Writing While Secure

September 13, 2018 § 20 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. She’ll be speaking at the Florida Writers Conference October 18-21 in Orlando.

 

 

On Trust’s Shore

September 11, 2018 § 9 Comments

By Christine Corrigan

When my family arrived at the beach this year, my two teenage boys ran to the surf. They didn’t hesitate as they dove through the curling waves. I wasn’t so bold. I meandered to the shoreline and let the waves lap my feet. I waded in further. I watched the kids beyond the break. At some point, they tried to pull me in. I resisted. They laughed, rolled their eyes, and told me to dive in. I moved out deeper until the waves broke against my waist. After too much agony, I finally dove.

“It’s about time,” the boys called. “What took you so long?”

Why did I do this to myself? Why didn’t I dive in like they did? I knew how. But I got stuck. What if a wave knocked me over? What if I stepped on a broken shell?

I find myself hesitating on the shore when I’m writing too, questioning my story rather than letting it flow. Learning to trust I have a story to tell has challenged me as a novice non-fiction writer. It didn’t help that I spent part of my beach vacation reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which sent me into an existential spiral of self-doubt. I wanted to edit every sentence I’d written. Not a bad thing, but I was on vacation. I hadn’t even realized I had a trust problem until my mentor focused on a couple of sentences I’d dropped into my memoir about three drafts ago. She returned the draft to me with a note telling me to “DIG DEEP HERE.” It was a “very important moment in the narrative.”

I couldn’t ignore her comment. She was the third person to make it. Why didn’t I trust the others’ feedback? But I wasn’t ready to jump in. Instead, I played with sentences, changing a word here or there, hoping that would fix it. It didn’t, any more than watching the waves would get me into the surf. Yet I knew by now I had to address it, not play around with it, however uncomfortable I was. I had to wrestle with my past, with my rocky relationship with my mom. I had to tell the truth about a lie I told to my daughter and why I told it.

Yet, there I was again, standing at the water’s edge. Stuck. I thought about what I needed to write as I walked my dog each morning. I brought my pages to therapy and talked to about what I needed to write and why it was so hard. When I commented I thought I could cover the material in a paragraph, my therapist laughed.

“Oh, it’ll be more than a paragraph.”

After days of inching toward the deep water, I remembered what I learned from Allison K Williams at a memoir workshop earlier this summer. She emphasized how important it was to “deal honestly” with our own behavior, including our bad behavior. While we could be heroes in our stories, “even heroes mess up,” Williams wrote in a recent blog, Heroes and Villains.

I had to dive into my inner villain. I wrote and rewrote. I re-read the paragraphs. I liked them, particularly the simplicity of how I ended the section. I put it down and came back to it a day or two later. Then the doubt crashed over me. I wrote a few more sentences to make my point, forgetting that once was enough. I sent the revised section to my mentor. She loved it. Except she said, I over-explained. I began moralizing. I should have trusted my original ending. My kids would have rolled their eyes at me.

I told my mentor, I needed to trust myself more.

It’s not easy.

“Trust your material,” Zinsser wrote. “It seems hard advice to follow.”

It is.

The more I trust my writing, the better it becomes. I see the weaknesses on the page, particularly my desire to tie everything up neatly. To keep the trust, I’ve given myself a new editing tool. I read my work aloud and ask myself whether my teens would roll their eyes at me. If they would, I know I did it again. I let those sentences go, scattered like broken shells on the shore, and dive.

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Christine Corrigan is a writer. Her essays have appeared in Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Grown & Flown, Purple Clover, Racked.com, Wildfire Magazine, and elsewhere. At 51, she’s working on her first book, a memoir about surviving cancer twice. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Find her on Twitter @CPCorrigan2.

Brevity Podcast Episode #10: One-Minute Memoir

September 4, 2018 § 10 Comments

It’s been five months of exciting technical challenges since the last Brevity Podcast, but we’re back! This episode, we finally reveal the fifteen One-Minute Memoirs, and our podcast host Allison K Williams and Audio Editor Kathryn Rose discuss why we chose them (from over 300 submissions!), the process of reading and listening to all the submitted essays, and key things writers can do to make their work stand out from the rest of the submissions pile.

