May 18, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
I open up each session of my five-week memoir and personal essay workshop with a writing prompt. The first session is probably the most challenging and also the most important because this is the start of the students’ journey and they may be nervous about meeting a class of eleven strangers and about what will be taught, especially if they are beginning memoir/essay writers. I often use Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost” for that first opening lesson and prompt, as I think this list essay has a lot to teach, in an accessible way.
First, I love list essays as prompts. They provide structure to a writer—and structure can make things easier. If I told my students, “Hey, write an essay about what you’ve lost,” I know some of my students (beginning ones, especially) might be overwhelmed, but Arundel provides the scaffolding: the essay is made up of not just a list of things he’s lost, but each item has a particular format. First, the name of the item itself. Second, a colon. Third, when Arundel lost the item, or sometimes where. And fourth, a tiny bit of context. For example, his opening line: “Fleece hat and gloves: in the backseat of a Boston cab in 2002, before driving back to Maine.”
I should also add here that every week of my memoir and essay workshop, we focus on one main learning goal, and for that first week, it’s all about detail—sensory detail and the importance of description and specific examples. This list essay is a gold mine for that.
Arundel starts with concrete objects—hat, gloves, sunglasses—and then moves on to abstract items: a ‘“measurable dose of self-skepticism” and a “school-wide presidential election in sixth grade” and in doing so, this essay begins its first deepening. Arundel returns, however, to concrete objects throughout his essay, and I think this grounds the reader.
In the second paragraph, he begins weaving the items more tightly together. He dedicates this paragraph to the things he’s lost related to romantic aspirations and notions—a chance to kiss someone, his virginity, his heart. These items move, seemingly, chronologically as well, and this, along with their thematic connection, do the further work of deepening the essay and what we know about the narrator. If I said to my students, “Make sure you are developing character along the way!” they might look at me with wide eyes. But Arundel’s technique allows this character development to happen naturally, almost without our noticing he is doing it, one of the signs of good writing.
The third paragraph is largely focused on beliefs he has lost, and isn’t that the sign of wisdom gained through life lessons? The essay here is moving more into the abstract, but he ends this paragraph with something concrete, a shift. I point out to my students how Arundel mixes big, important items (“[g]eneral insecurity and inadequacy”) with smaller, less important items (a “taste for soy sausage patties”). These contrasts (concrete and abstract, larger and smaller, as well as serious and funny) create a texture to the fabric of the essay.
As the essay moves along, Arundel doesn’t exactly stick to his format—it flexes and changes, and you could argue that this is what he is showing: the flexing and changing that happens in a life.
After examining and discussing the essay with my students, I ask them to write their own “The Things I‘ve Lost” essay. I tell them that they can start by just brainstorming the items—they don’t have to yet think of where and when and context. They can just start jotting down whatever items come into their head when they think of things they have lost. I encourage them to start with concrete things before moving into the abstract, and to let their list get big before deciding which items they will actually use. Then, I ask them to try Arundel’s four-part format for each item, or come up with their own.
I have used other Brevity list essays in my workshop as well for writing prompts, most recently “Some Things About that Day” by Debra Marquart and “Work Lessons” by Lizz Huerta. They all give some structure to students and offer wonderful lessons on detail and specificity.
I don’t expect my students to have all the details in their first draft at all. But I hope that once they have the scaffolding of their own essay they will add the sensory details and descriptions that Arundel has in his essay. I hope, most of all, that my students will let their own essay take them wherever they are meant to go in their writing that day, even if it ends up being that they focus solely on one item on their list. I tell them to trust their mind to lead the way (even if it’s unexpected), which is maybe the greatest writing lesson of all.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning author. Her books include the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press) and A Small Thing to Want: stories (Press 53). She teaches memoir and personal essay workshops. Learn more at www.shulycawood.com.
THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.
May 18, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Emily Dillon
When The Best of Brevity launched on the East Coast in November 2020, Deesha Philyaw was one of three authors to participate in its inaugural reading, alongside Lori Jakiela and Julie Hakim Azzam. I was not familiar with Philyaw’s writing, but during her reading I was impressed with her precision of language. In particular, her essay “Milk for Free”—originally published in Brevity’s “Experiences of Gender” issue in 2015—stuck out as unflinching and compelling in its look at how women often don’t own their own bodies. I wasn’t the only listener to feel that way. Both Hakim Azzam and Jakiela were moved to share similar stories of gendered violence before the night ended.
