My Favorite Rejections

July 2, 2020 § 23 Comments

gossBy Erica Goss

My favorite rejections start with “Dear Erica” and end with “sincerely.”

They explain that regretfully, unfortunately, after close review, even though it was lovely, even though it sparked interest, even though they were impressed, even though they enjoyed reading it, even though there was much to admire, even though it stood out from the rest, even though they appreciated the opportunity to read it, my work does not fit their needs.

They often seem disappointed. After all, they read my work with care, with pleasure, with interest, with gratitude, and with the closest attention. I almost feel sorry for them. I certainly feel sorry for myself.

Once in a while, the rejection comes with the explanation that they received so much high quality work it made their selection process extremely difficult. This is hard. I understand. I assume, of course, that my submission was part of the high quality work they refer to.

There is often a fee for rejection. This is also called a reading fee.

After I receive my rejection I’m frequently asked to buy something else. I’m invited to make a donation, buy a subscription, enter a contest, contribute to a tip jar, and recommend that others do as well.

Of course, due to the volume of submissions, they cannot respond personally.

It makes me happy when I’m asked to submit again, even if it requires another reading fee.

I keep track of my rejections. No rejection is ever forgotten. It lives forever as an entry in my spreadsheet.

I don’t like to see the word “rejected” in my spreadsheet. I prefer “declined.” It’s easier to see “declined” over and over, page after page, year after year.

I look back at my spreadsheet. I calculate my acceptance rate. From my figures, it seems I have mastered this rejection thing.

When I’m bored, I’ll see if the rejection email from a particular journal has changed. Some journals have sent me the same rejection email, word for word, for years.

There’s a thing called a “tiered” rejection. From a menu of rejection emails, the journal chooses one based on how much they liked your submission. From the rejection emails I have received, I can see that I’ve gotten rejections that range from terse to encouraging and back to terse again, from the same journals. This is true of journals that have accepted my work, as well as the ones that have rejected me over and over.

I try not to send my work to a journal that stipulates, in words similar to these, “If we haven’t responded in x number of months, consider yourself unchosen.” I want an actual, emailed rejection to seal the deal.

However, for reasons that aren’t always clear, those rejections might not come. Fairly often, the journal goes under and fails to inform the writers. When that happens, it’s hard to know what to put in my spreadsheet. “Never heard back?” “Ghosted?” “Crickets?”

I’m never sure if I should consider my work rejected if I haven’t heard back in a year. You’d be surprised how often a year goes by before you hear from a journal.

Sometimes, like curses or wise men, rejections come in threes, on the same day, in the same hour. Sometimes, this is how the day starts.

Rejections have a special look to them. The subject line almost always starts with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”

I’m an editor as well as a submitter, and much of the above applies to me when I receive submissions of other people’s writing. If I have to decline a submission, I try to inform the writer as soon as possible, and in as kind a tone as possible. If I liked their work, I invite them to submit again.

Every time I send a rejection, I remember how it feels to get those emails that start with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”

My rejection might be that writer’s third in one day.

Some days are like that.
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Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer. She served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. Her essays, reviews and poems appear widely, including in Lake Effect, Atticus Review, Contrary, Convergence, Spillway, Cider Press Review, Eclectica, The Tishman Review, Tinderbox, The Red Wheelbarrow, and Main Street Rag, among others. She is the founder of Girls’ Voices Matter, an arts education program for teen girls.

The Power Of Story: A CNF Webinar

June 25, 2020 § 11 Comments

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will be offering a one-hour webinar next week, titled The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay, as part of Creative Nonfiction‘s virtual education program.

The online webinar will examine the craft elements that can transform a memoir or essay from a mere collection of scenes or observations into something powerful, and how writers can create a dynamic, compelling whole greater than the sum of its many parts. The goal, as Langston Hughes writes, is to tell a story that is “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”

This how-to webinar will allow writers to:
  • FIND the power of story and discover how locating your “Invisible Magnetic River” will insure that readers stay engaged and curious from beginning to end.
  • LEARN how story can help to solve many of the frustrations and obstacles that can interfere with  both writing and revision.
  • DISTINGUISH between a chain of events and a compelling story that contains a dynamic emotional flow.
  • UNDERSTAND that the surest way to make your book or essay one that readers want to read–and, in that way, one that editors want to publish–is to tell a damn good story.

Writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process, are welcome.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

2 pm – 3:15 pm EDT

$20 

Advance registration required. REGISTER HERE.

 

About the instructor: Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoir Between Panic & Desire and the writing guides The Story Cure and Crafting the Personal Essay, among many other books. He has published essays and stories in the Georgia ReviewHarper’s, the New York Times Magazine, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is founding editor of Brevity, the journal of flash nonfiction, and teaches master classes and workshops across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, and Mexico.

Writing and Publishing from the Front Lines of a Pandemic

June 3, 2020 § Leave a comment

ZoomChristopher Madden, David Lëgere, and Colin Hosten are editors at Woodhall Press, publisher of Flash Nonfiction Funny, Flash Nonfiction Food, and the forthcoming Fast Funny Women. The three of them had a socially distanced discussion on our current public health crisis and the importance of storytelling as a way of documenting individual experiences. Below is a truncated transcript of their conversation:

Christopher Madden: We’ve published two collections of flash nonfiction, with a third on the way. Is this perhaps the right format for pandemic-related storytelling?

Colin Hosten: The context seems very different, thematically. We’ve tackled humor and food. How would we navigate the ongoing tragedy of this crisis?

David Lëgere: The theme is different, but I don’t think that changes our goal as a publisher—to connect readers and writers through vital storytelling.

CM: Flash nonfiction, specifically, may be very well suited for people on the front line of this pandemic, as opposed to longer form essays.

DL: Exactly—it allows us to capture as many voices as possible in one compendium.

CH: And what kinds of voices would we be seeking? You mention people on the front lines…

CM: Basically anyone facing this crisis head-on. Nurses and other medical professionals. ER staff. Essential workers making sure trash is still picked up. Delivery workers, first responders….

DL: Patients?

CM: Sure—the idea is to preserve and amplify these essential voices and stories from anyone caught on the front lines of this.

CH: I think it’s a fantastic idea. And it may be a way to highlight some of the things that these diverse voices might have in common.

DL: What should we use as a working title?

CH: We already have a paradigm going with Flash Nonfiction Funny and Flash Nonfiction Food. Maybe something like Flash Nonfiction Frontline?

CM: Is that too general? Should we make it clearer that we mean the front lines of this pandemic?

DL: I mean, this is basically the main thing occupying the public consciousness for the foreseeable future—let’s just be direct: Flash Nonfiction COVID-19.

CH: Well, that certainly is direct.

CM: It’s more to-the-point,

CH: We’ll need to get a call for submissions out, sooner rather than later.

DL: Are people even able to do much writing through all this stress and trauma?

CM: Maybe part of the point of this is to encourage those on the front lines to use writing as a tool for reflection, for negotiating the trauma.

CH: And, again, the flash form allows people to dive right in and back out again in just 750 words. To Chris’s point, flash nonfiction may be the appropriate vehicle for something like this.

DL: So what’s the best way to get the word out, besides all the usual suspects?

CH: Brevity publishes some of the best flash nonfiction being written these days. We should reach out to them and see if they’d be willing to share with their readers.

DL: Good idea!

CM: I sure hope we get lots of strong submissions.

DL: I’ll be checking flashnonfictioncovid@gmail.com every day!

CH: And let’s make sure folks know they can go to https://www.woodhallpress.com/post/call-for-submissions for more information.

CM: And share it with their friends on the front lines!

Author Website 101

June 2, 2020 § 11 Comments

Walt Whitman knows his best side

More than one Brevity guest blogger has woken up to an email from me saying, “Your blog is up this morning, I grabbed an author photo from your website and made up a quick bio from what I could find, let me know if the bio isn’t quite right.”

In my other life, managing events, I’ve heard complaints from variety performers: “The newspaper picked a photo off my website of me wearing glasses—I never wear my glasses when I’m performing!” Or, “They put my real name instead of Wacky Wilma!”

