Writing Like a Mother

August 16, 2017 § 17 Comments

Shanon Lee Headshot  1.jpgBy Shanon Lee

Sometime after having a baby, and making a fateful decision to ditch grad school to pursue a writing career, I had this notion that writing while mothering would be easy. I imagined working from home would be orderly, convenient and efficient. It was simple. I would write in the quiet moments before our hectic morning routine got underway, during the baby’s naptime and after everyone had gone to sleep at night.

I had to learn the truth the hard way.

That some day’s the muse doesn’t come, or if it does – I may not be prepared. That writing requires mental and emotional labor I am not always equipped to manage. That great writing rarely happens when you are sleep deprived. That writing while mothering is draining.

I am consumed with guilt when I choose writing over spending time with my children, and racked with anxiety when I ignore my impulse to write. By now I understand, as much as I adore my children, I need dedicated time and space to artfully compose the stories I am called to write. New challenges emerge while trying to accomplish this.

Reading Black, White and Jewish, was my first glimpse into a writing motherhood – albeit bad one. In the book, Rebecca Walker detailed the neglect she suffered while being raised by a writer for a mother. While literary icon Alice Walker attended writing residencies for long stretches, she left her daughter alone at home – prematurely forcing her to become independent.

In one heart-breaking passage, Walker described how her mother paid a neighbor to take her back-to-school shopping in her absence. Without parental guidance, she experimented with drugs, became sexually active at a young age and had an abortion at age 14. As raw as the stories in Walker’s memoir are, I know it will never be my children’s reality. My compulsion to write will never drive me to neglect them.

Yet, even though I could not identify with her mothers choices, I understood the impulse to retreat into isolation to create. I have often fantasized about what might happen if I could focus on writing without the demands of rearing children, working and managing a household.

Women like Alice Walker knew there were options for writers who did not forgo motherhood to pursue a writing career. They knew extended solitude was necessary to create their best work and set out to find it. They understood the benefits of immersing themselves in the world of writing, surrounded by their peers, if only for a moment in time.

They knew there was a space for us.

Alice Walker worked on her first novel during her residency at MacDowell. At some point, she attended Yaddo too. Susan Cheever, Mona Simpson and Susan Minot have children and are also among Yaddo alumni. Writing mothers including Jane Hamilton, Karyn Kusama, Dani Shapiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have all attended Hedgebrook. These women honored their passion by negotiating time to devote to their writing and other moms can too.

I am convinced that attending a writer’s residency does not have to disrupt our entire life, or permanently scar our children. Writer-in-residence programs now offer short stays and even virtual options for those who need it. Weekend writing seminars and workshops are an alternative for those who cannot commit to a full residency.

In November of 2016, I attended a weekend writing seminar in St. Petersburg, FL. It was the first time I travelled away from home alone to write. Their dad held down the fort and our kids had a blast while I was gone. At times, it felt as if I missed them more than they missed me. Most importantly, attending the seminar allowed me to bond with my peers and learn skills that took my writing in a new direction.

This year, I completed a summer writing residency that did not require travel, but offered one week of private accommodations to write in peace during the day. I will continue to submit applications to notable residency programs like Hedgebrook, in hopes of being able to completely break away from my daily obligations and just write for two weeks.

My definition of being a great mother has expanded to include being someone that protects her identity as a writer and satisfies her impulse to create. By carving out space in my schedule for dedicated writing time, I am honoring my purpose and the legacy of writing mothers that came before me.

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Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel’s SCANDAL MADE ME FAMOUS. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of Marital Rape Is Real. Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.

Brevity Podcast Episode #5 Dinty W. Moore

August 15, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dinty W. Moore has always stood out

It’s time once again for the intermittent Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Episode #5 features an interview with Dinty W. Moore, our very own Editor in Chief and founder of Brevity. Dinty will be keynote speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Donna Talarico-Beerman, Editor in Chief at Hippocampus and the Hippocampus Press.

Show Notes: Episode #5 People and Books

We’re guessing you already know who Dinty is if you’re here, but you can find out more about the author of The Story Cure at his website, and follow him on Facebook.

The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style

Joan Didion’s books

Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss

It’s the wrong time of year for Peeps, but catch them around Easter. If you’re looking for Samuel Pepys, find out more here. You can also read his exhaustive diary, one of the great records of 17th-Century London, including eyewitness reports of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

Sarah Manguso’s books

Judith Kitchen’s books

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Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast. She’ll also be appearing at Hippocamp for an intensive workshop on Self-Editing and consultations on your pages.

