June 9, 2016 § 9 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
When I am working with students on their writing, I always tell them that they shouldn’t set out to write a bestseller. They should write the story they feel compelled to write, the one that is burning inside them. The one that only they can tell. Of course it’s good to keep in mind publishing trends and what is happening in the marketplace, but this should not box in, nor define their creativity.
When I impart this sage wisdom, I can only imagine what my students are writing down in their notebooks. Don’t write a bestseller. Write from the heart. I wrote those same notes in writing workshops just a few years ago when I was getting my MFA. As if writing from the heart – writing from the pure core of your unique, passionate self – would be enough to at least get you published. No one ever actually talked about getting on the bestseller list. The true literary giants, the authors we students were supposed to admire were those writers who wrote their books in the thrall of their muse, not the thrall of appearing on The New York Times bestseller list, or getting a mega-deal with a superstar agent. When that sort of success did come to a few of our fellow students, it was almost as though they needed to discount their part in the louche business side of things.
I have decided that this faux modest attitude shall no longer apply to my own writing. I am dying to write a bestseller, and after years of continually scrutinizing the bestseller lists, I think I have come up with a foolproof list of aids that will help me get there.
…Change the title of my novel from The Last Act to Wednesdays With Pugsly: The World’s Ugliest, Yet Somehow Most Adorable Pooch Who Never Graced a Calendar.
…Replace the phrase “sideways glance” with “hot, lustful undressing in the mind.”
…Finagle book jacket blurbs from any of the following celebrities: Simon Cowell, “Bravo, not a false note.” Britney Spears, “It’s as good as that other book I read.” Madonna, “Kathy has made a convert of me.”
…Explore plagiarism as a marketing tool.
…Ask my agent if she thinks I’m too old to enroll at Harvard as an undergraduate. Possible plot line could be – sixty year-old woman enters Harvard as a freshman. Sell it as “Legally (Fake) Blonde Meets Cocoon.”
…Move in next door to Oprah and become her new best friend. (Find some dirt that will destroy Gayle King first.)
…Change name of book to anything with the words “secret,” “Christmas,” “diet,” or “adorable dog” in the title. The Secret Christmas Death of an Adorable Dog? Nine Lives of a Christmas Dieter? Who Moved My Christmas Tofu? A Secret Miracle Christmas Diet for Both You and Your Precious Pooch?
…Look into product placement to attract potential advertising sponsors. My protagonist, a chocolate lover, could just as easily be a Godiva chocolate lover. And drink only Veuve Clicquot Champagne. And wear only Cole Haan shoes. And drive a BMW, Five Series. You get the idea.
…Consider making my protagonist (now a suburban newspaper columnist) a zombie, with cute twin teenage zombie daughters. (Can dogs be zombies? Look into this possibility.)
…Become an undercover nanny, life coach, or personal chef to some really rich people, take notes, and then write a scathing tell-all about them.
…Maybe cutesy, heart-warming dog books have had their day in the sun. Explore possible memoirs using other pets. Maybe Days of the Iguana. Or Clipped Wings: What My Parakeet Taught Me About Overcoming Life’s Obstacles. Or how about Gerbil: Life Lessons From the Flywheel.
…See if I can get adopted into a family that is more dysfunctional than my own so I have better material for a memoir someday. Or ask Mom if she minds if I change her from the nicest mother who ever lived to a pill-popping, alcoholic, obsessive compulsive, many times divorced, always inappropriately dressed, binge-dieting, dog-hating, library book-stealing mother whose six daughters succeed against formidable odds and become perfect mothers with perfect children who always do everything right.
…Try writing a sort of backlash to The Secret. Maybe No More Secrets: Lessons as Plain as the Nose on (Your Adorable Dog’s) Face.
…Forget dogs or any other animals. Title my book anything with “Girl” in the title. Maybe Girl on a Bus. Girl, Found. Girl with a Secret. Or maybe keep it mysterious; how about just Girl…
Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications. She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.
February 23, 2022 § 5 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
Even though I am not actively looking for a new town or city to move to, and I am quite content in my home of the past twenty-five years, just north of Chicago, whenever I travel to a new destination part of the fun is imagining myself living there. I often travel or vacation with a subliminal purpose, leaving myself open to the possibility that someday I might decide to give in to a subconscious urge that has always pulled at me – the urge to just “chuck it all” and try on a new life. Trying on new lives – imagining ourselves into them – is what writers do.
