May 5, 2016 § 19 Comments
By Allison Green
In fall 2008, as the economy was crashing, I got up every morning at five and wrote for an hour in our attic dormer. Writing sometimes feels like fiddling while Rome burns and that was especially true that fall. How bad would it get? Bread lines and dust bowls? But writing has always kept me grounded, so I continued.
I was writing about Richard Brautigan, an iconic writer of the 1960s and 1970s whose work had inspired me as an adolescent. The question driving my writing was more about that adolescent girl than about Brautigan: Who had I been and who was I now? In September, my partner and I had retraced the 1961 trip Brautigan took through Idaho that informed his famous novel Trout Fishing in America, and like all good travel, it was a journey through memory and identity, history and ancestry.
Every morning, I read one of the short chapters in Trout Fishing in America and used it as a prompt for freewriting. I found myself writing about my Idaho-born grandparents, my father’s scholarship on death and dying, my experience growing up during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, and other unexpected topics. When the new year came and the world was bruised but still recognizable, I had more than forty short pieces. Now I had to decide what to do with them.
Until that fall, my focus had been fiction. I studied short story and novel writing for my 1991 M.F.A. In 2000, St. Martin’s published my novel. But my editor didn’t want the next novel; no one did. A third novel disintegrated during revisions. And my enthusiasm for writing flagged. After our trip through Idaho, I decided to stop trying to produce a follow-up novel and to write only for myself. No one else would ever care about my adolescent crush on Brautigan, but I cared. Those autumn mornings in the attic dormer, I followed the sentences where they took me: into memories, images, sense impressions. It was the same feeling I’d had as an adolescent writing poetry; the writing revealed myself to me, and it was deeply satisfying.
Over subsequent years, I began to shape the pieces into a book. I still had doubts that anyone else would be interested, but my writing group encouraged me and the project kept me engaged. I took pieces and expanded them into essays. Several were published in literary journals.
And I found that creative nonfiction was the home I didn’t know I needed. It provided structure and focus. Now I liken it to form poetry; the truth as I remember it constrains the writing in the same way the sonnet form constrains writing. Unexpectedly, that constraint fosters innovation and surprise. It frees rather than limits.
In 2010, I took my opening chapters to the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, and signed up for a workshop with Dinty W. Moore. His advice on how to begin was an important piece in the revision puzzle. He said my task was to immediately convince the reader to spend time with adult me, adolescent me, and Brautigan. That’s what the first three chapters now do.
Last year, Ooligan Press at Portland State University published The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: A Literary Pilgrimage through Brautigan’s America. At readings in Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, and elsewhere, I had conversations with readers about how their eras had shaped them. They wanted to tell me about the writers they had loved, the literary pilgrimages they had taken, and the public events that had profoundly affected their private lives.
I am midway through another creative nonfiction project. I think of it, as I eventually did the Brautigan book, as a two-hundred-page essay. It explores my family’s experiences living in the Virgin Islands in the late 1960s; a stranger broke into our house and fractured my skull. The essay genre allows me to meander through images and scenes, circling my themes, while remaining grounded by those constraints of fact and truth.
Rome burns; Seattle had its hottest ever April day this year. But I am still writing. Still asking: Who was I then and who am I now? I have to trust that my explorations will take me somewhere worthwhile.
Allison Green is the author of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, a memoir, and Half-Moon Scar, a novel. Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, The Rumpus, Calyx, and other publications. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.
August 29, 2019 § 26 Comments
One of my favorite Leonard Bernstein songs (lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green) is a cheerful, upbeat ditty about the wreckage of broken dreams in New York. In verse after verse, a bright young thing comes to the big city from the cornfields, experiences a measure of success, then works a drudge job while never creating again. The actress flipping flapjacks, the opera singer tossing trout at the fish market, the writer who hasn’t written a word. All their dreams in pieces at their feet.
But here’s the thing about pieces: you need them to build other things. I led a writing retreat this week for three memoirists, and we got talking one night about the ways we’ve been burned, by relationships, by family, by unscrupulous writing “coaches.” I mentioned a thing I say a lot, that I’ve written about in my newsletter, a phrase that gives me comfort every time: If you like where you are, you gotta be OK with what got you there. I said that if a fairy godmother came down and said I could go back in time and have a great high school experience instead of a horrifying one, I’d say no.
I’ve gotten too much good writing from bad things.
Before the retreat, we were all at a writing conference, the wonderful Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. During the conference, I was approached a couple of times by writers with a deep, dark confession. They’d been “Anna March victims.” March—not her real name, as we all eventually found out in this wonderful LA Times article detailing the scam—recruited writers to pay her large sums of money up front, then didn’t deliver the promised editing, coaching or, as she put it, “book midwifery.” The scam kept going because the victims were ashamed to say they’d been taken advantage of, or worried that March’s literary might (as it was perceived during her grifting period) would crush them.
