April 24, 2018 § 20 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.
August 26, 2016 § 7 Comments
By Ryder Ziebarth
Just this past week, I took a busman’s holiday: four days at the Iota Conference of Short Prose in Campobello, New Brunswick, the former Roosevelt family compound on an island in Canada. The Inn is accessed by passport and a small bridge from the town of Lubec, Maine, the Easternmost point of the United States—a treat to myself, and a break after a receiving my MFA this June and starting right in on a memoir.
I am from New Jersey and it was quite a trek. Two planes from Newark (some lost luggage,) then a two-and-a-half-hour car ride north from Bangor, Maine. Once there, I entered a world so visually breathtaking (blueberry barrens, blue skies, coastal views) and stepped into a place and time so luxuriously unspoiled, my writer-self began scribbling long before my hands were off the steering wheel of my rented Jetta.
Penny Guisinger created Iota as her semester thesis project while a student at the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine in 2013. The conference, now in its fourth year, was fully attended with several repeat customers. Writers from states far afield including Maryland, Ohio, New York, Texas, Maine and Canada came for daily workshops led by guest writers Dinty W. Moore (Brevity founder and editor) and poet and memoirist Mark Doty. From Wednesday through Friday morning, we talked about all kinds of short forms–from micro-flash and flash, to short essays, memoir and prose poems. We read, swam, wrote, walked, napped, listened to song lyrics and music, discussed process and projects, and even celebrated a participant’s news of winning a Writer’s Digest prize. All this on a wraparound porch with views of a blueberry speckled lawn sweeping right into the Bay of Fundy.
We slept in cottages with our windows wide open to the sounds of loons, fox, and wind through tall pines. We ate, and then ate some more of the best homemade food we have ever eaten, including a lobster dinner with strawberry shortcake for dessert. We were also served heaping portions of readings from new and recent works from Mark and Dinty, Penny (from her book, Postcards from Here), plus author/feminist Arielle Greenberg. Just when we thought we were stuffed to the gills with food both for the stomach and soul, there was a late night feast of truly amazing readings from nearly all of the conference participants.
Did I get ANY writing accomplished? Absolutely, but even more than that I had fun. My goal in taking a four-day short prose workshop was to remind myself to stop digressing in the narrative of my work, to tighten up my sentences and therefore, the content of the memoir. But I came away with so much more than just the lecture notes and workshop exercises I had bargained for: Dinty’s “Invisible Magnetic River” and Mark Doty’s poetic and useful advice toward writing short, concise prose: “Give enough complexity to honor the subject, but be brief enough to honor the reader.” A quote that will grace my work space on an index card.
I also came away satiated with new writerly friendships, connections in a world that can be at once as lonely and solitary as it is intrusive. I relished the company of a lovely woman who kept me company on the long car ride to and from Bangor who was struggling on a memoir of her own, and the kind young writer who encouraged me to let go of my resistance to read my work in the evening group, and another who shared her story with me of her choice to write prose poetry rather than the essays she had churned out for years. Some had published one or two books, some had shiny new book deals, many were teachers, some had published in literary journals, some were still struggling to find their niche; but all of us had two things in common, a love of reading and writing. It was the perfect vacation, busman or not.
Ryder Ziebarth completed her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently working on her first memoir, Cedar Ridge Farm: The Life, The Death and the Restoration. Ryder is an Associate Editor for Tiferet Literary Journal and a literary advisor for the Nantucket Book Festival. Her daughter is the fifth generation to have lived on the family homestead in New Jersey with her mom, dad, and three West highland terriers.
December 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Lizzie Klaesges
“What was I doing!?” I shrieked, shielding my face with my hands. I was flipping through old photo albums with my mom and stumbled upon a particularly embarrassing photo of my preteen self.
In the photo, I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Genuine Girl, only I put masking tape over Girl and wrote Alien in black marker. Genuine Alien. I wore this to a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser at my middle school. I was also wearing butterfly face paint.
Of course, I knew what I was doing in the picture. I didn’t have to ask. It was the time in my life when I was obsessed with aliens. Not pictured were my little alien dolls, each with full life stories of my own invention. I was a strange child.
