September 26, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Writers have peculiar behaviors, one of which is sitting alone day after day, month after month laboring over a notebook or keyboard, hoping that what we create in private will ultimately be enjoyed in public. We embrace the contradiction that writing is an act of solitude, but also a social one.
But this contradiction is not without it challenges, as evidenced by how often jarring it is to pull ourselves from the world we make on the page (even if it is nonfiction) to go about the reality of our day. More so, by how anxiety-producing it can be for the writer to move from the private act of writing to the performance of publication. Real time living hardly affords the control or revision of writing, and many writers agree that the months leading up to publication can be nerve-racking.
As someone for whom anxiety is a natural state—I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, OCD, and PTSD more than a decade ago—the marketing process for my book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir proved more difficult than the writing process. I’d assumed that reliving my experiences with mental illness in order to write the book would be taxing, but the thought of marketing made me experience panic attacks and the general feeling that I was being crushed under the weight of my fragile writer ego.
I don’t exaggerate! I saw things, heard things. I counted, doublechecked, twitched. Felt organs sputter inside. In sleep, I ground holes in the mouthguard designed to prevent such grinding. Being “forthcoming” was not exciting. It was miserable. Marketing proved maddening, for as a human I prefer to go unnoticed, a quiet observer made fierce by the solitude of the page, but as writers, we want to be seen.
Hallucinations aside, I am not alone: many writers have reflected on the difficulties of marketing, the challenges that come from asking for attention in a world saturated with selfies and side hustles, the guilt we feel over demanding individual praise when the world seems to be collectively falling apart. I’ve witnessed writers judge others for posting too frequently about themselves, asking them to purchase a book, or simply sharing good news. “Shameless self-promotion” begins most social media posts as a result, an apology that sets the tone for how readers engage with the content. We require, it seems, both humility and humiliation of writers if we are to reward them with a ‘like’ much less the purchase of their latest project.
Once, I was hosting a dinner party for a dozen writers when news broke that a lovely absent friend had secured a two-book deal. Within moments the atmosphere changed from one of merlot’d merriment to acrimony, and most of the table never forgave the writer for their success. It is no wonder writers pause before sharing reviews or media mentions, feel such self-doubt and shame for hoping others will celebrate their accomplishments.
At this same dinner, however, my cat spied a toy mouse on the floor, meandered over and began yowling victory as though a brutal battle had ensued, a bold albeit lazy performance that prompted delight from guests. Years later, I still wonder why our friend’s literary accomplishments seemed suspect while a housecat’s guttural gloating was cause for applause.
There is much practical advice about marketing—don’t dwell on reviews if you are lucky enough to receive them, try to work on new writing but don’t be disappointed when this is difficult or impossible, remember that “book tour” is code for awkward writers, small crowds, and strange questions that aren’t really questions. For me, however, the best strategy leading up to publication was not marketing myself, but supporting other writers, many whom were also in a forthcoming frenzy. This allowed me to engage with the literary community in ways that were sustaining rather than suspicious, and to foster connections with people who love words rather than wondering why family members I’ve never witnessed reading weren’t eager to talk about my writing. Most important, championing good work helped me remember why I love writing and writers in the first place.
I am a patient, enthusiast, forgiving reader. (I may be a better reader than person.) When I find a piece I love, I read it again and again until the muscles in my face have memorized the movement. I read it aloud, often with waving hands, to anyone who will listen. I geek out, students held hostage by my syllabus, or my partner, who cooks dinner while I pace the kitchen ranting about the best metaphor ever before finding another best
I fall hard for writers, reading everything they’ve written, swooning over their language, acquiring extra copies to fling at others like it’s December and I’m hosting my own Favorite Things episode. And yes, like anyone in love, I send mushy messages to writers I admire, though I try to keep the XOs to myself. When I encourage students to contact writers they love, they return to class shocked, whispering, “They actually wrote back.”
The first email I received from a reader about Quite Mad made me catch my breath. I was in the midst of months of mental illness setbacks, uncertain when or if they would end, gasping and heaving, existing beyond going to work and returning home seemingly impossible. I was seeing and hearing things, experiencing panic attacks for several hours each day, convinced a piece of ice was a shard of glass that had slit me belly to bowel on the way down, or that I’d drunk bleach, or that a vein was about to burst. I could not bear to exist in the cage of my body let alone think about marketing my broken self to others. Who would want to read a story about a skittish, frightened brain, a woman so afraid she could not look in the mirror without panicking?
The reader was writing, she explained, because she felt the same, because my book about panic and compulsion and trauma made her feel normal for once and less alone. And suddenly so did I—the private had become public and I had not died or caught fire or shriveled like a tuber into the earth or all the other terrible things anxiety convinces us will happen if we prove fallible.
My mental illness did not disappear with this small praise, just as the release of my book has not quelled it, but this kindness reminded me of the importance of small literary acts—an email to a writer, sharing a beautiful line with others, buying books, gifting books, teaching books.
