February 18, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.
You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,
If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.
I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.
Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?
Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.
In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end.
Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft. “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.
Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.
Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed? Williams writes:
Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.
Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.
Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.
Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.
In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.
You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.
Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:
Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.
She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.
Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
September 6, 2022 § 12 Comments
How arguing with yourself can sell your book.
By Allison K Williams
One key way to sell a memoir? From a “hot essay”:
- a well-argued, passionate, strongly written essay or OpEd
- published in a major media outlet
- that garners attention online and off.
Simple, right? Just write your piece and go viral! But first, let me tell you what the Powerball numbers will be this week…
Nobody can guarantee virality (not even people with millions of fans already!) Fortunately, your work doesn’t have to go viral for your hot essay to increase your audience and help sell your book. This contest has two first prizes: either hundreds of thousands of people engage with your work, or the right person does—the agent or publisher who loves your idea, or their friend/cousin/intern who brings your work to their attention. And the process of writing the essay itself will make your book-to-be even better.
What’s the difference between an OpEd and an essay?
“OpEd” comes from “opposite the editorial page,” and it’s how newspapers traditionally distinguished guest opinions from in-house, often unattributed pieces that represented the official position of the paper. Essays, in this context, are usually straightforward, first-person accounts of a significant happening or the evolution of a life around one main theme.
Essays ask questions. OpEds pose answers.
Essay titles are evocative. OpEd titles summarize the problem or the hook.
Essays start in scene. OpEds start with a lede—a single sentence that sums up the problem and your position on it.
Essays show your personal experience. OpEds show you’re an expert or have deep knowledge about your topic.
Essays use literary techniques to create emotional resonance and ask the reader to reflect. Opeds use rhetoric, supporting information & thesis/antithesis to make clear, logical arguments and call the reader to action.
Publishing a wave-making OpEd or a highly visible essay usually happens in intelligent-but-commercial media with a strong online presence rather than a strictly literary outlet. Places like Vox, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Find your ideal essay or OpEd topic by looking at the themes in your memoir.
Rather than encapsulating your plot, think about how you explain your book. There’s the plot, and then there’s the part where you tell your fellow writer, “But what it’s really about is…” Mother-daughter relationships. Overcoming addiction. Loneliness. Whatever the larger element of your book is, the thing that will make a reader say to a friend, “Reading this will help with your problem, even though your story is different.” You might have overarching themes, and themes within scenes or chapters or subplots. They’re all fair game.
Pick one of your themes. Then articulate both the most extreme position you could take on that theme and its opposite. Something like, Alcoholics shouldn’t have children/Alcoholics should have children. Center your nuanced essay or powerful OpEd on the conflict between those two ideas.
Each of these essays sold a memoir that expanded on the essay’s theme. The process of writing the short piece also helped the author solidify and define the central conflict of their book. By thoroughly examining the view opposing their own and showing their fight against it, their struggle or journey gains more tension and uncertainty for the reader.
OpEds are more likely to build your audience and platform than nail an immediate book deal—but publishing an OpEd helps answer “why me?” in your memoir proposal. Why should your book be published? Because you’re the expert in this topic. How do we know you’re an expert? The New York Times thought so, so we’ll take their word for it. Getting your opinion into the world on a smaller scale paves the way for your full-length opinion to be taken seriously, as well as helping establish the importance of what you have to say.
Whether or not you write an essay or OpEd, and whether or not it goes viral, it’s worth examining your themes and your central premise, identifying their opposites, and exploring those opposites as fully as possible. As a memoirist, you already know what happened, and there’s a tendency to support our own view (and our eventual destination) from the beginning of the book. Your work as a whole will be stronger if you reflect the constant conflict between two opposing and strongly held (not necessarily equally valid, just strongly held) ideas. Every scene will be more immediate, more visceral. Because practicing arguing both sides brings you back to when you were in conflict with yourself—when the future genuinely was in doubt.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. As a freelance editor, her clients’ work has appeared in The Sun, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The Ethel, and many more. She’ll be teaching how to pitch and publish essays and OpEds, from idea to publication, in Pitch, Publish and Get Paid Sept. 14th (yes, there’s a replay!) Find out more and register here.