I thought of that picture while reading Chelsea Martin’s recent collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life. The collection contains the essential stories of her childhood into young adulthood, in which she describes her younger self as a delightful concoction of strangeness. In one essay, “The Meaning of Life,” Martin reveals how she too was preoccupied by aliens. She describes her attempts to summon aliens, believing they had special knowledge far beyond human understanding. She hoped they would reward her belief in their existence and share secrets with her, most importantly the meaning of life.
The strangeness of a child normally doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but Martin finds a way to present her childhood curiosities logically and with deadpan delivery. She is honest and self-deprecating while maintaining a certain aloofness to her humor that keeps readers unflinchingly by her side. Better still, she captures not only the absurdities of the young mind but also the discomfort. A large part of growing up is the discomfort of an evolving mind, a mind which eventually recognizes former childhood notions for what they are. In the essay, “A Year Without Spoons,” Martin describes choosing to give up spoons for seemingly no reason at all, even though a part of her realizes this is an unusual choice:
I stopped using spoons one day. I was becoming weird, I knew. And it didn’t seem like the good kind of weird, like the eccentric arty weird that could be appreciated by other people. It seemed like the bad, dark kind that could unravel a person if it got out of hand.
Many of Martin’s essays unfold to reveal more tender and complex undertones. The spoons, for example, become a coping mechanism for the lack of control Martin had over her life during a time when she switched schools a lot and had no real friends. Her choice of utensil became a way to practice control and restraint and, in a way, it felt like an achievement.
Some of the many topics of Martin’s “Lowbrow Life” include her sheltered small town, troubled relationship with her stepfather, living with mild Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, meeting her biological father for the first time, attending art school, and various romantic endeavors. Martin often manages to capture the essence of her quirky former selves in just a few words. As I breezed through the pages, I was often left thinking, how did she do that?
In the essay, “Ceramic Busts,” we observe teen-Martin’s attempts at flirting with a boy named Sandy at driving school:
“My favorite Beck song is ‘Thunder Peel,’” I said. ‘The one that’s like, Now I’m rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans.
I had practiced the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I’d hoped that it would make him smile.
“Oh,” Sandy said.
After finishing driving school and leaving that town behind, having had no meaningful interactions with Sandy, Martin goes on to create many artistic renderings of him, mostly ceramic busts. She eventually submits these for her application to art school and gets accepted.
In an essay titled, “Goth Ryan,” Martin attempts to communicate through facial expression:
Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and Like at all, and Anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and But in all seriousness, I really don’t care.
Martin’s subject matter becomes more serious towards the middle of the book as she describes meeting her father for the first time at age sixteen, which she says is “an age that is known for being awkward and unbearable and confusing.” It’s already clear to readers that Martin has a difficult relationship with her stepfather, Seth, and it’s apparent early on that Martin’s relationship with her father will also be flawed to say the least. Martin strikes the perfect balance between funny and fraught while talking about her father’s relentless disapproval of her. He criticized her for everything from how much sour cream she eats with dinner to her acne.
I tried to understand what the problem was. My dad wanted to change what I did and said, and also the ways in which I did and said them, implying that possibly everything about me was, if not outright wrong, somehow off, in need of correction.
As writers, we are naturally wondering about the potential repercussions that can come from writing about people we know, especially those related to us. This, Martin addresses in her final essay, “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” in which she expresses her decision to take a break from her relationship with her dad and eventually choosing to write about him:
“You’re going to thank me one day for giving you all this material for your writing,” [My dad] said when I stopped crying.
I avoided eye contact and silently promised to never write a damned thing about him.
I love the irony here, how Martin writes about never writing about her father. She concludes the essay, and thus her collection, with: “And though I’m comforted by the fact that this past self seemed to know that it was always her story to tell or not tell, I have to admit that what she didn’t yet know is I never keep promises to myself.” I can’t help but think that this was Martin’s pre-emptive response to our pressing question: it was always her story.
Although I love Martin’s detailing of her poorer, less cultured hometown and lifestyle, this collection gives us more than simply “Essays from a Lowbrow Life,” as the subtitle suggests. These essays are also about the common rites of passage that face most of today’s young people. This book is about leaving home and coming to terms with flawed relationships. It’s about being friendless and making weird fashion choices. It’s about learning to bullshit. It’s about becoming be self-reliant and making countless mistakes along the way.
Like looking at childhood photos, this book is as uncomfortable as it is humorous. It reads like a memory we might have been a part of in another life and reminds us of our shared humanity through even the most painful times of self-discovery.
