No Bad Assignments: Selma Lagerlöf Took a Yawn-Worthy Topic and Turned It Into Nobel Prize Gold

September 30, 2022 § 4 Comments

Selma Lagerlöf

By Debra Moffitt

As speculation flutters about who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming week, let us tip a titanic, plumy hat to Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf who, in 1909, was the first woman to win the honor.

Mostly unknown in the United States, Lagerlöf’s first novel made her famous in Sweden, but she’s beloved in her home country for her children’s book, “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” When Sweden honored Lagerlöf by featuring her face on its currency, a scene from “Nils” appeared on the back of the 20-kronar note. In the story, Nils Holgersson starts out as a sneery 14-year-old who skips church and spends his free time being cruel to farm animals. But after Lagerlöf shrinks him into a sprite and flies him around Sweden on the back of a goose, he concludes the tale as a loyal friend of the feathered community, a much better son and citizen.

It all began with a snooze-inducing assignment Lagerlöf accepted in 1902 to write something educational about Sweden’s geography. She struggled to get started – a struggle she documented in the actual story. Just when tiny Nils found himself cornered by an owl, Lagerlöf shared “a strange coincidence” involving a lady writer.

“The very year Nils Holgersson traveled with the wild geese there was a woman who thought of writing a book about Sweden … She had thought of this from Christmas time to the following autumn.”

The unnamed writer living in a gray city wanted to start the story in Värmland County, where she was from, but couldn’t get her pen moving. A journey back home to the family farm sent her tumbling through the years, to the autumn fair, to long-ago Decembers when girls wore crowns of candles on St. Lucia’s Day, to tiresome chores but also a family reading together by lamp light, singing folk songs, planting gardens of turnips, beans and berries. The animals came back to her, too, how her father guarded the carp in the pond (no fishing) and protected the doves of the air, insisting they be left in peace. While the writer swam in memories, Nils, the shrunken farm boy who would be her protagonist, appeared in the moonlight.

“What luck to run across one who has traveled all over Sweden on the back of a goose!” the writer exclaims.

It wasn’t luck. Focused, creative energy on blast sent Nils – whoosh! –  high over Sweden, before passenger jets, before Google Maps, before drone footage, before anyone urged us to “take a 10,000-foot view.” From this vantage point, Nils could marvel at lakes of blue satin, the wide grain fields of Söderslätt, how Hälsingland was green as a leaf – the whole of his homeland from the sky.  

Call it the angle or the insight or the hook. It can set up the plot but in no way is fully the plot. It’s a shaft of light more than a 17-point plan. Your way in might whisper to you more than holler. Is that your muse pointing the way? Though the page is blank, it can feel like entering a conversation already in progress. Don’t bury the lede. Grab your reader. Understand the assignment.

But don’t be an order taker. Instead bend your assignment into an assignation, a secret meeting between you and your subject that will go where you decide. Before Lagerlöf had a Nobel Prize, she took a commission to write about geography, applied her own sensibilities and made it something new, utterly changed and fully informed by everything she loved about home, everything she wanted to say.

If how one chooses to live is another kind of assignment, Lagerlöf seems to have aced that, too, her biographer Anna Nordlund said.

Against her father’s wishes, Lagerlöf left home to get an education and then wrote in obscurity until a Danish translation of her first novel. The young woman from Värmland went on to become the author of 27 published works. She blazed through achievements, escaping near powerlessness to live a life of letters, supporting women’s suffrage and dodging marriage in favor of relationships with two women. Thanks to her income from writing, she was flush enough to buy back her childhood home, the farm her father lost, and preserve it for public use.

“She fulfilled so many of her childhood dreams,” Nordlund said. “She became a kind of powerful woman no one could have imagined in her childhood back in the 1870s.”

A productive writer with a social conscience, Lagerlöf led an expansive, creative life, she said.

“She never exposed or mistreated people around her for the sake of art,” Nordlund said. “Lagerlöf always endeavored to reach out to everyone with her writing without diminishing or simplifying the greatness and magic of life.” 

In 1940, the same year Lagerlöf died, she helped Jewish poet Nelly Sachs and her mother flee Nazi Germany. Sachs herself would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. 

Whether we are given them or task them to ourselves, imperfect assignments are part of the deal, especially if someone is paying for your work. Clicks rule. No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the great masses, as Mr. Mencken said. Abide that word count. But whatever is on your assignment plate today, Lagerlöf reminds us to put on a big hat and write the hell out of it. Find your way in so you can relish something that is as true today as it was for her in 1902: Assigners assign, but writers can have the last word.
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Debra Moffitt is a Delaware-based writer whose essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Farmer-ish and Garden Rant. She authored The Pink Locker Society (St. Martin’s), a middle grade book series about puberty. Find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Happiest_Writer.

