room for your voice, don’t be afraid to carve out a space of your own.”
Can I tell you something? Mrs. Clinton’s words fell on me like an ice bath during a climate-change induced mid-summer heatwave.
As a new mother, I sometimes lie awake at night overwhelmed by the odds my daughter faces in a country that still struggles to do justice by its most vulnerable. It happens all the time: victims of spousal abuse, rape, gun violence, childhood trauma and gender nonconformity and inequality, all are regularly treated like mewling kittens and swept under the rug by a culture that is discomfited by their cries. The earnest are so uncomfortable to behold.
A few special corners of the Internet make a space for those voices, and The Toast was one of them. The Toast welcomed writers of the irreverent, the raucous, the thought-provoking, and the visionary. It carved out a space for our manifold voice to manifest. Now The Toast is gone and despair seems too small a word for the loss.
It is easy to feel voiceless in that dark, lonely place under the rug, particularly when you are not rich or famous and you don’t have a Twitter following in the thousands. But I keep thinking of Mrs. Clinton’s urging: “Speak your opinion more fervently in your classes if you’re a student, or at meetings in your workplace. Proudly take credit for your ideas. Have confidence in the value of your contributions.”
When the Senate failed to make even the most basic gun reform after the Orlando shootings I huddled in bed with my five-month-old daughter for days before Tweeting:
When I was 3 a man held a gun to my head with his pants around his ankles. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence
For an hour after I posted that message my heart raced. I alternated between rolling up in a blanket, shaking, and sitting with my face pressed to the window fan. I hovered anxiously over the toilet, waiting to vomit. Then I deleted the tweet and curled up around my sleeping baby, exhausted, but magically cured of my post traumatic flu. I was relieved that I’d saved myself the humiliation of sharing that horrible, bald, truth so…truthfully.
I don’t aspire to serve as the face or voice of a cause, particularly not a heartbreaking and dark one like childhood sexual trauma and gun violence. And I don’t have enough of a following on social media to make taking a stand worth the anxiety, right? I’ve written a memoir that touches on my experience and, recently, my lyrical essay “You Will Find Me in the Starred Sky” appeared in Brevity. It is enough, I think, to have addressed it in a literary format, with context.
Still, after I deleted the message I struggled with the urge to speak up, to say something, all through the following day. Too rapey, I thought. Too raw. Too real. Too political. I don’t want to be a “victim”. It is exhausting. It is traumatic. In real life I am not all day, every day, a victim. I don’t want to center myself inside that heavy rhetoric forevermore.
I am also dead tired of the silencing and marginalization of victims. I worry that every silence increases the cultural pressure of repression by tacitly accepting that it is agreeable to be silent.
In her 2011 Rumpus essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxane Gay responded to a report on the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl that used language sympathetic toward 18 rapists and one distraught town, but barely touched on the victim. Because the truth is, real victims are hard to look at. We are more comfortable when their edges are blurred, softened, dramatized. Artistic license makes violence palatable.
“I am troubled by how we have allowed intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence,” Gay wrote. She suggested that we find new ways of rewriting rape that, “restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities.” That’s a hard one too. Take away the crush-worthy investigators and their personal stories from Law and Order: SVU and you have an unbearably painful show about gross violence.
The struggle is real: I don’t want to be a victim. I am a victim.
We badly need to rewrite the language of atrocity, repression, race, gender, trauma and yes, even hope and happiness, to look on these experiences honestly. Simply. Directly. Unflinchingly.
My silence won’t change the fact that when anyone dies at gunpoint, I am a victim again. When rape goes apologetically unpunished, I am a victim again. I fear my silence would mean I’ve accepted that those hurts are agreeable.
I do not accept that those hurts are agreeable. I’ve been silenced enough by the cultural expectation of not making other people uncomfortable with my trauma. Who do I hurt if I speak up when the need arises? Who do I help? What would happen if everyone quit keeping the peace in favor of saying out loud this is the violence you prefer not to see happening in your midst to your most vulnerable. You must not look away.