Of course, trying on a new life isn’t quite the same as trying on a new pair of shoes. Especially now that our travels have been greatly constricted by the pandemic. But daydreaming about and writing stories about other places – even if you are stuck at home – can be aided by the many websites devoted to Chambers of Commerce, travel, and real estate. While perusing these websites, I am suddenly peering into shop windows in Asheville, North Carolina, or lounging on the redwood deck of a rustic cabin at the foot of the Bitterroot Range. Maybe the character in my short story could be ensconced in a writers’ cottage in Key West, or an Arts and Crafts bungalow in Santa Fe. Everything is possible. And yet…
Linked with traveling (real traveling) is the tingly sense that anything is possible. After all, there you are, visiting Healdsburg or San Antonio, and you have found the people delightful, the restaurants enticing, the local culture intriguing. Barring any unforeseen catastrophes along the way (leaving your purse in the airport bus, no cars left at car rental, dropping your suitcase on your foot), you comfortably settle into your new temporary home experiencing one of the great joys of travel – the feeling of belonging in the larger world. But what if that larger world is suddenly snatched away?
Pre-pandemic, I would make lists of local attractions to visit on my travels. I would find a new favorite bookstore, a restaurant whose chowder I could no longer live without, a museum that I wanted to visit many times over. I often found myself pausing in front of the storefront display windows of realtors, scanning the “properties offered” fliers.
I really have no intention of moving. But why shouldn’t I? I’m a writer – my work life is portable, and my children and friends are scattered all over the country. My husband and I sometimes discuss whether we should move near to one of our children. But which one? Shouldn’t we just live in the place that most suits and nurtures us, and let them come to us?
It’s about at this point in the circular mind game that reality creeps in. We love visiting San Francisco, La Jolla, and Boulder, but can we afford anything there that is comparable to our current home in Illinois? (No.) Would we want to eat lunch at Hog Island Oyster Co. in the San Francisco Ferry Building every day? (Maybe…) Or do we love these places so much because they are a vacation splurge, and not part of our everyday routine.
Part of this lusting for a new place to live is the chance to reinvent ourselves – a sensation writers are very familiar with. Traveling sets us down in new and unfamiliar surroundings – a chance to jumpstart what may have become complacency or even boredom. The sleek, minimalist condo with an “in town” location, posted in that Realtor’s window, appeals precisely because it is not what you have now. You begin to fantasize about your potential new life. A life that doesn’t include snow shovels in the summer and mosquito repellent in the summer. Or perhaps skating on frozen ponds and making snow angels is what you are after, having lived in Florida your whole life.
Still, this sense of home eludes me. I was born in New Jersey, grew up in and went to college in Colorado, lived a long stretch of years in southern California, followed a husband’s job to Chicago, another husband to Philadelphia then back to Chicago, and once owned small vacation homes on the Jersey shore and on an island in Florida. My son lives in Reno, my daughter lives near me in Illinois, my mother and siblings and nieces and nephews live mostly in California and Colorado, my husband’s grown children and grandchildren live in Michigan and Philadelphia. When we had vacation time we often traveled to visit these family members, and on each visit I would wonder, “Is this where I’m meant to be? Could this be my home?”
The Irish poet and novelist George Moore wrote, “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.”
Lately I have come to accept that I may never feel quite at home. I am content and feel great satisfaction to be living in my chosen city in Illinois, in my house – my home. But will there always be this longing for somewhere else?
Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications, including the Brevity blog. Follow her on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website http://www.kathystevenson.com
December 27, 2021 § 15 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
I never know when or how. Or even where I might be when it happens. I could just be waking up, rambling along on my morning walk, or driving to the grocery store. I might read an article in the newspaper (I still get a real, paper one delivered to my front porch), or I might have a reaction to a conversation I overhear at the pastry shop I frequent.