Lizzie Klaesges is a Minneapolis-based writer and marketer with recent publications in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Allegory Ridge. She definitely does not still think about aliens.
September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )
By Emily Franklin
1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).
2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.
I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.
Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.
3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.
Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.
4) What am I searching for – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?
And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?
5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.
And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.
When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?
The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.
6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.
Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.
October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
By Kristin LeMay
I’ve long harbored the suspicion that what’s best in Montaigne is untranslatable. His essence seems to me embodied in a diction, orthography, and syntax as unsubstitutable as any individual. To borrow Emerson’s praise for Montaigne: “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”
My prejudice dates to a summer when my husband and I undertook to read all of Montaigne’s Essais during an extended stay in Paris. Each day we’d set out with our respective volumes, my much-prized Pléiade—fat despite its onion-skin pages—rubbing against the shedding, leather spine of Eric’s translated edition. Before long, I’d be snorting or smirking at the man I was encountering on the page. Eric’s brow would furrow. “What’s so funny?” We’d compare passages. And every time, I’d find that the persona I so relished in the original French—the irascible man wheeling through the sixteenth-century prose—was somehow lost in the transfer. My Montaigne was not in his book.
That experience of reading comparative Montaignes primed me for After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015). Twenty-four of today’s essayists rewrite Montaigne’s essays. What would these interactions reveal about the essay, in his moment and in ours? And what would these writers capture of the man who seemed—to me, at least—to live in the specific moments of language that, taken together, comprise his genre-founding work?
As After Montaigne’s subtitle suggests, editors David Lazar and Patrick Madden couch the interaction between each source essay and its contemporary rewriting as a musical “cover.” They explain, “Like an album of cover songs paying homage to an influential band or composer, these essays attempt to re-envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.” And what, after all, is a cover, but a form of translation in which one musician puts a fresh spin on the lyrics and melody of another? Elvis Presley translated “Blue Suede Shoes” from the style of Carl Perkins into the style of Elvis Presley, just as, in 1603, John Florio translated Michel de Montaigne from French into English (adding a fair dose of Florio along the way). So After Montaigne promises to reveal twenty-four translations of Montaigne: Montaigne by way of Gornick, by way of Koestenbaum, by way of Purpura. And yet it also occasions a more surprising, ineffable mode of translation, one that runs the other way: Brian Doyle by way of Montaigne. As much as I was eager to see who these essayists would make Montaigne out to be, I was equally fascinated to see who they would become when they essayed under the banner of their forebear.
The anthology’s diversity makes for a lot of translations, so one of its most satisfying elements is the brief coda that follows each contribution, “explaining the process through which the essayist translated, transfigured, reimagined, or rethought some of the essential ideas, figures, and motifs in Montaigne’s original.” The contributions turn out to be as diverse as you’d expect from an array twenty-four writers wide. While Bret Lott sees his essay as an “offering . . . paying homage to M. Montaigne,” Shannon Lakanen finds herself surprised, on sitting down to write, “to argue against him.” José Orduña finds in his source essay from Montaigne a “sharp edge that ruptures,” and so his response is characterized by “challenge,” “discarding,” and “struggling,” while Elena Passarello goes at Montaigne more playfully, grafting “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes” onto interviews with the musical artist Prince. “I thought it would be fun,” she riffs, “to score one man’s persona to the other man’s ‘music.’”
How to make sense of all this essaying? I found a useful lens for understanding and sorting the contributions once again in the realm of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher pronounces that there are actually only two modes of translation (modes which, in fact, match the two primary tacks a contemporary essayist might choose in responding to Montaigne’s source text): “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.” Schleiermacher advises against mixing the two modes. Any mingling, he predicts, will result in a confusing muddle that illuminates neither the original text nor the new audience’s context.
After Montaigne confirms Schleiermacher’s view. Its strongest, most memorable essays are those in which the contemporary writer has traveled the furthest toward adopting Montaigne’s style or, conversely, those in which Montaigne has traveled the furthest toward the contemporary writer. Mary Cappello’s “Of Thumbs” is the volume’s prime example of a writer becoming like Montaigne. Her coda clarifies her aim: “An essay like ‘Of Thumbs’ wishes for more contributors . . . I tried to ‘channel’ Montaigne . . . I tuned my writerly voice to meet the pitch of his.” The result is a lively, delightful continuation of Montaigne’s short essay. For an essayist who brings Montaigne all the way to her, look to Kristen Radtke. In “Against Idleness” she pulls Montaigne into the graphic mode for which she is best known. In Cappello’s essay, Montaigne might easily recognize his influence; in Radtke’s, he would likely wonder at the strange new world his work inspired. As a reader, I’m grateful for both.