The Sanctity of the First Read

September 29, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Alyson Shelton

“What are you working on?” Someone new in my life might ask.

“An essay.” I’ll answer.

“About what?” 

“Something.” 

And that’s that.

I’m actually a decent conversationalist but not when it comes to my writing. Perhaps I’m superstitious, worrying that the heat of the idea will cool with sharing, but I also cherish that time when my idea is nascent and full of promise. And so, I don’t read very early drafts and I don’t ask anyone to read mine. It is a mostly unspoken policy and one I hold dear. The last thing I need is your pained look, which could be related to stomach cramps or the reverberations of some stupid thing you said to a cashier, to register with me as questioning the validity of my concept.

I didn’t like sharing baby name ideas either. I didn’t want to hear about that guy you once knew, the master manipulator, who had the same name as my soon-to-be-born son. Instead, I wanted to dwell in potential.

I’m still like this. Potential keeps me going on the darkest of days. 

The promise of eventually sharing a work in progress with my most trusted readers keeps me going. The first read is a thing of great beauty. 

And I know they only have one first read to give me. And so, I use it wisely.

I’ve been writing long enough to know when my writing is ready for readers. It’s that beautiful and maddening moment when there’s nothing left to change without feedback. In my eagerness for validation, I have fumbled the hand-off many times.

When I was younger and greener, I craved validation before I put too much time into a draft. I wanted to know I was on the right track. Little did I know that the less time I put into it, the less validation I could expect. It’s harder to love the early idea; it’s muddy and lacks the specificity and punch that rewriting brings. 

I wanted to be “good” at writing. I wanted to be “good” at everything. And I wanted the growth to sting less. 

After decades of writing and receiving feedback, here is my formula for reduced sting:

1, Write that first draft, even if you have to trick yourself. Just get started. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to get in your way. Try not to hate how the words on the page are not matching the idea in your head.

2. Return to it. Make it better. Show, don’t tell. Lean into the pieces that are uniquely you. Your writing superpowers. Don’t try to be anyone else; they already wrote something, this is yours.

3. Read it out loud. This is a great time to refine voice, yours as the writer and your characters’.

4. If you’re thinking of sharing it, consider the questions you’d ask. Would they be about plot holes? Character arcs? Word choice? Connective tissue? Voice? If you know the answers to your questions, or even have an inkling, you’re not ready to share it. Take your own suggestions. Fix it.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you don’t know the answers to your questions. I know something is ready to share when I’m at the crossroads. When I feel with certainty that if I continue to edit my work, there is a decent chance I will make it worse. I will dilute it, editing out the very thing I am trying to capture. 

6. Find a trusted reader. Someone who treats you and your work, with care. Someone who never ever starts notes with, “Well, what I would do here is—”

No. Full stop.

Find someone who always, without fail, begins their notes with all the things to love about your work. Someone who sees what you are trying to do and works with you to make it more of that very thing.

I bet you’ve read more than once that trusted readers are gold. They are, which means they might not be easy to find.

Please know that reading with the care you’d like, the kind that stings the least, takes time and energy. It’s best if it’s not done as a “favor.” It’s best if you are acknowledging someone for the service they are rendering. You can pay them in kind, by exchanging work, or other agreed upon services, or of course with money. People do like paying bills with the work they do. 

Clear expectations and boundaries make for the best notes. These conversations could feel awkward, especially at first, but wouldn’t you rather it get weird before you show them the work you hold dear to your heart?

Yes, yes, you would.

Also consider how much a cheap or free read might “cost” you emotionally. Is it truly a free read if you walk away feeling deflated, worthless and discouraged?

No.

I’ve received all of the reads there are from the best, where they get it, love it and have ideas for how to make it better, to the absolute soul-crushing worst. I say this without reservation. Receiving an MFA in a truly toxic environment gives me this confidence.

Guard your work. Care for your voice. Believe in yourself and never squander a first read.
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Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award-winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp Little Old Lady (LOL), Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From.

Anatomy of a Reader 

September 28, 2022 § 28 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

To write is one thing, to be read — deeply read, seen on the page for the writer we can be — is another. 

Words on a page amount to something or nothing, until someone other than the writer reads them, and then those words amount to a whole new world. A world of response. A world in which the words give shape to life beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams and take hold as the reader’s. 

