Let’s Be Bored!

June 22, 2017 § 14 Comments

The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.

I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”

As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.

On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:

Used payphones.

Bummed change for payphones.

Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.

Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.

Got lost.

Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.

Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.

Looked out the window.

Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.

Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.

Read ads and billboards and posters.

Figured out train and bus timetables.

Asked strangers for directions.

Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.

Whistled or waved for taxis.

In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.

I need to be bored.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.

 

The Perfect Writing Conference Scholarship Essay

June 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Sara Goudarzi shares her decidedly brilliant application letter:

zz Goudarzi

Dear Tonawanda Writers Conference application committee,

I’d like to be considered for a writing fellowship to attend the 17th annual TWC this summer. I’m currently polishing my novel, which I’ve been working on for as long as your conference has been running, maybe longer. That’s just one example of how dedicated I am to my craft.

My literary speculative crime novel tells the story of a suburban man searching for his missing wife. Soon he realizes that he’s hunting for more than just his partner but also for their pet hamster that’s gone rogue. As he journeys through the subway stations of New York City looking for the fetid rodent, he comes across his wife’s hooker sister (who in a twist turns out to be the protagonist’s aunt) and saves her from playing the ukulele in a boho dress for money at Union Square. In the process of journeying through a hidden underworld he collides with a psychic cat and an orange-haired thief out to kill him and embezzle money from the U.S. Department of Treasury. Will Josh be able to use his time traveling superpowers to find Fluffenuget, save his marriage and avoid the downfall of the nation’s economy?

I think your committee has the vision to understand the uniqueness of my narrative written in the style of Raymond Carver—with whom, according to ancestry.com, I share two percent DNA and whose third cousin’s grandson I hung out with and chatted craft for a couple of days—unlike all those “literary” agents who are ignoring me. They’ll be sorry, believe me. Especially when I land that seven-figure book deal and M. Night Shyamalan turns Marmota Annals into a movie.

Giving me this scholarship could, actually will, put your conference on the literary map (let’s face it, you’re not exactly Bread Loaf). And if you don’t, you’ll be haunted by guilt for all your days after I win all the literary prizes. This is Pulitzer, Man Booker material. All I need is someone to realize it and to help me with edits, which you can do. In fact, I’ll be happy to just email the opening 450 or so pages to you for some light revision, maybe some structural work and you’ll see, it’ll blow you away like the kite in The Kite Runner—see what I did there? That’s the kind of clever wordplay you’ll find in my MS.

So please consider giving me the fellowship and don’t be like all those dumbasses that passed on signing The Beatles. Marmota Annals could be your I Want to Hold Your Hand. 

Thank you,

Sara

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Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and editor. Born in Tehran, she was raised in Iran, Kenya and the U.S. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, The Adirondack Review, The Globe and Mail and Drunken Boat and featured in an upcoming poetry anthology. Sara is the author of Amazing Animals and four other titles from Scholastic Inc. She recently completed her first novel and is at work on a second.

Social Media Summer Cleaning

June 20, 2017 § 13 Comments

I did another self-funded mini-Amtrak residency last week. One of the best parts of the train is inconsistent/slow wifi and poor cell reception. I spend a lot of time looking out the window and thinking thinky thoughts. Another best part is shared tables–Amtrak seats strangers together until a dining car table is full. And usually, that’s pretty awesome.

Last week, the man beside me began dinner conversation by passing out scraps of paper with his name and “bn.com” so we’d know where to download his books. Give the man credit–he was of an age that paper media was probably a more comfortable way to connect than whipping out a smartphone and asking for our Twitter handles. Unfortunately, he also brought up a strong political position over the salad course, at which the lady across the table joined me in a chorus of, “Oh, we never talk politics with strangers!”

Maybe because the day before I’d heard a strong political position from my beloved hairdresser that made me rethink whether the terrific face-framing layers were worth it, or because that morning I’d gotten into a tussle with a stranger on Facebook, it hit me pretty hard to hear another diatribe in a place I thought was safe.

As writers, we’re “supposed” to “build platform.” Get to know people in our field, online and off. We tend to accept most friend requests, join most groups that seem vaguely simpatico, check what’s happening online like it’s a duty instead of a way to duck writing a tricky sentence (guilty!). Until November 2016, this all-access plan was mostly good. Since then, I’ve found a lot of my social media time feels like running through a paintball game.

Click–Bam! Racism!

Click–Pow! Horrible event I care about! Where’s my senator’s number?

Click–Zap! Surprise bigot in the comments!