So what new light do these “covers” shine upon Montaigne and the essay? Perhaps the most startling answer comes from Robert Atwan’s response to Montaigne’s “On Some Verses of Virgil.” He opens with the observation, “Personal essayists continually test the boundaries of shame and embarrassment.” This very testing is Montaigne’s most enduring legacy, since he inaugurated the naked, unadorned exploration of the self in his Essais. All of the contributors to After Montaigne write after that legacy. But Atwan’s essay also reveals how familiar, even commonplace, Montaigne’s once-revolutionary mode has now become. To mirror Montaigne’s embarrassing self-disclosures on sexuality and old age, Atwan must take recourse to quoting his own (self-professedly) bad poetry. He rightly senses that prose—even prose like Montaigne’s, confessing to a small penis or failed affairs—will no longer shock today’s readers. We’ve become desensitized to personal confessions in the personal essay. So Atwan’s contribution, in moving beyond the genre of the essay to achieve its ends, reveals both the lure and limits of Montaigne’s legacy in our moment.
Montaigne forged the essay into a genre for personal revelation and, for this innovation, he now inspires anthologies like After Montaigne. Yet paradoxically, this anthology—through both its most and least compelling pieces—hints at how the essay might now need to move beyond Montaigne’s style of confession and digression in order to channel his innovative spirit and, once again, feel “vascular and alive.”
Kristin LeMay’s book I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson is available from Paraclete Press. Her translation of François Bovon’s Last Days of Jesus was published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Essay Daily, Harvard Theological Review, The Cresset, and other magazines.
April 23, 2015 § 31 Comments
All my life I’ve been trying to communicate. The funny thing about wanting to say something is that no matter how articulate you become, how presumably skilled in getting across your point, you may never feel you’ve nailed it. I’d guess most writers are plagued with the impulse to make themselves understood. I know I’ve been that way since, well, forever.
I wrote my first short story when I was six. By the time I was sixteen, I decided music was the medium and wrote all sorts of original songs, including music and lyrics for school productions. After graduate school and a short stint on Capitol Hill, I was slaving away as a “singer-songwriter” before falling back into the less glamorous but more lucrative career of public relations. Along the way and relatively late in life, I got married. I was forty.
A dozen years later, my husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Impelled by the need to express my sorrow and find my healing, I wrote. The very public death of my husband along with thousands of others gave me a platform. I produced essays, editorials, speeches, delivered via major outlets. I was fifty-two.
I then wrote a book about post-9/11 contemporary culture. Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal, published in 2010. I also began publishing on a now-defunct platform called Open Salon. Two years later, another book I wrote was published about my search as a skeptic for a version of hope I could believe in. Hope in Small Doses was published when I had just turned sixty-three.
After nearly three years of practicing on short stories, some of which were published and many of which were not, I published my first novella, Don’t Move, a suspense thriller. Now I’m working on a novel. I’m . . . well, you do the math.
Second chance vocations, avocations and passions are all the rage nowadays with organizations like ENCORES and AARP promoting opportunities. A recent New York Times article focused on people finding (and defining) success “well past the age of wunderkind.”
I have yet to discover whether I have a literary career ahead of me. I’m occasionally appalled to find my chosen field so very crowded. Everyone is a writer; really, ask anyone: they will tell you they’re writing. #amwriting is a more popular hashtag on Twitter than #amreading, which begs the question: are there any readers for all the writing being put out there?
No matter—well, most of the time, no matter. I’m human after all, still searching for a way to be heard above the din. Age has possibly made me a little less competitive, though, I never really was.
And I’m financially secure enough in my retirement that I don’t need to scramble for $50 in order to supply “content” to some website that makes no distinction between good and not so good writing.
Good writing—including my own—is paramount to me. I delight in putting words on paper but I’m a deliberate sort. Although I’ve written dozens of essays and short stories, I;m not a “high producer.” Not only that, I’m a very compact writer—I say what I have to say in a few lovingly crafted and carefully edited words. Industry standards say 40,000 (sometimes 50,000) word count is the necessary minimum for a non-fiction book and 80,000 words for a novel. E-publishing and even improvements in printing, along with varied delivery systems allow us to blur, if not challenge those numbers.