I could really be anywhere or doing anything. I could be on the Metra train to Chicago or on the treadmill at the health club. Those circumstances are always in flux. What is always the same, though, is the sensation – a frisson that I now recognize as something I need to pay attention to. Sometimes it’s just a flicker of an idea – there and gone, if I don’t record it on a notepad or my phone. I have trained myself to do this. Even if you are convinced you will remember your idea later (because it’s so good!) the chance is too great that you won’t.
Not that the world will come to a standstill if your brilliant idea is lost forever, due to the lack of a notepad. You might look at the phrase or sentence you wrote later, and wonder what it even means – this jotting, this fragment – that you were so compelled to record. I have over a dozen notebooks filled with these (often cryptic) messages to myself. Certainly not every one of these nudges to my creative muse are worth pursuing. And yet… enough of them are. If not right then, maybe at some future time, when that exact brief note might be just what I need for a story or essay.
In high school and college my fellow students and I were often assigned what I now call “the dreaded five paragraph essay.” Later, as a 7th and 12th grade English teacher at an all-girls school in Philadelphia, I assigned many of these dreaded essays myself. I can still feel the tension and dismay that my students would display when I announced the assignment of one of these essays. But, why, Mrs. Stevenson was their lament. Why do we need to write these essays?
Because the 7th grade curriculum demands it, I would usually say to my students. And you 12th graders will need to be proficient in organizing your thoughts into five paragraph essays for your college entrance applications – where (when you get to college) you will be asked to write even more essays. (Students silently screaming…)
With my students I tried to demystify the essay writing process as best I could. Just start with a “feeling” I might say. (Teenage girls are very big on feelings.) Then make a story out of that feeling. Like you are telling a friend – only with a topic sentence, supporting statements and a zinger of a conclusion. Oh, and proper spelling and grammar usage.
It was a process.
The thing is, it still is a process, no matter that you left school behind decades ago. Organizing your thoughts into the form of an essay – a publishable essay that other people might want to read – does not come naturally to most people. The idea – or germ of something you feel compelled to express – might start haunting your every waking moment. You might suddenly feel an essay coming on.
Write it all down. You can go back and take out the parts that don’t belong later. But you won’t know what doesn’t belong until you actually write or type the whole thing out.
I think of this initial attempt to write an essay like I think about jumping into Lake Michigan for a swim on the first really hot day of June. You know the water is going to be very, very cold. But you also know there is only one way to get in. You have to put your foot in and then keep plunging forward – quickly, without thinking.
And that’s what essay writing is – you plunge in, then you take strong strokes away from shore, but you always keep the shore in your sight line, because you will have to circle back at some point to return.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, The Writer, and several other newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Her short fiction has appeared in the literary and online journals Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and The Same. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives just north of Chicago. Kathy has written several essays about the writing life for the Brevity blog, and you can learn more at www.kathystevenson.com .
August 2, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
Bogged down in the minutiae of researching pertinent life events for your memoir? Stalled on the third chapter of your novel? Perhaps it might be helpful to set aside all those notebooks and research materials and skip right to the most fulfilling part of writing your book: The Acknowledgement Page.
After conducting an informal survey of my friends who are writers, I was heartened to know that I am not the only person who starts reading the end of a book first. And by the end, I don’t mean the final chapter or last page of the book itself. I mean, of course, the Acknowledgements. The part of the book where the author is obliged (“has the opportunity”) to thank each and every person who contributed to the planning, execution, and publication of his or her book.
Each and every person.
Because if you leave someone out of your acknowledgment page, there will be blood. Well, maybe not blood. But hurt feelings, and maybe lasting grudges. And whining. Certainly blood, hurt feelings, grudges, and whining are all states of affairs we writers hope to avoid at any cost.
The purpose of the acknowledgement page is to display a final appreciation, basically by sharing the names of those who contributed to your (hopeful) success in bringing your book to fruition.
There is a hierarchy of name-dropping in the best of these acknowledgements. Kudos to you if you attended Bread Loaf or had a residency at Ragdale or Yaddo, and can thank the overlords of those institutions for giving you the space and time away from your annoyingly demanding family and job.
If you haven’t been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship or even been a top-twenty finalist in an essay contest sponsored by your regional newspaper, don’t despair that you have nothing of note to put in your acknowledgement page. Your work should speak for itself, or at the very least Twitter will.
