November 13, 2018 § 12 Comments
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.
Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.
Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?
You want to write a bestseller.
You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.
Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.
You’re still here?
No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.
There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.
Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!
Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.
Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.
Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.
Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.
Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.
We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.
Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”
I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.
OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!
Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.
November 12, 2018 § 4 Comments
We are proud to announce our nominees for the 2018 Pushcart Prize anthology and Best American Essays. The choice wasn’t easy in any way, because we’ve once again been blessed with so many talented writers and outstanding essays, but we’ve narrowed it down and sent off our nomination packets to the editors of the Pushcart and BAE anthologies. You can read the nominated essays by following the links just below. Congratulations everyone, and thanks to everyone for sending us your stellar work.
Our 2018 Pushcart nominees:
Solving for X
by PAM DURBAN
Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet
by LANCE LARSEN
Women These Days
by AMY BUTCHER
The Farmers’ Almanac Best Days for Breeding
by JOHN A. MCDERMOTT
Ace of Spades
by JULIE MARIE WADE
by XUJUN EBERLEIN
Our 2018 Best American Essays nominees:
The six essays listed above, as well as:
by BEVERLY DONOFRIO
by FLEDA BROWN
What I Took
by HEATHER SELLERS
November 9, 2018 § 3 Comments
by Margaret L. Whitford
“My mother saw demons,” begins Kelly J. Beard’s stunning debut memoir. Though I feared the narrator would show me the cruelty and violence of her parents’ chosen faith, she does so with such a commitment to understanding the sources of her family’s suffering that I had to follow her narrative.
Religious fundamentalism and poverty, the latter made worse by the former, fracture the narrator’s family into unrecoverable pieces. Only her parents appear unscathed by the “steel belt” of their faith. They remain devoted to each other, their intimate and loving relationship a stark contrast to the isolation of their children.
“Over the years, I’ve wondered,” Beard writes, “why it seems other families endure similar or greater deprivations without siblings turning rivalrous or mean…. I wonder what particular ingredient combined to make our compound combustible. Our father’s complicated anger? Our mother’s changeable heart? Or that one singularly unstable ingredient: their hard faith?”
Beard examines all three influences from the perspective of a sensitive and perceptive child and that of an adult looking back, the two voices essential to memoir. Some of the most beautiful passages arise when both of these narrators co-exist. “It was the last time I remember our family laughing together. We were headed into mean years none of us could see. Still, when Dad turned the car around, we all looked back, staring at the road behind us as though our laughter were a tangible presence lingering there, dark swifts in twilight, darting and diving before vanishing into the distance.”
A quiet grief, evident in this passage, infuses much of An Imperfect Rapture. Regret, I am starting to believe, is an emotion with which all memoirists struggle, a tendency to engage in if only thinking in our examinations of the past. My regrets are not the same as Beard’s, but I recognize the feeling.
Organized in three parts, the memoir follows a loose chronology that begins with the narrator as a small child and concludes with her graduation from college. The third section, aptly titled, “Taking Leave,” focuses on the ways in which the narrator pursues distance as a strategy for self-realization. She recognizes that her survival depends on leaving, in both a psychic and physical sense, the literal and figurative desert of her childhood. She studies first in France, and then, following graduation, departs for the Pacific Northwest, a place where no one knows her and where she might “fathom” her own heart.
I also looked to travel overseas as a means to claim something separate from my family, starting with study in France. And, like Beard, I came to understand that the distance I needed to achieve was more complicated than mere geography.
Beard’s journey is primarily a spiritual one in search of her own inner voice, a whisper more powerful than the bellowing of the God of her youth, “an omnipotent schizophrenic,” whose “moments of grace were stitched into years of grief.” And yet, the narrator recognizes and cherishes these rare instances of grace—in the survival of a beloved dog, in the time to pursue the wrong questions until the right ones emerge. Rather than accept the punishing dualism of religious fundamentalism, whose lingering influence she acknowledges, she nurtures a more complex and healing faith.
In a book rich with vivid description, one image stands out for me—a small wooden table the narrator’s father gives her. He’d crafted the piece when he was twelve years old, the first thing he’d ever made. Proud of his accomplishment, he gave the table to his father, whose only response was to put his cigarette out on the wood’s smooth surface, leaving a permanent scar. The narrator keeps the table in the passenger seat as she departs for the Pacific Northwest. “It comforted me to feel the wood’s grain in its scalloped legs, to stroke its smooth surface, to whorl my finger around a scar he could never buff away,” Beard tells us.
Some wounds leave marks. The key to living with grace, it seems to me, is to balance recognition of the scars with an appreciation of the beauty that remains.
Margaret L. Whitford is a writer focused on personal essay and memoir. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, The Fourth River, Brevity, and elsewhere.
November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”
The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.
[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]
Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.
In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.
Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:
Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.
This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”
Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
November 7, 2018 § 18 Comments
by Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega
In sixth grade, I wrote stories on wide-ruled notebook paper and read excerpts to my friend Coral on our morning walks to my bus stop. Back then, gaps in my memory were filled with settings I conjured up by opening the Thomas Guide, picking a city, and making up events that would take place there. These stories bore no resemblance to what I knew and lived. True stories—treasure troves already imbued to me by blood—didn’t seem appropriate material for anything I’d write. Writing, I thought, would set free my imaginations.
Years later though, on a trip to Mexico when I was 20-years-old, I was offered stories by my aunties and cousins, family memories they entrusted only to me. I knew that I needed to handle them like papel picado, perforated paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs. My memories now contained the songs of my aunties, the aromas of grease in the air of their Guadalajara kitchens, the tiled floors of places that welcomed me. The impulse to write became electrifying. Their words were prescribed to me like a medicine—an antidote to the tyranny of displacement.