Stream the show right from this post, or click over to  iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

 

The memoirists:

Anne Boaden earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and is writing a memoir of her active duty with the United States Marine Corps flying AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin Review and NELLE. She lives in England with her husband, two cats, one dog, flock of chickens, and brand-new baby Robin Anne Delgaard Boaden.

Tracy Royce is a poet, writer, and doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work has appeared in The Fat Studies Reader, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Affilia, and Mother of Invention: How Our Mothers Influenced Us as Feminist Academics and Activists.

Anne McGrath’s work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, The Brevity Blog, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. Ms. McGrath is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Irvin Weathersby is a Brooklyn-based writer and professor from New Orleans. His work has appeared in literary journals and magazines including Notable Black American Men Book II, Killens Review, The Atlantic, Ebony, and Esquire.

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. All the Colors We Will See, her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging is now out from Thomas Nelson, and has been named a Fall 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

MFC Feeley attended UC Berkeley and NYU. She has published in The Tishman Review, Mainstreet Rag, WicWas, Plate In The Mirror, and Ghost Parachute, and was a 2016 fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist. She won the Raven Prize for CNF and is writing a series of short stories inspired by the Bill of Rights for Ghost Parachute.

Jamie Zvirzdin teaches in the Master of Arts Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, Issues in Science and Technology, Creative Nonfiction, and CONSEQUENCE.

Evie Gold is a non-fiction humor essayist, a sushi connoisseur, and a wandering nomad.

BK Marcus is a homeschooling dad in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he also performs and coaches live storytelling.

Erin Murphy‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including The Georgia Review, Memoir Magazine, The Normal School, Field, Southern Humanities Review and North American Review. She is the editor of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State Altoona.

Georgie Hunt’s writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, NANO Fiction, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” and Brevity. She was a finalist in Black Warrior Review’s 11th Annual Nonfiction Contest, and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Karen Egee writes to savor the good and try to make sense of the rest. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and dog. They spend as much time in Maine as possible.

Rhonda Zimlich’s fiction and memoir has appeared in publications such as Crow Pie, Acorn Review, and Ink Stains. She enjoys living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, twin daughters, and feisty black cats. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts this summer.

Scott F. Parker’s book A Way Home from Oregon: Essays has just been released from Kelson Books.

Jennifer Lang writes mostly about her divided self. Her essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. She’s been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize, and is writing her first memoir.

Additional voices: Hananah Zaheer (Dubai), Iobel Andemicael (Dubai) and Brian Pastor (Chicago).

Additional music by Sergey Cheremisinov via freemusicarchive.org, and sound effects from freesound.org. Call to prayer from Learn Truth Find Peace.

Next episode, we’ll be talking about Writing Hard Things.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast. She’s writing this in Paris, yesterday she was in Tunisia, New York the day before, and tonight she’s back home in Dubai…hence our erratic podcast schedule.

Late Bloomers and Perennials

August 30, 2018 § 53 Comments

by Dorothy Rice

For many writers of a certain age, myself included, Allison K Williams’ recent Brevity blog, about the tremendous response to her tweet listing beloved authors whose first book was published post-40, struck a nerve.

…the overall response was one of relief.

Thank you, I needed that.

There’s still hope.

I needed to hear that today.

A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.

I appreciated the post as another voice in the lively conversation about ageism, sexism, racism and other biases in the publishing world. I earned an MFA in creative writing at 60 and published my first book at 61. By most any barometer, I am a late-blooming author. I have mixed emotions about the label. On the one hand, I’m proud I’m beginning to realize long-held dreams. Other times I’m defensive, apologetic, even ashamed. Why did it take me so long? Is it too little, too late? What was I doing that was so damned important all those years I wasn’t writing?

“Late bloomer” implies a judgment. We use it for children who reach developmental milestones—walking, talking, tying their shoes—later than their peers. In adolescence and adulthood, “late bloomer,” often with a sigh or a philosophic shrug, describes those who are floundering, who haven’t yet found themselves, their passion or their path. The late bloomer is failing to meet someone’s expectations, be they parents, teachers, a spouse or employer, or the standards within their field.