How serendipitous that only two weeks after that reading, a friend asked for my address to send me Philyaw’s newest collection of short stories The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. I just had to read it, he said, and he was right. It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed Philyaw’s collection, but I suspect you already know its successes well: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies won the 2020/2021 Story Prize and was a finalist for both the 2020 National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award. For me though, the real joy was returning to “Milk for Free” with the short story collection forefront in my mind, seeing anew how Philyaw built deft characterizations and imagination into the essay as she did the short stories. I realized then, too, that there was a unique shimmering to her nonfiction that was distinct from the fiction collection, each moment searing because I knew that it had happened–it had happened to young Deesha.
And what happened to her? Philyaw lets us in to the revelation slowly in “Milk for Free,” preferring ambiguous language for most of the essay: “some white stuff,” “down there,” “things below the waist,” “the men sometimes gave her money,” “big for my age,” and “what he did to her.” It isn’t until the penultimate moment of the essay—the spot in poetry where the volta would be—that Philyaw pivots into naming: “There is a word for this. Rape.” Though the rape is her mother’s and not her own, Philyaw still has to peel this revelation out of herself, conjuring the naming out of the ambiguous with imperative tense, said perhaps to herself, perhaps to the reader: “Go back, way, way back… the memory comes back, and here it is.” The violence enacted on her mother has violated her as well, which becomes most clear when she faces her own fear of men and realizes, “No one can protect me. If Shorty Hall doesn’t rape me, it’ll be because he chooses not to.” Men own her body, even if they choose not to act on that ownership.
This theme of ownership and commodification is doubly clear when looking at the essay’s structure as a whole. Philyaw sets off each memory—of her mother’s rape, of the old women’s advice to her not to “give away the milk for free,” of her sixth-grade friend’s sexual encounters with “grown men”—with the word “Item” and a colon. Bringing to mind a shopping list or a bill of sale, this listing structure is Philyaw’s way of emphasizing the commodification of her body and that of her friends and family. The theme takes on additional universality through the associative leaps that she inserts into the list: the item of Mick Jagger singing “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night…” and the item of Stokely Carmichael saying that the only position for women in the Black Power Movement is “prone.” These leaps, which move beyond her own experience into public celebrity, expose the origins of her personal violence and the wide-reaching impact of sexism, racism, and poverty in American culture.
Of course, these themes and their relationship to craft are essential for the American creative writing classroom. Because this essay functions on poetic structures—the associative leap, the volta, and language (in particular, dialogue) as the initiator of memory and narrative—“Milk for Free” is a useful teaching tool in both poetry and prose classrooms. I can imagine, for example, a poetry teacher using this essay as an introduction to poetic forms, especially for writers coming from a prose background, or a prose teacher using this essay to demonstrate the success of poetic moves in narrative prose. In either case, the creative writing instructor can use “Milk for Free” as a model for writing exercises that ask the student to 1) list dialogue repeated in their childhood and then use that language to begin or interrupt their work, or 2) attempt a work that begins with euphemism and ends with naming.
“Milk for Free” also has relevance beyond the creative writing classroom, particularly for studies of gender, race, class, and/or intersectionality. The characters presented in this nonfiction essay, because they are real people, are useful examples of how identities can layer into composite injustice in America. Philyaw’s friend Cyprana, for example, gets money from the grown men who come to her house for sexual favors “while her mother was at work” and “sometimes she gave some of it [the money] to her mother.” The acknowledgement that Cyprana gives the money to her mother, though she is only in sixth grade, suggests that Cyprana lives in a low-income space, where children participate in earning money for the family. And though Cyprana’s race is never explicitly identified, she explains the “white stuff” on the couch to her mother as “curl activator,” which places Cyprana among the hair product culture of black and brown women. If a secondary or higher education teacher were so inclined, they could assign “Milk for Free” as a model and then ask students to consider two or more of their own identities and how they overlap, writing a reflection on how they do.
In the end, “Milk for Free” vibrates with an echo on its final lines: “There’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing we can do.” I wonder, who is the “we”? Who can’t do anything? Is it all of us, stuck in heavy systems that direct our lives, or is it more specific, the low-income black and brown women facing commodification of their bodies? There is, perhaps, a tinge of hope if the “we” is the latter, as it leaves open the possibility that everyone else—men, white people, people of money—have power to end the oppression. Perhaps this final question is the most stimulating for the classroom, opening up larger questions about justice and imaginative reform. Perhaps it will lead your students to find an answer for all of us.
Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from the Piedmont Plateau of Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She seeks honest representations of lived experiences in her work, which ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. She is currently an assistant editor for Brevity.
THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.
May 18, 2021 § Leave a comment
We’ve just launched an expanded Resources for Teaching Brevity section on our main website and each day this week we are featuring highlights here on the Blog. You can visit the menu page to see all of our new teaching resources or start your tour at Teaching With The Best of Brevity.
Our Teaching With The Best of Brevity section offers an array of pedagogical resources, including:
– Zoë Bossiere’s discussion of using Brevity’s flash anthology in her first year writing classes (along with a syllabus and “Four Exercises in Concision and Revision”)
– A collaborative essay from South Dakota’s poet laureate Christine Stewart and her brilliant nonfiction students
– Suggested classroom approaches for widely-taught Brevity essays such as Brian Doyle’s “Imagining Foxes,” Roxane Gay’s “There are Distances Between Us,” and Jill Christman’s “The Sloth.”
–Various Best of Brevity authors discussing the origins of their flash essays, with Brenda Miller, Joey Franklin, Lee Martin, Amy Butcher, Jill Talbot, and Heather Sellers
– and video resources as well.
We will be rolling out new features in the weeks and months to come, so be sure to check in regularly as you plan your upcoming semesters.
And if you use Best of Brevity in your teaching and have a resource to add, please let us know.
May 17, 2021 § Leave a comment
Brevity’s 67th issue launches this morning, with startling flash essays from Beth Ann Fennelly, David Mura, Irina Dumitrescu, Abigail Thomas, Bret Lott, Elizabeth Dodd, Pam Durban, Amy Monticello, Carrie Jade Williams, Cameron Steele, Joe Plicka. Yi Shun Lai, Sabrina Hicks, Sarah Ebba Hansen, and L.I. Henley, and stunning photos from essayist Dinah Lenney.
In our craft section, Karen Babine explores how she finds friction in odd objects, Beth Kephart offers insights for writing about our childhood homes, Heidi Seaborn illustrates persona by becoming Marilyn Monroe, and Heather Walmsley recommends freeing our minds through movement.
And two exciting announcements:
- We’ve launched an expanded Resources for Teaching section on our main website. Helpful new resources will roll out all of this week on the blog.
- and in just a few short weeks Brevity is moving to Philadelphia. See you along the Schuylkill.
May 14, 2021 § 23 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
The e-mail from the publisher of my first book popped into my mailbox on a Saturday. I was sitting in the wooden bleachers at a baseball game. My nine-year-old grandson was pitching. I didn’t open it, not only because I was cheering him on through the chain-link fence. I had no expectation of good news. After the game ended and we’d all hugged goodbye, I sat behind the wheel of my Subaru, blasting the air conditioning in an unseasonably hot Sacramento spring. I clicked on the email.
“I am writing to give you notice that The Reluctant Artist will be removed from our active title list on June 30, 2021 (hereafter the Termination Date).”
Which meant they would no longer sell my book. All rights would revert to me following the ominous sounding “termination date.” Mention of my freedom thereafter to publish the entire book or any of its individual poems let me know this was a form letter; there are no poems in The Reluctant Artist. I imagined a purge was underway and that many poets had received a similar missive. Out with the underachievers. A list my book belonged on. No quibble there. Royalty statements for the last two years of the contract were in the red. I wondered if I’d get a bill.
If I’m honest, I’d considered it an unexpected gift that it was published at all. With 73 pages of full-color photographs, it must have been expensive to print. Then there’s the size, smaller than a coffee table book, bigger than most others. And the contents. Neither fish nor fowl. A hybrid memoir/art book, written by a little-known writer about her even more obscure father.
Sitting in the hot car, air from the vents blasting my face, I skimmed it quickly and tossed it onto the passenger seat. I was used to impersonal rejection emails. This was sort of the same thing. Wasn’t it?
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d decided not to tell anyone. Not my husband, my sisters or kids (the primary audience for the book in the first place). Telling anyone would have made it too real.
The news nested somewhere in the back of my mind, behind conscious thought.
The following Monday, I sat beside my seven-year-old granddaughter, shuffling math worksheets and reading packets, organizing her materials for Zoom school. In the kitchen, I poured her favorite juice and spread Nutella on a toaster waffle. Savoring the scent of warm grains and melty chocolate, the termination notice resurfaced.
