January 26, 2021 § 13 Comments
We writers love to talk about why we write: to make meaning out of a chaotic world; to confront personal trauma by creating narrative; to transcend our ordinary lives and find purpose through our art. I’ve often said that writing is what keeps me grounded. Without it, life overwhelms and confuses me. I write to live.
Then I reread Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. It had been so long since I’d read it that I’d forgotten what the first step is: The School of Death.
The others are The School of Dreams and The School of Roots, but let’s face it: when death is the first thing thrown at you, dreams and roots don’t seem so urgent.
I’d also forgotten how much this philosophy of writing means to me. I’m in love with The School of Death. Cixous writes, “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.”
Just to be clear, it’s not that I want to die. If I weren’t so desperate to live, I wouldn’t write. But I believe that to confront the certainty of death is to confront our deepest fear of the uncertain, of the great unknowable. While we may have beliefs about death, we can’t truly know what it is, what it feels like, what lies beyond, if anything, until we die.
Cixous views all artistic endeavor as a leap into the unknown. “Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort. Painting is trying to paint what you cannot paint and writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written.” This reflects what many teachers have told me: it’s the writing that shows you what it wants to be.
We don’t like uncertainty. We want to feel like we know what we’re doing. A dear writer friend of mine, struggling with her memoir, once said, “I just want someone to tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
I understand her frustration entirely. Grappling with the chaos and confusion of a memoir draft is daunting. If we just find the right workshop, the right craft book, the right book coach!
We can feel the book in our bones, but the writing of it can seem like we’re always at the beginning, always trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing.
At least, that’s how I often feel.
“The only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write.” While Cixous’ words may appear oxymoronic, she is in fact driving home her argument: we must take a great, brave leap into writing, even as we don’t know where it will lead.
We don’t have the courage when we start, but the starting will bring it.
We don’t have the strength, but the simple act of not giving up will strengthen us every time we sit at our desk.
We don’t need to know, to understand, to figure it all out. We just need to write, to get to that “burning point, that last hour, when we’ll be able to write or say everything we have never dared to say out of love and cowardice.”
And if you’re still with me here, you’ll see where this is leading, how I interpret Cixous’ statement that writing is learning how to die: it’s an act of deep faith in ourselves.
It’s trusting in our own ability to navigate uncertainty and to work toward the unknowable.
It’s letting go of the obsessions that make us feel safe—word counts, page numbers, craft styles, office décor, mentors, coaches, structures, critical voices, schedules, permission, expectation, disapproval, guilt, shame, pride, jealousy.
It is, finally, taking that great fiery leap into the final hour where we tell the truth and damn the consequences.
When I work with this mindset—that I’m learning to die—then I’m truly feeling alive. Liberated. I can breathe and write. My anxiety fades. My investment in the final result crumbles. I’m present with the writing, which I’m only now understanding requires so much courage. And in this way, I am still writing to live.
Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her memoir-in-progress, Terrible Daughter, is about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.
January 25, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Rebecca D Martin
It begins with a cup of coffee, like this:
First, I dig the ceramic funnel from under the heap of dishes on the drying rack. I scoop the coffee beans, a rounded two Tablespoons, and then more for good measure, directly into the grinder and push down the lid and keep pressing and wait, and wait, until there isn’t any more grinding and the machine sounds like an airplane about to take off, the grounds are so fine. (Don’t do anything by halves in this stage of the game, or ever.) The grounds go into the filter in the funnel; the funnel on top of the mug. I pour to soak the grounds, and wait. Then the first big pour, halfway up the cone. I wait again. Once the water that is now coffee has drained, a third pour, the last. I am as light-handed with the water as I am heavy-handed with bean scooping. Weak coffee cannot be salvaged; I would have to begin again, which means less time getting started on writing and more opportunity to get sidetracked into straightening the house or – horrors – talking myself out of writing today, altogether. I must race upstairs post-haste if I am actually going to write.