Good, because I’m not about to spend ten years on a novel.
Age is not just a number; it’s reality. I have fewer years ahead of me left to write and possibly fewer than most of you. I fight some anxiety about having the time and the cognitive ability to send into the world a decent number of thoughtful, interesting and above all entertaining things to read. Writing helps, though; it gives me purpose and focus.
Age may make you wiser, but in my case, not less sensitive. I sense my age may make me irrelevant to the world at large, until I turn eighty-five and turn out a book and have everyone ooh and ahh and say, “Isn’t that amazing! At her age!” probably while I’m in the room and can hear them saying it.
Oh well. I need writing and I hope to discover that writing needs me. So full speed ahead. BTW, I’m almost cool with my impending role as elder writing statesperson, should that be an option. Almost.
Nikki Stern is the author of Hope in Small Doses, an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal Finalist and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. She’s also written several short stories published at Fictionique Magazine and elsewhere and has published Don’t Move, the first in a trilogy of novellas about a retired assassin. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, Humanist Magazine, CBS Sunday Morning, Salon, and many other venues. Follow Nikki @real nikkistern or visit nikkistern.com.
March 27, 2012 § 9 Comments
A guest post/craft essay by Tabitha Blankenbiller
This June marks the end of my graduate work in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. As the culmination of my time as a creative nonfiction student, I am compiling a thesis to convince the school that yeah, I’ve been writin’ some stuff. So, every morning this semester when friends, family and my barista ask why I look like I’m on the wrong side of a bar fight with a raccoon, I explain that, “I’m working on my thesis.” Never, “I’m writing my book.” Saying “my book,” I’ve become convinced, is a curse. As soon as I’ve ever labeled a project book-worthy it falls apart. The iron masterpiece that stood rooted in my mind turns out to be nothing but cotton candy in a rainstorm. Defining my work as a “thesis” protects the sprouts of inspiration and early drafts from falling victim to the trap of explanation. Bringing up a thesis to people sounds academic and dull, so I’m more likely to have people commiserate on their own grad work (an MBA full of theoretical accounting formulas, for instance) than ask, “So what is your book about?”
Perhaps my superstition stems from the fact that I’ve done this before. As an undergraduate English major, I had the option to write a gigantic literary criticism treatise or a creative thesis to fulfill my graduation requirements. As much as spending a semester dissecting Tolstoy and combing through microfilm sounded like a total blast, I opted for the tortured artist route. I’ll write a book! I told everyone within earshot. And if you couldn’t hear me, hell yes you were getting an e-mail.
You may have asked me what my book was about. Or you may have turned slightly and tried to get back to your day. Either way, I’d go on: “It’s called Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl. And it’s all about how everyone tried to destroy me—this school tried to destroy me! But I survived.”
The story covered my first two years at Concordia University, a very small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. The 120 pages were clobbered with every middle class coming-of-age cliché you can name: threesomes, weed, Jägerbombs, bitchy roommates, one-night stands and handcuffs. Even better, the stock stories were conveyed with every hackneyed writing device I could dig out of my scant toolbox: Overwrought dialogue? Everywhere. Run-on Wolfe parody sentences? Well, of course —I mean, my GOD! How could I write about these craa-zy times, man, without going a little Gaga? A chapter named with the complete transcribed lyrics of a Fiona Apple song? Check and mate.
The juvenile writing I can shrug off. I have to give my 22-year-old self a little credit; at least I was writing every single day, during hours scrounged between taking classes and hawking underwear at Frederick’s of Hollywood. The more glaring problem with my undergrad thesis was the immediacy in the writing and in the presentation. I was convinced that I could (and should) write a memoir about events that had just happened in the last tax year. There was no concept of narrative distance and as a result, the stories never elevated beyond how they would be related at happy hour. The guy was an asshole and I was an innocent victim. “How could he do this to me?” I would flare, over the phone to friends and then on the page. I had no breathing room to move past the immediate, to collect these fragments of human experience and turn them around and, as Vivian Gornick demands in The Situation and the Story, reveal “the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” Without that bird’s eye perspective looking at this clueless, lonely girl and wondering why she did the things she did, not what random men were doing, the narrative couldn’t get off the ground. My thesis was a diary, a rehash of a crummy twenty-four months.