Next in the hierarchy of thanks might be your agent (although he or she might be first, depending on how high up the agent food chain they are). This is the person who discovered your talent, nurtured it, and believed in you, even after you secretly began to hate them for all their whiny, nit-picking demands. (Line edit a third time? Really?) Try to avoid groveling or too much familiarity (“I’d like to thank my new bestie, my brilliant agent Maureen, who I am now naming my firstborn after”) in your thank you – a cool detachment is best.
If your book required research of any type, this is also the place to thank the staffs of the libraries, websites, history centers, coffee shops, and chocolatiers who provided you with nurturing and even nourishment during your ordeal. How would you have brought your book into the world without quiet carrels and caffeine? Without the barista who understood your need for the quiet corner table by the window, and who kept on an eye on your laptop while you used the restroom?
This is the time to really lay it on if you had encouragement from, or took an MFA class from, or attended a lecture (that you paid for as part of a conference) by anyone in publishing with name recognition. Just don’t veer into crazy stalker territory. Though the words of a well-known writer or teacher may have changed your life, that person (amazingly) might not even remember you from the residency you had together in 2008.
Sincerity and gratitude are your bywords. But unctuousness is not.
You might start by writing an exhaustive list of those you want to thank in your acknowledgements, and then winnow that down. You don’t want to end up gushing like Sally Field in her Oscar acceptance speech, but you definitely don’t want to leave an important person (like your mom or spouse) out.
On second thought, maybe you should gush. After all, you published a book, damn it. A real book with words and paragraphs and chapters that you dreamed up and sweated over and made fit together in a way only you could have done. And if you want to thank everyone from the doctor who delivered you to your seventh grade English teacher to your great Grandma, then it’s your time and place to do so. And I will read it all first, before I even start with Chapter One.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications including – of course – the Brevity blog. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals. Follow her on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com
January 29, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
Like many of you, when I started publishing my work – mostly essays and a few short stories – I always had a bigger project in the back of my mind. I kept notebooks and files on these ideas. Sometimes these projects seemed like they might be books. I even self-published a novel (historical fiction) in 2001, just as Amazon was starting to be a big player, and sold the 4,000 copies I had printed, before I decided to move on.
A literary agent in Chicago read that book, and I signed with her to represent me in order to either sell that novel to a bigger publisher, or perhaps generate something else appropriate for her list. After a year or so of back and forth, we amicably parted ways, as it became clear that we didn’t have the same goals or vision for that book or other books I was doodling around with.
I felt freer after I was back on my own, kind of like when you break up with a nice boyfriend, but you know he’s not really The One.
I continued publishing essays and short stories, and working on ideas for longer projects. I have always worked on several manuscripts at once. This is just the way I work best. I also queried various literary agents at different times, first when I put together my published essays with a similar “theme” (how I hate that word…), then when I wrote a novella.
I knew that writing a novella (it was 115 pages long) was a hard sell, unless you were Joyce Carol Oates, whose novella Black Water I had the chutzpah (idiocy?) to compare my novella to. Then I put the novella together with my published short stories and saw that they did kind of go together in that they were mostly about women who get themselves in trouble with the men in their lives. (The men often die in my stories, which keeps my husband wondering what I am thinking whenever I get quiet and moody.)
I meticulously researched agents who might be interested in my collection, and crafted a stellar query letter. Some nice replies, and a few requests for the manuscript, but ultimately it became clear that a short story collection with a novella at its centerpiece wasn’t going to be the launching pad for my literary career.
Then I received an email from Jeff, a literary agent at a prestigious agency. He had read one of my short stories in a literary journal, and wondered if I had any longer projects. Did I ever! Oh, my dear Jeff, how joyous I was that you plucked me out of the slush. By the time I replied and sent him my newest manuscript (a memoir) and a few other ideas, I had us lunching in New York City (where he, of course, is based).
The problem was that Jeff didn’t want a memoir. Could I make my memoir fiction? It turned out that I could not. God knows, I tried. But then one day I figured out that I was rewriting my memoir for one person: Jeff. And it wasn’t fun, or true, anymore.
We parted ways amicably, and I often think of him – and my trip to New York City to meet with him – fondly.