The ultimate reader is one who, like you, reads the piece in published form. But before then, the wise and the brave writer asks for feedback on the early, pre-published drafts. If it takes courage to write, it surely takes courage to ask for feedback and then more courage to receive it: Courage and calm and confidence. Not always present in good measure, but even a scrap of each will do to get the process going. 

To be a reader of a writer’s early draft is no less daunting, for it is to be both honoured and burdened: honoured to be asked for comment and burdened to do so, and not everyone is up to the task. 

I categorize draft readers into three groups: the surfer, the pedantic, and the bold. 

The surfers are willing to read, though are most comfortable on the surface of your words; they lack the interest in or capacity for substantive response: “Oh, it’s good,” they might say. “I like it. The dog is funny.” How disappointing when your reader doesn’t match the courage it took for you to ask them to be your reader. The surfers’ feedback — well meaning but in its vagueness void of value — is, if not irrelevant, then dissatisfying and especially so at the early stages of testing out a new piece of writing. In those early stages, writers need bold comment and naked assessment. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Next up, the pedantics. These are eager readers, pencil in hand, happy, so happy, to slice and dice your words. In short, they copyedit, even proofread, well before those important tasks are needed — or wanted. Your work comes back to you with changes marked, tracked, and shouting off the page: “Typo on page four.” “Break up the description of the neglected garden; it’s too much as one chunk.” “Fix the comma splice in line 3.” These comments — commands, really — are well meant but as disappointing as the surfers’. They come too soon: the trees in sharp relief while the beauty — or potential beauty — of the forest is unseen and unremarked. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Finally, the bold. Now, these are the treasures among a writer’s early readers, for the bold understand that feedback on a draft is more than mere opinion and is less, indeed quite different, than detailed editing. It is a commitment to be clear, honest, and constructive in response to what is (or is not yet) on the page. Such a reading requires time and skill, and respect for the writer as someone whose work deserves substantive assessment by a discerning — a bold — reader. Music to the writer’s ear is feedback something like this: “The idea is sound, but you have not written the story you are hinting at. You have sidestepped it with the frippery of the dog’s behaviour, which is amusing but not needed as foreground here. What I want more of is the woman’s childhood and her obsession with the house on the corner. Tell me who lives there and why is the garden so neglected?” 

Perhaps, finally, I asked the right person. 

The feedback from a bold reader gives us substance to work with and to build on. It proves to us that we are creating something of value with our writing, something worth reading and responding to, and, therefore, something worth continuing to work on. Alternatively, of course, it might be something to ditch, to move on from. Having even only one such reader in our circle makes a writer fortunate indeed. 

The lesson? Know the anatomy of your draft readers and choose them wisely. Keep the surfers and pedantics in your circle, for they each have their place later in the writing process. And nurture the bold readers in your midst, for they are few and far between. Be brave enough to ask for their feedback, courageous enough to receive it, and smart enough to heed it. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in Steering the Craft (2015), her gem of a book on the craft of writing: The critique is a response to your work, to your writing. It is not personal. Learn from it. However, you are the final arbiter. The discipline of art is freedom. 

So, at the end of the day, to write is to be free to work with words as we see fit — to choose them and shape them; to work alone when necessary and, equally, to connect with others when needed: Wise is the writer who asks for comment and feedback and input along the way. And fortunate is the writer who has even one reader in their circle willing to be bold and in so being to invest in us their time, their insight, their skill. And when we find you, dear bold reader, beware, for we shall never let you go. 

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Amanda Le Rougetel lives in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A retired college instructor, she blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches writing workshops through Writing as Tool.

Hello, It’s Your Book Proposal. Stop Ignoring My Calls!

September 27, 2022 § 4 Comments

Writing your proposal will help you finish your book.

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

You’ve been avoiding it for years, but deep down you know it’s time. I get your procrastination. What artist wants to work on a business document, let alone one with nicknames like “soul crusher” and “creativity killer”?  

Like you, I once banished book proposals to the level of hell that contains root canals, moth-ball-scented stickers, and elementary school violin ensembles. But working on my proposal—and helping others build ones that have sold—has given me a new perspective on how, and more importantly, when, to work on one.

It’s sooner than you might think.

Top reasons for query rejections include:

  • lackluster writing
  • not understanding your target audience
  • someone else already published your idea
  • being an unknown quantity.

While revising your manuscript is the only way to improve your prose, working on certain parts of your proposal before completing your manuscript can help with the rest.

