“Here’s Looking at You, Writer!”

May 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Casablanca Bogie and IngridA guest post, in black and white, from Rebecca Lawton:

I’ve long believed that many lines from the Casablanca screenplay (penned by Epstein, Epstein, and Koch) may come in handy to writers as comeback statements. Because I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, all within the last five years, I’m quite familiar with the valuable advice the script provides. Here I have ranked some of the classic film’s pithier statements from tenth to first place in terms of their relevance to us literary types.

10. “You can believe that if you like.”

Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) says this to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) when he accuses her of running out on him because life on the run would be too hard. A writer accused of wasting time by looking out the window, scribbling in a notebook, or hanging around a bar may want to retort this same line, icily. We all know we are really doing research.

9. “That is my least vulnerable spot.”

Louis Renault (Claude Rains) makes this claim when Rick threatens to put a bullet through his heart. A writer swatted on his or her weary posterior may want to point out that it’s already numb from sitting and therefore immune to feeling.

8. “Let’s get out of here. We can drive all night.”

Sam (Dooley Wilson) wants to whisk Rick away before he can get involved again with Ilsa. Any writer wishing to flee a demanding manuscript could use this to escape, at least temporarily.

7. “Aren’t you ever going to bed?”

Again, Sam to Rick. A question to put to family members, if the latter are up late and disturbing the writer’s much-needed, brain-restoring, beauty-preserving rest.

6. “I never make plans that far ahead.”

Rick brushes off his girlfriend Yvonne, who wants to know if she’ll see him that night. Writers can use this reply on anyone, anytime, if they wish to stay ready for the all-sacred call of the muse that might come at any instant.

5. “You’ve got to hide me!”

Signor Ugarte (Peter Lorre) appeals to Rick to save him when his arrest is imminent. A writer might need to request this of her roommate if Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Fuller Brush Man happen to call during her writing time.

4. “How long was it we had, honey?”

A drunken Rick inquires this of his lost love, Ilsa. An excellent question to ask of a workshop leader who is keeping the stopwatch for a timed writing.

3. ”Here’s looking at you, kid.”

The legendary toast repeated by Rick in honor of Ilsa. The writer may wish to say this to his reflection in the mirror. Sometimes we’re our only company.

2. ”I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Rick’s famous line to Louis at the end of the movie. The writer could whisper this to her pen, for example, or her keyboard. Whatever works.

1. “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”

Rick claims that the troubles of the world are not in his department. He’s done saving the world. This is a lesser-known line from the movie, but it’s one of my favorites. My writer self often reminds my heroic self that if I’m going to save my own soul, much less the world, I need to put myself first long enough to write new words every day.

Use this line. You will need it–and the others–when the world comes calling on your time for every other endeavor but your art.


Rebecca Lawton’s debut novel, Junction, Utah, is available as an original e-book from van Haitsma Literary. Her essay collection about life as a whitewater guide, Reading Water: Lessons from the River (Capital Books), was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and ForeWord Nature Book of the Year finalist. She has published work in Orion, Sierra, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Shenandoah, THEMA, More, and other magazines, has won the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prize nominations (in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry). Find her online at www.beccalawton.com.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm

December 18, 2020 § 19 Comments

By Lisa Kusel

A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…

…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.

Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)

While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”

Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:

It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.

Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.

A nobody.

As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London. Alas. She didn’t blurb it, but she did mail me a lovely handwritten note on personal stationery. She apologized that she couldn’t find the time to read my book as she was too “snowed under,” but she wished me all the very best.

By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called my book a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)

Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…

So, I will tell that woman in my Facebook writing group that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
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Lisa Kusel is the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the well-blurbed novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. Read more of her essays on her blog and follow her on Instagram.

Looking Backward

October 20, 2020 § 17 Comments

So what?

It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?

Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.

What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?

Reflection.

Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.

The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:

By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.

There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.

Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.

Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:

The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.

The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.

You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:

[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”

Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.

Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?

Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?

The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.

 

Finish Your Book

August 20, 2019 § 11 Comments

I’ve found ‘one weird trick’ that gets me to the end of major projects:

Doing one thing.