But I’ve already begun. The half-minutes between pours, if not expanded by washing the waiting dishes, are spent staring out the window. This is the important time, the time when thoughts untether, when they loosen enough to shake out into some new direction or clearer pattern. Here, now, with my light-woven thoughts and my strong, strong, coffee, I hasten to my computer desk, carrying these silver threads of ideas like a rug, like a colorful, hand-tied rag rug. It is getting toward mid-morning and I may be hungry, but while I tie these thoughts into words, into deeper meanings, tighter, tighter, there will not be time for food.
Here I am. I am thinking about last weekend, and how I learned something new about my husband: to wit, he plays chess well in that he plays strategically. I had never played chess before last weekend, and never wanted to, except that, on Saturday, out for coffee, just the two of us, I wanted to do something together with him, something new and meaningful, and what I learned about myself while playing that game was something I already knew: my mind is developed to detach, to wander free, past the gameboard while my husband plans his next move, through the coffee-shop window, across the parking lot, over the mural painted onto the cement work under the old railroad bridge that passes across the small center of town. Who built that bridge. And what was the town like when he did it? What were the workers’ conditions? It is my turn to make a move, and I have to reel in again, painfully, locking back into where we are in this game and all the rules of play. (Pawns go side and forward, unless attacking, when they move on the diagonal; bishops always move on the diagonal, as far as they want to go; the knight makes an L-shape, which is interesting; the queen, badass woman that she is, can do whatever she wants, and is really the strongest warrior in the game, as opposed to the king, who really does not go anywhere at all, except for maybe to save some skin by switching places with the rook if he feels like it.) Over and over, I reel in, but am only able to make a move after painstakingly reminding myself of the positions on the board, which I had already forgotten. The best I can do is figure out the couple of moves that are open to me. My husband, on the other hand, is thinking four moves ahead, and he explains to me, in his patient, quiet way, what demise I have set for myself, and I don’t mind losing my queen to his checkmate because it is beautiful, the way he can unravel my game so neatly, so well.
I determine quickly that I will never play chess well. Or often. Strategy is an enigma. Writing is the same. Perhaps this is why I am slow to write novels, even though I would like to. I pull up a page and go at it, just as Annie Dillard says right at the beginning of The Writing Life: “you lay out a line of words . . . and it digs a path you follow.” She knows how it works: “You go where the path leads.” I lay out a line, and I follow until I see where it has taken me, but rarely where it is taking me, which would be my husband’s way, and I keep going from there, pick pitch after pick pitch, and maybe, maybe, finding I’ve laid some sure foundation for the raggedy ideas I am pulling together, cats-cradled into whatever assay this combination of words has turned out to be. I sit back to see, and I take a sip of coffee.
The coffee is cold. I walk downstairs with my cooled mug and the tatter and unravel and reweave of words, too. All twenty-five seconds till the beep beep beep are spent staring out the window once again, mindfully pulling at ragged edges and weaving more and tighter. Back upstairs, fast. Fast, this next round of thoughts set down into words, definite black words on the screen, like a long exhalation, like a rush. I sit back to consider my work, because I’m tired now, and my mind is slowing down, and I am hungry and lightheaded, and it’s time this rug with all its loose ends is folded up and stashed away till another morning, till I shake it out again and try to determine its best true shape. I reach for my mug, no longer warm, and no more empty than the last time I heated it. I have forgotten to drink the coffee. I have been writing.
Rebecca D. Martin’s essays and reviews have been published in Relief Journal, The Other Journal, tweetspeak, The Curator, and The Rabbit Room, among other places. She is currently at work on her first book, about the books that house us and the homes that sometimes don’t. She is always at work on the novel she’s been writing for fifteen years, even when she hasn’t put words down on paper for a long time. She hails from Atlanta, but now lives in Virginia with her husband and two daughters. She can be found online here.