Author Platform Assessment  

Of the parts of the proposal emerging writers like to avoid, the About the Author section ranks just below the Marketing Plan. We’ve been told size matters, and most writers fear their author platforms won’t measure up. Here’s the good news: you don’t need to be a social media influencer to sell your book. You must, however, be able to reach readers. Bylines, guest posts, podcast interviews, and speaking engagements are a few common ways writers engage with their audience. These platform side hustles have the added benefit of helping you identify and refine your book’s narrative arc.

Got platform envy? There’s a simple cure. Assess your author platform well before you begin querying. To do this, complete two versions of your proposal’s About the Author section. In the first, create a snapshot of your current reach, including publications, speaking engagements, social media numbers, and people who could possibly write reviews or blurbs.

If your pages include a lot of white space, don’t panic.

In step two, write an aspirational About the Author section that includes the things you’d love to do, as well as your ideal reviewers and blurb writers. This isn’t just daydreaming. Imagining your successes will make you more likely to take the steps needed to turn your aspirations into legitimate entries on your final proposal.  

Comparable Titles Spot Check

Comparable titles—“comps”—help you understand your topic’s landscape. Jane Friedman suggests narrative and traditional nonfiction writers do an exhaustive comp title search before getting started. I heartily agree. Who wants to write a proposal or spend years on a draft only to find out another author has beaten you to the bookshelf?

Memoirists might wonder when to begin their official search, given how long their projects might take. Start too soon, and you can end up with a list of great books that are no longer relevant. Start too late, and you might find out someone else has written a book about a similar experience from the same angle.

If you’re a memoirist, the best time to build your tentative comps list is after you understand your personal story, but before you’ve finished your book. This will allow you to identify which conversations your book belongs to. Once you know the conversations, and the gaps within them, you can figure out the fresh new thing you’ll say. This might lead you to explore your book from a different angle, research an element you might not have considered, or try a unique structure that ties everything together without feeling crushed by rejections, or like you’re starting over.

If you’re looking to publish traditionally, this is essential. Gone are the days when you can write solely about your personal experiences. Memoirs that are currently selling are about how the author’s life intersects with something else.

Carol Smith’s Crossing the River (Abrams) is about what feature writing taught her about grief. Poe for Your Problems (Running Press) by Catherine Baab-Muguira shows you how Edgar Allen Poe can help your neuroses. Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured (St. Martins) explores the cults we malign, the ones we unwittingly sanction, and the brutal conformity both require.

Finding your angle and pumping up your platform while working on your draft will give you the confidence to write clearly and query more effectively.

So what are you waiting for? Answer your proposal’s damn call!

___________________________

Want to understand the proposal and learn some tricks that will help you not just nail yours but motivate you to complete your book? Join Lisa for The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers on 9/28 and Writing the Proposal: How to Finish and Sell Your Nonfiction Book on 10/5.

Why I get up early

September 26, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Becky Jo Gesteland

I ponder this question and peruse my blog to see if I have an answer. I find several relevant posts.

November, 2019 Time to myself.

I’ve been writing about my lack of time since July. Not sure why I felt I had so little time then, because I have even less now. Shifting priorities? New medication to combat depression? 

Women writers have always struggled to find time to themselves to write. Right now, I’m writing at 6:23 a.m. when I really wish I was still sleeping. The time change helped me wake up early. That and the cat. So, for the next week or two I’ll take advantage of my messed up sleeping schedule to arise early and write a few words.

But then what? When my body and cat adjust to the new schedule, when NaNoWriMo is over, will I continue? Surely part of the struggle is priorities. Because unlike some women, I have a supportive family who would help protect my writing time if I simply asked. I think part of the dilemma for women is this ingrained sense of “needed-ness.” That is, we need to feel needed. As mothers, wives, bosses, daughters, aunts, colleagues…our relationships with others dominate our lives. So, we drop whatever we’re doing to help someone else. I interrupt my grading to feed the cat; I shorten my writing time to check email; I pause my Netflix show to listen to my daughter; I stop reading to talk to my husband; I walk back from yoga with a colleague rather than enjoying the post-practice peace. Choices sure. Priorities yes. But also, a culturally ingrained sense of needing to be there for others. At someone’s beck and call.

September, 2020 Reflection 

What? After feeding the cats, before anyone else wakes up, I sit at the kitchen counter as daylight begins and the room becomes brighter.

So what? Observing my movements. Noticing my environment. Describing the scene. To what end? So that whoever someday reads this may know my state of mind? Why would they care? I live in a house with two people and two cats. It’s turned fall–September 22–and tomorrow I turn 58. The world still roils with COVID-19. Angry politicos battle for power. I’m tired, sad, listless.