It seems so simple, and yet this morning I:
Checked email
Made breakfast
Gave feedback on pages
Tore apart my closet looking for a thing I tucked away while I was on vacation, and had hidden so well I couldn’t find it (my closet is now extremely tidy and partially Konmari-ed)
Dealt with the air conditioner repair men
Washed dishes

You get it. Chances are, you do it too. And it doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad writers. We’re human. We got stuff to do.

But three months ago I really needed to finish a website. I made it my “weekend” project, and worked only on website copy and pictures and html code until I was done. No editing, no other writing, no reading, no errands. It took four days. But it’s done.

Two months ago I needed to finish a book proposal. Weekend project. Blinders on. Six days. But it’s done.

I don’t have kids and I set my own work hours and my spouse is beyond supportive. But it’s still hard to pick one thing, figure out how to tackle it, and do it until it’s done. It’s hard to stay focused when totally legit things want our attention (I did shower and cook dinners).

That’s why so many writers love retreats. A blissful week away in which someone else cooks and cleans, and no-one can “Hey Mom!” or “Ummm…Dad?” or “I need that presentation” you. But even on retreats it’s hard to get started. And if you’ve only got a week, you need a plan. A big-picture view of what needs doing and how.

At home, you can enlist a writer friend. Split an Airbnb for a week, read each other’s manuscript before you go and give specific, prescriptive feedback about what to work on in what order. Not “your book should be like this” but, after hearing your goals, “Restructure the plot, then fix the ending, then rewrite chapters 8-10.” Check in with each other daily for accountability.

But if you have time and funds, we’d like to suggest a retreat…that comes with a manuscript read. (This is where the ad part starts!) Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams would like to invite you to Costa Rica.

Next May, we’ll be hosting 10 dedicated writers in a luxury eco-lodge overlooking the Pacific. Organic food that you don’t cook. Beautiful grounds you don’t mow. Probably sloths. Definitely monkeys. But most importantly, we read your entire manuscript before you arrive, and with you, make a work plan to finish a draft, a proposal, or your book, before you leave. Don’t have a book yet? Write the first draft with us, and we’ll read it when you go home. Either way, it’s a chance to focus deeply on the work that’s most important to you.

If a travel retreat isn’t in your bag, grab a friend and start picking dates for your own week of fabulous productivity. But if you think finishing your book in tropical paradise might be for you, we’d love to spend that time together.

More information about Rebirth Your Book retreats. (If you’re already close to done, there’s room for two more in Italy in October!)

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Please say hello if you’re at Hippocamp!

What’s Stopping You?

August 21, 2018 § 32 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.

 

You Can’t Wrap a Five-Figure Deal: Gifts For Writers

December 14, 2017 § 8 Comments

Happy Third Day of Hanukkah! The season’s closing in–“Festive Winter Holiday” time, as the department stores around Dubai call it–and you may be wondering what to get the writers in your life. Or someone you love has asked that horrifying question, “What do you want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Diwali*/Yule?”

…An agent, book auction and five-figure deal?

…Jesus to show up and explain pointedly, he really meant the part about taking care of the poor and the sick?

…A time machine to peek at 2020 and see if building a survival shelter in the present is a smart idea?

Sadly, none of these items are (currently) available for purchase. But there are plenty of other gifts for the writer in your life, and for you as the writer in someone else’s life.

Classic elegance: Buy their book, preferably from your local indie bookstore, but here at Brevity we also understand the desire to never leave the house again. Fortunately, Powell’s also ships. Double points: buy two and give one as a present to someone else, or leave it in a Little Free Library. Already own it? Review their book online!

Stocking-stuffer: See what books you’ve bought in the past six months but haven’t reviewed yet. Spread some goodwill around by writing some quick thoughts and clicking four or five stars. Especially if the writer is at less than 50 reviews: crossing that threshold really helps their visibility online. Copy-paste Amazon reviews to Goodreads, because every little bit helps.

Fellowship: Take a like-minded friend to a reading at your nearest bookstore, no matter who the writer is and whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. If it sucks, you’ll have text-LOLs for days. If it’s great, you’ve made a discovery. Either way, buy a copy of the book and know that it’s balm to a writer’s soul when strangers come to their reading.