I Am, Therefore I Write

August 14, 2017 § 36 Comments

zz priddyby Jan Priddy

Rejection came this morning, a personal note after being short-listed, and it’s the usual thing. Most writing is rejected. I thought about why—not why the story was rejected, because that’s fair. Editors don’t owe me an explanation. It’s the other whys:

Why write? Why submit?

Perhaps thirty years ago, my children were both in school and I was sweating my way through the new outdoor exercise park in Seaside. Neat wooden signs directed me to complete jumping jacks and then move to the next station and follow instructions to do sit-ups or chin-ups.

I do not recall all the activities I was asked to do, only that I did each one until I came to a wooden vault near the end of the circuit. On every side of me, greenery and expectation. I was just about to take a run at the apparatus, familiar from my school days, when I thought: I will hurt myself doing this, and it will take days or weeks before I am mended. I chose not to jump and deliberately turned aside to the next station.

It was about that time I understood I was never going to be wealthy and that I had become invisible because I was no longer young and pretty. (I had not noticed I was young and pretty when I was those things, so the realization that my time had past struck me as funny. I give myself credit for amusement.)

About that time, I also began writing seriously every day, and I can tell you I fell again for the delusion that one day I would be famous and maybe wealthy?—this time as a writer. I had always written, of course, but regarded my art as visual, composed of metal and fiber, the weaving and repoussé I studied as an undergrad. Nevertheless, in mid-life I found I must write, and that has commanded my attention for a long time. I cannot set it aside. I can leave Facebook and shutter my blog, but I still write in order to remain healthy. Like my daily walk keeps my heart healthy, I cannot stop writing without losing my soul.

Still.

Maybe everyone does not imagine fame, the book published to acclaim, the interviews and literary prizes and readings before an admiring public. Maybe most people are more realistic about their prospects. I was not. Even now, with novels, a memoir and a series of essays, creative nonfiction, poetry, and stories only a few want to read, I sometimes indulge the fantasy of a major publication. I waste hours sending work out. I check Submittable and Duotrope online before dawn. I check again. And again before shutting my computer for the night. I visit websites and I toy with querying agents, something I have done before with little success. All of this a bother and distraction from actually writing.

It would be easy to think I have wasted my time with words. I have written so much that I threw away, so much I have forgotten. I scroll through my computer files and wonder about the subject of a short story begun in 2005 called “Without, Still Night” that my computer assures me cannot be opened. There are twenty-three drafts of this piece in a folder labeled “New Stories” that can no longer be opened. No one will ever again read it or the others saved here, not even me. Instead, there is this.

No writing retreat waits in my immediate future, no workshop, no writing vacation free of responsibilities, but I am writing anyway. I have applied for several residencies recently and failed to win one, but I am writing. Bad luck or other, better writers? Forgive me for not caring. In truth I do care, I care very much, but I write regardless. Waiting for a journal’s response to my work is painful and I require time to recover from letters containing curt rejection, but still. I write most days and sometimes for entire days without ceasing and without expectation of reward, simply for the glory of putting words on the page.

I am, therefore I write.

Any experienced writer will warn that if that is not enough, if the goal is merely to seek fame or to become a “writer” rather than to write, it would be wise to seek fame elsewhere and to become something else.

That truth is hard to accept and easy as leaping into darkness. There is no set of instructions about how to do this or when or even if I should. Only I can choose for myself. I write. Sometimes I might submit. Do I risk the jump?

The alternative is to live mute in the universe.
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Jan Priddy’s work is found in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffinCALYXWork MagazineRaven ChroniclesThe HumanistNorth American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she is lately writing nonfiction and fiction about pink, grief, and children who turn into owls. She lives in her great grand aunts’ home on the Oregon coast.

In Defense of Platform

August 11, 2017 § 27 Comments

He’s got 11.5K followers

I heard it yesterday, and I’ve heard it before. At conferences. In workshops. In podcast interviews. Always from a reasonably famous, multiply published writer. The workshop leader. The big visiting cheese.

“Don’t even think about platform.”
“Don’t worry about platform.”
“F*ck platform.”

I know they genuinely want what’s best for their students. They want us to focus on words, not clicks. Want us to make great work before thinking about the market, not let what’s selling this week influence the book of our heart.

They are wrong.

They are näive, out-of-touch, factually incorrect and a little bit condescending. Darling little writers–first make a book! Don’t put the cart before the horse!