Now what? I’m borrowing words from my syllabus, the questions that guide students to reflect on their community-engaged learning experiences. What? So what? Now what? At least those are the ones I recall. But I can’t answer “now what?” because I’m trapped in this space and time of pandemic. Still living one day at a time.

I can feed the hummingbirds, until they leave for the year. I can water the flowers, while they continue to bloom. I can wash dishes, fold laundry, mend shirts, knit shawls, read books, practice yoga, drink coffee, eat yogurt, type letters on a keyboard and watch them become text on a page and posts on a blog and artifacts of a moment in a day from a life of a woman passing time.

March, 2021 Lack of sleep. 

The precious commodity eludes me today, of all days, the first weekday after the switch to daylight savings time. Wide awake at 5:45, which was actually 4:45 two days ago. No, the cats did not wake me. Perhaps I slept too long on Saturday. Maybe I have too many puzzles racing around in my brain. I did four yesterday: the Spelling Bee, the mini crossword, the Sunday, and a jigsaw puzzle. Or it could be my body’s adjustment to the missed SSRI dose on Friday night. Still finding a balance.

Today I receive my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and I’m a bit anxious–especially after my “mild prolonged response” to the first one. It will be a relief to be protected. By March 22nd. Just a little over a year since we shifted to remote work. The year that time stood still.

August, 2021 Observation. 

To watch the mother and baby deer graze in our front yard, to listen to the silence of the house, to read book reviews and craft advice in Brevity, to lie on the couch with the cat and try not to fall asleep, to solve spelling bee or crossword puzzles, to read and perhaps write, to keep the world at bay for a few hours…before the sun comes all the way over the horizon, before the air conditioner kicks on, before my work emails start to ping, before my family wakes up, before the news of the world rushes in.

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Becky Jo Gesteland lives in Ogden, Utah, where she is a professor of English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in Gravel, Palaver, Role Reboot, Plateau Journal, So to Speak, Visitant, Weber: The Contemporary West, and various scholarly books and journals. She blogs at https://jomamabecky.org/

Simmering My Story

September 23, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When my husband wanted to breed our second Portuguese Water Dog, Spray, I hedged. I didn’t think this was the greatest idea. Research told me that Spray could develop pyometra, a potentially life threatening infection, or ovarian cancer. Puppies could get stuck on their way out, and some puppies just don’t make it after birth. This all terrified me. I showed Matt all the literature on the dangers of breeding. He stood his ground. This would be a great family adventure. 

Ellie, my younger daughter, didn’t agree with him either. We had added her to our family to help Ellie with her anxiety when she was 13. Spray was her dog. 

I also didn’t want to be a “backyard breeder.” If we were going to do this, I wanted to be a responsible breeder. The couple from whom we got Spray thought we were great candidates for breeders. They sold Spray to us on an unlimited contract, which meant we could breed her and register the puppies as purebred Portuguese Water Dogs. Most contracts restrict new owners from breeding and require them to neuter their puppies. 

After much discussion, we went forward with the breeding. Spray was gentle and laid back, the sweetest Portuguese Water Dog we’d ever known and if she could bring more sweet pups into the world, we would make a lot of families happy. Not only did the Nightingales, our breeders, guide us through all the tests Spray had to undergo to make sure she was genetically fit to have puppies, they gave us their whelping box and all their blankets and fleecing pads. After more than seven litters, they were ready to pass on their wisdom and accoutrements.

I took notes and started a blog about the breeding and whelping, which coincided with Maggie’s last year of high school and her departure to college. At the end of the whole shebang, Matt suggested I write a book about the adventure. 

I did.

It took years during which I taught, freelanced and drove Ellie’s carpool. I submitted queries to agents and pitched it to small publishers at the AWP Annual Conference, but it didn’t go anywhere. I was tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Then my husband and I moved to Hawaii, the perfect time to put the memoir in a drawer while I started writing about my next adventure. But the puppy story stayed with me.

We returned from Hawaii shortly before the pandemic. I participated in a virtual writing retreat and pulled the puppy book out of the drawer. I started futzing with it. 

I called my writing friend, Becca, who had edited the memoir at one point. “I just realized, it’s not about the dogs, it’s about Maggie,” I said. 

Her response: “I told you that three years ago.”

Oops.

The memoir was about saying goodbye to Maggie, my older daughter. I had avoided writing about the depression that had tripped me up, then grabbed me and held me prisoner. It was scary and embarrassing to revisit, but I knew that was the direction I had to go.

I continued to take classes and workshops. I wrote a stronger query letter, I rewrote the beginning and restructured the whole memoir. I was patient with myself and the story, especially the hard parts.