Is it the same with writers?

Why not drop the “late” and just use “bloomer” to describe writers who publish post-forty? Yet that stresses the absence of a word, rather than the word itself. Oh, I get it, they dropped the “late.”  If a plant-related reference is called for, I prefer perennial, as in enduring. Continually occurring. Better still, how about just “author”?

I’m betting many, if not most, authors labeled late bloomers have always written. We scribbled in journals or diaries, jotted poems in the margins of memos and reports. Sometimes there were long stretches when we only managed to write in our heads while commuting, pacing the floor with a colicky baby, or grocery shopping on the way home from work. We found little ways, palliatives, to keep the writing dream alive, fertilize our ideas while life took over and the urgent left little time for the important.

I’ve done no survey, scientific or otherwise, but it does seem that “late-blooming author” and “woman” often go together. Attend any writing conference or workshop and chances are a majority of the seats will be filled with women of a certain age, there to resuscitate dormant dreams and dusty manuscripts. A panel at the Hippocamp 2018 creative nonfiction conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “Breaking Into Writing After Forty,” was comprised of five women writers (myself among them). Scanning the offerings at next year’s AWP Conference in Portland, five women are slated to present “Better Later? Success and the Late Blooming Woman Author.”

What is it with all these late-blooming women writers? I imagine many, like me, spent their young adulthood and middle age juggling careers, kids, relationships, housekeeping and the rest. Not that there aren’t many men who do the same, and thank goodness for that. But we are still nowhere near gender equality in sharing all family and household responsibilities. Hats off to my younger writing colleagues who manage to keep at their craft while their children are still young and their careers on the rise. I wasn’t able to find the bandwidth.

Is the male attorney or doctor publishing a first book post-forty considered a late-blooming author, or a professional who parlayed his accomplishments in one field into another? I challenge myself to see my own life’s trajectory in a similar light.

The time I’m now able to devote to writing is relatively new—post-retirement, post-parenting, past caring how my house looks and whether supper is on the table—but it’s not as if I wasn’t taking care of business all these years. Let’s give ourselves credit for all the lives we’ve led and the myriad ways they have informed and inspired us as writers.

It’s not as if we weren’t blooming all those years. We were flowering, nurturing and gathering memory seeds. With a lifetime of experience to tap into, it’s time to plant and feed those seeds, to write the life stories we’ve lived.

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Dorothy Rice is the author of The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.

What’s Stopping You?

August 21, 2018 § 31 Comments

Multi-tasking is the key

Yesterday I went viral on Twitter:

And aside from 17 replies of “But I’m 97,” a few scoldings on how I shouldn’t glorify Laura Ingalls Wilder, 12 “What if I’m just lazy,” and a couple of crabapples sniping about factual accuracy (yes, I should have said “novel” for Twain), the overall response was one of relief.

Thank you, I needed that.

There’s still hope.

I needed to hear that today.

A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.

It was fun to see so many retweets and likes, and I checked in periodically while putting together a PowerPoint for a workshop next weekend, “25 Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life.” I made pretty slides about saying no to tasks that don’t help your writing, and how many “obligations” we take on aren’t really things we’re obliged to do, and apps and tools to manage our time. Then I edited two hours for a client, went to the library and printed some maps I needed for novel research, refilled a prescription long-distance and answered some email.

My day also included a panic attack, where I wept and vented on the phone to my best writing friend, because I’ve just finished a writing workshop and booked myself three days of personal writing time in the same location, and I’m spending that time working for other people.

Not writing my book.

I feel my age closing in, the sense that I’ve “wasted my life,” which is patently ridiculous given that 1) I’m only in my 40s; and 2) I’ve already done three successful careers which, surprise! gave me shit to write about.

But in a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”

I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.

I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.

I don’t want to quit traveling.

And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing. They demand physical and mental energy. That’s what we forget when planning our writing lives: it’s not the obligations we chafe at that are hard to shuck off—It’s the stuff we love.

Many writers love being a good spouse. Parenting well. Looking after a family member who needs help. Those aren’t writing hours.