The night after I deleted that first Tweet, the sit-in on the Senate House floor turned into a slumber party and I couldn’t be silent anymore. I Tweeted again:
At 3 y/o a man held a gun to my head to keep me in line. He was a known felon. #EnoughIsEnough #DoneWithGuns #EndGunViolence #NoBillNoBreak
I couldn’t stay silent. I regret that I let my fear of being too rapey stop me from being more direct. I wish I could have gone forward in time to read this essay to help myself through the process. But if that were possible then time travel would be possible, and I wouldn’t waste time writing about being a victim now, I’d go back and make sure that particular trauma never landed me in this quagmire in the first place.
At the time, though, it felt big enough. If two people read it, two people think about it. And that is two more than before. It is a small space I may have carved out, but it’s mine. What’s yours?
The end of The Toast may mean one less forum for sharing our complex and manifold voice, but it doesn’t leave us voiceless. We can carry on the tradition, writers, perhaps even more bravely. Why save our truths for our memoirs or our deathbed confessions? With so many mediums at our fingertips we can continue to carve out space for our voices every single day. We can climb on out from under the rug together and make a tiny roar.
One thousand #tinyroars can’t be silenced.
Keema Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, Smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her work has been published in Brevity, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, The Manifest Station, Understory, and Mason’s Road. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana and is currently at work on a memoir recounting her childhood adventures performing alongside a revolving cast of folk-hippies on the Southeast Alaska folk festival circuit. She can be reached at email@example.com or @keemasaurusrex.
July 14, 2016 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Kim Steutermann Rogers:
Today, I tell myself, I will not scroll Facebook as if I were cram-reading War and Peace. I will not say yes when the wildlife volunteer coordinator asks if I’ll go to the beach to check on a cute new seal born just that morning. I will not slip out when a text alerts me that the Laysan albatross chick I’ve been watching since it hatched five months ago is standing on bluff above the sea, flapping its wings, about to fly off over the horizon, not to be seen again for three to five years. Today, I tell myself, I will get some writing done. Yes, I will.
As I write this by hand in my notebook, a cheap DECOMPOSITION BOOK with line drawings of safari animals on the cover, I look up. Staring at me from across the room is the free-floating head of Joan Didion printed on an oval piece of cardboard that is glued to a flat tongue-depressor-like stick. A hand fan. I picked it up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles this past April after a particularly heated session—the room, not the conversation—because, well, I am a woman of a certain age.
AWP: Think 15,000 academics and creative types crammed into the Los Convention Center. Think tweed jackets with suede elbow patches. And yoga pants. Think purple hair and tattoos, ripped tights, and Chuck Taylor Converse throwback basketball shoes. Think apple-cheeked children with crispy clean MFAs. And puffy-eyed, word veterans in need of coffee and, later in the afternoon, beer—or something stronger—from the beverage vendor at the south end of the book fair. Think best-selling authors, award-winning poets, and top journalists from around the country. Think the rest of us—with stories and books and essays and poems and clouds in our eyes and on the tips of our tongues, eager to share with anyone who will listen. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I fall in the last category.
Joan Didion is staring at me from across the room where I stuck her in a coffee-mug-cum-pencil-holder after a vigorous use of fanning one spring day when spring winds stalled in their tracks, replaced by summer’s stagnant-dog’s-breath-hot-air. A few degrees change in temperature does not go unnoticed, because you know, I am that age, that effing age.
Joan Didion’s visage sits just to the left of my computer screen. When I am sitting at my desk, presumably writing, I can see the Grande Dame of Literary Journalism out of the corner of my eye, her mouth set in a line and her makeup-free eyes narrowed on me. Damn. It’s the eyes.
Dame Didion is the toast of nonfiction writers across the United States. She was required reading during my MFA studies. She’s one of the first to be named when calls go out for lists of great essayists. Hardly an AWP—if any—goes by without her name prominent in a panel title.