I continued to write essays and short stories, and occasionally query an agent I scouted in Publisher’s Marketplace, and that’s how Liz and I met. She read my query and loved my memoir, and of course I signed with her. She, too, was with a big deal agency in NYC.
We worked together for six months to get my book in perfect shape to send out. I didn’t go to NYC to meet her, but I could tell she and I would have a blast together if I did. We would have dinner, and toast our upcoming success, and …
I got an email one day from Liz. She was leaving the agency, and couldn’t take her current clients with her. I was assigned to one of the partners in the agency. I was mad/sad for a few minutes, and then realized “PARTNER.” I immediately Googled him, and contacted him, and once again thought, “This is a win/win.”
He was really nice, but he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for my book as Liz. Adios, Michael, and another Big NYC Agency.
One might think that after all of this, a normal person would regroup, or perhaps find another line of work. But, as my husband often remarks, I am one of the most stubborn people he has ever met. (I prefer to think of myself as persistent.)
Amazingly enough, throughout all these years of elation followed by defeat, I kept my hopes for that book alive, and kept publishing essays and short stories.
Then last year I signed with another agent. For sure Emily and I were going to be besties. She and her partner Susan were so nice, and they loved my book, and we all had the same vision, and I signed another contract, and…
Then the virus hit, and I don’t blame Emily or Susan, but I waited a respectfully long period of time before emailing them, after checking several times to make sure they were still alive. And there was a very long silence, during which time I had several bad thoughts, and worried thoughts, and then mad thoughts. And then I saw that the one-year date to re-sign my contract was approaching, and I decided to break up with my agents.
It was actually a bit freeing.
Just recently though, I thought of Jeff. I wondered how he was, and if he would remember me. Just a short note – something chatty, yet informative. He was, after all, my first.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications. Her short stories have been published in several literary journals. This is her 10th essay for the Brevity blog. Follow on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com
June 8, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
“What are you working on?” This is probably the question I am most often asked, after forced to reveal (at a cocktail party, to a random seat-mate on the train) that I am a writer.
I always experience a bit of impostor syndrome, even after these many decades of writing and publishing. After all, I know that when I answer the next question: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” a pleasantly vacant facade will settle onto the face of the questioner, when I answer, “Mostly, I’ve published essays. Hundreds of them.”
A look of dismay – or is it panic – then settles onto the face of my seat-mate. Their only likely life experience with “the essay” might not have been since school days, when they were asked to write any number of three to five-paragraph essays in order to satisfy English curriculum requirements. “The essay” does not have a great reputation.
At this point, even if they are moderately impressed by and slightly curious about my credentials, they are also not eager to take a selfie. (Here I am with a famous essay writer I met on the train!)
I try to steer the conversation back to them, but they always want you to answer that first question (what are you working on?) I mumble something vague about writing a memoir about my family, about being a sister – and here there is an even longer pause, followed by genuine puzzlement. “Wow,” they usually say. “That takes guts. I mean, writing about family.”
Yes, it does take guts. Actually, what I would like to say is that one has to have any number of questionable personality traits to write anything longer than a few pages about one’s family, and expect it to hold together in a way that other people (not your family) might want to read. Especially when you are writing memoir. Writing your truth – which memoir requires – requires bravery. It demands audacity. It calls for some skill. And, indeed, it requires guts.
Sometimes I feel like the word “bravery” is too strong a word to describe the act of writing memoir. After all, isn’t memoir just remembering how things happened, and then writing those things, and your interpretation of them, down on paper or on your laptop? It’s not like you’re going to get a writing medal for your bravery, or a commendation for courage. It’s not like you ran the rapids or scaled the sheer face of a cliff.
Nevertheless, it is pretty brave and audacious to reveal your truth, and trust that that truth will resonate with others. Many would-be writers are stopped before they even start by voices in their upbringings that whisper (or maybe even scream) that it’s not polite to talk about yourself, or tell family secrets, or assume anyone has the slightest interest in anything YOU might have to say. (You get the idea.)