We enjoy living in a nice place and keeping it up. We like working to pay rent and food and the care of people who need us. We take pride in doing well at that work—some of us even adore the work itself. Those aren’t writing hours.

If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things. I contribute to the house with money and work, but after twenty primary-breadwinning years, I’m not self-supporting any more. My best writing time is often away from my husband by thousands of miles. And it’s hard to say no to editing clients, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can help them best.

Small things help: I pop in my earbuds and put on the song that launches me into one book or another. I maximize my time by turning off wifi and my phone. I updated my website to say I’m not taking on new writers, because it’s easier to have potential clients say no to themselves before emailing me.

I’m privileged that these are options I have; your barriers may be different and much harder to surmount. But it’s easy to make time for writing by saying, “I’ll get the kids to do their own laundry and start doing groceries only once a week.” It’s much harder to look at things we love and value, and decide we might love writing more. Especially when we aren’t living on our writing money, the time we spend can feel like self-indulgence, like a frill.

But we’d tell our treasured friend, You deserve that time. We’d say, Modeling dedication and focus is also good parenting. We’d tell them their spouse should be supportive, and applaud the spouses who were.

Let’s tell it to ourselves, too. Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her adventures with the monthly I Do Words TinyLetter.

 

Are We There Yet?

August 16, 2018 § 14 Comments

We’re not there yet

Here’s what I remember about high school: General name-calling, a particular pejorative yelled and hissed, shoving, spitting, dating a lot of too-much-older guys. I finished (minus a week or two), but I didn’t graduate—I’d skipped too many classes, due to what I now know was clinical depression.

Here’s what I wrote about high school: An award-winning, profitable one-woman show; a recently-completed novel; several published essays.

I wouldn’t trade back.

If my conception of the Almighty Being came to me in a burst of light and said, “You can go back in time, and you will be popular and liked and have a fantastic high school experience,” I’d say, “No thanks.”

If the Almighty Being came to 13-year-old me and said, “You know how middle school really sucks right now? Well, you can either have a terrific high school experience or you can wait 10 years and perform a show audience members love and send emails about, and wait 10 more years to finish a book you’re very proud of,” I’m pretty sure 13-year-old me would say, “I’ll take the work. Bring on ninth grade, mofo.”

I tell this to another writer at the conference we’re at, adding, “If you’re OK with where you are, you have to be OK with how you got there.”

She nods. She tells me, maybe if you’re not OK with your past, you’re still on the journey. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace or closure that makes the past OK.

Another writer chimes in. One of her students just emailed. The student was finally able to finish the memoir that seemed unfinishable in last year’s class, because the closing event was something in her life this year. Her story literally hadn’t finished. The end was unwriteable because the ending hadn’t happened yet.

Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by the people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memoirists stick to the truth, and if the truth isn’t done yet, we’re still stuck with it. But the truth is a gold mine of details and happenings that we’ve survived, and that survival is itself the story.

My first memoir was unsellable, largely because I hadn’t finished living the story I was trying to tell. I couldn’t wrap up a plot about depression while I was still depressed. I wasn’t at the destination; I hadn’t reached closure.

Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing on the page, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down what happened, checking facts, realizing, That happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we can embrace what happened.

Am I still hurt by the actions of kids around me? Yeah, a little. But mostly, my past is a rich trove of information. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Every terrible detail I tease out to make a novel deeper, every time I use a bad experience as a good essay, puts me in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m OK with what it took for me to get here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.

Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past helps you recognize and own it. Maybe you’re still living your memoir with no end in sight. Flip back through your pages. Can you tell book-you: Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and processing and release still to come.

Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be presenting Writing the Memoir Proposal and Twenty-Five Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life at Hippocamp in Lancaster, PA, August 24-26.

 

 

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. She highly recommends Tunisia. Keep up with her adventures by joining the (free, occasional) I Do Words TinyLetter.

Don’t Buy Your Dream

July 27, 2018 § 10 Comments

Like this, but the cheeseburgers are your trust in the literary community

You may have seen Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent investigation of Anna March in the L.A. Times. March, as she was most recently known, ripped off writers by selling phony coaching/editing packages, offers to read their work and connect them with agents, and expensive writing retreats that didn’t happen.