Peace of mind: There is no vision more horrifying than the Blue Screen of Death. Why not gift your favorite writer a large-capacity hard drive or a subscription to a cloud backup service? When the ruin of the laptop lies before us, the sole comfort is knowing your manuscript’s safe.

Creative time: Offer to watch the babies for two hours, once a week, for a few weeks, so the writing parent can get some words down. If you’re lucky, she’ll schedule for naptime. Otherwise, enjoy looking at what the kids see, or finding out what they’re interested in. If you write YA, middle-grade or picture books, this is research–the gift that keeps on giving!

Creative tools: Have they been considering Scrivener? Final Draft? A creativity or organizing app? If you’re not sure exactly which one, there’s always an iTunes gift card, with a personal note saying you thought they liked X, but this is flexible just in case. For special bonus points, find out EXACTLY what kind of notebook they use, and stock them up on a few. (I love these red Moleskines–nice enough to feel special, not so fancy that they’re “too good to use.”) Likewise, do you know EXACTLY what kind of pen they like? Remember, a $935 pen is useless to someone whose words flow from a 17-cent Bic…and leaves them around everywhere.

Literary Citizenship: Sponsor your friend–or make a donation for scholarships–to a writing conference. Gift subscriptions of your favorite literary journals, or ones you know they’d like to be published in. We’re all supposed to be reading where we want to submit, and subscriptions aren’t cheap. Help their road to publication by getting them in the habit of reading in their venue. And Brevity is always happy to accept a donation in honor of a friend.

For yourself: If you don’t have an Amazon list, consider making one. We all try to be good writer buddies by reading for others when we can, and most of the time it’s a trade or a deposit in the favor bank against future need. But every so often, we end up doing professional-level or time-consuming work for someone we’re not comfortable billing. It’s easy to say, “I’m happy to help out, and will you get me something off my Amazon list?” They can choose whether to get you a great new book, a great used book, or that Belgian linen duvet set.

Remember, if you do some holiday shopping on Amazon, starting at Smile helps Brevity with a small percentage of your purchase at no extra cost.

And if you’re stuck awkwardly trying to tell people your desires, or wedged between “Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything” and the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, you do need to get them something? Just send a link to this post. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.

*Yes, I know Diwali was in October but it’s never to early to stock up on tea lights and gold jewelry.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.

Reclaiming Your Time

December 12, 2017 § 21 Comments

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me:

I swear there was an outlet back here last year.

Twelve children quarreling
Eleven guests arriving
Ten addiction triggers
Nine Secret Santas
Eight dinners cooling
Seven picky eaters
Six spouses slacking
Five traaaaaa-ffic jaaaaaaams!
Four messy rooms
Three loud screens
Two touchy in-laws
And an obligation Christmas party.

I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live in a country where December is a festive shopping season. I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past ten Christmases, and this one I’ll be in Taiwan.

Not everyone is that lucky. My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”

My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”

An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three pairs of crutches in three weeks. “They’re just going to have to do overtime.”

I suspect, Gentle Reader, you have similar items on your holiday list. In-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was gone the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Writer-friends who didn’t get Cat Person.

But your holiday experience is up to you. You don’t “have to” do anything. You may not like the consequences of not doing it, but it’s still a choice.

So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list right now of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, and choose your favorites. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep and results in a carload of baked goods–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do.

All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.

What a shame our schedule filled up so much–let’s do something in January.

Our budget is gone–it just devastates me we won’t be able to make it.

Goodness, it sounds like that situation really bothers you–I hope it gets sorted out.

Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “I agree, it’s just awful how things turned out. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”

If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)

Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. It’s not even your job to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I love doing. If you’d like to plan it, let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”

Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Betty has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Sally’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.

Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, mutter “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.

And if all else fails? Hit me up. I know a great noodle shop in Taipei.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you want to hear about Taiwan, please do sign up for her bimonthly adventure news.

Pick Up Where You Left Off

June 29, 2017 § 8 Comments

Now that’s enthusiasm!