I feel for these writers. It’s a shitty situation to be in, to discover that your instincts were wrong, or that you’d overridden some perfectly good instincts to hand a couple thousand dollars to a con artist. I feel for their wasted money, their wasted time, their wounds from asking themselves “How could I have been that dumb?” or “Was it me? Was I just not good enough?”
But you don’t have to get conned to feel wounded. Did you get your money’s worth at your last conference? Finish your book in that pricy writing workshop? See a payoff yet from all that time on social media?
The problem with this line of thinking is seeing writing as a race with a finish line, or a game with a prize, instead of a process. There is no “done.” There is no amount of money and time you can invest that guarantees a payoff. Many MFA grads never publish. Many great books get remaindered. Great writers, including my teachers and mentors, finish books, then putter around the garden and the internet wondering, will I ever write again? Great human beings get conned, dumped, wounded physically and spiritually.
It’s not you.
And it’s not a waste.
That horrible realization you’ve been scammed is one day going to be either material, or a thing you survived. A thing that proves you can survive. That bad relationship is teaching you what you don’t want in the next partner, or how you can be a better partner (marriage #2, right here!). The failed book is proof you wrote a whole book—and you can do it again. The debilitating illness is a chance to pace yourself, to value small moments more than showy accomplishments that later feel hollow. All these things suck, and you are legitimately entitled to be angry, sad, and/or defiant about them. Feelings are facts, too. But these catastrophes and misspent time and futile efforts are also the pieces you have to work with. The fragments you will take up, sand off the edges, and shape into your story and your life.
You may not yet be thriving, but survival alone is proof you’re on the way there. You may not yet be publishing, but you have a lot to write about, a story to share. The gift of memoir is telling our readers they aren’t alone. You’re not the only one who feels like this. Experiencing the tragedy of waste builds empathy and allows us to embody our readers’ experiences, often in a way they cannot themselves process or put into words.
That’s our job. To study our craft and learn to use the best words we can to share the things that happened, the things our readers are suffering alone. To have the courage to step out of the shadows and say, me, too.
Bernstein made a song out of broken dreams, a good song, a song that’s lasted.
What will you do with your pieces?
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She has one spot left to finish your book in Italy in October. Get references 🙂
April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
January 29, 2019 § 10 Comments
My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.
When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.
Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.
I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.
Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.
Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:
- Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
- Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
- Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
- Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
- Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
- Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
- When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
- If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
- When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
- Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.
It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
August 7, 2018 § 10 Comments
I got sucked into a carpet shop last night. Wandering the old medina in the center of Tunis, my husband and I came across the clerk who’d checked us into the hotel, now on his day off. He’d love to show us a handicraft exhibit! Right here in the souk! Only one day! Closing in an hour!
We let him shepherd us down alleys and through hallways lined with shops closed for prayer time. It’s a little sketchy, but he’s from our hotel, and there’s two of us. He takes us to a souvenir store built into a former palace, and the shop owner escorts us through shelves of turquoise jewelry and caftans and mini-mosaics. We go up more stairs, and outside there’s a reasonable view of the roofs of Tunis and a terrace covered in fantastically painted tiles. The colors and patterns are some of the most beautiful decorative work I’ve ever seen. Absolutely worth getting dragged to the back of the souk. Going back downstairs, we turn left instead of right, into a room full of rugs. The “exhibit” is a carpet showroom.
Tea is brought. The merchandise turns out to be lovely, authentic, government-certified to be exportable, and reasonably priced. Still quite expensive, but $750 for a large handmade Berber, beautifully designed in 100% wool, is not bad if you’re a person who buys really nice home decor (I’m not).
We’ve considered a carpet before. It would be a nice souvenir of our years in the Middle East, something we’d own forever, something hard to get somewhere else, something not touristy and awful. So we consider the carpets here.
After half an hour, we are genuinely interested. But after another half hour, the blue ones we like are too large for the room in our house that would suit a blue carpet. The green ones are too small for the room that could host a green carpet. I don’t want a white one—one juice spill and we’re screwed. That pattern is great but not that color. That color is great but those embroidered lozenges are a little busy. But the shopkeeper and his three assistants have worked so hard to sell us these carpets, and they are truly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that with a starting price of $750 (“Includes shipping! If you take it with you, we give already 20% off!”) I could walk out of here with a $400 rug.
The mint tea is strong and sweet, and my husband and I discuss our budget in rapid-fire undertones. Everyone in Tunis has a minimum of three languages, but speaking very quickly gives a little privacy. We are now firmly in the market for a gorgeous rug.