My book-or-nothing attitude was the first delusion I had to squash in grad school. As Judy Blunt told me after my first MFA workshop, to which I’d submitted my same amateur schlock, “You need to get over this ‘book’ idea. That’s like trying to build a house without a hammer. You need to learn how to tell a story first.” The distinction is often made by MFA faculty between “thesis” and “manuscript” because, as much as incoming students would like to believe otherwise, the two are not one and the same. Even if you enter a grad program with an elegantly arcing personal narrative (“I was kidnapped by a bank robber who turned out to be my long-lost father”), your style and perspective in writing should evolve in a fashion so drastic that completing a viable manuscript by graduation day is unlikely at best. Like everyone else, I had to drop my delusions of walking out of commencement with a degree in one hand and a polished memoir in the other. What I will leave with in June is far less tangible: the craft tools and personal discipline to refine my thesis’s foundation into a book outside the structure the MFA program provides. Even the diploma won’t be heading home with me; it shows up in the mail a month later.
As I slowed down, took my graduate writing Bird by Bird, I began to grow. I stopped stretching on my tiptoes for a narrative that would fill 265 pages and moved to personal essays. This allowed me to zero in on structure, on picking words with care, to be theatrical in doses and precise in droves. I told stories, moments, snippets well, instead of a long journey poorly. Every once and a while I would get extra excited about a story and think I could blow it up from 15,000 words to 150,000. “A memoir of becoming a woman in the Great Recession!” or, “What it’s like to be an artist in corporate America!” As soon as I said these ideas aloud, whether to a fellow writer or a civilian friend, they would melt. I’m not claiming that these were ideas worth keeping. But now I’ll never know, because whenever I began justifying an emerging notion, it dissolved. “Well, you’ve read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, right? It will be like that, but lighter, like The Devil Wears Prada MEETS The Boys of My Youth written by Cheryl Strayed. Because corporate work environments are really hard…”
During my last Pacific MFA residency in Seaside, Oregon, Debra Gwartney gave a presentation on process and revision. I shuffled into the Best Western conference room thinking I knew the drill by now: Cut! When you’ve cut, cut again! Read your draft out loud. Annihilate adverbs. Instead, Gwartney showed us a picture of a plywood skeleton, precariously held with duct tape and wood glue. “This,” she claimed, “is a whale.” The skeleton was the beginning of a sculpture by a New England artist. The artist’s glimmer—I’m going to sculpt a whale!— was only on the path to realization. “No one can see the future whale but her,” Gwartney said. The sculpture’s beginnings, she explained, were like our earliest drafts: We’ve been inspired, we can feel and envision a final product, but all that is concrete in the world is a giant pile of wood scraps and adhesive. A long road of shaping, additions, polishes and shavings remains before anyone else can see what we’re working toward. “Which is why I would warn you against sharing your work too early,” she said.
I had never considered that pushing my writing out for opinions might quell it. I get excited about a project, and I blanket my reader circle with drafts as soon as the words hit the page. Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl had probably been read five times by all of my friends before Concordia accepted it for graduation credit. What Gwartney said made the correlation between sharing and squashing click: I needed to trust myself to write, ponder and rewrite before sharing my work and taking on all the doubt that keeps the universe humming.
Imagination is precious and ideas are fleeting. Even if it seems obsessive or superstitious or pathological to squirrel my work away, I’m finding the peace to draft more than worth the antisocial tendencies not sharing my early work produces. Premature advice can send me off the rails. I am still fleshing out, so hearing an early voice chime in with “are you sure your mother’s opinion is necessary in this scene?” can set off a whole mess of destructive second-guessing. The whale, whether flash or essay or thesis or book, lives inside of me, and can’t breathe out in the world unborn. Forcing myself to turn my project into a marketing elevator pitch is the equivalent of infanticide.
So whatever is taking shape in my Word files, I love it enough to hold out. And perhaps that is the greatest thesis lesson of all: learning when to keep my mouth shut.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a student in Pacific University’s MFA program and will graduate in June 2012 with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Sliver of Stone and Owl Eye Review. She is an associate editor of Silk Road Review and teaches memoir workshops in Portland, Ore.
May 17, 2010 § 9 Comments
Brevity has offered a forum wherein Patrick Madden, past Brevity author, founder/keeper of the extraordinary Quotidiana website, and author of the essay collection Quotidiana, can admit his various nonfiction transgressions. Frankly, we here at Brevity are still shocked that one of our idols has stooped this low, but kudos to University of Nebraska Press for offering an apology, and a reasonable refund procedure.
