Writing is Revelation

July 27, 2016 § 12 Comments

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Marcia Krause Bilyk

By Marcia Krause Bilyk

I was a bright, curious, talkative child raised by a mother who couldn’t tolerate the noise and disruption of four young children. Mother withdrew into herself and her housework, leaving us alone to resolve our issues in the backyard or basement playroom. My older sister Cynthia, who knew I was afraid of the dark, would race up the basement stairs, flick off the overhead light and yell, “The wolves are going to get you, the wolves are going to get you.” I’d pound on the locked door and beg to be let out. One fall afternoon as we sat on the curb in front of a pile of burning leaves, Cynthia heated her play golf club in the embers and placed it on my knee, saying, “Let’s play cowboys and Indians.” I still bear the scar.

Dad was a narcissist, prone to exuberant exaggeration and unpredictable outbursts. Mother swore us to secrecy. We weren’t to speak about our family outside of our home. Growing up I watched my every word. I was so anxious, so self-conscious, I could barely speak. Who would want to listen to what I had to say? What if I misspoke? What if I revealed something I shouldn‘t?

Following a panic attack in my late twenties, I saw a therapist for the first time. I couldn’t look him in the eye. For months, I spoke into the mid-distance between my chair and the wall. Speaking the truth about my family felt like a punishable offense. I was filled with guilt and shame. Over time, long-forgotten secrets emerged. Each revelation freed up space for me to be.

Years later, at Drew Theological School, where I studied for a Masters of Divinity, I was introduced to the writings of the feminist theologian Nelle Morton. She spoke of women who were silenced by outside forces or by their own fear, who later reclaimed their power through the telling of their stories. “We empower one another,” she said, “by hearing the other to speech.”

In the small groups that I’ve led as a pastor, I’ve witnessed women come alive as we listened to their stories. I now experience the same phenomenon in writing classes as we read our work aloud. When I sit alone my keyboard, otherwise hidden parts of me make themselves known. I become more whole.

For me, writing is revelation, an act of disclosing what has not been known or seen before. The unknown is called from darkness into light. It’s an act of creation not unlike when God spoke the world into being.
____

Marcia Krause Bilyk is a photographer, writer, and ordained minister who lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three dogs.

Why the MFA Was the Right Choice for Me

July 26, 2016 § 6 Comments

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Jayme Russell

Jayme Russell adds another helpful perspective on the MFA as Calling Card discussion:

Although Emily Smith’s piece “The MFA as Calling Card” was posted weeks ago, I have still been thinking about it. I think Dinty W. Moore and Kevin Haworth addressed most of my concerns in their own posts about why students should consider fully funded and low residency programs. In all three of the posts, non-traditional students and students struggling financially were mentioned. I thought it might be pertinent to give the point of view of a non-traditional student who recently graduated with both an MA an MFA in creative writing.

My first day of as an undergraduate, I couldn’t walk through the classroom door. I was a twenty-year old single mom without a job, without financial support, and without any real direction. I walked back to my car and cried. The next day, I went back and walked into the classroom. I had no other choice. I didn’t want to go back to waitressing, which was the only job I could get in the small West Virginia town where I lived. It wasn’t a career I could stay in forever, and the paychecks did not cover my living expenses.

I naturally gravitated toward an English degree and flourished thanks to many wonderful professors. I scheduled my classes around my son’s preschool time. I studied for hours after he fell asleep. I got my BA and am very proud of that. I also got into debt. It was unavoidable for me. I had no support. No scholarships. No job. No job interviews. I couldn’t even get a job on campus. I had the choice between putting myself into a hard situation, going into debt, or do nothing at all.

Dinty briefly touches on the problems of the educational financial system when he says “Clearly, college tuition rates, state funding of education, and financial aid are all broken systems, not just for undergraduates but for graduate students as well.” However, none of the blog posts address the fact that undergraduate students with debt can use their time in graduate school to forbear loans a little longer, in order to gain more experience before going onto the job market. I used my time in graduate school not as a time to go further into debt but a time to help me get out of it.

