The Accidental Essayist

May 5, 2016 § 19 Comments

ghostsBy 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.

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Allison Green

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 troutTravel 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.

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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.

 

Death Doesn’t Sell…Or Does It?

November 1, 2022 § 3 Comments

Publishing’s disconnect between “the market” and actual readers.

Karen Fine (photo: Constance Owens)

E.B. Bartels and Karen Fine met last summer and realized they have a lot in common: both drive bumper-sticker-covered Subarus, both published with nautical-themed imprints––and both faced obstacles getting their death-heavy books into the world.

Karen Fine: When I was querying The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality, I had many literary agents request material and come back with “too much death.” Eventually, I worked with an editor (Allison K Williams, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor!) who helped me reorganize the manuscript and trim some sad parts that didn’t add to the overall narrative. An agent who had asked me to revise and resubmit loved the changes and offered representation. What obstacles did you encounter when you were trying to place your book?

E.B. Bartels (photo: Small Circle Studio)

E. B. Bartels: I also had the “too much death” problem––which was hard when the book is about death. When I was querying agents and later editors, the feedback I got was: “If people love animals, why would they want to read about animals dying?” Meanwhile, when I talked to friends, family, random people I met, about what I was writing, people got excited. They told me how much they wished they had a book like this when their pets died, and then would tell me about every pet they’d ever had and how that pet died. It was a confusing disconnect between what publishing thought the market was and what the market actually was.

KF: I wrote my book in part because I felt that people could benefit from knowing more about a veterinarian’s experiences with the loss of both my patients and my own animals. Did you feel a similar need to write about this taboo topic, to help people gain a greater understanding of death and grief?

EB: Definitely. I wrote Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter because I wanted to have a greater understanding of death and grief, and I feel like a lot of people are also hungry to have that understanding. Whenever I brought the subject up, people really wanted to talk about it. I was giving them the okay to share all these feelings they’d had no outlet for before. After so many of the interviews I did for my book––even the really hard ones with a lot of tears––people would say, “I am so glad I got to talk about this.” I think American culture is closed off from talking about grief and death in general, and even more so about disenfranchised types of grief, like the death of a pet or a miscarriage.

KF: Your book was such an enjoyable read; I feel as though the title says it all – grief can be pure and loving. How did you come up with your title?

EB: I was inspired by one of the most famous human-pet relationships in pop culture––Snoopy and Charlie Brown. I also liked the exasperated tone because it mirrors the frustration around pets: good grief why do we keep doing this to ourselves if they’re only going to die in the end?  No one forces us to fall in love with these adorable, loving, kind creatures only to have them die on us, ten to fifteen years later. But having pets is such a good thing it makes the grief worth it––thus Good Grief.

KF: What kind of feedback have you been getting from readers?

EB: I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have thanked me for this book––saying it brought them closure and comfort thinking about pet deaths that happened decades ago. People have also been excited to share their own pet memories and stories, so much so that I started an Instagram account for the book to post them all. I like to think of it as a virtual pet cemetery.

KF: Your book has an interesting structure which worked so well for the subject matter – as a new writer, it’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. How did you decide how to organize the book?

EB: Each chapter starts with one of my own personal pet stories, and then I move into reporting on a specific element of pet death. I wanted to blend the personal with the researched because that’s my favorite kind of nonfiction to read (like Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui or On Immunity by Eula Biss), but also because I found when doing interviews, people were faster to open up when I shared my own experiences first. Talking about your feelings about pet death is scary, and it’s easier to do when you know you’re talking to someone who gets it. I like to think of my pet death stories as an offering to the reader––a way of saying I’ve been there too, you’re not alone.

KF: You’re ahead of me in the publishing journey; my book’s release is March 14, 2023. What advice do you have for me?

EB: As I am currently battling a miserable cold after doing book events nonstop for three months, my advice is to take care of yourself! Get sleep, spend time doing non-book-promo-related things, drink lots of fluids, and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint. Especially for books like ours about evergreen topics. Don’t buy into the hype that you have your three weeks and then the publishing cycle moves on. People are always going to have pets, and those pets are, unfortunately, always going to die.