Audacity isn’t something often discussed in polite company. But if you don’t have a certain amount of audacity as a writer, you might as well keep writing those first bland twenty pages over and over again until the end of days (which doesn’t sound so far away right now…)
Audacity itself might be described in many different ways. Audacity might range from such spirited traits as “impudence” or “pluck,” to what I seek in my writing: boldness, backbone, chutzpah, daring.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Or, for our purposes, the guts. Because the two are linked. The heart and the guts.
The guts are the more energetic and visceral of the two. Okay, so the heart does its pumping thing, and obviously we would die if the heart stopped doing its job. And the heart gets all the lovey-dovey Valentine bling. But the guts … The guts imply your innards. Literally, intestinal fortitude. And what does that imply? Yes – the aforementioned pluck, along with confidence, mettle, tenacity. Nothing sugar-coated or wrapped up in a pink heart-shaped box.
You know the difference, even if you can’t explain it. It’s the need to express something in your heart, yes – but maybe it’s also the need to write something you feel in your gut. Or maybe you need to express that thing that bypassed your heart completely and started in your gut. You took that gut-thing, wrestled it into a heart-thing, then added the narrative to give shape to it. And, presto – you have a piece of writing. A real, organic, living-on-paper story made of heart and gristle and sweat and guts.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review, and – of course – the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01
January 27, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Jill Quandt
I was raised on Texas Hold’em, and knew the odds of faceless, suited hole cards winning
the hand were too low to raise pre-flop before I knew how to do long division. I could hold my own in poker games with my dad’s friends, all engineers, before I knew the formal word for what my brain was doing: statistics. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still a proficient poker player, but betting on cards is only a hobby. These days, my real vice is betting on words.
You see, I’m obsessed. My family, even my dad, is starting to wonder if I have a problem. “It seems like all you do is stare at that laptop,” they chide. They are not writers, except my little sister who is working on her doctoral project and has been writing a lot lately. She will be a nurse anesthetist come August. She will make more than thirteen times the thirteen thousand I make at my current job. Her bet is a safe one, so no one worries she is wasting her time.
But as for me, I’m a gambler. That’s why after five years of teaching seventh graders, I quit that low paying, difficult job to go back to school and take an even lower paying, difficult job. I’m an almost-thirty-one-year-old graduate teaching assistant in the English department at my local university. What can I say, I like a little risk. I already threw all my chips down on the table, and now I have to play.
The problem is even when I think I have a good hand, sometimes the river card comes out of nowhere to mess everything up. The other day, I was getting ready to submit this very piece of writing. The submissions guidelines for Brevity Blog require a short bio, so I was skimming through the blog looking at other writer’s bios and trying to decide if I should add a little humor to mine. I happened to come across Kathy Stevenson’s “On Playing Cards and Literary Rejection: Betting on the Come.” With the exact feeling I get when think I might just win a hand, and my opponent turns up her cards to reveal the nuts, I start wondering what the odds are two posts that compare being a writing to gambling would be published on this blog within one year’s time. They can’t be high.
Unfortunately, the only things that seem to be high are my stakes. Oh Baby! The stakes are high in this dangerous game of learning to be a writer. Lots of people, many of them with much bigger stacks than mine, are chasing the same pots: articles, books, awards, and the biggie — jobs. I’m the little stack at the table, and boy I know it. I hear there will be more than eighty people applying for the job in my department I desperately want, the one that pays ten grand less than the job I could take teaching English at a high school. I definitely wouldn’t bet on those odds in a poker game, but I’m not a problem card player. I guess I’ll admit that I understand why my husband, a lawyer who won’t prosecute a case he can’t win, thinks I have a problem. Heck, maybe I do.
Luckily, I have a masterful poker face. When people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree, I say I’m going to be a writer. The really nosy ones will probe deeper: “Can you make a living doing that?” At moments like this, a convincing bluff is key. “Yeah,” I respond casually, “I’m working on a couple pieces that have some potential, and my university is hiring composition instructors for the fall.” Then, I get out of there and cry over a glass of wine with the other TA’s in my office, the ones who know the odds. Later, I lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and ruminating on the first rule of gambling which is, of course, never risk anything you can’t afford to lose. I’ve lost countless evenings and weekends, hours I could have spent being present with my husband, snuggling my baby, or getting some much needed sleep. I’ve forfeited job security, a living wage, and a decent retirement. The kicker is I spend most of my time typing words destined to be deleted.