Emily notes that she could either get an MFA or grope blindly. I did not feel like I had the choice to grope blindly, waiting to see if I got a job when I was getting absolutely no response to job applications. I was already “saturated” in debt and, as a recent graduate, had no job experience whatsoever. I had no experience. I decided to apply to MFA programs and MA programs in Creative Writing. They would allow me to write, which is what I wanted time to do, and teach, which I wanted to learn how to do.

I paid application fees. I paid for the GRE. I got into an MA creative writing program. I wanted a job. I wanted to have a flexible schedule, so I could spend as much time with my son as possible. I wanted to write. My MA gave me all of those things. In the end, I graduated with a better understanding of the world of academia and the world of writing. I graduated and was very proud of the work that I had completed. I planned to write and teach the following year. That didn’t happen.

I didn’t write. I was teaching, but for such a low wage that it was hard to get by. I was left anxiously wondering if I would have a job the next semester. By this time I loved teaching, yet the instability of the job made me so anxious that I could not continue as an adjunct. I applied to the MFA not for prestige, but for stability and freedom.

I got into an MFA program. I wrote more than I ever had before. Workshop gave me confidence, support, and feedback. After graduating, I finally had a few pieces accepted by print publications. My submissions still get rejected a lot, and I didn’t get on an automatic book or academic job. The MFA didn’t solve my problems, but it taught me to be a better writer, it introduced me to a diverse cohort of writers, gave me two university jobs, and helped me to get the position that I hold now. I don’t make an extremely large amount of money, but I am slowly paying off my student loan debt. It feels almost insurmountable at times, but I still made the right decision to pursue these degrees.

That is not to say that I haven’t felt shut down as a young female writer in certain writing environments. I have. I think it is important to note that in Emily’s original post she related an incident in which an older male writer did not continue a conversation because she was simply seeking her BFA and not an MFA. I’m not sure why this particular writer was so rude, but Emily’s age and gender made me think that more was happening than she expressed. When people are not taken seriously, it is so often as much about gender, age, race, sexuality, etc. as qualifications.

I’ve seen students not taken seriously by other students, teachers, and visiting writers for so many reasons. A female writer friend of mine was told in workshop that her sentences were too simple. Also, she needed to write literary fiction, not young adult novels. At times, I feel as though I personally haven’t been taken seriously because of my gender and age. As a woman writing about violence, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write about certain subjects. I’ve received the written comments: “You don’t know what you are talking about.” I’ve also been laughed at by a visiting writer for expressing my interest in obtaining a career in academia. Most, but not all, of these things have been said and done by white male students. This is a problem that is constantly being battled against in the literary world, and elsewhere.

The truth is that not everyone you will meet in the (writing) world wants to help and support you. There is competition. Not everyone will take time to talk to you about your work. Not everyone has the best advice, or constructive criticism, or patience, or kindness. Some do.

For me, getting three degrees and continuing to write, even when it is hard, has been so rewarding. It has made me the person I am now. I am educated. I am willing to stand up for my own thoughts. My financial situation and the negativity of others have not stopped me from doing what I have wanted and needed to do. However, my hard work is not over. I have a BA, an MA, and an MFA, but no calling card.

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Jayme Russell received her M.A. in Poetry from Ohio University and her MFA in Poetry from The University of Notre Dame. Her work can be found in Black Warrior ReviewPANK, Tenderloin, Tiny Donkey, and elsewhere. For more information on her work and writing process visit her website.

Kindred Spirits: In Praise of Online Classes

July 25, 2016 § 12 Comments

A guest post by Ann V. Klotz

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Ann V. Klotz

By late afternoon, I get a little itchy to get to a computer.  I’m waiting for the “Recent Canvas Notifications” to appear in my inbox, with comments from my Creative Nonfiction Online Class on “Summary and Scene.” The sense of anticipation reminds me of a cross between Christmas and my birthday, though we are now in the middle of summer and both of those holidays occur in December.  I want to get away from everyone and see what my group has to say about what I posted the day before. Walking up the hill from the lake, I muse about how addictive and satisfying this process is—write, get feedback, revise, post again, get more feedback.  I’m in crush!

