August 7, 2018 § 10 Comments
I got sucked into a carpet shop last night. Wandering the old medina in the center of Tunis, my husband and I came across the clerk who’d checked us into the hotel, now on his day off. He’d love to show us a handicraft exhibit! Right here in the souk! Only one day! Closing in an hour!
We let him shepherd us down alleys and through hallways lined with shops closed for prayer time. It’s a little sketchy, but he’s from our hotel, and there’s two of us. He takes us to a souvenir store built into a former palace, and the shop owner escorts us through shelves of turquoise jewelry and caftans and mini-mosaics. We go up more stairs, and outside there’s a reasonable view of the roofs of Tunis and a terrace covered in fantastically painted tiles. The colors and patterns are some of the most beautiful decorative work I’ve ever seen. Absolutely worth getting dragged to the back of the souk. Going back downstairs, we turn left instead of right, into a room full of rugs. The “exhibit” is a carpet showroom.
Tea is brought. The merchandise turns out to be lovely, authentic, government-certified to be exportable, and reasonably priced. Still quite expensive, but $750 for a large handmade Berber, beautifully designed in 100% wool, is not bad if you’re a person who buys really nice home decor (I’m not).
We’ve considered a carpet before. It would be a nice souvenir of our years in the Middle East, something we’d own forever, something hard to get somewhere else, something not touristy and awful. So we consider the carpets here.
After half an hour, we are genuinely interested. But after another half hour, the blue ones we like are too large for the room in our house that would suit a blue carpet. The green ones are too small for the room that could host a green carpet. I don’t want a white one—one juice spill and we’re screwed. That pattern is great but not that color. That color is great but those embroidered lozenges are a little busy. But the shopkeeper and his three assistants have worked so hard to sell us these carpets, and they are truly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that with a starting price of $750 (“Includes shipping! If you take it with you, we give already 20% off!”) I could walk out of here with a $400 rug.
The mint tea is strong and sweet, and my husband and I discuss our budget in rapid-fire undertones. Everyone in Tunis has a minimum of three languages, but speaking very quickly gives a little privacy. We are now firmly in the market for a gorgeous rug.
Just not one of these.
I am truly sad to walk away from the beauty of this traditional craft. I am impressed and moved by the care and effort that have gone into 20,000 hand-tied knots per square meter. The price and time are right, but I do not have a suitable space in my home for any of these particular carpets. We thank the shopkeeper profusely. We elude the guy from our hotel (who wants to take us to a perfume shop next) by saying we’re late for dinner, and lunge randomly into a dark passageway because we are so embarrassed and sad we had to say no, even though saying ‘no’ was the right choice. Let the carpet find a home where it will sparkle with beauty instead of clashing with my walls. With someone who loves that exact pattern and color, who also appreciates the workmanship and investment of the craftswomen who made them.
When we finally reach a well-lit and charming area of the market, I turn to my husband and say, “Those rugs were so lovely and I wish we had the right place to really show one off. Let’s keep an eye out for another one?”
He says, “I really hoped we’d want one of them.”
“Me too,” I say. “You know how yesterday I was trying to explain what it’s like rejecting essays, how there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not the perfect match? That’s exactly what it feels like. I wish writers knew that.”
He says, “Tell them about the carpets.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She highly recommends Tunisia. Keep up with her adventures by joining the (free, occasional) I Do Words TinyLetter.
July 31, 2018 § 9 Comments
Morning light floods the Infusion Center’s waiting room through the fourteenth-floor windows that overlook Manhattan. It’s 9:30 and nearly all the room’s chairs and benches are occupied. My husband Ed and I stand online at the registration desk behind a man in his twenties whose half-shaved head bears an angry scar.
It’s likely most people are waiting for chemotherapy. I see hats, lots and lots of hats, headwraps, and scarves. An Orthodox Jew with an oxygen cannula pulls a portable tank behind him. A surgical mask covers an African American woman’s nose and mouth. Diversity abounds. Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and bi-racial couples sit side-by-side. Caregivers, in agency scrubs, tend to elderly clients in wheelchairs.
Infusees, and those who wait with them, are engrossed in books, magazines, newspapers, cell phone and iPad screens. Others listen through earbuds, doze, or stare into space, arms crossed, legs or feet restless. It’s remarkably quiet until a nurse or patient advocate wanders through, calling out names. No one looks you in the eye.
Ed is here for an Ocrevus infusion, a new drug treatment for MS. He and I have sat in so many waiting rooms since he was first diagnosed, I’ve learned to come equipped: with a book, Kindle, or cell phone, just like the men and women seated around me. Today I’ve brought along Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I use the blank pages that appear—mercifully—between the glossary and back cover to document what I see as I sit and wait. It keeps me centered, in the moment.