Well, Wacky Wilma, your legal name was on your website, under the bespectacled photo of you.

Editors, reporters, and the administrative assistants whose job it is to compile press releases, programs and brochures don’t have time to search for your favorite photo, or to carefully cut your bio from six paragraphs to 50 words using only your most-prestigious publications.

The number-one way to avoid displeasure or delay in the information you want representing you in the world? Make that the easiest information to find.

One way to make it easy to find is to make an author website. You do not need to be famous or important to have your own website. You do not even need to be published. Your website functions as your business card:

  • Provides a way to contact you
  • Shows who you are and what you do
  • Provides information, including a photo, that a publication or organization can use to accompany or promote your work
  • Links to any publications
  • If you use social media, links to your profiles
  • If you have anything for sale, makes it EASY to give you money

An author website doesn’t have to be expensive. Yes, you can spend four figures on a designer, logo, your own domain, hosting, etc, etc. Or you can put up a WordPress site for free in an afternoon. (Here’s a rundown and reviews on some of the most popular build-your-own website services.)

The key elements of your website:

An author photo you love that is at least 500KB. It’s easy to shrink a photo that’s too large, but very difficult to blow up a small photo without it looking pixelated or grainy. 500KB-2MB is a good size range for a quick-loading website with usable photos.

Make your headshot reasonably current—if we see you at a conference, we should be able to recognize you without a time machine. Author photos these days tend to be casual and with a “real” background rather than a photographic backdrop. That means a good selfie often works just fine. Here’s a Brevity blog of tips for getting a good author photo. Put on a solid-colored top, stand next to a window with natural daylight, and take 50 selfies. After the first ten, it will stop feeling silly. Somewhere in there will be one photo you like. Hate all photos of you? Try Melissa Ballard’s author photo style.

No photos you don’t love. Allison’s Law: if you have ONE photo you don’t like on your website, that will be the photo everyone picks.

An easy to copy-paste bio. Allison’s Second Law: if the editor cuts down your bio, they will leave out your favorite credit. Put a short, 1-3 sentence bio on your front page, and a longer bio on the “About” page.

Links to any social media/newsletter/etc. Put your casual ways to keep in touch, because how often are you really going to update that website? And triple-check that any “Contact” form submissions arrive in your inbox.

Where to buy or read your work. Link to posted essays and articles, and any books you have for sale (anthologies count!). This is also a great time to save PDFs of any online publications, because one day their website will go out of business and your link won’t work.

If you are still working on publishing credits, include links to:

  • Books by writer friends
  • Literary organizations you support
  • Books that have informed your work, or that you enjoyed
  • Resources for writers and readers

Even if a website isn’t on your list right now, websearch “[your name] + writer” and see what comes up. Anything you’d like to track down and remove? When I search myself, the top five photos are all professional shots I’d be happy to see printed. My middle initial avoids confusing me with the actor or the Miss West Virginia with the fake sex tapes. Sure, some photos that aren’t me come up—pics I’ve posted on Twitter, or that also appear on a webpage I’m featured on, but it’s pretty clear I’m not the guy holding the headless chicken.

Finally, don’t stress too much. Do your best to make the information you want available, easily, but know that people will still get it wrong. One of my favorite newspaper front pages was me, eating fire, with my stage name in a faux tattoo Sharpie-d on my arm: “ISABELLA.”  The caption directly beneath says, “Isobel eating fire.”

____________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her new comedy playscript for video chat, The Next Horseman, is now available in paperback and ebook.

Forget Platform—Build a Bridge

May 26, 2020 § 31 Comments

There are three big myths about platform.

Myth #1: platform = social media followers

You may have seen writers on Twitter with statistics like “20.1K followers, 20K following.” Some writers build these numbers with “#writerlift” posts (everyone follows everyone else), or use apps to mass-follow hundreds of accounts, hoping they’ll follow back.

That’s not a platform. They have racked up numbers with people they can’t actually engage with. They are followed by people who clicked as reciprocation, not genuine interest.

Even truly impressive social media followings seldom translate to actual book sales. Social media numbers reflect, rather than cause, popularity.