I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as the author of two books from small presses—not one, two. Five years passed so quickly; my quirky book fading in the sunset hadn’t crossed my mind. With a typical rejection, I could consider where to send it next, or perhaps undertake another round of edits. A published book ceasing to be “published,” losing its home, its advocate and legitimacy in someone’s eyes other than my own, felt different. An erasure, an accomplishment withdrawn.
I could tilt at more windmills by sending it out to other small presses. I could self-publish. A viable option for an e-book. Even if I could finance printing an art book, I didn’t think I wanted to.
I snuck my granddaughter her breakfast. Eating “on camera” wasn’t allowed, yet making Eva wait until the 9:30 break wouldn’t go well for any of us, least of all the teacher. We finished the Number of the Day worksheet (32) and a math assignment about telling time, the “real” way, with two hands on a clockface. I brewed a fresh cup of coffee, poured Eva more juice.
“Drink it fast,” I said. “It might stop the hiccups.”
Ten years ago, when The Reluctant Artist was conceived, my dad had just died. The two essays that became the nucleus for the text were about finding my way back to writing as my father, a lifelong creative, was dying. I loved his art and harbored no doubts about its merits. I was not so confident about my own abilities or identity as a writer.
I retrieved a well-thumbed copy of the book from my office and smoothed the cover with the flat of my hand— a self-portrait of my father from the sixties. Returning to Eva, my steps were light. Proud, nostalgic, and grateful, for Dad, and the writer I was.
During the 9:30 break, we watered the vegetables we’d sprouted from seeds then moved to wood-framed beds in the backyard.
“Look Grandma, this tomato has flowers.” Eva pointed to a spidery yellow blossom.
I was reminded of something I’d read and heard said several times. That you could write the same book every ten years and each time it would be entirely different.
Eva flitted from plot to plot, waving the misting hose like a magic wand. I’d water more carefully after our morning together ended. The Reluctant Artist had felt safe, finite and contained, a package. Yet themes and ideas I’d struggled with before and since are there, embedded in the text, their surface barely scratched, likely only discernible to me.
With Covid-19 and quarantine, my writing had suffered pandemic paralysis. Perhaps it was Spring’s arrival or that the economy and schools were slowly reopening. Or maybe it was the vaccines in mine and others’ arms. A sense of emerging on the other side, ready to pick up where I’d left off, or, better still, to begin a new page.
I wasn’t the same person or the same writer I was ten years ago. No longer hesitant to explore deeper, murkier corners—to pose questions, struggle to answer them and not feel I’ve failed if I only manage to come up with more questions.
To the persistent hum of bees sipping lavender pollen, I sensed the delicate pulse of new words, new thoughts and new ways of expressing them. I was excited to discover what would grow. Much as I anticipated the bounty of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and beans to come. Promises for now, setting down roots, reaching for the sunlight, beckoning the bees.
Dorothy Rice is the author of two memoirs, Gray is the New Black (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing statewide environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Dorothy co-directs the literary series Stories on Stage Sacramento, reads submissions for Hippocampus Magazine, and works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit.
May 12, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Candace Cahill
I am a rule follower. But I am also independent, resilient, and stubborn. I like to do new things and expand my knowledge. So, in the summer of 2019, I set out to write a book. Was I a writer? No. Am I now? Absolutely. Well, I’m learning anyway.
Writing the book itself was an adventure. The initial draft felt like going on a ten-mile hike, falling at the two-mile marker, and continuing despite bloody knees and palms. During the second draft, my wounds wept, then became itchy and crusty. On subsequent revisions I aired the scrapes, let them dry out and scab over, then soaked them lovingly in long, hot baths and applied ointment. Throughout the process, I fought self-doubt and imposter syndrome. And still do, but the scabs have fallen away, leaving tough scars and proof of my journey.
Now, I am on to the next stage of the process: pursuing publication.
If I want to go the traditional route, which I’ve discovered is the Holy Grail for most writers, I must get an agent. As the first in a series of gatekeepers within the realm of publishing, their job is to put my needs and desires as an author first. An agent would promote my work through an intricate courting process to big-time publishers, who only accept agented submissions. But—and this is a big but—the agent must choose me as a client. Therefore, I have sent passionate letters in hopes of luring one of them to love me. Have you ever gone about ‘looking for love?’ Yeah, kind of…counterintuitive. But this is the no-money-up-front option, which is particularly appealing to an out-of-work Alaskan tour guide in the era of covid-19.