August 2, 2022 § 21 Comments
By Allison K Williams
When Julie Andrews sang “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music, she stressed the building blocks. Her seven Austrian stepchildren-to-be needed to understand the scale before yodeling their heartfelt emotions through the Alps. As writers, we need building blocks, too—a sense of the seeds of our story, the events in our background shaping our family’s behavior and our own, our cast of characters, an overview of the dramatic structure.
Our readers don’t need this information.
Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start. Following a classic “worst part of the problem” prologue with chapters of backstory leaves the reader asking when we’re going to get to the good part. If your childhood is the story, great! But if the bulk of your dramatic action takes place in adulthood, get the reader there quickly. You can always flash back later if there’s a key childhood moment that explains, justifies or undermines the present dramatic action.
Readers, agents and editors make decisions—often subconsciously—from the first sentence, first paragraph and first page. Will continuing to read be an effort of will or an act of obligation? Or will the story scoop them up and carry them along?
Three common mistakes that disconnect readers from your first-page(s):
1) Starting with backstory. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter plunge the reader into the story? Or is it environment, set-up, or explanation of events to come? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph, maybe even the first two paragraphs.
For a book, see what’s actually needed in the first 50 pages. Ask a friend who hasn’t read the manuscript (and ideally, doesn’t know your story) to read pages 50-70, with no preliminaries. Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier. Have the reader also list what they wish they knew or didn’t understand. Keep those elements from the first 50 pages, but consider whether they belong before, or should be woven in later.
2) Prologue-as-overview. Editing memoir manuscripts, I see an awful lot of prologues summarizing the story to come, carefully laying out the upcoming difficulties in dealing with the situation described on the back cover. It’s common to be worried that the reader won’t “get it,” and as memoirists, this is a scary proposition. What if someone reads my story and doesn’t understand me? What if I don’t make sense? But explaining the plot in advance distances the reader and removes dramatic tension.
We already know you’re going to make it—you wrote a book about it. Keep us guessing how you’ll get to the end of the book. Take a long, hard look at your prologue—is it making an enticing promise to the reader about a powerful dramatic element or intriguing character they’ll meet later? Or is it an overview of why you’re telling this story, listing key moments and situations to come, explaining “why I’m like this”?
3) Too many nouns. When multiple people, places and things are immediately introduced, the reader doesn’t know who or what is important. If the essay opens with six family members are at the dinner table, which ones should they carefully remember? If the reader encounters a detailed group in your opening paragraphs, they get confused and mentally back off, trying to see the bigger picture and decide what/who matters. They can also start wondering if this essay is aligned with their interests, instead of getting hooked by connecting with a key character or theme in the first page.
Count the number of nouns in your opening paragraph or page. If there are more than three people, places or things, ask yourself if the reader can track them—and why they’d want to.
If your memoir has a technical element (like sailing or horseback riding) or takes place in a specific subculture (like a particular religion or ethnic group), get the reader into the flow of the story before breaking down individual unfamiliar elements. If you’re in a racially or ethnically distinct group, you don’t have to “tour guide” your culture for white readers. Rather than defining unfamiliar words or practices, let readers outside your experience bond with your larger purpose and teach themselves the details from context—there’s always Google if they’re stuck.
As for “Do-Re-Mi”? To be honest, I’d cut those first two lines. Sure, the deer is an interesting sub-character, but you could get her in later when she directly affects the action. And do we really need to know it’s sunny right away? Start with who “Mi” is, establish there’s a long, long way to run, and start running.
Allison K Williams is the Brevity Blog’s Social Media Editor. Struggling with your beginning? Join Allison and Creative Nonfiction Magazine for Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings August 24th (yes, there’s a replay!) More info/register here.
June 23, 2022 § 17 Comments
For an agent, publisher or reader to keep going, your first pages must:
1) establish the main problem or quest
2) make us want to spend time with the protagonist (not the same as liking them)
3) teach us the rules/theme of the book we’re entering.
I’ve read a lot of book beginnings this week, between submissions for today’s webinar, in which Jane Friedman and I will analyze queries and first pages, and finding examples of published books to talk about. Some of what I’m noticing: unpublished manuscripts—even “final” drafts—start with backstory. Or setting up relationships. Or giving a sense of mood, or bringing the reader into the setting. Or establishing exactly why the protagonist might develop a goal…later.
Published books start with action.