Paying attention, gathering data, recording yields the raw material necessary for our task as writers. It also offers peace amidst the emotionally charged environment in which we observe. As long as I stay focused on such physical details as the tiny library nook (where I once scored a publisher’s copy of an engaging novel), the artwork drawn by children hospitalized next door, or the spinner luggage, plastic carry-out bags, and canes placed at people’s feet, I won’t be envisioning metastasizing cells, or wondering if the man with a damaged liver’s yellow coloring is in his final months, or worrying about how much our insurance will pay toward Ed’s bi-annual, $65,000 infusion. It can get messy and maudlin inside my head. It can also be a waste of time.
When Ed’s name is called, we’re buzzed through a set of metal doors to the treatment area. We follow a hallway that dead-ends into Area D, a cluster of seven curtained cubicles around a nurses’ desk. We know from previous visits that each cubicle contains a window, an infusion chair, a pole for IV bags, a plasma TV, and a chair. A built-in cupboard contains a pillow, blanket, and space to hang outerwear. Restrooms are nearby. There are sixty treatment cubicles on this floor.
A ginger-haired nurse with an Irish accent introduces herself and administers steroids and Benadryl as a precautionary measure before starting Ed’s IV. The infusion will take about six hours. Once the Ocrevus begins to flow, I’ll step out and head for the nearby Starbucks where I’ll fetch a medium, iced caramel macchiato for Ed. Little, tangible things like that make a difference.
Writing creative nonfiction can involve digging deep into our memory, our journals, our past. But it also requires being open to the details of life as it presents itself, in the here and now, in moments we miss if we’re daydreaming or have our noses in a book.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you enter deeply into the moment, you see the nature of reality, and this insight liberates you from suffering and confusion. Peace is already there.”
The desire to be a writer, to write about the reality of my everyday life experiences, has opened me to the peace of observation, and the details of waiting.
Marcia Krause Bilyk works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term residential treatment center for substance abusers in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Compose Journal, The Upper Room, Wanderlust Journal, Drunken Monkeys, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. She and her 125 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog Wally visit local hospitals and schools.
May 17, 2018 § 3 Comments
From Lance Larsen’s “Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet,” one of 15 fearless flash essays featured in the freakingly fantastic new issue of Brevity.
When his son fell into a well, San Isidro didn’t pray the deed undone, but asked for the water to rise—and the infant floated up into his arms.
Walking down a narrow Cuzco alley, my teenage daughter leans into me, which means she’s cold or tired or a little scared. Maybe all three. And yet, what father doesn’t hoodwink himself into calling this love and snuggling closer?
Have you visited yet?
April 18, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Sandy Smith
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’re acquainted with the chilly dread of staring at a blank page and coming up dry. So how do you catch yourself a muse? In the old days, you could summon the Muses by traveling to Mount Helicon and performing supplications or having a god intercede on your behalf. Thankfully, modern-day muses (having dropped the pretentious uppercase) are more accessible. They are notoriously picky though, so everything in your arsenal has to be on point if you want to successfully enlist a muse in your battle against writer’s block.
Ideally, your writing will take place in an area with sufficient privacy. You should optimally have an office of your own. If you can’t have an office of your own, have a closet. If you can’t have a closet, sit in your car. If you don’t have a car, sit at your kitchen table, but wear an afghan over your head to discourage interruptions.
You will need a Mac, particularly if you ever venture out to write in public. (Note: appearances matter, especially if you are courting the muse at Starbucks.) If you cannot have a Mac, you can get by with a Windows-based device, but for the love of God, get a laptop. Towers are for accountants. You want to be ready to write in a coffee shop at a moment’s notice. You could get by with a notebook, but then you run the risk of looking like a hobbyist writing in a journal and the muse might not recognize you as a Serious Writer.
At some point, though, you will need to put words down on paper instead of typing them into a computer. This can happen if you write conspicuously (and of course you do) and find yourself somewhere laptops would be considered gauche, e.g., your kid’s ballet studio, a fancy restaurant, church. The muse will not take kindly to waiting, so be prepared with a quality notebook and a very expensive pen. Do not show up with a ninety-nine-cent composition notebook (unless you have decoupaged the cover with attractive vintage postcards, say) or a single-subject spiral-bound pad. If you must choose something with a spiral binding, stick to a 6×8-inch trim or, better yet, choose a steno pad.
Regarding pens, you may have a nostalgic preference for the retro Bic Crystal that you used to scribble down your tenth-grade poetic angst; the muse will not. Woo her instead with a Montblanc or a Waterman. If you really want to make your muse swoon, you’ll need a fountain pen. If you fancy pencils, it’s okay. Just, please, either spend some money on a decent mechanical pencil or get the Blackwing 602, like Steinbeck (a guy the muses clearly dug).