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E.B. Bartels holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Toast, and The Butter, among others. She is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter (Mariner). E.B. lives in Massachusetts, with her husband, Richie, and their many, many pets. Find her at www.ebbartels.com, on Twitter @eb_bartels, or on Instagram @goodgriefpetsbook

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Dr. Karen Fine is a holistic veterinarian who writes about the human-animal bond, holistic veterinary medicine, pet loss, grief, and narrative medicine. Her memoir, The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality (Anchor/Penguin Random House) will be published in March 2023. She co-edits Reflections, a digital journal on Veterinary Narrative Medicine, and has written for Bark Magazine and Inside Your Cat’s Mind. Find her at www.karenfinedvm.com.


How to Embarrass Yourself at a Writing Conference

July 5, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

Let’s go to this! I typed, along with a link to HippoCamp21’s website. Within minutes, Anne said, okay.

An impromptu decision to attend a nonfiction writers’ conference made late one night on a Messenger chat. But I wasn’t serious. Not really. It cost money, and there’d be airports and there’s a pandemic, and well, I’m not a real actual author…

This was not the first time Anne had nurtured my impulsivity. One day near the end of our years at the Baltimore Experimental High School, Anne stood up at a hall meeting and asked if anyone wanted to join her hitching around Europe. Hell yeah. I sold most of my belongings: the guitar I was never good at playing, some books and records, odds and ends. We were seventeen and ready for adventure. It was the days of bogus charter flights, when unscrupulous travel agents provided clients with counterfeit credentials for membership in an ever-increasing list of imaginary “affinity groups.” We joined our esteemed colleagues on a packed flight, all of us card-carrying chiropodists.

Now we were at it again, our HippoCamp nametags displayed on lanyards, much as our chiropodist credentials were on that long-ago flight. I was feeling good about my stack of published essays (a bigger stack unpublished); a couple of exciting, ego-boosting awards; two Pushcart nominations. But look at this table of books for sale! Books with actual cover designs and narrative arcs. Books with titles I’d seen many times over the past year.

And here were all those amazing writers I’d met online. As if I were Miss Nancy on Romper Room: I see Allison and Ashleigh, I see Jeannine and Lilly. There’s Lisa. And Irene and Brian and Ellen. There’s Casey and Mimi and Barbie, and by some miracle there are even a few extra Eileens. And there’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore.

Everyone is so friendly. I’ll just go and say hello.

But no. I don’t do that.

I don’t say gracefully, “Hello Dinty, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I’ve enjoyed your webinars.”

Of course I don’t say that. It would be too normal. Not something a person like me, born without that filter keeping embarrassing comments trapped behind the glottis (where they can’t vibrate vocal cords) would ever say. Instead, I gush and blush and I’m my 12-year-old self, meeting Paul McCartney, turning the other two members of my critique group into clichés. Oh, Dear Goddess, did I really just tell Dinty W. Moore that my friends are green with envy that I get to be in the same room as his famous, revered self?  He smiles a humble, uncomfortable smile and I escape to the veggie table to distract myself with loud celery crunching. 

And I’m not Miss Nancy—not the grownup pixel-person looking through the TV screen at all the real children in their homes. I’m the kid she never sees, jumping up and down on the worn linoleum, waving at her, I’m here! Say Eileen! I’m here!

But that’s all going to change. Because the night before my flight to that conference, I’d followed the virtual advice of a virtual friend and made some business cards with my five-year-old headshot and all my social media handles and had them printed on cheap floppy cardstock at Office Depot. That’s all. But maybe next year, instead of the old headshot, there’ll be a picture of my book cover. And I’ll have Miss Nancy to thank. Because she never saw me in her magic mirror, I learned to jump up and down and wave. I had to.

At last year’s conference, I learned one thing from all my new writerly friends, both virtual and fleshy: you have to believe yourself real. You have to know that your words matter. To take risks, to stand up and wave, to feel your face flush with embarrassment but go back and do it again, to turn cartwheels across the floor if that’s what it takes to see your reflection in that coveted magic mirror of published authors.

The 2022 Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference is August 12-14 in Lancaster, PA.

Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction.  the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.

Diversion, Delight and Pleasance: Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany

September 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

In 1348, Boccaccio writes in the Decameron, Florence was gripped by plague. Seven young women and three young men (about the ratio of most writing events) meet on a Tuesday morning in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Living in the city right now sucks, they agree, and so they’ll  

betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country…and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason. There may we hear the small birds sing, there may we see the hills and plains clad all in green and the fields full of corn wave even as doth the sea; there may we see trees, a thousand sorts, and there is the face of heaven more open to view…

In an isolated hilltop castle, the characters set up quite a life. Servants make their beds with fragrant sheets, bring meals and wine, put flowers on the table. In the afternoons, the ten relax in a shady meadow, but rather than spend their minds on gambling, they decide that every day for ten days, each one of them shall tell a story. Those hundred stories form Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Writers, too, need diversion, delight and pleasance in their surroundings. With retreats, the setting is often as important as the work done there. Bringing ourselves to a new location allows focus and stimulation—and a surprising amount of creative power is unleashed when someone else handles meals.

Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams are leading an October retreat in Boccaccio’s hometown, Certaldo. In a small hilltop castle, on a terrace overlooking Tuscan fields, we’ll help ten writers create their stories every day.

Is it…responsible…to travel overseas right now? Is it risky?

ALLISON: I spent July in Tuscany, went to the USA, and was in Florence again last week. I needed negative PCR tests to board international flights and showed proof of vaccination to enter Italy, to dine inside, and to enter public indoor spaces. Tuscany has half the lowest per-capita Covid rate of any US state, has a fully-vaccinated rate of 63% and climbing, and masking indoors is required and mostly followed. I felt much safer there than in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

Much like Boccaccio’s storytellers, we’ll be largely keeping to ourselves, with private airport transfers and our own dining areas and lodging in a small, family hotel. We’ll also be testing before returning home.

What’s the difference between a workshop and a retreat?

DINTY: A Workshop is primarily designed for feedback, where we look at draft pages around a table and ‘critique’ what is working and what is not quite coming across. Our Tuscany experience is instead a Retreat, aimed at both freeing up time to expand the writing and freeing up the necessary head space to think holistically about a large writing project. We will “retreat” from the burdens and distractions of our regular lives, to aim our attention on the joys and struggles of putting words on the page and turning pages into completed books.

What exactly will Allison and Dinty do all week?

DINTY: Some days have formal classes to help get the wheels spinning, and as Retreat leaders, we’ll be sitting down with everyone individually to work through manuscript problems (and opportunities). But we will be available as coaches at every step along the way, to discuss small issues in the text or larger concerns about sustaining your writing project. Plus, we will steer you to some lovely Tuscan destinations when the time comes to relax.

ALLISON: I truly love being “at the table.” When a writer hits a tough spot, we can step out and talk through the challenge, getting them back to the page. We’ll meet with each writer via Zoom before the retreat to make a clear plan for what they want to accomplish (writers can bring an idea, a full draft, or anything in between), and meet again after returning home, to sustain the momentum.

Also, gelato. I will be eating a lot of gelato. Some of it onion-flavored. (It’s a local thing, and way better than it sounds!)

DINTY: I may not be eating the onion gelato. But I’ll be eating gelato for sure!

I’m not ready for this.

ALLISON: That’s OK! We might see you virtually in January, in Costa Rica in Feb/March, or next year in Tuscany! This is not your only chance to retreat with us. Meanwhile, please make time for your work when you can. Check into a local AirBnB for a weekend, or train your family that Wednesday afternoons are sacred. Or focus the emotional power you have on keeping yourself and your family safe in this weird time. Writing will always be there when you come back.

DINTY: These are difficult times. I admit some initial hesitancy about travel right now, but I researched how airlines are enforcing masking and safety and how Italy looks right now and I feel confident, especially given the precautions we will all be taking. A trip like this is just what I need. Maybe it is for you too, but if not, stay safe. We’ll see you another time.

I’m totally ready for this.

DINTY: We still have spots for two writers and we’d love for you to join us. Here are the full details including cost, daily itinerary, FAQ, and photos from the 2019 Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Get in touch through the contact form with questions.

At the end of their retreat, one of Boccaccio’s young men says,

I have seen and felt here a continual decency, an unbroken concord and a constant fraternal familiarity… I hold it meet, if it be your pleasure, that we now return whence we came…

That’s what we hope our writers will return with, too.

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Visit RebirthYourBook.com for information on upcoming retreats, intensives and special events. Coming in 2023: Rebirth Your Book in Costa Rica, plus Rebirth Your Writing virtual retreats in January and May.

What a Waste

August 29, 2019 § 27 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?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Three Days of AWP (Wipes Brow)

April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments

awBy 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.

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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.
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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.

Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 11 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Writing While Secure

September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments

Photo of an aerial silks performer in black leotard and green tights, upside down with arms out

Technically, my hands are still full

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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

I Wish I Wanted That Carpet

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.”

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Duck, Duck, Essay

January 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

For once autocorrect was right: it’s a duck pic.

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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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