I have two best friends (lucky me!). My Functional Best Friend is someone I speak to most days, text every day, and often have three simultaneous email conversations going with. I met my Best Friend of Record in high school, she was maid of honor at my wedding (both of them), and lives in another country. We rarely tweet, email perhaps once a season, Facebook each other only for major life events. About every other year, we get an in-person visit–we just pick up where we left off.Writing projects work this way, too. Here at Brevity, we’ve lately blogged about finishing our work. But there’s more than one kind of finishing–there’s dogged, day-to-day, getting through the steps in order, staying connected; and there’s that project that’s been on the back burner for months or years that we’d really like to get back to…

one day…

when we have the time…

and can dig out our notes…

and have a few solid hours to really dive in…

Newsflash: That day is never coming. Our calendar is unlikely to magically pop up “Today Is The Day You Can Focus Entirely on That One Project.”

If there’s a book, or an essay, or a story on the back burner, we have to choose to bring it into our daily work. Some of us are diligent, fortunate, and financially able enough to go to writing residences, and we do get those magic days to focus entirely on one project. But that’s rarely a year-round solution. What can we do to get back to the work?

  • Take some low-pressure time to assess what’s in the files and think about what we really want to finish. Melissa Ballard sat down with some index cards and her unfinished essays and asked of each one, what am I waiting for? What’s holding me back? I’ve used a process of looking at my specific life goals and a list of projects and asking, which project gets me closer to what I want? Stick drafts up on a wall and see what calls your eye. Imagine you’re boarding a strange lifeboat and you’re only allowed to take one project with you. Choose the easiest one, or the one you’re most afraid of. And without the stress of “I have to write something good right now,” scribble a bit about what steps need to happen to move forward. Consciously choose to set other projects aside to wait their turn politely instead of shoving each other and guilting over your shoulder.
  • Start touching it almost every day. Not a minimum number of words or pages, but taking five minutes on the bus to actively think about the project. Or opening up the file and reading one page. Or making voice tweaks or grammar fixes on a few pages or a chapter. Seriously, just touching it. So when you are ready to write, it feels like picking up where you left off rather than a new endeavor.
  • Use a trick or a tool. Choose your most-supportive and non-critical reader and read them a couple of passages you really liked when you wrote them. Last night I shared some of a novel I’m working on with my decidedly non-literary husband. I kept finding more bits I liked and wanted to read him. His questions and his “That’s not too bad” (he’s British, so that’s practically 76 trombones of enthusiasm) made me excited to dive back in. I also tend to make a playlist for each large project I’m working on, and often the opening song is enough to bring me back to the mood and voice of the piece.

Starting again doesn’t have to be from the beginning. You don’t have to rethink the whole project or make a huge plan or set aside two weeks when your decks are clear (let me just pencil that in for never). Sometimes your project is the person you talk to every day. Sometimes you can just pick up where you left off.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She believes we should all start measuring enthusiasm in trombones.

Go Ahead. Prompt Me.

December 1, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino 

I once took a delightful prose workshop from a noted essayist and poet. His opening prompt was single word, an entry in his word-a-day calendar, and he required us to use it in the writing assignment: GORGONIZE. I was unfamiliar with the word, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect.  I found myself writing about two rustics who found a word-a-day calendar at Walmart in a remainder bin and used the words they’d learned – often improperly, always unsuccessfully – in pick-up lines directed to college women at a bar. After stumbling home a bit inebriated, the younger of the boys was excoriated by his mother for drinking. “Do not gorgonize me with them yellow eyes,” he spat at her, causing her to back off immediately.  

Using both the assigned word and the real-life circumstance of its discovery – a calendar – in my piece made for a satisfying writing experience, even if it wasn’t the best prose I’d ever written. This experience launched new thinking about prompts; how minimal the spark can be to light up a piece of writing. Finding an obscure, highfalutin word remains for me an occasional way to break a logjam, a portal to freewriting when I am unsure what to write on a given day.