It’s common knowledge that muses love office supplies—have plenty on hand. Stock up on index cards and Post-It notes in all sizes and colors. Buy legal pads large and small, Sharpies bold and fine, and gel pens in every color. If you’re fortunate enough to have a home workspace, decorate it with wall-sized white boards and corkboards. Crowd the corkboards with multicolored index cards featuring pithy writing quotes. Remember, a whiteboard filled with convoluted diagrams of a story outline is like a roadmap that will lead the muse directly to you.
Don’t skimp on arty curios. Station them on bookshelves, on the windowsill over your desk, on your actual desk. Make sure you curate an exhibit of these talismans that is blatantly writer themed. Pencil boxes, antique typewriters, and vintage spectacles do nicely.
Get a cat. Consider what Muriel Spark had to say about this: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk…” The muse is a cat lady.
If all the above fail to coax and retain a muse, secure a writing assignment with a deadline. That usually does the trick.
Sandy Smith is a New York transplant living in Las Vegas with her family. She’s a freelance editor specializing in YA, and she’s currently working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at UCR/Palm Desert. Her short stories have appeared in The Offbeat, Gravel magazine, and the MacGuffin.
March 6, 2018 § 39 Comments
I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. To simply sit down. Every day. And write. To learn the novice mistakes. To correct them. To learn more novice mistakes. To correct them. It’s an endless cycle.
I don’t like calling myself an “emerging” writer. Think about what emerging means…to rise up, to come into existence, to develop. Would I call myself a “developing writer?” Apply that to another career choice—a developing plumber. A developing doctor. Who wants to take a chance on a developing anything? I’d say, “Call me back when you’re developed.”
I visually see “emerging” as a butterfly bursting from a chrysalis. When is the transformation complete? When the writer is published? When I stop making rookie mistakes? Never?
A rookie writer submits her pieces too soon. My father, a self-published author who would never call himself “emerging,” but simply a writer, reminds me that work needs to sit and season like a stew. This comment brings out the teenager in me: “I know that, dad! Everyone knows that!” But I still finish a piece at 10:01 and shoot it out across Submittable at 10:02.
The emerging writer entertains many rejections. What’s more painful—The pubs that don’t reply or the ones who reply within an hour? We knew THAT quickly you weren’t good enough.
Lynda Barry’s quote is posted at my desk: “Is it good? Does this suck?” I never know the answer for sure.
I attend literary events. I meet authors. I start to better understand the writing community. But then someone says “are you going to hear Colson Whitehead’s reading next week?” and I say, “who’s Colson Whitehead?”
I tweet about a local author’s book hoping they’ll retweet it, because I feel pressure to build a platform. The author re-tweets everyone else on Twitter except me. I read a roundtable interview with agents on how to successfully publish a memoir. “A robust platform is given equal footing with voice and story.” I need ten thousand followers. I spend a week being more active on Twitter. At the end of the week I am nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two followers short.
Then there’s the question of whether I’ve suffered enough. I sit in class, writing on a Lenovo Yoga while drinking Tazo ginger tea and wearing burgundy fingerless gloves woven in Peru. Do I even have a right to be here? I’m just another progressive white woman nearing fifty, writing a sad memoir. Love stories with a spouse killed by cancer are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. My teacher, a talented poet, shares her beginnings—how she wrote into the wee hours each night while raising children alone and working two jobs. Is it my imagination, or is she looking at me?
But I’m here. I’m here because the ghost of my dead husband follows me around. I’m here because outside of raising his children and a demanding corporate job, I’ve made time for writing classes at night in the damp rooms of Seattle’s Hugo House, and the subject I always write about—for fifteen years now—has been my grief. I’m here because two years ago the pounding of a voice telling me “it’s time, it’s time, if not now, when, it’s time to write his story, it’s time to write your story” sat on my shoulder, madly distracting me from staying the corporate path. I’m here because I saved and saved and saved to keep our household running for a few years so I could focus on this project. I’m here because my current husband and extended family withheld their worries, instead saying, “go, we believe in you.” I’m here because I loved a man deeply, and his life was cut short, and we didn’t say the things we should have said because we were young and naïve, and there have been days when I’ve been stuck on the cold tile floor in fetal position heaving wet grief at the regret and guilt I carry for his death. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.
And maybe you can’t hear me. Maybe I toss in an adverb too many. Or my story doesn’t have a universal point. Or the tension isn’t building. Or a sentence that should end with a clang ends with a whoosh. Or I don’t have a platform. Or my memoir is too non-traditional. Or not traditional enough.