Maybe you’re feeling some of this, too. And as the Social Media Editor around here, I want to give you permission (nay, encouragement!) for a good summer clean-out. Look through your Facebook friends–anyone you truly don’t remember? You don’t have to unfriend them, just unfollow. (For a more gradual process, check the birthday notifications. Anyone you don’t care enough to wish a happy day to can probably be unfollowed.) If nastiness pops up on a friend’s feed, block the source and you won’t see them any more. Every time you see something awful on Twitter (that isn’t a citizen’s duty to be aware of) mute that account.

What kind of social connections do you want to be making? What idea exchanges do you want to have? Instead of waiting for the sore spots to get poked, take ownership. Pick one day a week or one time a day to participate. Decide what topics you care enough to engage on and let everything else go–even if you have the BEST FACT EVER to refute with. Start a newsletter (Tiny Letter is pretty easy) so that it’s you reaching out when you choose, and people who email you back are likely into what you have to say. Remember social media as a place to have fun, and share silly memes, make jokes, and express your personal voice about your garden, your dog, or your writing process.

When I got into the train dining car the next morning, I saw the male author headed my way, and I whispered into the hostess’ ear that I’d rather not sit with him, please. She put me at a table with a couple. I asked them where they were from. “Seattle!” chirped the woman. We talked about Broadway musicals and mime and their children and my husband, and I didn’t once bring up my book.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shhhhhhhh…

A Story for the Taking

June 19, 2017 § 17 Comments

Ksiddell

By Kathleen Siddell

You try but it’s not quite right.

You try again.

And again. You feel like it’s almost right but not quite.

It doesn’t feel difficult. At first, it’s fun. You delete a word here, add a different phrase there. You cut and paste and cut and paste whole paragraphs. You like puzzling a story together. You like how suddenly the image will emerge.

Unless it doesn’t.

Then you work slowly and deliberately. You force sentences together because they seem like they should go together. When you step back, you know something is wrong. The picture is unclear, fuzzy, or distorted. You move sentences around some more but they all seem like the same shade of blue. Dull and obvious. Writing is no longer fun.

 So you stop.

You try a different angle. You scroll down. Hit return over and over and over. In the endless white space, you start again, this time with the reds, splashing new ideas onto the page to see what splatters.

A mess.

You clean it up. Backspace.

Back in the white space. This time it feels empty and hopeless. Still, you try.

You find inspiration in black and white with someone else’s name on the cover, someone smarter, more talented. Someone who is not you. You read and read and get lost. You forget who is who and remember only the words. The words are more important than the names. The picture more important than the pieces.

You believe this so, you try again. You try while you drive to work, chewing words like gum to see what will stick and what must be spit out. You write a phrase on the scrap of paper you found in your purse at the red light. There is a stain on the paper but the words don’t care.

When the words start to drain from your fingertips, you vow not to stop. You will not stop to look at the picture you are forming.

Until you do.

It’s not so bad. You take a step back. You think more critically. Maybe it is so bad. The page is filled. Maybe this is all that matters. But you know it’s not. A page can be so full, it blurs grey.

But this page is clear. Black and white letters you hope will read in color.

You’re not sure, so you try again. You try and believe, try and believe, and somewhere in the cycle, you believe you have formed a picture that tells a story. You believe you have created depth without sacrificing clarity.

You stop and submit because you forgot it doesn’t matter if anyone sees what you’ve done.

But you don’t really believe that. Why else would you spend your time agonizing over all these letters? You forget that you write because you can’t not.

“Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed by the quality of submissions.”

An opposite of submission is resistance. There is a resistance between the story you want to tell and the story you have told. But was it almost good enough? How much resistance is there? You’ll never know.

But maybe you do know.

Because you keep trying and believing.

You believe the picture is one people might like. You remember it doesn’t matter if people like it. You ask yourself if you like it.

You do.

But you’d like it more if other people also liked it. Because part of what drives your fingers to the keyboard is other people.

Why is that?

Why does it matter? You know you keep saying it doesn’t when really it does. You feel resistance between what you say and how you feel.

You try to release this tension onto the page; the page that is black and white and full of color.

You don’t know if they’ll see what you see. Maybe it was never really your story in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t your story but A story. Their story. The story. But here it is.

For the taking.

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Kathleen Siddell is a sometimes writer and high school teacher. She, her husband, and their two boys have spent the past 4 years living in Asia. You can find her essays on The Washington Post, Mamalode, The Write Life and elsewhere.

A Review of Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

June 16, 2017 § 3 Comments

Abandon Me jacket artBy Sierra Dickey

Living as a blend of Native American, Puerto Rican, gay, and European, Melissa Febos knows that the chance to tell her story is a hard-won privilege. The identity she deconstructs in her latest memoir is built on proximity, history, and the behaviors residing in her blood. By holding her patchwork nature in focus, Febos honors the silent ancestors that make her life a “very American story.” Abandon Me is an inventory of what she was given, what she has made of it, and, somewhat necessarily, what her inventions have made of the others in her story.