Hybrid-publishing presents like an ‘a la carte’ menu for writers. They offer a team of professionals, all under one roof, who help an author develop and publish a well-constructed, marketable book. The single biggest difference is that the author foots the bill. Hybrids are not vanity presses. A hybrid press has a submission/acceptance process, seeks excellence in product outcome, and cares about the author’s success. A vanity press will accept all offered material, if the author has the capital upfront, and throw it ‘as is’ between two covers, without any quality control.
The self-publishing route requires—or allows—the author to do everything themselves. Essentially, the writer hires independent contractors: an editor, proofreader, cover designer, formatter, etc., then submits the work to a publisher facilitator, like Amazon, Barnes, and Noble, or Apple Press. Perfect for the independently-minded micromanager. Hmmm.
So, as you can see, the selection of a publishing track creates a whole new level of fright and exhilaration. It’s like a hike across the Chilkoot Trail: thirty-three miles over a three-thousand-seven-hundred-fifty-three-foot pass carrying a thirty-pound backpack and sleeping in the cold after tying your food up in a tree.
When I completed my manuscript, I immediately sent out a round of query letters to agents, utilizing tools designed to assist me in my search, like QueryTracker. So far, I have not elicited the attention of an agent.
Since January, I have sent thirty query letters, received one full manuscript request, seven rejections (two personalized), and the rest have been crickets. Not a bad showing, although yesterday when another rejection arrived, this one of my full manuscript, I resorted to dipping spoonsful of peanut butter into a bag of chocolate chips and stuffing them in my mouth.
Throughout this courtship process, I have rewritten or edited my query letter dozens of times. I participated in #PITMAD and began sending queries to small, independent presses that do not require agented submissions. I’ve written a respectable synopsis, am knee-deep in crafting a proposal, and attended numerous virtual writing events. Essentially, I am DIY-ing the sh*t out of this process.
But, I have yet to mention marketing, which is a whole other ‘opportunity’ for growth. In keeping with my hiking analogy: comparable to tackling the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trail.
Nevertheless, I will forge on and head back to the querying trenches, because, as I’ve made abundantly clear, I am a rule follower.
Candace Cahill is a silversmith, musician, storyteller, and writer who lives in Denali, Alaska. You can find her work at ThomasCahillDesigns.com and https://mysonlostagain.blogspot.com/. Her work has been published by Severance and she is currently pursuing publication of her memoir, Goodbye Again.
May 10, 2021 § 9 Comments
With summer around the corner, the Brevity staff slips out to the deck and into our summer schedule of waterskiing, forest hikes, and celebrating our vaccination status around the campfire. A new issue of Brevity comes out next week—you’ll love the beautiful essays and thoughtful craft pieces. Start making that summer reading list from Brevity book reviews (and please do drop your own reviews on Amazon and Goodreads of the new books you’re reading.) And stay tuned as well for announcements regarding our greatly expanded “Teaching Brevity” section of the website!
We’ll still be posting to the Brevity blog, on a slightly more relaxed schedule, and we’ll keep reading blog submissions at a summery pace. In June we’ll be rolling out a new feature—biweekly writer advice!—and we’ll be calling soon for your writing, editorial and publishing conundrums.
Meanwhile, tell us what you hope for from the Brevity blog. What pieces have stuck with you, and what do you want to see more of? Essay pitching tips, querying or submissions advice, writer’s life, journal reviews, writing craft, exercises to try yourself or teach? What haven’t you seen that you’d love to read on Brevity?
We’re so thankful to be sharing a writerly summer with you, beautiful readers. Let us know what else we should share. We’ll be on our inflatable pool loungers (Dinty’s floating on a wise giraffe, Allison’s on a toothy alligator, of course), ready to hear your thoughts. Swim up and join us.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor
May 10, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Cheryl Achterberg
I wanted to learn to write memoir, specifically, how to end a memoir. Some say you must read to write. So, I read 50 memoirs with a few questions in mind. If a memoir is a fragment of a person’s life, is every memoir time-bound? How long might that time be? May I write about a long relationship that cuts across a lifetime, but is not in itself my whole life? Is that fragmentary enough? Does it make a difference if the narrator is a young adult or an older adult? According to C. S. Lakin, a memoir ends when “you’ve arrived,” but is that always obvious? What are the tropes in memoir, both good and bad?