I first read Didion as I was trying to craft my own writerly voice, and I fell hard. Major writer crush. Here was a wordsmith with whom I felt a kinship. A journalist. But not. A memoirist. But not. A personal essayist. But not.
In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”
I have more than a few notebooks lined up across my desk, packed in plastic boxes in my closet, all to be thrown away upon my death, as I’ve made my best friend take a blood sister pact with me.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Amen, Dame Didion.
“What I most appreciate about Didion’s writing is that she witnesses her world. Her writing may be about her, but it is anything but confessional,” I wrote in an essay after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
But, now, some years later, the truth is I’m tired of Dame Didion. Oh, not her writing but of we writers who would bow on bended knee and kiss her writing ring, if her hand were ever proffered and if such a thing as a writing ring existed.
Wait. Does it?
I’m sick of the Didion worship that goes on in literary and MFA circles. Because I want her for myself. Because it seemed once my bright-eyed love for her blossomed, she went all Baader-Meinhof on me, and every other student of nonfiction writing adored her, as well. My secret, favorite writing mentor was mine no longer.
Joan Didion levels her steady gaze at me from across the room. She could have taken a pair of scissors to her hair and gave herself that haircut, I think, wispy bangs, and blunt, chin-length hair.
But here’s the thing about Didion: She got it done. Something like five novels, a dozen books of nonfiction, half-dozen screenplays, and a play. The woman wrote. She sat down and wrote. I can see it in her makeup-free eyes. The determination. The discipline. She’s a reminder to tap into my own determination and discipline. It’s there. Somewhere. I know it is.
Mentors. Muses. Inspiration. We tend to think it’s their words that help us. But at this time, apparently, it’s not the words but the face of Joan Didion I need. The bad haircut, thin set mouth, and those examining eyes remind me to just do it. Sit down, and write.
Freelance journalist, Kim Steutermann Rogers moved to Hawaii with her husband, two dogs, and twelve boxes of belongings in 1999. “We’ll stay for one year,” she told her family and friends. That was 17 years ago. Now, Kim shadows scientists into rain forests, volcanic craters, and throughout the uninhabited atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to learn more about Hawaii’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But, most days, she sits on her bum and attempts to churn out words appropriate to the science and place and people of it all—and tells herself she should exercise more. Kim holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is at work on a book about Mark Twain’s Hawaii and the psychological concept of place attachment. You can read clips of her work and her blog at http://www.kimsrogers.com and follow her on Twitter at @kimsrogers.
July 13, 2016 § 10 Comments
Yesterday, a writer I work with confessed her greatest fear–lack of originality. She felt she didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said. What could she offer that was new, different, worth reading?
I’ve felt that. The sharp stab when seeing an essay gone viral, or a book about an experience I’ve had, too. The feeling of that should be mine.
In The Millions, Kaulie Lewis writes about seeing other writers’ books and essays and wishing desperately that she’d written them:
…I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first…My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
It’s not just us. Everyone (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen) worries that what they want to write has already been done, probably better, by someone else.
It doesn’t matter.
There’s room for Wild and A Walk in the Woods. For Bird by Bird and On Writing and The Art of Memoir. For Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. What matters is not the subject, but what the writer brings to the table. It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the rarity of a specific expression of that idea. I went for a hike–why? I learned to write–how? My family won’t stop fighting so I can find love–guns or swords?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.”
But we do. No-one else can tell our particular, unique, specific story. It’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.
It’s up to each of us to discover not just the general appeal of our work (cancer memoir! lost a parent! recovery!) but the nature of the story that is so personal, so intimate, it can only be told by one person. Here is a topic that everyone cares about, and here is a new way to think about it.
We are seldom original. But we can always be rare.
Kaulie Lewis’ essay at The Millions is well worth reading, and mentions what to do when you feel like your piece has already been written.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her most recent essay, at Story Club, is generally about being really angry, but specifically includes a goat sacrifice.