At the other end of the spectrum is David Means’ wonderful short story “Depletion Prompts” (New Yorker, November 1, 2021), written entirely in prompts generated by the narrator himself. They are so highly specific that the prompts themselves form not only a complete story, but also a meta-story about the insecurities of the writing process.

In nonfiction, I have relished using photographs and postcards as prompts, sometimes focused on what is shown in the picture, sometimes on what hovers just behind or beyond it. An old postcard from the Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago catapulted me into a story about my German great-grandfather’s early days in the U.S. A discomfiting polaroid of me in fifth grade seated next to my teacher, Sister Mary Alphonso, bore fruit in a creative nonfiction story about the spelling bee in that class, the photo taken shortly after my crushing defeat.

Often it isn’t what’s in the picture that’s interesting, but what occurred beyond its edges, either in space or in time. Responding to a prompt to write about what isn’t seen in a photo I chose, I wrote about the eventual cancers of the three relatives in it, and my food memories before and during their illnesses, in a recently-published essay called “Cancer Buffet.”

Some prompts encourage the writer to combine unrelated material. For example, one instructor asked workshop participants to combine a childhood memory with a story from the news, from a different era than the memory, that has stayed with the writer. Sometimes it’s futile to force a combination, but I saw at least one magical result in that workshop, from an eighteen-year-old just starting to write.

Most of us who write occasionally from prompts use these middle-ground approaches, prompts that provide a set of instructions somewhere between word-a-day and David Means, and they’re not hard to find. Workshops frequently include prompts. Writing texts often contain them. Entire books can be found comprised solely of prompts. In my experience, they don’t often result in a polished, saleable piece of work, but can be helpful fuel, warming a writer towards creativity and productivity. At their worst, they hem the writer in. Breaking free of such prompts isn’t an act of subversion so much as an act of liberation. 

With that in mind, here’s a prompt for today: Choose a postcard in which the picture has no obvious connection to your life, such as a postcard of artwork from a gallery. Salvador Dali’s art works well here. Now open a dictionary to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word until you land on a noun. Finally, select a relative, living or dead, whose story you’d like to tell.  Beat at low speed until combined; then increase your mixer to high speed and continue until the ingredients form a silky-smooth amalgam. You may not use “amalgam” as your noun. You may not substitute Salvador Dali for your family member, unless he was a family member, in which case you may not use a postcard of his artwork. If Dali’s artwork reminds you of your life, please substitute a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” If that reminds you of your life, please don’t write today.
___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.

Same Memoir, Different Planet: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

November 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

by P.J. Powell and Natalie Lockett

Charlie Jane Anders / Photo by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders blends memoir, anecdote, and expert writing advice into a how-to guide for writers on using creativity to get through hard times.

P.J. Powell and Nat Lockett interviewed Anders for the Brevity blog, exploring how memoirists can use a sci-fi master’s writing tools to convey defining moments of their past.

Nat & P.J.: You talk about getting into a character’s head and transporting yourself to another place when you write sci-fi. Could a memoirist think of their past in the same way?

Charlie Jane Anders: Totally. The moment you turn something that really happened into a story, it [moves] beyond an unprocessed series of events that you’re putting on the page as they happened. You massage it. You create a narrative around it. You channel your imagination and try to create a scene and a moment—try to draw people in and push them through a chain of events with a certain logic. Real life never quite has that cohesiveness.

Memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction require a lot of the same muscles, strengths, and ideas fiction does. You can still do a lot of the stuff in Never Say You Can’t Survive in terms creating characters, plots, scenes, momentum, and through-lines. Even if you’re writing about real people, you’re still kind of turning them into characters.

Natalie Lockett

N & PJ: What can you do in sci-fi writing that could help someone telling a true story?

Charlie Jane Anders: You can do what we can’t in real life: control the focus and the frame; juxtapose things.

In reality, you can’t cut directly from a person saying something to that person doing the exact opposite. Those things might happen three weeks apart, but in your story – fiction or nonfiction – you can skip that time and cut right to the next important action.