March branded herself an intersectional feminist, sensitive to issues of race, class and LGBTQ concerns as well as gender, and also supportive of victims of trauma. She positioned herself as a connection between worlds: the published and unpublished, the successful and the hopeful.

Anna March crossed my path in a Facebook group for women memoirists. As a moderator, I messaged Anna a few times asking her to stop posting frequent, pushy ads for her services. I told her once privately, “Honestly, you might sell more coaching if you sounded a little less urgent/needy.” Finally, myself and the other moderator made a new ad policy: no more than once every two weeks. I ended up counting days for Anna. But I still tagged her in discussions about writing coaches.

Anna conned writers who took her at face value. But the literary world is all about face value. You are who you know; you are where you’ve published. Waving the “published in Modern Love” flag creates instant cred. Speak at enough conferences and you’re an expert. We’re told to overcome imposter syndrome, trumpet our own accomplishments, sell ourselves for the best price we can get.

We’re also told to invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for others so one day they’ll read for us; or hire an editor to tell us how to fix our work.

After the revelations of Anna March’s literary grifting, Roxane Gay tweeted:

and talked about learning to write (read the whole thread, it’s great):

Guys, look… there are good and great writing coaches out there, but… you do not need a writing coach. You don’t need an MFA. You do need to write and read a lot. Feedback CAN help you improve as a writer. There are virtual and real writing groups out there

Even when I was a young writer who did not know shit about shit, who did not know that you could get a degree in writing, I did not pay someone to read my writing. I just wrote, constantly. And I am not special. This is how most writers develop.

She’s right. You don’t ever have to pay anyone to read your work. I say this as a professional editor, as a writing coach who has helped people write better and get published, and charged them money for those services. But that’s not ever required.

You’re not on the outside of some magic literary community because you’re broke, or a parent, or can’t get time off. Writing’s just plain lonely. You do it by yourself. No matter how many conferences or mentors or writing buddies you have to sit down with, in the end it is you and the page. You and the story. You and the words.

It feels lonely because it is.

It feels hard because it is.

It feels like it takes forever because it does.

There is no way to get better at writing besides sitting down and doing it.

Can it help to hire someone or go to a workshop or take a class? Absolutely. It helps to have accountability and assignments and exercises. It helps to have an outside eye, whether you pay them or trade manuscripts. It helps to feel like someone is listening. It helps to bounce ideas around with someone whose creative instincts you trust.

You can protect yourself:

  • Get a sample edit and references. If you’re in a Facebooks writers’ group, ask who’s worked with this person. Usually people who feel good post publicly and people who know something shady will message you.
  • ONLY pay through PayPal’s “goods and services” option (not “friends and family”) or with a credit card. Don’t pay a lump sum; start with a couple of sessions, or a deposit or percentage.
  • Insist on accountability from people you pay. Missed deadlines should have a definite reschedule and a reason. Missed meetings should be promptly rescheduled. If you sign up for a writing workshop, email the hotel and ask about the rooms before you purchase travel.

Does it help to spend money on your writing career? Sure. But it helps like a personal trainer helps you get fit. If you’re focused and ready to work, money can help you over some speedbumps. But if you’re focused and ready to work, you can get over them alone, too.

No amount of money replaces your own hard work. Don’t try to buy your dream. You don’t have to. You can’t. But you can make it happen for free, one word at a time.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. 

Should You Quit Writing?

June 21, 2018 § 29 Comments

I feel GOOD about my work!

A writer asked me:

Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.

I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.

I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.

All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?

Nobody I know wants to read my work. Should I quit writing?

The short answer is no.

Writing is a skill. Anyone who puts the time in can learn to write, the same way anyone can learn to draw from life or play the cello. We won’t all become Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma, but anyone can be taught to make a recognizable portrait that’s pleasant to look at, or competently execute a sonata and bring enjoyment to an audience.

What about talent? Aren’t some people naturally better at writing than others?