January 22, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Hiram Perez
I am eight years old and lost in my daydreams outside Kmart as I weave in and out between the iron bars used to keep people from stealing shopping carts. Suddenly I become aware of my father’s gaze. I meet his eyes and find myself immobilized by the disgust in his scowl.
He speaks—calmly, matter-of-factly: “Papo, if I ever find out you are a maricón, I will kill you and then kill myself.”
I don’t know what maricón means, though I hear it hurled at me enough times by other boys, along with pato. I think it has something to do with my skin being lighter than my father’s. I think it has something to do with how I cry too easily. I think it has something to do with how all my friends are girls, and I have no interest in playing baseball. I do not know what maricón means, but I know I am found out. I do know being a maricón is the worst betrayal imaginable. But what is it that betrays me? A hand gesture, I wonder, or the way I carry myself. Do I daydream too much for a boy? It is something in my eyes perhaps. Do they betray how much I am afraid all the time?
January 21, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Noah Davis
A sow bear and a cub were hit by a truck on the road outside my neighborhood.
The cub’s torn black fur and cracked claws lay crumpled beside the blown tires. The sow bear, something soft ruptured behind her bones, scrambled up the incline into the green of Pennsylvania June and died in such a hidden place that turkey vultures still haven’t found her heft.
Today, a week later, in light as full as an afternoon, a surviving cub runs paw-heavy through my family’s backyard. She turns up the side yard smelling for some root or ant hill. The apples that dropped from the trees, too hard and sour to tempt her, the blueberries corralled behind a fence. Finding nothing sweet, she crosses the street and tunnels into the neighbor’s bushes.
The neighbor calls my mother, and we leave our tea in the kitchen—my mother, father, brother, wife, and me—and rush out across the street to the last bush where the bear was seen. Pulled by our desire to love something motherless.
Read the rest of Noah Davis’ essay in Brevity‘s latest issue
January 20, 2021 § Leave a comment
By David Perez
What might happen if you read your memoir aloud as if talking to a therapist, or your personal essay as if jogging on a treadmill? What might an unexpected whisper or pause bring to your novel or poem?
Reading aloud engages the senses, makes us think of rhythm, narrative flow, and stillness; connects us with how our words truly sound. Reading aloud slows us down. When we read in our minds we tend to zoom along, the brain processing much faster than the mouth can speak.
Reading aloud allows us to slow down and pay attention, which makes the practice a powerful proofreading tool. We find common grammatical errors, omitted words, sections that don’t quite say what we intended or that just don’t feel right.
Read David Perez’s full craft essay in the newest issue of Brevity
January 19, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Jesse Lee Kercheval
Outside there is a pandemic and I am in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay, far from my daughter and son also locked down, but in Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, and I am inside drawing, drawing, drawing, filling sheets of paper, pages drifting to the floor, as if I were the boy in the Japanese fable who also draws and draws and draws but only cats. Cats, cats, cats until his farmer father gives up and sends him to a monastery where the boy draws the monastery cats until the head priest too gives up and tells him to go home. As he leaves, the old priest warns the boy, saying: “Avoid large places at night. Keep to the small.”
I am keeping to the small, tucked inside my rented apartment, inside my body, the very idea of outside frightening to me now—and the boy too is afraid, but of returning to his father, so instead he travels to another temple in the hopes he can ask the priests to stay there, not realizing they have all fled a giant goblin-rat. The boy arrives, and finding the place deserted, begins to draw cats all across the walls.
Continue reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s flash essay in Brevity’s Latest Issue.
January 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
Our new issue launches this morning, with wishes for a safer, healthier world and brilliant essays from Jesse Lee Kercheval, Elena Passarello, Hiram Perez, Michael McAllister, Dorian Fox, Tyler Orion, Noah Davis, Ira Sukrungruang, Sonja Livingston, Anne Panning, Kate Hopper, Lizz Huerta, Melissa Stephenson, Francis Walsh, and Laurie Klein. Also, an array of wonderful photos from Kim Adrian.