Some writers can crank out a book every year. Not me. But I never gave up. This was a story I needed to write and wanted to share. 

I learned to be flexible, to listen to how readers interpreted my story. The editor who read the very first draft, which was horrible, said the story was about my marriage. While she had a point, that wasn’t why I was writing. I wanted to write about the adventure my family went on, how I eventually got on board. I wanted to explore the conflict between how great the puppies were and how depressed I was over my daughter’s departure. I wanted to show how I made it through and how I dealt with subsequent good-byes.

Now with a restructuring, some serious rewrites, a new beginning, and more false starts with agents and small publishers, my memoir has been picked up by a small indie press. It’s a heady feeling. The new publisher thought writing about mental health was important and that my story would resonate with other moms sending their teenagers out into the world. 

I am proud of myself for writing the thing that scared me the most, and I’m proud of myself for never giving up. Sometimes things take a while to cook. Sometimes simmering is better than boiling. 

Maggie is now 30 years old and married. I am older too. The college days are long gone. But when I revisit the moment when we said good-bye in front of her new dorm and walked away from each other, my stomach lurches and all the good-byes I’ve had to say in my life come back and rock my soul. 

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Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

American Idol as a Metaphor for the Writer’s Pursuit

September 22, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Evyenia Downey

Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash. 

Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win. 

I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?

Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.

I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission. 

My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.

By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.

Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.

I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.

I was wrong. 

So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you? 

How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?

I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening. 

I think that would be enough.
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Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

September 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

“Two roads diverged,” I thought, recalling Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. He describes his decision to take the road less traveled by, and the difference it made. I see the poem as a metaphor for my life. 

Reading and writing consumed my high school years, and I was confident my poetry, short stories, and essays would be published someday. In college, ideas blossomed and flowed easily onto the paper, the sticky keys of my manual typewriter preventing my fingers from keeping up with my brain. 

Yet, as Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and writing left me when, through a circuitous route, the road led to medical school. I saw no future in writing when everyone else was getting MBAs. I trusted hard work and diligent efforts on the medical path to lead to success. I have often asked myself what would have happened had I taken the other road. 

In my medical practice, I was drawn to patient stories. I captured them in the chart, first in cursive on paper, later typed into the computer, striving to record more than “just the facts,” to make my patients real on paper. Instead of “Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man with dementia,” followed by exam and assessment, I wanted anyone reading the chart to know that Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man who lives alone, and his children are scattered across the world, unable to help him. I strove to make each patient more than the sore throat seen on March 15th, or the appendicitis that went to the hospital. It turned out I was still writing, although in a limited fashion, prescribed by the format of the medical chart.

As retirement approached, I anticipated the void of leaving these stories behind, and wondered who I would become without them. I enrolled in a writing class. Maybe I could return to where I started. Then I came upon a writing contest in a medical magazine, tidied up a piece I had written years ago, and sent it at the last minute. Lo and behold, I won. Maybe I could write creatively for a wider audience, break out of the stilted format that patient charts required, leaving myself and my reflections out, recording colorless facts. 

In a chart, you must back everything you say with data, facts not necessary in a story or essay. When you have practiced leaving out feelings or description (it doesn’t matter in the chart the look on their face, how their hair was styled, the way their blue shirt contrasted with the pale green walls), you become accustomed to writing that neither creates scene nor conjures emotion. Relearning to write creatively, to take the stories stored in my brain and convert them from medical writing to another form, was like trying to re-find the overgrown path. 

Who could teach me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be? I knew plenty of medical people, but found myself in a writerless wasteland. As I groped to decide where to spend my time (and money!), my husband rightly observed, “You couldn’t just hang up a shingle and be a doctor, you had to take classes and learn. This is the same.” 

Bless him! I had to approach this writer thing with the same single-minded determination I used to study medicine. Instead of learning about muscles and cells, I was learning about sentences and paragraphs. Instead of diseases, I was learning themes.

I chose classes, went to conferences, and found places to meet other writers, who generously included me in local writing associations and gave me access to online groups. They provided workshopping and beta readers, things I previously had no idea existed. Each was a tool I needed to hone my brain into a different instrument: no longer a scalpel to cut straight to the facts, rather a scanning electron microscope getting close to the surface of the theme, then penetrating it. 

The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot. Its mastery requires a more subtle training, with no diploma to announce when I’d arrived. But I keep at it. Because it turns out that writing, like medicine, is a practice, one you show up to routinely, striving for continual improvement. 

I will need persistence and determination to keep showing up on the page and to keep submitting—hoping to increase my skill and to find readers, but also reveling in the joy of ideas and words. 