I learned how to tell stories from the ladies in my family—their histories all dotted on a line like birds on a wire, infinitely poised to take flight and ascend over the rooftops of time, and then glide, descending onto my sensibilities. I internalized their memories, their markers of memory, and emboldened them onto the grid of my own story, my space. I didn’t quite know how to shape their memories into the written form, but I knew that I needed to try.
Their stories share a common rhythm, a rich optic for the uncanny which bellows out of the holes of traumas like poverty, neglect, rejection, abuse, prostitution, addiction. These ladies are a relentless force of matriarchs, where men occupy the shadows.
Sensitive to the world that was opening before me, I knew I had to do something with all I was offered. What good was it to be called to write and not write anything about the lives of those that impacted my soul the most? It was too unnerving and utterly selfish to keep the stories buried in the ground. I would need to dive into the great blue sea and search for the diamonds that slipped out of my hands. Too much was at stake.
If you only knew all the things I know, all the stories people I know have shared with me, my aunties would say, you would have a saga no one would ever forget. As I hear this, my heart races faster. I need my equipment. I need my gear. I need to listen deeply to save these diamonds in the sea from oblivion.
I remember a sense of dread—not about the content of the stories—but about my inability to remember them, to record them accurately. I fretted about misplacing my notebooks, my sensibility, my empathy. I would lose sleep and feel the urgent tug of responsibility burden my shoulders. I had the relentlessness of a journalist, but the isolation of a creative writer.
I’m certain now that the tales that echo through my bloodline are stories that were meant for me to hear. Otherwise, why would my aunties ever unearth a past so traumatic that time would be the salve to keep it from resurfacing? I learned not to fear their pasts, as dreadful as those pasts may have seemed, because I realized that their legacies were not exclusive to our family.
Many others of their generation tell their own stories, and they are just as haunting as ours. There are stories trapped in the confines of family secrecy, or shame, that I wrestle with and don’t need to tell, despite my disbelief in coincidences, in chance, in mistakes. I’ve recorded stories told to me by aunties and my mother; I don’t have the appropriate rhythm or recall that these storytellers do, but what I do have are vignettes—snapshots captured by the speed of a camera’s shutter. I can place them, then, into stories of my imagination where my pen meets the paper. I complete them with my own stroke of color to make something new.
“She took a small step over the curlicues and geometric patterns of the olive and blue encaustic tiles that have seen years of foot traffic, rain, and sun. I’m sure they had once been lovely under all those layers of dirt,” I write. These curiosities color the descriptions in my short stories, fictional tales that complete the picture of recorded lists, places, recipes, and names.
Now, my manuscripts will be comprised of these vignettes, some shaped out of the gems bestowed to me orally, reinvented through memory. I continue to hold safe these stories that haven’t been imparted to the world yet, these fragments of perforated paper so delicate in their beauty, colorful tissues of paper that wrap like bunting to declare celebration.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Millions, Fathom Magazine, Image Journal, and elsewhere. She writes fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews. She is an alumna of the Mills College MFA program. She hosts the Afictionada podcast and is co-founder of Burning Bush Press. She is writing a novel. Find her here.
November 6, 2018 § 13 Comments
CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic
It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.
My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.
We all know “show, don’t tell.” Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.
I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.
What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.
To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?
Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?
Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.
Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.
The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.
But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?
In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:
Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent. It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.
Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.
But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.
As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.
Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog, www.saneteachers.com, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections.
November 5, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Amanda Page
Four years ago, I was on the phone catching up with an old friend from graduate school. We were talking about how we weren’t as productive as we’d like, and I mentioned my aversion to finishing writing projects. I truly thought at the time that the missing piece was some combination of a lack of feedback and a lack of accountability. I wasn’t wrong, but when I asked him, “Are you in a writing group right now?” his answer surprised me.
“Hell no,” he said. “That’s not a real audience. Those are other writers trained to read work as writers. Every chance I get, I do an open mic. I read my work to the room. There might be writers in the audience, but there are other people, too.”
He listens to their reactions. He sees how they respond to his work. And he keeps going.
“I don’t really have anything ready to read on the stage,” I said.
“Ready?” he replied. “Ready? It doesn’t have to ready. You didn’t go to kindergarten and color in your finger turkey and worry if it was ready. You didn’t work for years on your finger turkey before you gave it to your parents. No! You made your finger turkey and that day you gave it to your mother and she put it on the fridge and you were proud of that finger turkey.”
“I was!” I said, joining the enthusiasm.
It took a few more years before I was ready to hand over a finger turkey, but eventually, I got on the stage. The first time, two years ago, was in front of a tiny audience.
I’m not sure why I was terrified.
I teach classes. I stand in front of students all day. But that’s with lesson material, not my creative work.
With my writing, though, I’d been hiding from an imaginary audience instead of standing up in front of a real one. I was afraid they would laugh, or criticize, of not accept my words.
What I learned is that real audiences are a lot kinder than the ones you imagine in your mind. They offer immediate feedback in their facial expressions. They understand the reason you’re standing in front of them, whether it’s to educate, entertain, or appeal. Sometimes, you’re just there to tell a story. And they are there to listen.
Here’s what I’m saying: start. Start telling your stories. Get them out there. Put your finger turkey on the fridge.
You can accumulate a lot of finger turkeys in two years.
Cover your fridge. It’s how you grow, and how you learn. It’s how you wake up one morning and realize you’re becoming an expert in something you love.
Afraid to start? What’s stopping you?
I bet it’s a story.
Amanda Page is an essayist, educator, and teller of true stories on stage. She lives with her two dogs in Columbus, Ohio. Learn more about her work at https://amanda-page.com and follow along with her adventures in nonfiction on Twitter @amandadashpage.