So why do I do it?
It’s simple, I suppose: I’m hooked — couldn’t stop if I tried. Even when I’m losing (harsh feedback from a professor, rejection letters, writer’s block), I am thinking about the next hand because what if it’s a winner? It’s not that I’m an optimist; I’m realistic enough to know that I might never hit the jackpot. Then again, when my Grandpa Dale was sixty-one years old, he spent a nickel and won a $117,000 prize on a slot machine, so you never know. All I know for sure is that I’m a gambler. For better or worse, richer or poorer (almost definitely poorer), I’m going to keep betting on my words.
A former middle school teacher, Jill Quandt is working on an M.A. in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she is currently teaching Composition II and helping facilitate the Oxbow Writing Project. Her work is forthcoming in the Kenneth Burke Journal. When she’s not writing or playing cards, she enjoys other precarious activities such as wakeboarding, skydiving, and trying to get her kid to eat veggies.
December 4, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
The classic 1902 edition of The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman begins, “Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”
Well, if my home is a living organism (which I believe it is – it protects me, but also reflects me so well that any stranger who walked in would immediately know much about me based solely on its “decorations”) then that organism is obviously sustained by one thing: books, and all things related to books, writing, and reading.
No matter where I am in my house, there will be a tchotchke, a bookcase, a shelf or wall art that reminds me – in the background of my life – that I am a reader and a writer. Being surrounded by tangible reminders of the reading and writing life nourishes me in a way that most belongings don’t. I could easily give up any number of personal effects and most of my shoes, but my complete set of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1913, Eleventh Edition, found at an antiques fair) in its handsome Arts & Crafts style bookcase will be with me until I die. (Although that might be the first thing to go in the giant garage sale my children will have when I pass on…)
I’m trying to think back to when I first started decorating whatever space I was living in with a writer’s accouterments. I’m sixty-seven, so it’s a long think back. Bookcases, of course, and a writing space – table or desk – there have been so many versions of those. But at some point, I also started to surround my living space with other writerly objects. Was my collection of paintings and posters and wall and shelf art just “stuff,” there merely to remind myself that I am a writer?
Take my collection of literary-themed plates (please, take them…). Although I guess five doesn’t really count as a collection. Only because I was able to stop myself before I went on the hunt for more. I bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a literary-themed, dinner-sized plate. Of course these are not to eat dinner on – these are to display on special wall hangers just for this purpose. I have three Shakespeare motifs, one Mark Twain, and a House of the Seven Gables.
Do you see the slippery slope here? These items (and more…) were purchased at random antique shows and shops over the years. I have never bought any of my treasures online or on Amazon. For me, it’s been the thrill of the random discovery. Anyone can go online and get this stuff in ten minutes. Although I’d like to meet the delivery guy who could lift the ancient Remington manual typewriter I found at a garage sale years ago. I had to have it – twenty bucks!
Having a writer for a mom or a spouse or a friend makes gift-giving easy. On an office shelf I have a small ceramic typewriter, an antique tortoiseshell magnifying glass (for making print bigger), and framed postcards of famous writers’ homes, gifts from friends and family.
You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned books themselves, or the bookcases that contain them. My husband knows I don’t want jewelry. The best gift he ever got me was a tall antique bookcase with a beveled glass front, where I could store my collectible books. Of course I have collectible books! But that’s for another, much longer essay.
At some point in my life, long ago, I bought a painting of a woman reading. Right off the wall of an indie bookstore in New Jersey. There wasn’t a price sticker on it, but I got dizzy when I saw it, and I asked the bookstore owner if it was for sale. She named a reasonable price, and I walked right out the door with it. It reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting, and I have even harbored a private fantasy that it is a long-lost Edward Hopper painting. The signature is illegible. I even took it to a friend who is an art appraiser/sleuth, and she was stumped. It remains a mystery, and I remain intrigued.
It has been my husband who has gifted me with paintings of women reading over the years. I told him once that I don’t like jewelry, and I am pretty low maintenance. So, we see it as an investment that rewards us with both immediate and long-term gratification. It makes a house a home. Our home. A home where a woman reads and writes.