With this work, Febos has engineered a new shape for memoir, a feat she is well-positioned to accomplish. Her 2010 debut Whip Smart details her four years as a college student and dominatrix. Since 2010, she has written articles and spoken against “memoir-bashing,” and argued in favor of “expressive writing” and writing on trauma as worthy of readers and their high praise.

There are eight “memoirs” in this book. The first seven are brief and launched by intimate markers like names, tattoos, and hickies. They blend commonplace anchors and author revelation in expertly measured portions.

The eighth memoir breaks from the cadence and structure of the previous seven. One hundred and fifty-plus pages long, this essay considers the end of a tragic love story that had been taking place in flashes throughout the seven prior essays. By peppering the central event through the first seven pieces, Abandon Me becomes more like an album than a book.

Her structure delivers an autobiography told through familial and romantic attachments. The central event, an affair with a married woman named Amaia and its dissolution, is treated as Febos’ most epic relationship to date. We meet Amaia on page two: “I carried a story of my own into that room, but her voice silenced everything in me.”  Readers witness their love from preamble to desertion. Febos no doubt is changed by the affair (“I had to be destroyed to become something else”), but what of Amaia and the others in her life?

A bisexual woman with feminist politics, Febos orchestrates an uncanny negation of Amaia’s spurned wife. Nowhere in Abandon Me is she referred to by name. Only as “the wife” and never as “her wife.” Does Febos wish to make her into an archetype? An obstructing object? Febos also uses a title instead of a name for her adoptive father in the book: “the sea captain” or “my captain.”

I enjoy when authors of nonfiction treat their experiences with the focus and relish of storybooks. Chloe Caldwell made Women a novella and Wendy C. Ortiz used only initials for her L.A comrades in Hollywood Notebook. I acknowledge too that names are often changed or withheld to protect privacy. Yet I felt that the “storybookish” names Febos gives to those implicated in her histories put them within or beyond the range of agency. The sea captain may be in, but the wife is out. This is allowed in memoir, the form that gives ultimate license to the authorial “I” and all of its insertions and deletions.

However, this choice seems to contradict Febos’ stated mission with memoir: to do “the heart-work.” As she writes in Abandon Me, “In writing, I find the tender spot and start to push, to peel, to name.” There is plenty of pushing and peeling in this work, but along with powerful naming––“my captain” and “my beloved”––there is some obscuring too.

Febos’ tendency to obscure while purporting to illuminate made me restless as I consumed Abandon Me. Beyond renaming characters, she sometimes wraps her thoughts in circular constructions: “I wanted it to work. I wanted the work of it to earn me what I wanted.” To my reading, this does the opposite of unspooling. The repeated “wants” and “works” chase their own tails. But even as this kind of prose frustrates me, I’m stalled by the wisdom in her retellings. I’ve been a lover desperate to make it “work,” and I’ve been one that believed, stubbornly, that more “work” would redeem a dying relationship.

Dizzying repetitions aside, Febos is at her best with words that drive her narrative, such as Abandon Me’s beginning: “We had no television, no god, no family less than a day’s drive away, but we had stories.”
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Sierra Dickey is a writer and farmworker living in Brattleboro, Vermont. Ping her on Twitter @DierraSickey.

The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

June 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Gentle Readers, you may have noticed our Brevity Editor-in-Chief’s new book, The Story Cure. Perhaps you’ve even been moved to hop over to Amazon or pop in to your favorite indie bookstore to pick it up. Or maybe you’re still wondering, what the heck is this book all about?

Over at HuffPo, “certified writing geek” Stephanie M. Vanderslice has the dish.

What I appreciated most was Moore’s personal take on the most essential elements of the major prose project: the primal story or the problem of the heart, and the invisible magnetic river. The problem of the heart is the primal element of the story, the human current that runs deep within its core that pulls the reader in and makes them care about it, makes them unwilling to put it down. The invisible magic river is, likewise, the current that carries this story and that every single element of the work—”word, element, scenes, snippets of dialogue, reflection,” should be drawn toward.

Vanderslice and Moore talk about keeping the focus on the reader, and the advice Dinty W. Moore now would give his younger writer self. Her interview is a fast, thoughtful read–check out the whole conversation here.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast.