As I read sample queries, I looked up books that authors listed as comps. Books they aspire to be like; books they hope to be shelved next to. Time after time, the main problem or quest was established in the first paragraph. In memoirs:
Cheryl Strayed loses a hiking boot and tells us what she’s set out to do and why it’s such an unlikely quest. Why is she doing it? Read on…
Jeannette Walls sees her mother digging through a sidewalk garbage can, and keeps going. Why doesn’t she stop? Read on…
Suleika Jaouad starts itching. What’s wrong with her? Read on…
Some genres have first-pages conventions. I looked at middle grade books, all written in first person, all starting in the middle of a scene that summarizes the whole problem of the book. I looked at young adult books, all establishing a strong-voiced narrator about to enter a new situation they’re dreading/anticipating. Can an author do something unconventional? Sure! But they’ve got to pull it off beautifully, and they’ve got to do it on purpose, not because they didn’t carefully examine other books in their genre.
For your own pages, skip the backstory (and any big world-building chunks). Let the reader figure it out from how the protagonist interacts with the world. This includes relationships. When you find yourself writing, “I leaned against my husband Paolo, and we watched our daughter Jane,” pick either the relationship or the name. The reader can figure out the name from dialogue, or the relationship from behavior. Keep place references casual. Not, “I pulled into the gravel driveway of our two-story mock Tudor that my wife Bobbie and I bought twelve years before,” but “pulled into the driveway,” or “got home.” Don’t lay out a floor plan or a family tree—get the reader into the story. Work in details as the narrator interacts with the setting while pursuing their main action.
What makes a protagonist someone we want to spend time with? Voice is a big reason. For memoirs, tell your story like you’re telling a friend, but better. As if you’re relating that cocktail-party story you’ve told before—genuine, but a little more polished.
You’ve probably also heard of “Saving the Cat”. This concept, named by Blake Snyder, means establishing the humanity of the character we’re going to spend time with. Maybe they literally save a cat from a tree before heading into the bar for a pre-recovery binge. Maybe they show a small kindness. I love this moment from the first pages of Free Lunch, middle-grade autofiction from Rex Ogle. The young narrator has just fought with his mother in the supermarket parking lot, upset about the family’s poverty. Then:
I pull a shopping cart from the pen. One of the wheels is wonky and spins left and right instead of rolling straight. I consider putting it back, getting a new one, but then I feel bad for it. It’s not the cart’s fault it’s messed up.
It’s a beautiful moment of saving the cat, and a remarkable craft moment—we love the narrator because the narrator feels compassion. For a shopping cart. In a sentence that also states a primary theme of the book—it’s not my fault I’m messed up.
Finally, your first pages must teach the “rules” of the book. What’s the tone? What genre are we entering? How will this story be told?
Kiese Laymon’s Heavy opens rhythmically, urgently—he’s going to tell a personal story that’s hard to tell, and he has to keep going before losing the nerve. This book will be voice-driven, the reader learns. Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black opens with a dryly funny author’s note. The reader learns that this book will be self-referential, and the format is part of the story. Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts opens with references to Wittgenstein and anal sex. The reader is either 100% in for this smart, visceral journey, or they’re going to put the book down before page two. By giving your reader a sense of the rules, they are already leaning in, meeting you on the page, anticipating what comes next.
Take a look at the published books you’d be thrilled to share a shelf with. What do those pages do? Are the quest, voice, rules and theme clearly established? Does the book start with an action? What, specifically, makes you want to spend time with the narrator? Then look at your own pages—are you doing the same things? If you’re choosing not to, what else have you done that’s just as strong or stronger?
Novelists, learn to transform a floundering draft into a structured, powerful story with engaging characters and a strong hook, plus techniques to improve your writing, right away. Join Allison K Williams for POWER UP! Structuring Your Novel a virtual masterclass at the James River Writers Conference.
June 9, 2022 § 12 Comments
Memoirists have it rough. Be a great writer. Tell a compelling story. But first, shake your tail on TikTok until a million people know who you are!
I’ve written before about how platform isn’t social media—social media is an amplifier for messages you’re already sharing in other venues, and a way to stay casually in touch with your audience and your literary community. I divide platform into two categories:
- Audience grown from the author’s entire life’s work and career, in which the book is a logical next step conveying their existing mission to the world.