Of course we want to write a good book. That’s why we paid to take your class. But you know why else we paid to be here? Because we’re hoping (mostly in vain) that you will slam down your pencil, announce “this is the greatest work I’ve ever seen!” then end class immediately and lead us by the hand directly into your agent’s office, shouting “Marlene! You gotta rep this one!”

That’s not going to happen.

You know what else isn’t going to happen? My memoir won’t be magically plucked from slush by an agent who says, “Nobody knows who you are, but you’re so brilliant, don’t even worry about it! Sure, the memoir market is glutted right now, but you–you’re totally different than every other author and the glistening diamonds of your words will bring the world to your door!”

What I see on #MSWL–that’s Manuscript Wish List for those who scorn hashtags–and on websites and in interviews is agent after agent after agent looking for “Memoir/self-help with strong platform.” Sometimes they switch it up: “Memoir/self-help with existing platform.” Novelists have it a bit easier–it’s more about the words, but platform doesn’t hurt. Platform can be why the agent requests the full manuscript instead of saying no to the query, because they know you on Twitter and you’ve been cool. Platform doesn’t get you the book deal (famous-person books are a different category), but it can get you in the door.

The social-media slammers genuinely don’t understand social media. Now, I’ve got a horse in this race–I am, as you probably know, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. I give talks on using social media to practice writing craft. I am invested. But as a person who cares about effective and genuine social media, I also know this:

Platform is not clicks, or follower numbers, or multiple posts a day, or going viral.

Platform is the ability to directly connect with potential book buyers. And my wonderful, brilliant, famous teachers, there’s a reason you don’t think much about platform:

You’re already standing on it.

Platform = fame+genuine, personal connection. That notable book award? The reviews you got in the New York Times? Your Oscar nomination? The conference I just paid $900 to hear you speak at? Your adoring, book-purchasing, word-of-mouth-generating students across the country? That’s platform.

Platform is getting your name out there, yes, but it’s also about genuinely connecting with other people. Social media helps build supportive writing communities. There’s YA Twitter and #5AMWritersClub Twitter and Black Twitter. Places we can hear our idols speak for free, even ask them questions about their work. Places we can meet future readers, people who enjoy interacting with us and will later evangelize for our books. Places we can share our ideas and be challenged, and find out who else is interested in what we have to say.

Social media can waste our writing time, sure. But we can also use it to practice and improve. Write image-inspired micro-essays on Instagram. Editorials on Facebook–Anne Lamott’s doing pretty well there. Rock Tumblr like Roxane Gay. Use Twitter to make every word count, pack endless meaning into a single sentence, and take that craft back to our essays and stories and poems.

My brilliant and beloved platform-hating teachers already have books out in the world, published before Twitter existed. Before agents counted followers before offering representation. My teachers’ publishers are already invested in them, so it’s easy to tell a room of baby writers, “Publicity is the publisher’s job! Not the writer’s!”

Not any more.

I’m in a memoirists’ group on Facebook. More than 100 of the members have traditionally published books in the last five years. They’re doing just as much self-promotion, book-tour-arranging, press-release-writing and word-of-mouth-creating as the self-publishers. They have to, so their sales will justify book #2.

Would I like to be purely writing, unsullied by social media? Sure. It would save a bunch of time. I genuinely enjoy Instagram and blogging here, but yeah, there’s a sense of duty in some of my “platform-building.” But the chances of my being taken on by an agent who is blinded by the beauty of my creative nonfiction and cares not at all for the clickbait of this world is somewhere between being struck by lightning and winning a scratch-off for more than $50.

So please, dear famous teachers: Stop bashing platform. The way we build it is different than the way you did. Not easier, not harder–just different. And we are expected to do it in order to begin to approach the success you’ve already earned, the success that means you don’t have to be on Twitter.

If you want to walk me into your agent’s office, I’m up for it. I’m writing the best book I can write and practicing my craft and protecting my time and I am ready when you are. But until then, pass the hammer, because I’ve got platform to build.

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Allison K Williams is teaching Writing Better With Social Media at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA Sept 8-10.

Writing Toward Freedom

August 9, 2017 § 20 Comments

By Varda Meyers Epstein

zz vardaFor years I struggled to put pen to paper. How to say what was so perfect in my heart and mind? I’d write it this way and that. But it would be no good.