French poet and novelist Remy de Gourmont wrote, “Aesthetic emotion puts man in a state favorable to the reception of erotic emotion. Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no longer art.”
I didn’t set out to design a life with decorations, like Edith Wharton. There was no grand plan. Like much of life, it just kind of happened.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review and – of course – the Brevity Blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01
May 31, 2019 § 10 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
I come from a family of dreamers, wishers, horoscope readers, and gamblers. Which turns out to be the optimal background for a writer. When Dad went to the track on Saturdays (if he had the day off from one of his three jobs) my five younger sisters and I never knew if he was going to show up at home after the last race with a carful of groceries, a new bike for one of us, or for that matter – a new car. Or, conversely, nothing at all but a hangdog look that meant we were going to be eating grilled Velveeta cheese sandwiches on the thinnest of store-brand white breads until the next payday.
I also come from a family who loves to read and write. Teetering stacks of library books could be found in nearly every room of whichever rental home we happened to be living in. Even when we lived up at the top of Lookout Mountain, just west of Denver, we had access to books, thanks to the big blue bookmobile that lumbered along the winding hairpin turns. (Dad even drove the bookmobile one summer when he needed extra cash, probably for the track.)
My sisters and I wrote elaborate plays and stories, mostly featuring princesses, or pioneer girls captured by Indians. Of course, as oldest, I was the director, the final editor, and always took on the role of Queen – my sisters existing only to do my bidding.
Neatly folded and annotated stacks of Racing Forms and glossy past copies of Blood Horse magazine were stacked neatly near my dad’s easy chair. The Racing Forms were a crucial part of Dad’s “system,” a system that we understood had been calculated by Dad to pick winners. He and his race track buddies refined and compared these sure-fire schemes to outsmart the other system – that of the owners, jockeys, track conditions, and horses themselves.
One day, my dad got an idea in his head to write a story. He loved to read, and he had this idea for a story about a tout, which is someone who will share solid tips on upcoming races for a portion of any winnings. He called his story “The Tout.” I have no memory of the story’s plot, and am not even sure if I ever read it.
But what I do remember about it is the dramatic impact it had on our lives. Suddenly we were all invested in “The Tout.” My mom typed it up, and off it went in the mail to Playboy. If Dad was going to write and sell a story, he was going to sell it to the highest-paying market. Which, at the time was Playboy magazine. I don’t recall ever seeing a Playboy in our house, but obviously Dad had some inside knowledge about such matters.
We all waited for the acceptance letter and check in the mail, with a hum of excitement that thrummed through our family like a low-grade fever. Once Dad got this first acceptance and check, he would write more stories, and the Big Money would be rolling in. He started buying newspapers from Phoenix and Los Angeles to check on jobs and home prices, because if he was going to be a writer, he wasn’t going to suffer through one more winter in Colorado, damn it.
The inevitable rejection did come, and as far as I know my father never wrote another story. He did, however, continue to gamble. Always the horses, but also casinos, which my family loves for their “free” slots cash and buffet meals featuring crab legs.
Later, in my thirties, when I started regularly publishing my own work, I often thought about (and still think about, now in my sixties) how with writing I am betting on my own version of “the come.” In card playing, betting on the come is betting on cards that may come in the future. This can be based on a bluff or a calculation, and can involve odds, probabilities, and strategies. Sending my work out to various publications and literary agents often reminds me of a gamble. I’ve done my best to calculate the odds, and even though I often come up short, I have enough wins in the plus column to keep on trying for the Big One.
Urban Dictionary defines betting on the come as, “You don’t have what you want or need at the moment, but you are betting or hoping you will have what you want or need when the time comes.” Synonyms like wishes, daydreams, fool’s paradise, and pipe dreams are also offered up.
Oddly enough, any one of those phrases describing a gambler’s life, a life that I wholeheartedly rejected, could accurately describe my life as a writer. And, also oddly enough, I wholeheartedly embrace that life.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and has lived in New Jersey, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Illinois. She does not gamble, unless you count the rare Wednesdays that she takes her mom to the Senior Center for Bingo.
December 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”
That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.
Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)
It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.
For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.
Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”
Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.
After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.
Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!
Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”
For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.
And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?
It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.