- Audience created to support a forthcoming book, built from more intense work over a shorter time
Ideally, both kind of platforms build on what you already love to do and have spent your life caring about. But you don’t actually need any platform at all. Memoirs can sell with very little public presence: perhaps a few essays establishing the author’s public affiliation with the topic; an awareness of where the audience for that topic exists and how the book can reach them before and after publication; just enough social media that the author understands how to use it when the time comes to amplify their messages around the topic.
The key word here is topic.
A memoir exclusively focused on a personal story is almost impossible to sell—to an agent, to a publisher, to the reading public—without either an enormous public platform, existing connections in publishing, and/or National-Book-Award-level prose. Sorry. That’s the breaks. Work on your writing, figure out the reader takeaway, query small presses, consider self-publishing.
But a memoir centering a topic—an issue percolating through the zeitgeist; a closer look at a past cultural moment; something wrong with society that you personally experienced and impacts a lot of other people—is much more likely to gain the support of a traditional publisher.
In a topic-centered memoir, you’re not just the narrator—you’re a witness.
Your story is still important, but in the larger sense, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader, and a larger issue they’re already fascinated by, or that it’s important for them to become fascinated by, as told by someone with personal experience. Your story weaves in and through the topic, paired with research, interviews or anecdotes, with thoughtful commentary, and importance beyond your level (or lack of) personal fame.
Unlikely to sell: This dead person meant a lot to me and gosh it took a lot to move on with my life.
More likely to sell: Planning for death in a climate-crisis world.
Unlikely to sell: I tried to kill myself and recovery was financially incredibly hard.
Unlikely to sell: I survived a violent crime.
More likely to sell: How our nation handles this particular violent crime is deeply wrong.
Each of the selling authors is not just the narrator, but a lens on a larger cultural concern. Their story is an example of why we should care, or an illustration of how we could handle our own situation. Not just what happened, but why it matters.
What does writing a topic-centered memoir look like before and during the writing process?
Brian Watson recently wrote about starting out with hybrid intentions but generating a personal-story focused draft:
My outline followed a unique format—one I know now is called hybrid memoir. I wanted to intersperse the things that I experienced with some thoughts about the culture as it shifted around me. There was data on the number of AIDS cases and fatalities swelled in the US. I could describe how Japan’s gay community evolved in the years before the Internet. And so much more.
When I started writing in September, however, the memoir—its original title, I Should Be Dead By Now, was grim—almost wrote itself. My first draft, completed on the last day of 2020, set most of the interspersions aside. The exorcising of memory consumed me to the tune of nearly 110,000 words.
But early readers (including me!) loved his now-few digressions on the history of gay porn, Japanese culture, and coming out in the 1980s. Watson set out to revise his entire draft, even though it felt like an enormous undertaking:
The research might have struck me as too much work when the actual, coherent transcribing of my memories was already a lot of work. Or I might have worried that those cultural backgrounds and deep-dives would bore readers.
Will it sell? We’ll find out soon (go Brian!). But many agents and editors I’ve spoken to agree: it’s much easier right now to sell a memoir with a larger cultural focus, one that illuminates something we’re all thinking about right now—or should be.
Ask yourself, how does my story reflect an important moment in our history or a problem we should all be aware of? How are my experiences reflected in and reflective of my culture, and how should that culture change? What will I need to research or investigate to support my point of view about this topic?
Traditional publishing is far from your only viable path. Maybe the memoir you personally feel called to write centers entirely on your own story. Maybe you already write National-Book-Award-level prose, or have 8M followers on TikTok (go you!). But if what you really want is to traditionally publish, to see your book in the wider world, and to reach more readers who need your words, it’s time to explore—and write!—how your story speaks to culture.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Struggling with getting your book into the world? Tired of form rejections? Join her and publishing expert Jane Friedman for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected—a sharp, honest look at what your concept, query and first pages need to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Webinar June 23 (yes, there’s a replay!). More info/register here.
May 13, 2022 § 2 Comments
By Brian Watson
I wasn’t expecting my mother’s question.
She knew that I was working on my memoir; I had called early in September 2021 to let her know that a publishing company had requested the manuscript—an exciting turn of events that later led to a kind rejection from the publisher.