You can also slow down or speed up time. Live in a moment for pages, then go through 100 years in a paragraph. And while you’re writing, even as you’re emotionally inhabiting the characters in the moment, there’s a part of you that can be building in an extra layer of meaning and allowing us to see the bigger picture. You can depict that layer through what the characters notice and see, the narrative itself, or the order in which you present things.

N & PJ: What advice do you have for rendering real people in written recollection?

CJA: Part of how I deal with my past is trying to understand what really happened. If you put yourself in the shoes of other, real people, that can be powerful. It’s hard to do, and there’s nothing wrong with telling your story as you see it. Just know other people might see things differently. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll have a version of events in my head that’s like, “Okay, this happened and this happened,” but then I’ll go back and find actual facts or documentary evidence proving my recollection is flawed and it didn’t quite happen the way I think it did.

It’s really liberating and healthy to realize we all fudge the past a little bit. Your perspective is always going to be limited, and you have to accept that and try to get a reality check as much as you can. But at the same time, yeah, it’s your story, it’s your experience. You’re writing about what you feel happened. I’ve written personal essays where I was like, “Okay, I know everybody, we all agreed at the time this is what happened,” and then I’ll write it and people are like, “Oh, is that what happened? I mean, I feel like…” Because time has passed, and our recollections may have diverged.

Memory is weird.

N & PJ: As someone whose stories can take place anywhere from augmented-reality San Francisco to a space society orbiting a living blob, what world-building advice can you give to people writing creative nonfiction?

CJA: The thing people and worlds have in common is they’re meaningless without a history. Real or made-up people don’t exist out of nowhere; they’re a product of all the things that have happened and the choices they’ve made. It’s the same with the settings where your memoir takes place.

In The City in the Middle of the Night humans have been living on this other planet for hundreds of years, and I had to keep going back and thinking of that so the settings and characters would feel real. Everywhere you look, you see the past. We know there were wars between these two human cities because there’s this war memorial. Later, we go to a garbage dump, and there’s random, weird crap from the war effort and back when these two cities used to trade.

P.J. Powell

Real life is like that, too. New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Ida will always look different than New Orleans before. I read an article about Confederate statues standing for over 100 years. People got used to them being there. Why? To understand that you have to understand not just the Civil War, but Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and this mythology of the lost cause people created in the South after the war.

A sense of past makes the world of the story feel lived in; it helps us understand why the characters are the way they are.

N & PJ: Never Say You Can’t Survive is about writing to help us as individuals and as a society through tough times. Why is the concept of “story” so important in fiction, nonfiction, and life?

You can present a million statistics and facts, and it doesn’t make any difference. People are swayed by anecdotes, narratives, and emotion. Not so much information, as by the emotional content of, “Here’s a really compelling story.”

I’ve worked as a journalist and you’re taught that, yeah, you might have a ton of facts showing there’s a problem, but you need a narrative hook. If this problem affects lots of people, [find] a person affected by the problem, make them a character in your article, and show us their journey. Show us how it affects them personally. Nobody is going to care if it’s like, “Oh, a million people had this problem.” Who cares? I can’t encompass that. My brain can’t wrap itself around a million people doing a thing.

But if I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this specific person had this problem and I feel really bad for them” and there’s a picture of them looking really sad, or, “Oh, they did this thing and they’re awesome” and they look really happy, that’s how we process the world, and that’s a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to get us to grapple with abstract things like climate change, pandemics and other nebulous, hard-to-encompass problems.

Stories are powerful. Stories are what the world is made of. If you can tell a story that’s compelling, whether it’s made-up or real, it could change people’s views of the world. It can rewrite our ideas about reality and that’s powerful and important.

___

P.J. Powell and Natalie “Nat” Lockett co-host Write Away with Nat and PJ, a podcast where they explore writing and books they love by interviewing authors and publishing professionals. (More writing advice and conversation with Charlie Jane Anders will be featured on the November 15, 2021 episode.) P.J. Powell’s short fiction and essays have been published in Evening Street Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Youth Imagination, and other placesNat Lockett is an author and essayist with nonfiction work featured in Herstry and Across the Margin. Her first novel, The Dead King, is currently haunting editor inboxes via her agent Tara Gonzalez of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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