The way I see it, we have two choices: We can ruin the dinner party by dismissing well-deserved accomplishments (either those of others, but more often than not, our own), or we can yowl. Writing an essay or poem or story, or hell, a whole book, is much more demanding than rolling over and spotting a faux mouse, yet we hesitate to celebrate.
If you are still too shy to yowl for yourself, yowl for others, and know that lovers of words will be happy to yowl for yours.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery
September 25, 2018 § Leave a comment
In this flash essay in Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Austyn Gaffney considers the risks taken in mountain-climbing and weighs how to balance independence and connection in love.
Here’s an excerpt from Gaffney’s essay:
Scrambling up a mountain peak never fails to crack me open. I become scared of slick stones and the vast space between the matter up here and the matter down there. Wind makes the whiskers around my temples stand on end. My knuckles are clouds when I peer over the edge into the Bow River Valley. I hunker beneath the windbreak of boulders, cradling my bowstring of a body while I chew on peanut butter and jelly, on freezer-burned chocolate, on how cold it is to sit up top alone.
Read the complete essay in our new issue.
September 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
In Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Steven Schwartz finds his breathless way through a haze of distraction during a short meditation to discover the meaning of dhyana, or keen awareness, when he least expected it.
Here’s an excerpt from Schwartz’s fine flash essay:
…and I was so fully into detailing this imbroglio with the uncongenial barkeep that steam could have been coming out of my ears, and I had to think, Whoa, I’m meditating here! and get back to my breath, which had of course become rapid with anticipatory rage as I conjured a scenario along the lines of Kill Bill…
Read the rest in our new issue.
September 21, 2018 § 1 Comment
In her craft essay in Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Beth Kephart considers the ways that another artist’s work—her husband’s painting and photographs, to be specific—helped her see more clearly and further into her own writing. She explains the ways another’s art can inform how the writer sees what her words are trying to describe and then can better describe.
Here is an excerpt from the essay:
You don’t have to live with an artist to experience the shattering of another artist’s vision. You only have to want the dialogue. You have to want to take the work of others as seriously as you take your own, value others as you value yourself, give time to extensions and tangents. You have to allow for different possibilities. You have to look for and then absorb that song, that canvas, that garden as if it were the thing you made, or the thing you might have made, or the thing that might teach you about what you are making. Five minutes. Five sentences. Find your true story in a perfect stranger’s art.
Read the entire essay in our new issue.
September 20, 2018 § Leave a comment
In Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Peggy Duffy confronts the sometimes painful, sometimes profound, and often long process of dying as mother moves in and out of consciousness during her last days of life.
An excerpt from Duffy’s poignant essay follows:
At her scheduled visit, the weekday hospice nurse will not commit to the couple of days the weekend nurse predicted. Vitals are better. In hospice language, my mother has rallied. She lies on her back in a semi-conscious state, blanket tucked under her armpits, raising and lowering one arm in a slow, gentle rhythm, as if conducting an orchestra in her sleep. My father lies on his bed, sneaker-clad feet propped on a pillow, interpreting each movement as a sign of recovery.
Read the rest in our new issue.
September 19, 2018 § 1 Comment
In the Craft Essay section of Brevity‘s September 2018 issue Elizabeth Robinson considers an array of non-linear patterns for writing an essay, because unfamiliar patterns “realign our attentions, create greater plasticity in our art-making, and drench us in unknowing.” Here’s an excerpt:
We read narrative obedient to the “upside-down checkmark” (tension, climax and resolution). The truth of it is so transparent that we need not evaluate, much less notice, it.
Despite that transparency, some of us are incapable of linearity. For us, linearity is a sin against the erotic chaos, the proliferating patterns of the world. Patterns. Pattern thinkers. Even to suggest it is to lapse into sentence fragments for us who see constellations instead of lines.
You can explore Robinson’s sampler of non-linear patterns here in Brevity Craft.
September 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
In Brevity’s September 2018 issue, John A. McDermott and his wife, frustrated with gymnastic positions and thermometers, Clomid and prayer, turn to the The Farmers’ Almanac for help with planting human seeds. Here’s an excerpt of McDermott’s flash essay:
There are days devoted to tasks we expected: canning; pruning; picking; hunting. There are days we didn’t: cutting hair to retard growth; cutting hair to increase growth; washing wooden floors; waxing floors; digging postholes and entertaining friends. There are best days to get married—in every month, lots of dates, no ominous NO GOOD DAYS here, folks—and there are days for castration (helpfully labeled castrate farm animals, spurring sighs of relief from wild animals and men alike), but no days to breed people. There are best days to write (but only a few days of each month) and best days to wash windows and quit smoking. There is guidance for fishermen, columns of adjacent pages, charts marked poor, fair, good, and best where poor told us beware those days the fish steal your bait or don’t even touch your line.
Read the rest in our new issue.