This online community exerts a powerful, private hold on me.  I don’t know any of the people personally, but I know whose writing I admire, whose comments I like, whose feedback I crave, who seems kind, maybe irreverent and funny.  I love our teacher, the formidable Joelle Fraser, whom I came to know in my online writing classes the previous summer.

Early last fall, still on a high from my first foray into this type of learning, I took a second online class, “Motherhood and Words,” with Kate Hopper, a teacher magical in her ability to create community in a virtual space.  I was hooked.  This online world, these new undemanding friends I’d never met, were answering a need that no one else in my daily life had time to meet.  The people in my school and family don’t have time to agonize over word choice with me, to read twelve drafts of a story in order to help me decide on the one that works best.  In another terrific class, offered by Mothers Always Write, several of my fellow students and I became Facebook pals after the course ended—they have crossed over into my everyday life, though we have not yet met in person.  Perhaps someday we will…or not.  Either way will be okay.

Online classes aren’t always utopian rainbows and butterflies, of course. Hoping to replicate this past summer’s euphoria during Cleveland’s unending winter, I signed up for a class I came to loathe.  People were not generous in responding to one another’s pieces.  The feedback from the teacher felt mean-spirited.  I bristled when she suggested I needed to learn “to show, not tell.”  Okay, forget bristle…I was furious. I’m an English teacher, for god’s sake. I try not to be that patronizing to my own 9th graders. So, I dropped out. I, professional “good girl,” quit, which—by itself—was liberating. I have a tough time with the concept of ever giving up on obligations, relationships, even on boring novels.  Walking away felt dangerous and forbidden and great.

So, I entered this summer’s course with trepidation. I held my breath until I started reading the comments people offered one another.  “Ahh,” I exhaled.  “I’ve found them.  My writing people—strangers all.  I’m home.”
___

Ann V. Klotz is a teacher/writer/headmistress/mother. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, The Legendary, Motherlode: An Anthology, and Independent School Magazine.

 

Writing Memory

July 22, 2016 § 21 Comments

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Dina L. Relles

A guest post from Dina L. Relles

On my 36th birthday, I’m meeting a friend for lunch. The car radio is playing and I turn up the volume thinking, that’s all I ask: a good song. Maybe a good cup of coffee.

I’d like something slow, even sad, a ballad that takes me back. I want to suck the marrow from this moment and only let go when I’m good and ready. Which is never.

Somewhere between the Northern State Parkway and Middle Neck Road, I realize I write not—as Joan Didion, as Flannery O’Connor did—to figure out what I think, but to remember what I thought. To take time and memory, fold it eight ways, pressing firmly along the creases, and tuck it away in a pilling hoodie pocket. To preserve a shirt worn, a street walked, a friend seen, spoken to. A snippet of conversation cut too short, a slice of time and space never to be had again.

Is a life lost to all this looking back?

~

In late May, a month after giving birth, I sit in the quiet of an empty foyer. Inside the reception hall to my left, people fete my father for twenty years at his job. The thump! thump! thump! of the band’s bass line reverberates in my still-sore belly while the baby mercifully sleeps in the stroller. A social worker with a shock of curly brown hair passes, then pulls up a chair at my cocktail table.

“I’ve read your writing,” she says. “What are you working on now?”

I hate this question. Especially after having my fourth child left me feeling like I’ll never work on anything worthwhile again. I mumble some half-thought about creative nonfiction, about mining old relationships for truth and story.

“Why do you write what you do? Why do you write about the past?”

“I’ve always been a hoarder,” I shrug. “The writing is like hoarding memories.”

“Ahh,” she says, making sense of me. “It’s your way of holding on to who you were. It’s how you fight for space in a life all too eager to edge you out.”

Maybe. I’m not so sure.

~

Time feels slippery these days. No sooner do I take in the sudden maturity behind the eyes of my middle son than he darts into the next room to help his brother with Lego. I follow, one hand wrapped around the thickening thigh of my not-so-newborn. Four children—each chipping away at my attention span, each endlessly running off in a different direction—making it hard to hold fast to…anything at all.

But I’ve never been one to let go. I want anyone who’s ever loved me to love me still, with that same fierceness, that same can’t-live-without love. Even though we’ve all moved on and away. Even though we’re happy where we are now. I lay claim, I take with. If I spend a night, I feel it’s home. If I loved you once, I always will.