Finding Your Writing Fix in Online Classes

June 14, 2017 § 10 Comments

x rae_mosaicBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ll admit it — I’m a little bit of a conference junkie. I love using writing as an excuse to go places and meet people and yes, take a little time off work. I go every year, without fail, to Hippocamp, situated right in the middle of charming Lancaster (and filled to the brim with other CNF lovers like me), as well as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a small–but–mighty conference that lets poets take over Salem for a weekend of words and witching. So earlier this year, when I first learned about the Iota Conference, where Penny Guisinger has been hosting weekends of writing on the beautiful and scenic coast of Maine each summer. I was instantly wooed. I cyber-stalked the Iota website, trying desperately to come up with ways my hectic schedule might allow for it, but no matter how many things I rearranged, I couldn’t make time with a brand new job and several other immovable commitments to contend with.

Right around the time I was seriously considering having some of my organs harvested so I could afford a last–minute trip to Iceland for NonfictioNOW (be careful not to search for the conference attendees’ posts on social media — you’ll die of jealousy), I saw that Iota was starting a new online component. I could get my fix with a short class about an interesting topic, AND I could stop researching the value of a black-market spleen? It was a no–brainer.

The key to success in online learning lies between two things that are notoriously hard to control — technology and humans. Without easily navigable technology that makes logging in, communicating, and accessing resources simple and intuitive, as well as a group of people who are dedicated to remaining engaged — posting in the discussion boards, responding to their classmates’ questions, ideally paying attention to the class for more than an hour per week — you’ve got little more than a good idea and a WiFi connection. Thankfully, the class I decided to take from Iota Online had both. For four weeks, myself and nine other writers dove into Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction with Penny.

Each week, Penny posted a link to a YouTube video lecture and uploaded a handful of readings that supported the week’s focus. For a short course, it was comprehensive — we looked at the form itself and what was possible within it, and discussed situation, story, scenes, revision, and the senses. After reading the pieces each week, we discussed them, argued about their merits, and sang their praises. The discussions could have landed flatly, after each person uploaded their paragraph-long summary. But our instructor, even from afar, was able to be diligent about challenging us, asking questions, and suggesting additional readings or craft articles. It kept the conversation moving, and it kept me from mentally logging out of the course site after my “assignment” was done. I wanted to keep talking, and debating, and finding new authors to obsess over. The interactions I had on that message board mimicked the ones I craved as a conference junkie, but were somehow better. Here, I could debate the finer points of sensory detail and sentence structure with a New England psychologist, a Midwestern academic, a European expat artist, and a Canadian freelancer — and no one would know if I wasn’t wearing any pants.

At first, I was afraid that I would have trouble finding things to write about. I tend to be a tad long-winded when it comes to my CNF (which is why I was drawn to this course in the first place). What if I couldn’t rein myself in enough to keep it under 1,000 words? But by reading a TON of great flash CNF, I started to process my thoughts in short, vivid bursts, looking for brief but undeniably rich moments where before, I might have seen pages of exposition. Stories that seemed impossible to tame (too much backstory! all that context!) suddenly boiled down to handful of telling moments — watching a movie with a crush, looking for Christmas lights in a dingy basement, shoveling snow on a Saturday. With feedback from my generous classmates, and personalized feedback from Penny, I kept honing those brief moments of light and color into what they were meant to be — flashes.

Writing itself is the ideal activity for distance learning. Diverse opinions from new writers and readers are what make my work stronger. But it’s not always feasible to take a week off work and travel to a conference or residency. Online writing classes do the hard work for me — they collect individuals who are passionate about writing and share an interest in learning this new thing (scene work, dialogue, speculation, character development, whatever), and create a space where we can gather. Interestingly, having all our feedback posted publicly seemed to encourage my classmates and I to dig deeper with each subsequent week. By reviewing each other’s insights on a single person’s work, we could agree on an excellent point, and more importantly, offer unique insights that would complement what had already been addressed.

In a somewhat surprising way, I was able to access this jolt of creativity and energy — the kind I usually only find at conferences — without leaving home. At moments when I craved a change of scenery, I committed to completing my Iota classwork at a coffee shop or collective work space, where I felt able to focus completely without worrying about the laundry, or the bills on the table, or the many, many teen dramas I have yet to binge on Netflix.

Maybe it was poetically appropriate for a flash CNF class to be brief, but it was clear that by the end of our four-week class, my colleagues and I had barely scratched the surface, and better yet, we’d all gained this new toy that we wanted to keep playing with. In the end, I was left with pieces of writing that made me more excited than I’d been since I finished my MFA thesis. I couldn’t wait to get them out into the world. So far, they’ve been to a couple of readings, been submitted to a handful of online magazines, and helped me gain admission into – you guessed it – a writing conference.

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** Iota’s upcoming classes are now open for registration.
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Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as an editor for online magazines, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

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