January 31, 2019 § 2 Comments
I often tell people in the throes of a break-up, “Every relationship we’re in teaches us a little more about who to be in the relationship we’re meant to be in later.” It’s a little convoluted, but it comforts me to believe that, to think that the awful things my first husband and I did to each other helped us learn how to be honest and kind to our current spouses. But it’s hard to look ahead from within the moment of trauma, to try to process or analyze what’s happening to us in a larger sense.
Writing memoir often requires distance. Many writers have both given and received the advice, “Take some time, allow yourself to step back. Don’t write from the heat of the moment.” It’s usually very good advice. We are far more able to present our actions, and the actions of others, without judgement, allowing the reader to decide whose side they want to be on, with some time away from the events themselves.
In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.
At first, this process didn’t seem to work for a memoir. She’d taken two months away from the manuscript, and when she came back to it:
I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.
What helped Shapiro was considering Joan Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking.
In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story.
Shapiro’s work ended up mirroring that process, finding a way to tell what happened to her with a sense of immediacy, but without herself (as writer or as narrator) actually living within that moment of trauma as she wrote.
As memoirists, the ability to summon up the immediacy of our trauma without being sucked into it as we write is valuable. It’s difficult to walk that edge of telling what happened vividly enough for the reader to be in the moment of happening, while maintaining enough remove to use our writing craft and sense of structure, but that edge is what divides memoir from therapy, what makes a story powerful and life-changing for the reader as well as the writer.
Shapiro’s discussion of her process is illuminating; read the whole interview here.
January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments
My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.
When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.
Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.
I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.
Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.
Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:
- Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
- Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
- Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
- Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
- Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
- Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
- When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
- If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
- When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
- Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.
It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
January 1, 2019 § 57 Comments
It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.
Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.
Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.
That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.
That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.
Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.
In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?
Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.
All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.
As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.
The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.
Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.
What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.
See you there.
According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.
What will your writing year bring?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?
December 11, 2018 § 17 Comments
In early September, I decided to go to a coffee shop to begin writing the last few pages of a memoir. Walking out the door, I was seized by the uneasy feeling I should stay at home. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on the porch. Dog-walking neighbors waved, birds sang in a tree nearby, and yet I felt even more apprehensive. I retreated to the house and burst into tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked one of our cats, who watched me from a safe distance.
Then it hit me. I was working on the ending.
In Unum Magazine, Reema Zaman writes:
As artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. …When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.
I’d started writing after devastating personal loss and worked steadily for years while wracked with grief. Yet I still hadn’t formed the scar tissue necessary to write about the traumatic event that occasioned the memoir.
Eight years ago, my son Ethan and I were frolicking in the surf of Lake Michigan when we were swept into a maelstrom. The waves crashed over our heads from both directions as the bottom dropped out from beneath our feet. Holding Ethan by his swim-shirt, I swam frantically upward toward the bright summer sun. It was hopeless. My arms and legs gave out. A peaceful feeling overtook me when I looked at Ethan floating lifelessly below me, his arms suspended at his sides and his hair glistening in the rays of light penetrating the water all around us. I knew we were going to die together. A thought popped into my head: I won’t be able to tell his story.
Pulled to shore, my hands and feet blue from oxygen deprivation, I began my new life, my “after” life, without skin, in searing pain every waking moment. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers did all they could for us. All their kind attention could not close the wound. Taking care of my wife Janet and our daughter Penelope became my sole focus, much as caring for Ethan had been when he was born with multiple internal organ defects ten years before. But now I was never fully present.
I came to accept that my anguished longing for Ethan was a permanent disability, that I would never be fully connected to people or life again. But playing Barbie on the floor with Penelope and her friends one day, fighting back tears, I remembered my last conscious thought underwater. I had to tell his story.
As individual memories coalesced into chapters and the story of our relationship took shape, I began to hear his voice again and his throaty laugh, to feel him pressed up next to me, and to imagine him playing with Penelope and his friends. Writing the memoir put us together in an eternal present. He was very much alive for me while I wrote, and this kept me alive.
But the ending.
I tried various dodges, first a neo-Greek tragedy, then an epilogue, prompting smiles and nodding heads from intimates but frowns and head-scratching among beta readers. One finally told me with admirable candor, “People will want to know what really happened.”
I re-read, realizing I’d channeled my son too much while writing. The draft did not reflect enough of my own dubious character.
A childhood bout with encephalitis left me with extreme nervous energy, wild mood swings, and a flash temper. Managing Ethan’s care prevented me from getting the exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction I needed to stay on an even keel. I paced like a caged animal in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, lonely, bored and ready to explode.
But Ethan’s cheerful demeanor under the worst of circumstances taught me to live in the moment. He had an instinctive ability to draw out the best in people. One evening, waiting outside the gym before basketball practice, I was busy giving the hairy eyeball to a kid who had been terribly mean to him. Ethan turned to him and suggested they practice passing. The kid looked as surprised as I was. It wasn’t that Ethan wanted to be his friend—he just wanted to make that moment together the best it could be. And it was, because Ethan was willing to give that kid an opportunity to be better.
I became a different person under my son’s tutelage: less anxious, more patient, more loving. More like him, but not entirely nor all at once. Clearly some revisions to the memoir were needed.
I added some salt to the original chapters and wrote two more, then pitched the memoir at the Chicago Writer’s Workshop. Momentarily forgetting my inability to bring it to a close, I told several interested agents it would be completed this fall.
Writing about that last, terrible day forced me to reexperience it and accept his death. It was debilitating at first. The few words that appear here took over two weeks to complete. But each line I wrote closed the wound a little bit more. After three months, I have formed enough scar tissue to tell his full story.
After all, people will want to know what really happened.
Jeffrey Seitzer is currently a student at the Story Studio in Chicago, where he also teaches at Roosevelt University and lives with his family. Author of a number of scholarly books and essays, his recent work in creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, Pulse Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @urbancornhusker.