Then the baby would cry and I’d put the writing aside. I’d tell myself that time was the problem; my excuse for not writing. Because time wasn’t something I was going to have with a baby at home. I’d traded my time, my words, for motherhood.

That’s what I told myself when the words wouldn’t come. And I waited for time. Enough time to write.

When I thought about having time to write I imagined this clean white space: a block of time large enough for that creative spark to take hold. The one that would light a fire under my inner writer. But I both yearned for and feared time. Because sometimes I told myself the truth: that time was my excuse. That I didn’t really know if I could write.

And then time arrived. My youngest turned six and started school. With almost no warning, suddenly there were blocks of time, scads of time. Time to think. Time to write.

I had only to begin.

I stared at the white space on the screen. A space large enough for words to form. A blinking cursor showing me where to begin.

I tapped a key and a letter appeared on the screen, in the center of that wide open white field. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding in. Here it was: time to be a writer.

There were no more excuses. Just me and enough time and the words.

It was time to get to work.

And so I typed another letter and soon there was a word staring at me there on the screen.

It was both easier and harder than I’d thought it would be. Easier because I had a lot to say after all those years of excuses. Harder because of that second voice, in addition to the one that liked to blame time.

The second voice was the one that said I was the problem. That I didn’t have it in me to be a writer, that if I kept having babies, I wouldn’t have to prove myself as a writer. That I could keep on blaming time.

It was tempting to give in to that voice. It was frightening to be sitting here typing on a keyboard after years of not knowing whether I was good enough. But I’d learned from having babies that life is about letting go, about getting free from the fear that keeps us from taking that first step.

And so I took a deep breath and typed some more, knowing that with each word I was setting myself free. Free from self-doubt and fear. And that getting free was the main reason I was sitting here in front of a keyboard.

Putting in the time.

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12 children and a parenting expert and writer at the Kars4Kids Educational Blog for Parents. Her work has been published in KvellerTablet, and the Washington Post. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Worst Book Openings Ever

August 8, 2017 § 5 Comments

kale-nutrition-facts“Here I was, flat broke, standing outside a sketchy hipster bar in Brooklyn, and a bearded young man in skinny jeans and a lumberjack’s red plaid shirt was pointing a gun at my head demanding my Uber password. ‘Move a muscle and I’ll make a kale salad out of your brains,’ he snarled.”

Brevity founding editor Dinty W. Moore offers the brilliant literary gem above along with five other horrible book openings this week over on Psychology Today blog.

See if you can tell which ones are made up and which one was penned by none other than Thomas Wolfe.

 

Opening Lines

August 8, 2017 § 10 Comments

So, you’re going to a writing conference! Workshops! Readings! Panels! Networking! Networking! Lots of networking! Mingling! Socializing! Bonding! Casual chatting through which lifelong writer friendships are forged! INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION AUGHLH JHJKGJKFGHFDGHAKJ–

Hang on, let me just breathe for a minute, and get off this ledge.

OK. Whew.

Perhaps, like me, you are a mewling, soft-skinned introvert hiding in a shiny I-talk-to-people-professionally-and-I’m-great-at-it shell. But somehow, our work has been found adequate, our check has been cashed, and we are at a writing conference. With group meals. Receptions. Post-reading cocktail hours. Casual gatherings. Late-night lounge time. A few days or a week full of priceless opportunities to open our mouths only to alternate feet.

Fear not. Brevity is here for you. Simply print this handy list of conference conversation openers, tuck it in the back of your name tag, and you’re ready for any writing-related exchange between humans. Just approach any writer or writers, and begin.

  1. “Wow…that reading…what did you think?”
  2. “Gosh, isn’t (insert name of workshop leader) just fantastic?”
  3. “Whose workshop are you in? Oh, they’re great! Tell me all about it!”
  4. “What are you working on? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
  5. “Is it me or are all these rooms freezing/boiling/too dark/blindingly bright?”
  6. “How about that box wine!”
  7. “Where did you come in from? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
  8. “Is it me or is your dorm room mattress horrible, too? Tell me all about your back problems!”
  9. “Have you seen the book sale yet? I have no idea how I’m going to get them all in my bag.”
  10. “Box wine! Look, there’s box wine!”

Please note that #6, 9 and 10 can also be used for exiting conversations as needed.

Enjoy your new writing friends, and remember, soon you’ll be home again and can return to communicating with them only through keyboards.

Happy conferencing!

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Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams is at conferences the next few weeks. Please come talk to her about box wine, lumbar issues and your writing.

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