Just not one of these.
I am truly sad to walk away from the beauty of this traditional craft. I am impressed and moved by the care and effort that have gone into 20,000 hand-tied knots per square meter. The price and time are right, but I do not have a suitable space in my home for any of these particular carpets. We thank the shopkeeper profusely. We elude the guy from our hotel (who wants to take us to a perfume shop next) by saying we’re late for dinner, and lunge randomly into a dark passageway because we are so embarrassed and sad we had to say no, even though saying ‘no’ was the right choice. Let the carpet find a home where it will sparkle with beauty instead of clashing with my walls. With someone who loves that exact pattern and color, who also appreciates the workmanship and investment of the craftswomen who made them.
When we finally reach a well-lit and charming area of the market, I turn to my husband and say, “Those rugs were so lovely and I wish we had the right place to really show one off. Let’s keep an eye out for another one?”
He says, “I really hoped we’d want one of them.”
“Me too,” I say. “You know how yesterday I was trying to explain what it’s like rejecting essays, how there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not the perfect match? That’s exactly what it feels like. I wish writers knew that.”
He says, “Tell them about the carpets.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She highly recommends Tunisia. Keep up with her adventures by joining the (free, occasional) I Do Words TinyLetter.
January 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.
None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.
I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.
Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.
The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?
The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.
The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?
Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.
It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?
Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.
The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
January 16, 2018 § 13 Comments
What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:
…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.
And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,
the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.
We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.
Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,
…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.
I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.
I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:
I helped with that draft.
I told her about that residency.
I encouraged him to submit that essay.
So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.
I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?
Because that’s not how any of this works.
- Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
- Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
- I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
- Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
- Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.
(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)
It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.
December 19, 2017 § 11 Comments
The sticky joys of packing the kids into car seats. The triumph of cramming your daily life into a carry-on, victory dance cut short by a full bottle of contact lens solution. The stoicism of sleeping on the lumpy foldout sofa.
There’s nothing so delightful as travel at the holidays.
Fortunately for writers, it turns out travel broadens the mind regardless of destination. It’s not where you go, or even for how long–the process of moving to and within a new location is stimulating, even if it’s Aunt Hildy’s instead of Buenos Aires. As Jonah Lehrer writes in the Guardian,
…problems that feel “close” – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.
Travel breaks patterns. Motion jogs loose ideas from the bottom of the brain. Even the idea of distant places makes us more creative–when a group of study participants were told the puzzles they were trying to solve came from California, they came up with more and more varied solutions than another group told the puzzles came from the office down the hall.
I’m lucky enough to travel a lot. In fact, this is the first year since 2003 I’ve spent more time at home than I have on the road, thanks to retiring from a travel-heavy job. Now I’m away only(!?!) about three months a year. Sometimes it’s super glam–I’m headed for Taiwan in a few days for hiking and hot springs, to skip Christmas and ring in the New Year. Sometimes it’s a little more prosaic, spending time with a dear friend in Shreveport, or teaching at a conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. But every time, it’s new.
I did a weird thing in Ohio last month. I’ve been slowly clearing out belongings from my former home in Michigan. It’s hard–there’s a lot of sentimental items, things I associate with my former much-loved career and my first (also much-loved) marriage. When I open up a box in the basement, I can get through about half before I start crying and decide today isn’t the day for this. But this time I packed four boxes into the car and took them with me to the conference. After class, I went back to the Best Western, put on the TV, and worked through the boxes.
It. Was. Crazy.
Clothes I remembered adoring looked faded and ill-used. Books I’d been meaning to read were unappealing. Knickknacks I once treasured? Clearly junk. I didn’t even have to ask my standard “keep or toss” question (would I buy this today for a quarter at Goodwill?), I just chucked item after item into the “donate” pile. Outside the house full of memories and guilt and loss, it was easy to see the items as they were–stuff I used to enjoy and don’t need any more. I went home with one small bag, and the Bowling Green Salvation Army got the rest.
Relocation works for writing, too. There’s a reason we go to coffee shops or co-working spaces or long for an office of our own. Place dictates function, and the function of home is to be in the feelings we’re having, connect to the people and animals present in reassuring and predictable ways. Home is not an analytical space. But travel, Lehrer writes, raises constant questions:
The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.
Are you going anywhere over the holidays? Use at least some of it as a way to think new thoughts. Lock the kids in a room with an Xbox and go for a long walk. If you’re at home, make a familiar space foreign. Leave your phone in another room and watch the interactions of the people around you at parties. Write, or read, or dream in a new coffeeshop. Eat a new food. Get on public transit and transfer randomly until you don’t know where you are–then find your way back home without opening GoogleMaps. Start a conversation with that person who looks tedious or emotionally needy and find out what makes them tick. Make some notes. And write about the experience, or during the journey, or inspired by it when you get home.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up to follow her travels with the bimonthly I Do Words adventure postcard.