This is not the work of motherhood. This is me.

Perhaps, if anything’s changed, it’s that my grip on what’s gone only grows tighter as I leave more and more days behind.

~

There it is, as I’m pulling in: the first few chords of a song strummed fireside on camp canoe trips so many summers ago. The shaggy slant of teenage boy hair comes into view, the soft fray of too-long sleeves pulled self-consciously over hands, the electric tension of flirtation, unfulfilled.

So is it a life lost to all this looking back?

Or one well-loved? Tattered and torn from overuse, softened by many strokes, smooth and worn. When the world feels cruel and out of control, here, I’ll say. I have this little corner of earth, captured, kept, mine.

Slow build, volume cranked, I push the gearshift into park and close my eyes.

I write this moment into eternity.

___

Dina L. Relles‘ writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River Teeth, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. A piece of hers was recently chosen as a finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is at work on her first book of nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

Random Numbers?

July 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

The Brevity staff tabulating our returns from Amazon Smile

The Brevity staff tabulating our returns from Amazon Smile

More and more, the business of book sales is something authors need to understand. Whether you’re self-publishing and doing all your own publicity and promotion, or a mid-lister at a Big Five publisher, doing almost all your own publicity and promotion, or a successful best-seller urged by your publisher to do more publicity and promotion, it helps to know what numbers are out there and what they mean.

Headlines like The novel is dead! Reading lives again! E-books are killing print! Print is not dead! conjure up the image of a zombie literature army without a compass, lurching toward the latest pronouncement.

At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel discusses the problem of sales number murkiness:

This lack of knowledge leads to plenty of confusion for writers when they do sell a book. Are they selling well? What constitutes good sales? Should they start freaking out when their first $0.00 royalty check comes in? Writers should absolutely write with an eye toward art, not markets. Thinking about sales while creating art rarely produces anything good. But I’m still naïve enough to think that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and that after the book is written, writers should come to publishing with a basic understanding of what is going on.

And he goes on to break it all down, starting with the way-more-confusing-than-it-sounds question, “what is a book sale?”

…one of the things that makes the conversation about book sales so confusing is that there are several different numbers thrown around, and often even people in the publishing industry completely confuse them. Here are four different numbers that are frequently conflated:

1) The number of copies of the book that are printed.

2) The number of copies that have been shipped to stores or other markets like libraries.

3) The number of copies that have been sold to readers.

4) The Nielsen BookScan number.

These numbers can all be wildly different.

Fortunately, Michel’s excellent essay not only explains what counts as a sale and why, but how these numbers are conflated to make other numbers, and who is using what statistics to count “sales.”He discusses what constitutes “good” sales for large publishers and micropresses, and for literary books, genre fiction, and story/essay collections. He points out that royalties aren’t the sum of an author’s earnings, which include “money made from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching classes, or other author income streams.”

His very best point? That “even getting a thousand strangers to read something you poured your heart and soul is pretty okay.”

Lincoln Michel’s piece is a terrific, understandable explanation of something every author should know, no matter how much or how little of your own sales are your responsibility. Go read it.

_________________________

Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

A Review of Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick

July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments

51yB4df7wgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By e.v. de cleyre

A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.

Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”

The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.

Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”

Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”

Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”

Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”

__

e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

Tricks Are For Writers

July 19, 2016 § 6 Comments

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Brevity reminds our readers to support your writing bunny by the hind legs–never grasp it by the ears.

My beloved life coach sent me a link to Shut Up And Write–business consultant Karyn Greenstreet heard about a method for generating work in silent company with other writers, and she’s now (mildly) monetizing it for writers who need to get their work done.

People who had to write their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation would agree to get together on a regular basis, spend a few minutes getting settled, and then “shut up and write” for 25 minute sprints. Then they’d take a 5 minute break and do another 25 minute sprint.

This technique of 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break is a proven method for working within your brain’s normal rhythms. Add that to the group support and accountability of working quietly together, it’s a real win-win.