At the start, I tried to look down both roads as far as I could, but as way led onto way, the road took me to places I never expected, and I dealt with the life in front of me. As Frost says, “I kept the first for another day,” and here I am, back at the beginning.

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Sandra Eliason is a retired physician who is now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest in 2016 for her piece “The Vacation,” which began her transition to full-time writing. She has had essays published in Bluestem magazine, West Trade Review, the Brevity Blog, and upcoming in The Linden Review. Her work has been anthologized in the e-book Tales from Six Feet Apart, and in Pure Slush: Cow Volume 23. She is a book reviewer for Hippocampus Magazine and is currently querying publishers for her memoir Heal Me: Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway). Eliason has had reviews published in the Brevity Blog and pending at Rain Taxi. To find her reviews of books that you won’t likely find on the New York Times best sellers list, but should, check out dreliasonwriter.com. Eliason resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, where she tends a garden in the summer and creates a lap for her cat to warm in the winter.

Happy Birthday Seven Drafts

September 20, 2022 § 6 Comments

There’s a logic (and some magic) to the number 7.

By Andrea A. Firth

When you take a class from Brevity Blog’s editor Allison K Williams, she starts by sharing her hashtag, #FirehoseMe. Why firehose? Because she packs more information (and laughs) into a class than almost humanly possible. She’s literally a blast.

Last Fall, not long after the launch of Seven DraftsSelf-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, I interviewed Allison for Catapult Magazine. She presents the same way in an interview as she does when she leads a class. By the end of our hour-long conversation, I was soaking wet. (You can read the interview here.) I couldn’t fit all of the great information and lol moments into that 1,500-word Q&A. So, on the eve of Seven Drafts’ one-year publication anniversary, I asked Allison to revisit what didn’t make the cut and answer a couple more questions.

What inspired you to write Seven Drafts

I really like money and one of the ways to make money is to have a product that you don’t have to keep delivering in person. I know that sounds mercenary! But writing and editing is how I make my living, and there’s no shame in wanting to be paid for what you do, even when you love doing it. Plus, having a traditionally published book is a huge resume-booster for a writing teacher, and I was so happy Woodhall Press was willing to team up to make it happen (Thanks Matt & Colin!).

Seven drafts to a complete book—why 7?

Because if I called it 17 Drafts, no one would buy the book! But really there’s a logic (and some magic) to the number 7. Each draft plays a specific and important role, and I first wrote about that for Brevity in 2015. The short version:

Vomit Draft:  This is awesome!

Story Draft:   This makes no sense.

Character Draft:  Who are these people? I hate them.

Technical Draft:  Thought made writing but me wrong was.

Personal Copy Edit: Sprinkle commas like confetti!

Friend Read:  If you love me, you’ll tell me what sucks.

Editor Read:  I paid big bucks to confirm what I kind of knew. Can I at least query while revising?

Circus arts, like lying on a bed of nails and fire eating, are among your other talents. You worked as a street performer for many years and often draw on that experience when you write and teach? How do the two connect?

Honestly, the hard part is not lying on a bed of nails. The hard part is taking a big, deep breath and holding it while a big audience volunteer guy is standing on you, because once you exhale, you can’t inhale again. But the key to lying on a bed of nails is in the numbers. Lying on one nail will pierce right through you. Lying on a hundred nails isn’t so bad. It’s like submitting to literary journals. One submission, you’re on the edge of your seat every time the inbox pings. A hundred submissions, you won’t even remember what essay you sent them when the rejection comes in.

Fire-eating’s a lot like writing, too—and I’ll be talking more about that in this month’s newsletter. (Sign up here!)

You say writers are seldom original, but we can always be rare. Can you expand on this?

Early-career writers often worry that somebody’s going to steal their idea, or else they aren’t moving fast enough, and someone else will write it first. But an agent doesn’t need to steal your idea. The agent got six other books today with that same idea. So little is original. And even if someone else tells “your” story, you haven’t lost your chance. Our voice, our bravery in telling the story, whether that’s a personal story or one in which we have carefully created beautiful characters and bravely sent them into the world to tell their story—that is almost always unique. No one else can tell our particular, unique story. As I wrote in Seven Drafts, that’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.

What have you learned about yourself, the book, or process over the past year?

It was powerfully moving to hold my book in my hands for the first time. And I’m delighted every time people Tweet and email me to say how much Seven Drafts is helping them get through their own books! But because it’s a writing craft book, part of me still feels like an imposter—like it’s not a “real” book like a memoir or a novel. So I’m working hard to finish a YA novel that is very much the book of my heart.