October 24, 2017 § 8 Comments
(In which Katniss, Shrek and Scarlett O’Hara teach us about using larger social issues in memoir.)
Writer Stephanie Andersen and I were emailing about structure in memoir. We’d looked at the idea of ‘stasis’—that almost all books begin with an intolerable existing situation, something the protagonist must fight against and change.
Is the intolerable situation the larger situation for the world, or should it be an intolerable situation for the protagonist?
For instance, is Shrek’s stasis the fact that fairy tale creatures are being bought and sold and mistreated? Or is his intolerable situation when the fairy tale creatures are dropped off in his swamp? Is Scarlett O’Hara’s intolerable situation the fact that Ashley Wilkes is marrying Melanie Hamilton, or is it the Civil War?
We already know the answer, right?
It’s when it gets personal. When the bad world-situation personally affects the protagonist, giving them a strong motivation to act.
In a weird way, Scarlett survives the Civil War because she can’t let go of her hope to get with Ashley. Every decision she makes is based on the answer to “Will this get me closer to Ashley?” Many of the events of Gone With the Wind* happen in Atlanta because it’s a place where the war was especially bad, but the events are happening to and around Scarlett because she moved there to be closer (by proxy) to Ashley.
Scarlett’s intolerable situation isn’t “There’s a big war changing my life.” It’s “The one man I really want doesn’t want me.” Ashley’s wife Melanie, the war, and Scarlett’s own stubbornness are all obstacles of about equal weight—i.e., escaping the burning of Atlanta stops her from getting to Ashley, but so does Melanie being super nice and sweet in a way that keeps unintentionally thwarting Scarlett.
The war triggers the plot, because that’s when and why Ashley chooses Melanie, but it’s not what Scarlett is fighting against.
Is the intolerable situation in All the Light We Cannot See the war itself, the savagery of the world? Or is the intolerable situation Werner’s? That he cannot bear the thought of ending up in the coal mines? That he doesn’t want to die in darkness? You see where I’m going?
I haven’t read All The Light We Cannot See, but as an editor, I’d go with the personal. Let’s take a big literary sidestep to The Hunger Games. “This is a world that kills children on TV” is a horrible stasis for the country. But what makes the book Katniss’ story—what interrupts the stasis—is “This is a world that picks my sister to be killed on TV.” If anyone else’s name came out of the bowl, Katniss would feel bad and the story would be over at the end of Chapter One.
If your memoir or essay deals with a larger issue—recovery, a tragic accident, poverty —look for the key moment where the badness of the world intersects directly with the protagonist’s life. Watch for the big-picture place where the hero’s personal breaking point leads them to take an action toward a personal goal that also leads to changing the intolerable larger-world situation around them. In memoir, this is often a change in the protagonist’s relationship to the world, rather than changing the world itself. For example, an alcoholic’s recovery narrative isn’t going to end in a world without alcohol—but the protagonist has changed their own relationship to the world, so their worldview now shows other options/other modes of living. They have changed the world as they see it, and they’ve broken the stasis that gave them an intolerable situation at the beginning of the book.
Stephanie got specific (and gave me her permission to write this post):
I’m thinking about my memoir about my mother’s rape and wanting to know if I should frame the story about discovering my mother’s rape within the context of a world where women are often silent about their rapes or within the confines of my own world–where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.
Gentle Blog Reader, can you hear it? Stephanie already knows the answer. It’s right there in the question.
My memoir…where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.
And the larger context is there, of course—we can’t have the Hunger Games without the Games—but her memoir is about the intersection where her life is directly affected by the way rape silence exists in the larger world. The bad stasis is not that all women are silent—it’s that she discovered silence in her mother. It’s personal.
If you’re writing memoir against the background of a larger issue, definitely set up that larger situational stasis. It’s world-building—another useful concept from fiction—but for nonfiction. But your story isn’t the story of the world. It’s the story of how that situation personally made your life intolerable, and how you fought for change.
If you’re wondering how to find that intersection, read your query, or your pitch, or a paragraph summarizing your idea. What’s the stasis of the world? How does that directly affect the narrator? Chances are good the answer is right there on the page. Inside the big picture is the key moment where the issue intersects your life and starts your journey. It may take some time and thought, but listen to yourself.
You already know.
*(BTW blog readers, GWTW makes a good example but is (as you also already know) hugely problematic. There’s a great essay at Slate about how modern cinemas are handling the legendary-movie-vs-huge-racism issue).