In our Craft section, Nancy Reddy explores the “community we” and David Perez uses his acting background to show how reading our work aloud can make the written word come alive.
And we have a request as well: Brevity comes to you with no subscription fees, but we do have expenses. We have no institutional funding, and our volunteer staff is unpaid, but we pay for our website, domain name, backup software, website security software, and various other operating expenses. And we are very proud to say that we pay our authors.
If you appreciate the work we publish or are one of the many teachers who utilize Brevity in the classroom, please consider a small donation.
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January 15, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
For the past few years, my literary journal submissions have become more regular, my Submittable account more colorful. The grey DECLINED rectangles far outweigh the green ACCEPTED ones, with a smattering of black WITHDRAWN rectangles, along with a mix of two cool blues. This past year, I’ve received 56 no thank yous and 4 yesses, we love your work and would like to publish it.
But today, I had an epiphany similar to one in my memoir-in-progress. I can wallow in my losses, focus on the negatives, count and recount the rejections—or I can change my perspective and reframe my narrative. Because in 2020, a year like none other in my 55-year-old lifetime, I’ve achieved so much more than I ever imagined possible. I am no longer limited to writing creative nonfiction. I do not shy away from playing with form, from learning other genres, or from entering contests. Because in 2020, I have:
- 1 book review
- 1 essay (after 35 rejections over the past five years and countless revisions)
- 1 prose poem—all new territory and terrifying
- 1 unclear, experimental, hybrid CNF/poem with erasures and line breaks
- 1 list essay for an anthology called Art in the Time of Covid-19
- 1 1st-place flash contest win that led to
- 1 Pushcart Prize nomination
- 1 hold-on-tight, your essay has made it to our second round of reviewing for an anthology
- 1 of the most thoughtful, generous rejections to a contest with feedback from several readers, which led to back-and-forth emails with the editor-in-chief
And, of 13 submissions to various independent presses for a memoir manuscript, thus far 3 have declined, 4 in-progress, and 6 received on Submittable (not including all the others sent by email or separate systems).
Rather than dwell on what didn’t come to pass and think poor me, I can look through another lens, perhaps even feel proud of how far I’ve reached, how much I’ve grown.
This past year, I participated in a unique podcast when I was interviewed, in Hebrew, by an Israeli DJ and read my work, in English, which she set to disco music (apart from my appalling accent, it was a really fun writing experience). Last March, I co-founded a writing community with a friend on the other side of the world to pull myself—and each other—out of lockdown paralysis (and we’re still going strong and open to newcomers). And I’ve pushed myself out of my social-media comfort zone, trying to be a better literary citizen and give where I can give and not just take when I want or need to take.
None of this is meant to boast. My intention is to help those of you who feel down about yourself or your writing life to tally up your year’s accomplishments with different eyes. Another type of re-vision. Did you break into a dream publication? Did you return to writing after a long break? Do you feel happy, satisfied, creatively fulfilled when you approach the blank page? Did you join a writing group? Reach out to a writer you admire? Find someone who believes in your words or supports your work? Did you memorize a favorite poem? It all counts.
As we kick off 2021, my wish for you, and me, and everyone in this community is to write what moves you, what compels you, what makes you feel whole and healthy, and, above all, to stay healthy—mind, body, soul—as the world keeps striking and rebounding. We cannot control how long it will carom, but we can control our reaction. We can re-see our narrative.
Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Brevity Blog, and Crab Orchard Review, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites.
January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments
Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”
Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”
That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).
For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)
When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?
Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.
Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.
Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.
You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.
Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.
Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.
Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?
Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.
Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.
If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.
If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.
Then again? You might get more.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”
January 13, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Victoria Lynn Smith
Ask me how I decide if I’m going to write about an event as fiction or nonfiction. I have a mental flowchart for that, and I can explain it clearly.
Ask me how I choose a point of view or tense. I can’t explain that as easily, but I sense when my choices aren’t working and try a different approach.