It took two years to read a set of 50 memoirs. There are, of course, books about how to write memoir as well as webinars, blogs, and magazine articles. I’ve read many of those books and taken many of those webinars in the last two years as well. But they didn’t address my central question—how to end a memoir? Romances and mysteries have lists of do/don’t instructions. Why not memoirs?
My sample set was based on availability, a list of the 50 best memoirs in the last 50 years from the NY Times, and a specific interest in Alzheimer’s Disease. The COVID lockdown interfered with acquisition. Books were treated as if radioactive at my local library. The place was closed for months. Eventually, I could order books, but many had to be obtained from other libraries across the state. Browsing shelves was not an option.
I read the set of 50 books. Two-thirds were by women. Almost half (N=21) were written in the last five years (2015-2020) and ten were published in the 1990s. Most of the older ones are classics in the memoir genre, for instance, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and The Color of Water by James McBride. Six were by authors of color, two were LGBTQ. I generally avoided travel memoirs and celebrities except for Michael J. Fox’s latest. His No Time Like the Future is a model of story construction. Some memoirs are narrative masterpieces (e.g., Bauby, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell). Some are so memorable you will never forget them (e.g., Educated by Tara Westover). Here’s what I learned.
Memoirs deal with serious subject matter. In my set of 50, more endings dealt with death than any other topic. Five deaths were either patients the narrator cared for (e.g., Magnusson’s Where Memories Go) or the narrator’s directly, (e.g., Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face). Another eight were about coming to terms with one’s own mortality (e.g., Saunder’s Memory’s Last Breath) or the death of a parent, child, or loved one (e.g., Tretheway’s Memorial Drive).
Memoirs address humanity’s biggest emotional questions. Beyond death, the second largest ending category was resolving relationship problems including prodigal son/daughter themes (e.g., Karr, Cherry), understanding parents/seeing truth (e.g., Laymon, Heavy), escaping a bad marriage (Gee, Higher Education, Marijuana in the Mansion) or resolving sexual identity and marital relationships (e.g., Glennon Doyle’s Untamed). Some confront grief (e.g., Before I Forget by B. Smith and Dan Gasby).
Meeting goals and challenges are prominent in endings. I defined a goal as something freely chosen such as Nita Sweeney setting out to run a marathon in Depression Hates a Moving Target. A challenge was an unplanned or unsettling event the narrator had to overcome as in Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight. Together memoirs about goals and challenges accounted for 16 of the 50 memoirs I read. They show hope is justified, things can get better, and people can recover from setbacks. Rarely is failure ever documented (my sole example is Grann, The White Darkness).
Coming of age stories are represented but NOT dominant among memoirs. This finding was contrary to my expectations because I thought if there is a trope in memoir, coming of age would be it. There were six entries in my sample that recounted youth and adolescence ending in college entry, marriage, or moving. They might be called traditional or archetypic female narratives. However, both men (e.g., Wolff, The Boy’s Life) and women (e.g., Murray, Breaking Night) writers were represented in this set.
I did not find the proverbial tropes in memoir. There were no rags to riches stories nor were there any helpless female fatales. Neither did I find a standard timeline—a book might cover weeks or years or even a lifetime—so long as the “fragment” of a life was narrowed to a puzzling relationship, a question to be resolved, or challenge to be surmounted. Paula Balzer advises that memoirists should write with the end in sight. That may not be possible if self-discovery occurs in the process of the author’s writing. Besides, some things really are unending. A writer may learn that only by writing. As Lilly Dancyger noted, you can’t pretend your issue is “neatly resolved when it’s not.” And sometimes, that may be the point.
I learned there are no magic formulas, but memoirs are not about time. That finding answered my central question. Memoir endings can land anywhere and be anything if they carry a meaning. The memoirist should just write without worrying about the ending. The more important issue is what does the writing have to teach and share with yourself, other people, and the world at large. That’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Cheryl Achterberg is a blogger, caregiver, mother, retired academic and dog lover in Columbus, Ohio. She is working on a memoir. See cherylachterberg.net.
May 7, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Anri Wheeler
I cringe at the term “mom writer.” I am a writer who is also a mother.
“Two more minutes!” yelled frequently, doesn’t break my flow. Sometimes it lubricates it.
When I can, I write at a library. I work for a university, thus have access to an embarrassment of library options. I have one for cranking when I’ve procrastinated, one for early stage ideating when I want to stare out a window, and one for when I don’t want to see anyone I know.