You’re organizing a dinner party to celebrate the first anniversary of Seven Drafts. Which three writers, alive or dead, do you invite? And what kind of cake do you serve?

Hilary Mantel, William Shakespeare and Kate Atkinson. Three powerful wordsmiths who I think would also enjoy each other’s company. We’ll have Lemon Lush cupcakes from Lancaster Cupcakes, please and thank you!

I’m a terrible gift receiver—so I think the very best way to celebrate is presents for other people! For all the Brevity readers who support, sustain and challenge my work, I’m offering two free chapters of Seven Drafts, and my Self-Editing Checklist. Get them here.

Happy Birthday!

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Andrea A. Firth recently joined the Brevity Blog editorial team. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Andrea has a new class Let’s Try: Essay, A Space to Tell Your Story starting in November. Learn more here.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and the author of Seven Drafts. She’ll be leading three sessions of Memoir Bootcamp starting October 19. Learn more here.

The Trouble With Reading

September 19, 2022 § 34 Comments

By Julie Holston

I love to read, as I assume most writers do. As a nonfiction writer, I know the value of studying memoirs and personal essays and reading outside my genre. I even belong to a book club where, instead of reading the same book for discussion, we show-and-tell the books we’ve each read or are currently reading. We exchange recommendations and sometimes even lend out a beloved book. Everyone goes home with additions to our Libby lists and GoodReads shelves. But whereas some of the group members—several of them fellow writers—read a book or more a week, my quota is closer to a book every two months. I keep books in almost every room at home, and I have titles waiting in my Audible and Kindle queues. I’m surrounded by books, so why don’t I spend more time reading? 

When I was a kid, I could lie on the couch in the living room, totally engrossed in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague while my parents watched Monday Night Football or Columbo in the same room. These days, I need fewer distractions to concentrate. My wife works from home and the Zoom voices carry throughout our small condo, so I’ll stream white noise on my phone if I’m trying to read. But having the phone nearby offers the temptation of using it to look up an unfamiliar word, and once I put down the book and grab the phone, I’ll see a text or a news alert. Before long I’m scrolling, and then I decide to do the Wordle, the Mini Crossword, and the Spelling Bee. The hour I had allotted for reading results in twenty minutes with the actual book.

I’m also attached to the idea that I need to nurse a cozy cup of coffee when I read. The only place to set it down in the living room is the coffee table, so I have to put the book aside and lean forward every time I take a sip, disrupting my reading. If I turn sideways and stretch my legs out on the couch, then I can pull the coffee table close enough to reach. Now I’m pinned, and I’m hoping I haven’t left my phone in the kitchen. If the cat jumps up and snuggles in, I’m rendered even more immobile, so I may as well settle in and read, right? But it turns out, I need both hands to hold a paperback open. Even though my rapidly cooling coffee is now within arm’s reach, I’ll still have to pause my reading to take a sip, closing the book over my fingers to keep it from flipping dramatically out of my grasp in my attempt to hold it open single-handedly. 

As a young adult, I would stand in line at midnight to snatch the latest Harry Potter release in hardcover and devour it within a day or two. I never gave any thought to the effort required to hold up a pound or two of pages, whether I was splayed out on my back or curled up in a chair. Now, I need a lap or a table for a hardcover. They’re just too heavy for my middle-aged hands to support. Actually, I enjoy reading at a table, and I’ll do just that in a bookstore, where—bonus!—the table supports both the book and the coffee cup. But sitting at the dining room table feels weirdly formal at home, so I’d rather keep struggling with the couch. 

Reading in bed rarely works. If I lie down flat and hold the book on my chest, it’s not positioned in the correct quadrant of my progressive lenses to see the words. I need to tilt my head back uncomfortably against the pillow to find the sweet spot for my eyes. I have prescription reading glasses, but I keep them next to my laptop in the office, and I’m never inclined to go get them once I’ve gone to bed. Sitting up holds promise. I’ll prop up the pillows to support my lower back and settle in at just the right angle so I don’t slide down the mattress. That takes a few minutes, and once I’ve begun to read, my eyes get so tired I fall asleep almost immediately upon opening the book. 

I miss the girl who could plop down any place and read any book at any time. I still can’t imagine a more pleasurable way to spend a day than curled up on the couch reading. But it’s all so much trouble now. I may as well just write.

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Julie Holston is an emerging writer living in Minnesota with her wife and cat. A native of Arizona, she holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and has backgrounds in theatre, music, humanities, and education. She is currently working on a memoir and an unconventional family history.

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