As the phone calls, the letters, the legal summonses mount, and the Smoking Gun “journalists” harass me, my family members, and my friends, I have decided to come clean, to declare my guilt preemptively, before I am unmasked by those muckrakers with nothing better to do than to flush a fledgling writer’s career down the toilet. I admit it: I fictionalized key parts of my supposedly nonfiction collection of personal essays, Quotidiana. As a long-time committed nonfictionist, one who teaches his students not to lie, to select and shape their real experiences into literature, I feel so ashamed. I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed in my actions.
What’s perhaps most disappointing, to me at least, is that it’s been my wife, my father, my mother-in-law, and a good friend who’ve tattled on me. For instance, on page 31, I claim that I only bought ub40’s Greatest Hits when Karina and I were filling out our order of free cds from Columbia House. Karina now assures me that, no, I actually bought this cd from a brick-and-mortar store as a gift for her. And on page 22, where I say that Karina gave our first son the nickname “Pato,” I know now that I should have credited Karina’s mother instead. I can only imagine the anguish I have caused unsuspecting readers who have taken my word for these events. Later in the book, on page 101, I write, perhaps erroneously, that “Helen sang alto harmony to my grandmother’s soprano melody.” Who knows why my father, who had read this particular essay in an earlier form, waited until the book was published to express his doubt about the veracity of this statement. Maybe, he told me, it was Helen who sang the soprano part. Or maybe not. The truth is, right now, we don’t really know. Perhaps the Smoking Gun “investigators” can tell me for sure. And on page 65, at the end of a long, italicized list of Spanish names for fruits and vegetables for sale at Montevideo’s Mercado Modelo, a section of the book that nobody actually reads, I briefly mention the Uruguayans’ preferred word for pineapple, ananá, which I note in contrast to the more widely used piña. Although I have made no claim about the word’s origin, my friend Eduardo Galeano, a wonderful Uruguayan writer, has nevertheless offered the following critique of my research:
I like the book, but here’s just a small observation: if I’m not mistaken, the word ananá is Guaraní, Tupí-Guaraní to be exact, because the fruit comes from Brazil and was unknown outside of tropical America before the European conquest.
I offer the correction or expansion here, in the spirit of penance for my sin of omission. But I suspect there is no forgiveness for the greatest factual error I’ve yet encountered in the book. On page 126, just joking around, I quote some lyrics from a Rush song, replacing “it’s a part of us” with “hippopotamus.” I attribute these lyrics correctly to Neil Peart, but place them in the song “Entre Nous,” which is blatantly false and an embarrassment to me. I claim to be a staunch Rush fan, so how could I not know that these words are from “Different Strings,” the song after “Entre Nous” on 1980’s groundbreaking Permanent Waves? To this humiliating question, I have no sufficient answer, only excruciating guilt and sorrow.
I regret my decisions to falsify my experience in these (and perhaps other, yet-undiscovered) ways, or my slothfulness in neglecting to check these vital facts of my life. I recognize that I have discredited myself in irreparable ways. I only hope these revelations will not alter my readers’ faith in the book’s central message, whatever that may be.
Thankfully, my publisher has assured me that they will take all steps necessary to put things right with the defrauded public. Taking a page from the Doubleday playbook, they’ve issued the following statement:
The potential for controversy over Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana will possibly in the future cause serious or perhaps only mild concern at the University of Nebraska Press. It is not the policy neither is it the stance of this or any other company that we might or might not know of that it doesn’t matter whether a book sold or lent from libraries as nonfiction isn’t false, or that it might not be misconstrued as having arisen from certain unverities or misfacts. Readers wishing to receive a refund on their purchase should simply cut out the kookaburra from the book’s jacket, paste it on a popsicle stick, and create a YouTube video of the animated bird chanting a page from Quotidiana, making sure to change voices for and properly cite any block-quoted passages. Send your link to email@example.com along with your contact information. The best rendition (as voted on by a panel of expert judges) will receive a check for one-tenth of the book’s current lowest Amazon Marketplace price. We try to bear a certain responsibility for some of what we publish, when we can, and we apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion, bewilderment, or mystification surrounding or concerning the publication of Quotidiana or any other books, ever.