Yes. Some writers start out better at making sentences or telling stories. Some writers discover their unique voice earlier in their work. But “talent” isn’t what makes a writer good—talent just makes practicing and learning more pleasant. A tennis player who can already consistently hit the ball and instinctively see where it’s going will have more fun practicing, and learn more subtle techniques faster, than the player who is still learning about trajectories and having to process each bounce anew. But if the less-talented person puts the time in, they’ll learn to see the angles too. They may have to practice more, and that time may be more arduous, than the person with a head start. They may be headed for a coaching job or 106th seed rather than Wimbledon’s Centre Court. They may work a 9-5 job to support their practice costs. But they’re still a tennis player.

As writers, we look for the magic triangle:

  • Competence in sentence construction and dramatic structure
  • A story to tell and the honesty and bravery to tell it
  • A unique, genuine voice

Writing competence and a solid story make compelling work on the page, whether or not the writing is “great” by some subjective literary analysis. Strong voice can compensate for messy syntax or a less-intriguing story. All three of these elements can be honed and improved with practice, careful reading, writing workshops, and seeking out and accepting quality feedback.

It’s a lot of work to be good in all three areas. I’ve let go of editing clients who weren’t putting in the work—they were plenty capable of improving, but they felt they’d already done enough and wanted me to pick up the slack. Another writer commented about my Seven Drafts process, “Seven drafts? Just kill me now, save me the agony.” But part of being a “good” writer is accepting the enormous amount of work, including the 40-50% of the work that happens after we think we’re “done.” Part of writing is overcoming constant discouragement, and that’s a learned skill, too. Part of writing is our own idea of “success”—we’re not all going to be New York Times-bestsellers and have our books made into movies, but there are lots of happy working writers whom most people will never read or hear of. What’s your own realistic path? Writing a thriller? Sure, a NYT list might be in the future. Writing a quiet memoir? A more-achievable dream would be to influence people’s lives and connect with readers having similar experiences.

It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble. Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people with less skill are unable to recognize their lack of ability, like reality talent-show contestants unaware they’ve been made finalists to be mocked. It’s frustrating to advise changes and have an author dig in their heels in the belief their work is perfect and all the readers “just don’t get what I’m saying.” Generally, the more sophisticated work we’re capable of, the more we’re also able to recognize our own shortcomings. It’s a good sign when we see the flaws in our writing, because problems can’t be worked on without knowing they’re problems.

I’ve never told anyone to quit writing. I’ve never read anyone’s work who I didn’t think could improve with practice and time. Yes, writing well is hard and frustrating and discouraging and probably a lot more work than most of us originally expected.

No, you shouldn’t quit.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is now available as a webinar.

Free Money for Writers

June 12, 2018 § 6 Comments

Clickbait much? Here at Brevity, our Shameless Self-Promotion Department loves this terrific talk on applying for grants, cultivating patrons, and other sources of funding for your projects and your writing life.

Getting financial support isn’t exactly no-cost—grant applications are time-consuming and crowdfunding takes real planning and dedication. But with an understanding of the process and what appeals to public, private and organizational funders, chances are you’re going to be able to drum up some cash for a project that needs more support than you can give it alone.

Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer, gives this great (free!) webinar for the Alliance of Independent Authors, about the nitty-gritty of writing grant applications, key steps in setting up crowdfunding campaigns, and other sources for financial support. At 33 minutes, it’s a great listen while you’re getting ready for the day or commuting this morning. If you’re a visual learner, her slides are clear on the major points, too.

Two major takeaways:

…Writing a grant is telling a story. It should have a plot [this is where I am now and where I want to go], a protagonist [me, and since the panelists don’t know me, I have to create a memorable character], stakes [this is why you should care], and a strong theme [this is the significance it will have in the world].

…most successful crowdfunding campaigns are funded 25-33% in the first 24 hours, and by donors who have been cultivated in advance.

Getting financial support isn’t a mystery or reserved for a special few. You can do it, too, with a little planning and a chunk of prep work. Jane lays out how and what to do—and even if you aren’t ready to apply for a grant or start a Patreon, she gives great, specific advice on how to present who you are and what you do to your own community and your professional world.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and a big fan of free money.

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