Ask me if I consider myself a writer, and the waters are murkier. It depends on the day. Did I write? Did I get a rejection? Did I submit a piece of writing? Did I walk away from the computer thinking I just spent hours writing crap or I’m excited to work on this tomorrow? Did I spend any time learning about the craft of writing? Did I spend time with other writers? When did I last get paid for something I wrote?
Most days I call myself a writer, but there are days I call myself a pretender.
Ask me if I consider writing a hobby, a job, or a profession, and the waters are an oil-slicked quagmire. Recently, as a panelist in a presentation about beginning a writing career after retirement, I was asked, “Is writing your hobby, job, or profession?” and I stumbled over my answer.
Sometimes writing looks like a hobby. I learn about it, spend money on it, try to perfect it, and want to put it on display when I’m finished. Occasionally, I earn money, which has never happened with my real hobbies. But most of my writing, like the crafts I create, is given away, published without pay. It’s satisfying to be chosen, but if my writing doesn’t pay for itself, maybe it’s a hobby. But I’ve never devoted this much time to a hobby.
So, maybe I should consider writing a job. Just a low-paying job, really low paying. If it’s a job, maybe I should figure out how to get myself a raise. I could write articles for magazines. I’ve tried. I start them, save them in a file, and abandon them, returning like a remorseful lover to a story or an essay that I jilted while in pursuit of a paycheck to give my writing legitimacy.
I could do corporate writing. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a writers’ gathering who said she made good money at it. But I love writing fiction and essays. I told her about my first story, which had recently won a contest. (I was probably obnoxious, like a mother showing off pictures of her firstborn.) Others talked about memoirs, novels, or poetry they were writing. Somewhere among all the chatter about craft and books and resources, the woman looked at me and said, “I need to make time for my writing.” Her words and the look on her face have stayed with me. She was young and needed the income. I’m retired and free to explore my passions. So maybe it’s not a job.
I can’t call writing my profession. Yes, I belong to two writers’ associations. I subscribe to a writing magazine and read it cover to cover when it arrives. I subject my work to critique and critique the work of others. I enroll in classes. But I don’t treat writing as a business. I don’t need to pay the bills with it. I don’t have a website or a Facebook page. I’m not writing a book I need to market. Not yet anyway.
Maybe writing is my occupational hobby.
Yesterday, my nine-year-old granddaughter clarified the whole issue.
I had my four grandkids for the afternoon, and at three o’clock, I learned I needed to read at a virtual open mic. I was on the sub list and another reader couldn’t make it. I asked my grandkids to play quietly while I rehearsed.
My seven-year-old grandson asked why, and I told him I needed to practice.
But my granddaughter told him, “Because Nana’s a writer, and she’s a good writer.”
The grandkids cooperated, more or less. My granddaughter sat at the table drawing pictures. Two of my grandsons played in a bedroom and the toddler napped on the couch. I pulled out a 500-word essay of mine that was published this summer. I knew I could read the essay in under five minutes. Halfway through I realized my granddaughter was standing behind me.
When I’d finished, she asked, “Is that a true story, Nana?”
“Yes,” I said. “Even the part about the gun in the kitchen cupboard, but no one got hurt.”
Still, I wondered if the piece was good enough to read at the open mic. I started looking for something else, verbalizing my angst as I did.
“Nana, you should read the story you just read. It’s really good.”
I took my granddaughter’s advice and read the essay.
She’s right. I’m a writer. A hobby, a job, a profession? For now, the label doesn’t matter. On this day, at this moment, I’m a writer.
Victoria Lynn Smith writes stories and essays. Her story, “Silent Negotiations,” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize Contest, and her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest. Her work has appeared in regional publications, on various blogs, and on Wisconsin Public Radio. She is working on a collection of short stories about the lives of children and teenagers. And, although she thought she would never say “I’m working on a book,” she has written two rough chapters about the house and neighborhood where she grew up. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/