But here’s the thing, dear reader, dear agent, dear publisher, dear author, the story is eating me alive. The. Story. Is. Eating. Me. Alive. So, lacking skill, lacking platform, lacking a through path, I keep going. I show up. I sit down. I keep writing. And by the grace of my pen, I will get out on paper the suffocating grief within me to remember a man, a good man, a simple man, a handsome man, a dead man.
Perhaps the transformation from emerging writer to writer has already happened. More likely it never ends. It’s enough that the story rises from me, and I catch it be penned. That is my metamorphosis.
Rachel Greenley is a Seattle-based writer who would like you to follow her on Twitter.
January 9, 2018 § 26 Comments
In Taiwan, there are historic shophouses, cliffs crumbling into the Pacific Ocean, and a glorious day where gods are processed through the streets, heralded by firecrackers and bands.
There are also huge stationery stores. The first one I saw–9X9 Stationery Expert–I walked right into four aisles of pens. Just pens. Not erasers or pencils–those have their own aisles, thank you very much. Upstairs were rows of stickers, file folders, calendars, art supplies, and shelf after shelf of notebooks, lined and squared and blank and ready for absolutely brilliant and world-changing writing.
That’s my secret hope for every blank page I buy. But usually new notebooks end up on a shelf, because they’re “too nice to use” or I’m on a kick where I only write in composition books or hotel notepads or primary school tablets from Austria. I finally solved that quandary by buying the same notebook every time, in packs of three, so I can write on nice paper without feeling like I’m committing desecration.
Still, I wanted the cute notebook that said “Everything Is Going to Be OK” on the cover. Or the one with the old-fashioned folded pages, to be slit apart with a paper knife. Maybe the one lined vertically for kanji writing, with anime pandas on every page. Before my husband hauled me out of the store (after waiting patiently for almost an hour), I’d bought gifts for friends and paper clips shaped like the Eiffel Tower.
I got sucked into an artsy independent store in Kaohsiung. In Tainan, going alone at night to 101 Stationary Paradise felt like meeting a lover. On my birthday, my husband indulged me. We walked almost five miles to hit every stationery store in Hualien for the right set of rubber-stamp letters.
It’s the promise of the blank page–not only are we going to write something on a fresh, clean space free of previous failure, we’ll do it with the joy and abandon of an eight-year-old with a brand-new box of still-pointy crayons that haven’t yet been forcibly shared with siblings.
I’ve moved away from paper. I have a habit-tracker and a list app and a calendar and everything syncs with my phone. It’s too easy. Every idea gets put in a digital list and forgotten immediately. Perhaps twenty projects have been broken into steps and abandoned. I dutifully tick off exercise and birthdays and groceries. Meanwhile, my notebooks sit half-filled, pulled out for a workshop when I’m doing “real” writing.
But I wanted those Taiwanese notebooks and pens, and I didn’t want them sitting on a shelf. There had to be a plan. I found the Bullet Journal. Beautiful, hand-lettered calendars, habit trackers and moon charts sprawled across Instagram and Pinterest, hashtagged with the notebooks and art pens used to create them. It was way more than I could handle. (If you’re interested but easily overwhelmed, start with #minimalistbujo)
Instead, I resurrected an idea from Lynda Barry’s marvelous book Syllabus: use the same notebook for everything. Class notes and errand lists. Brainstorming and doodling. Real assignments and rough drafts and fresh ideas. Barry proposes that putting everything in one place sparks connections from proximity, even among unrelated items. And really, what more relationship do they need than all coming from the same head?
I stuck with the same notebook because I had a new one with me. I’m not sure I love the pens. I bought the wrong color stamp pad. I’m not a great visual designer, my pages bleed through and my handwriting is shitty. But so far it’s working. Everything in one book, the joy of playing with colored pencils and a cute sharpener and washi tape. If an idea is worth keeping, it’s worth writing down, flipping back to when I need something to write (like this blog post). If a job is worth doing, it’s worth copying to next week’s list–or let it go un-copied and undone, instead of popping up as an automatically scheduled “priority.”
When I first workshopped with Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore, he required all in-class writing to be done on paper, because (paraphrasing) the veins in the hand connect to the heart, and we can write more truly and deeply without the mediation of the keyboard. I do feel more connected to what I’m writing, even “cancel credit card,” and I’m finding things easier to remember (science!).
I probably won’t go completely analog, because typing is fast. But I’ve woken up five days in a row eager to get to the page, to color and write and make things. I’ve felt more focused, and the paper page doesn’t let me click through to Facebook.
New year, new notebook. Maybe it’s a gimmick. But for now, sign me up.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
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.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.