Greenstreet charges $20 for five sessions–about what I’d save on coffee if I Skyped into her meetings instead of running down to Starbucks for the afternoon.

I mentioned Shut Up And Write to a writer friend, who wrote back “Sounds like a great way to collect money for doing nothing.  Pay me 20 bucks and then stfu and do what you should be doing by yourself.” A bit snappish, yes, but is that true? Should writers be doing it by ourselves? Are we less-able if we rely on the real or virtual presence of another person, an appointed time, outside accountability? Is creation solely a personal responsibility, to be generated through will alone?

Tools to support writing abound. Apps that turn off our internet or blacklist social media sites. Apps to keep writing steadily (or lose your work!). Approving kittens. Over at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost reviews the Freewrite, a “smart typewriter” that he describes as

…the latest and most extreme entry in the distraction-free writing wars. The idea: by stripping down a computer to its basics, writing can be simplified and improved.

…the mechanical keyboard inscribes text to an e-ink screen (like the Kindle’s), and a physical Wi-Fi lever activates networking—but only to send your documents to services like Dropbox or Google Drive. The lowly writer, plagued by the torment of Facebook, Twitter, and browser tabs, can finally get down to business and just write.

Bogost talks about the effect of writing tools and methods on the writing itself, going back to Nietzsche on typewriters–“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts;” tools change their users. Brevity‘s own Dinty W. Moore strongly recommends his workshop students write in-class exercises by hand, since the veins in the hand flow up through the arms, connecting to the heart. Many writers would say they need a certain notebook, a particular pen. I don’t know how I’d finish this essay without being able to websearch every few moments–to check a quote, find support for a point, look up another word for trick. What’s a crutch or a ploy or a gimmick and what’s an assist from a teammate?

Writers and painters are the most solitary of artists. No matter how we get the work done, in the end, one person (usually) is responsible for what ended up on the paper. Dancers and musicians and actors go into a room together. Rehearsal has a beginning and an end and a structure enforced by a leader. Shit gets done. If you’re not on your A-game today, you fake it as best you can, someone else picks up the slack, and you do the same for them tomorrow or next week.

I realized a few weeks ago, I work on the rehearsal/performance model. I want to pound out work in a sixty hours before a hard deadline, then lie around and play Bejeweled for a week to recover. I’ve known for much longer that I, too, am a Shut Up And Write person. My writer friend in Florida, my writer friend in Louisiana, my writer friend in Dubai–we sit together in a coffee shop, sometimes different coffee shops with Skype on. Write for an hour, chat for a few minutes or read what we have so far, write for another hour. I can do this six days in a row, and writing with a teammate makes me show up, helps me start. The presence of another person encourage-shames me into continuing to type past when I’d quit alone. Sure, it’s a trick. But the rabbit coming out of the hat is pages.

It’s not the only way I write. “Need to post a blog for Brevity” is a strong motivator. So is “I want to finish this book so I can sell it when I speak at a conference next month.” Or a contest deadline. And sometimes, on a lucky day, “Because I’m passionate about this project and sitting down to work feels good.” Those days are the best, the most joy-filled, the most creative. But they wouldn’t add up to much if they were the only days I worked.

Why trust to luck when I can stock a toolbox? Carpenters don’t think less of the cabinet that needed a bandsaw as well as a screwdriver. Stockbrokers aren’t shy about whipping out calculators and whiteboards. Dancers show up to rehearsal whether or not they’re in the mood, because rehearsal is the tool to get work done. They don’t look back at the choreography and say, “Yeah, but someone had to tell me to show up to learn that.”

Writers (and visual artists) often work without any of the tools we see as a “normal” work framework. No hours, no co-workers, no desk where someone will notice if you’re watching Samantha Bee. So why should it feel weak or dishonest to use tools most everyone else uses to get our work done? Because art is supposed to feel like “play”?

We can desperately want the feeling of having created, we can love the passion of wanting to create, and still have a hard time sitting down to work. Writing can feel like a job as well as a joy. And it’s OK to need a tool–even one that feels like a trick.

_____________________________________

Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking on self-editing and on getting published at the Hippocamp nonfiction conference, August 12-14 in Lancaster, PA.

 

 

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