I had given her a very rough outline of the manuscript. How I had grown up gay, how my failure to process my father’s death when I was fourteen affected me, my choice to move to Japan in 1988 in the hope of escaping the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the United States, and how my ten years in Japan unfolded me.
Can you send me a copy? I want to read it.
Imagining my mother reading about my roughshod sexual education (my first adolescence as a frightened queer kid) and emotional evolution (my second adolescence where feelings were finally allowed to join the physical) had me suddenly nervous. But I ordered a copy of the manuscript from the local print shop and mailed it off.
My stepfather called first, telling me he loved it and couldn’t wait for it to be properly published. My mother, he said, was still reading it, going more slowly.
She called at some point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that point in the year when, by law, family drama must occur. I overstate it, of course, but the conversation included this moment:
You write very well, Brian.
Thank you, Ma.
I like it. But I have to tell you something, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.
I had to skip over parts of it. There were things I just didn’t want to know.
That’s okay, Ma.
It reassured me to know that, as close as she and I had become over the years, we still had mutually respected boundaries.
There are some details in a grown child’s life that no parent is meant to know, especially when that grown child has the kind of early adulthood pastimes that I had.
I didn’t write a memoir to free myself, though in the process I did.
The first few pages of Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative hit hard, and I started to vibrate, emotionally. My first adolescence, the ten or so years before I left for Japan, was an awful combination of urgent sex and fear. Fear of grief—my father died when I was fourteen—and a fear of exposure as a gay man to my family.
I had put some raw content on the page (and revised it and revised it) and it unnerved me. And it was more than my learning how to cruise other men in Manhattan at age fifteen. It was a trauma I was walking back through. I had concerns beyond the writing and its impact on me, however.
Anyone who writes the story of their individual trauma, and especially those of identities that have been historically oppressed and abused, is subject to the retraumatization by ongoing perpetrators: the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonizing nation(s) in which they must live and learn to heal.
I have taken classes with other writers of memoir, I have taught a few as well, and I hear the fear. Women, queer people like me, Black Americans, and other people of color? We were vulnerable to trauma even before we started writing. Were we about to allow others to dig deeper in our wounds?
Shortly after [Abandon Me] was published, during a post-reading Q & A, a woman stood up and asked me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’
Another fear that I and other writers of memoirs share is blowback. Within the traumas we write about, there are often specific persons we can point to as those who victimized us or who intensified the trauma. People love to share the Anne Lamott epigram, If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better. I’m partial, myself, to one of the lines that Allison K Williams has taught me to use, I can’t wait to read your memoir, Aunt Martha.
Memoirs have the potential to burn bridges, to destroy relationships. I feel this keenly as I write.
…I wanted to be able to tell both stories. That felt more fair. Still, I felt the violation of that narration. [The other person’s] version was not my story to tell.
Telling my story is enough. Talking about my choices, the impacts of other people on me, and my ultimate successes—getting the manipulator out of my life, finding a way to be out of the closet professionally in Japan, of all places, and discovering the changes I could make that allowed me to finally fall in a truer love—are the ways my story will reach readers, the people I want to be present for.
As memoirists, we, too, speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others. While I know that the person helped most of all is myself, part of my own healing has come from the hundreds of strangers who have written to me, claiming that I told their story, too, and that reading it showed them that it was possible to tell.
Body Work is a work of courage. And in reading it, I was imbued with a new courage myself. What a wonderful gift to the writing community.
Thank you, Melissa.
Brian Watson is currently revising and querying his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Saitama, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. His recent essays have appeared in Brevity’s online blog. His other book reviews have appeared in Hippocampus magazine. He is the author of an upcoming article on marriage equality in the US and Japan for JETs on Japan magazine and was recently interviewed for a May episode of the Second Adolescence podcast. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com and Twitter @iambrianwatson.
May 10, 2022 § 16 Comments
I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.
I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)
My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.
Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.
What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.
A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.
Is it worth it?
Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.
No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.
Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.
No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.
Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.
No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”
Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.
No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.
If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.
Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.
No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.
Novelists, learn to transform a floundering draft into a structured, powerful story with engaging characters and a strong hook, plus techniques to improve your writing, right away. Join Allison K Williams for POWER UP! Structuring Your Novel a virtual masterclass at the James River Writers Conference.