I reject “show, don’t tell.” So much of my culture has been passed down through telling. I’ve been socialized—as a woman, an Asian American, a mother—to put others first. I am the keeper of stories ripe for the telling. I must open my mouth wide and unload all the things I’ve been holding.
I am not a sit on the floor and play mom. I tried it. I stayed home, joined a mommy group, went to the baby music class. Each time the teacher called me “mom,” it felt jarring. I’d disappeared into a blanket identity. Then I registered for a writing class at a continuing ed school and was reminded of what 8-year-old me already knew: I want to be a writer when I grow up.
I find an amazing writing school four subway stops from home. I join a supportive community that knows me as writer first, mother only when I choose. On the creaky fifth floor above a piano dealer, I carve out space for my creative process. No more “I’ll do it once she’s…” For there will always be another milestone to finish that sentence.
I pay other women to watch my children so I can write about the ways birthing rips you open; how some parts can’t be so easily stitched back together. I don’t have time to consider the irony of this, I am on the clock and need to make the most of my freedom.
“Mommy, can you read to me?” is the hardest question to say no to.
My girls find the gummy bears I hide in my desk. It was a rookie mistake, keeping them next to the postage stamps. I laugh and tell them they’ve aced a crucial part of the creative process: motivational snacks.
The pandemic hits, libraries close. I sit at my desk, trying to keep the door shut to the rest of the house. But I can still hear them. Just like in those early days when the slightest cry from the crib would have me on my feet, I am attuned to their jostling. I cannot block out the fighting and crying. I cover my ears, but then I can’t type. I type, but I can’t focus on my words, I sense them moving around below me.
My fifth grader’s English class participates in NaNoWriMo. She writes 6000 words about a cheerleader who lives in Malibu. The cheerleader is blonde, like my daughter, and biracial with a Japanese mother, like me. That November, she writes more than me. I am in a dry spell, the rejections relentless. My daughter’s story is carefree exposition, I am jealous of its ease.
I bake a grapefruit cake. It is a snow day and the girls help weigh the flour and whip the glaze. I hope they feel my love baked between the slivers of zest dotting the cake, as my Zoom meetings last through dinner and dessert. By the time I cut myself a piece, the girls are asleep. It tastes bitter and sweet. I eat alone in the dark kitchen, reminded that grapefruits are my mother’s favorite fruit.
“Can you floss me?” “Are you on a call?” “It’s been over two minutes!” constantly pull me out of the worlds I am building.
I wonder whether landing an agent, selling my book, grasping its hardbound spine that represents the culmination of hundreds of missed dinners and bedtimes and afternoons helping with homework or laughing over hot chocolate, will be worth it. I know this is not a fair equation. I ponder it anyway, as I try to get just one more paragraph written before rushing to kiss them goodnight.
My pandemic escape fantasies grow ever more elaborate. I pause mid-sentence to text a girlfriend, “Is it Friday yet?” or “Hawaii. I’m packing now. See you there.” And yet the most exquisite fantasy is still the corner desk on the ground floor of the library. The one with enforced silence. I will savor the pastries I smuggle in, as food, too, is forbidden. Every once in a while I will look up to see the orange cat who lurks around campus has found his way into the library again.
One of the best moments of my 40th birthday was when my 10-year-old daughter said, “I’m so proud of you, Mommy. I can’t wait to read your book.”
The words I write are precious because they are part of a conscious choice to put me first. They are scraped out of my brain, at capacity with all of the monotonous details of parenthood. The urgency I feel is also that of wanting to show them I can do this thing called writing while holding down my day job and mothering them too. That even if they are the only ones to read it, all of this was not in vain.
Sometimes a list essay is all I have time for, composed in the fragments of time between all the other things. I still need to consider its arc, but less so as compared to other pieces. Or, maybe more so.
To my three strong daughters, I am a mother who is also a writer, and that’s okay too. Their stories, their narrative.
I’ve given up on my door ever staying closed.
Anri Wheeler is a biracial writer, diversity, equity, and inclusion educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and mother to three strong daughters. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program and VONA. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, Cognosenti, Hippocampus, Pangyrus, and others. More at anriwheeler.com.
May 6, 2021 § 20 Comments
My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.
I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.
Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.
Sources I recommend:
Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.
The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!
While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.
Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.
Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.
Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)
Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.
It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.
The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)
The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.
The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.
Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.
People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.
You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).
Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.
Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.