Myth #2: platform = going viral

Only sometimes! If you’re writing memoir or nonfiction, writing a “hot essay” can get you a book deal. For literary fiction, a powerful short story in a great literary magazine can get you an agent.

Or it may not. You can’t control what’s going to go viral. Fortunately, the ingredients of “going viral” (tap into a subject people care passionately about, write a unique take and write it well, gradually build your publication credits until you get into more prestigious and prominent outlets) are the exact same ingredients of “pursue a serious writing career.” Going viral is the icing on your cake of dedication and time.

Myth #3: platform = being famous

Famous people get book deals all the time, very often for a ghostwritten book. But famous people are not your competitors. Readers buying A Famous Person I Like Wrote This are not the same people seeking a book that will entertain them, move them, or solve their problem.

Publishers know that. The pool of time and money available for famous person books is not the same pool for not-famous authors.

The vast majority of books are written by people who were not famous before publishing, and most of them still aren’t.

So what IS platform?

Platform is how you’re going to reach the readers who need your book.

  • You’ve become a known expert
  • Your work ties into (or better yet, sparks) a cultural trend
  • Your topic, work or personality draws people to pay to find out more

For nonfiction and memoir, platform is building trust, not numbers.

Think about your ideal readers. What do they need to know? Where are they currently seeking that information? Writing articles, public speaking (when health allows) and email newsletters are all more valuable than social media. Instead of a quick scroll, you have a meaningful chance to build bonds with the people who will trust YOU to solve their problem, whether that problem is, “I need to understand beekeeping,” or “Nobody around me knows how it feels when your kid dies.”

If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, work to establish your expertise in your subject, with a wonderful essay in a good literary magazine, articles for mass media, or speaking to special-interest groups fascinated by your topic.

For the writer creating a beautiful and passionate memoir, zero followers is plenty. That writer’s platform is the excellence of her writing, her fascinating emotional journey, and (hopefully) publishing short pieces that build her readership and reputation. Having followers and fans who will advocate for your book definitely helps you appeal to publishers, but writing a great book is more valuable still.

Here’s the main problem with “building platform”: a “platform” is something you get up on and yell at people.

Instead, build a bridge.

Your bridge is all the ways people who need your book can reach you. You are making a pathway for your readers, and it’s a two-way street. You listen to them, they listen to you.

I use several bridges: In Facebook groups (not my own pages), I connect with writers by offering information, promoting their books, and supporting their writing journeys. It’s not about racking up followers, but establishing myself as someone who is useful, helpful and kind—without a specific transaction. On Instagram, I focus on mini-essays: “get to know me,” “hey I write things that make you think,” and “here’s a writing tip.” Twitter is to amplify other people’s voices, practice being funny in writing, and entertain myself. I write a mostly-monthly newsletter, with the goal of “feel better today, reader! Also, here’s what I’m writing right now.” I stay connected to family and friends, because one Aunt Tillie who makes her whole church buy your book is more valuable than 10K followers on Twitter.

Building bridges isn’t quick and easy. I usually tell writers, it’s going to take fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, for two years. Fortunately, you only need to start with fifteen minutes.

Make some lists: Who are your readers? What are they reading now? What bridges do they already use to get entertainment and information? What websites do they visit, what groups are they part of? Start brainstorming ways you can be on the other side of that bridge.

  • Can you write an essay that shows off your voice?
  • Can you write an Op-Ed on a subject you’re passionate about?
  • Can you think of a topic for public speaking?
  • Can you start a newsletter that entertains or informs your readers?
  • How can you promote or support another writer today? How can you share valuable information with people who need it?

If you’re consistently entertaining, kind, and helpful in your world, some of your connections will become advocates for your book. You’ll also know more, be a better writer, and understand your readers. Just give it 15 minutes—I’ll see you on the other side of the bridge.

__________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new comedy, The Next Horseman, is a playscript for video chat. Let her know (in comments or DM on Twitter/Insta) if you’d like to review a copy or send one to your local drama teacher or theater group.

 

 

Writers Near and Far: Shared Prompts and Tic-Tac-Toe Boxes

May 22, 2020 § 4 Comments

By Megan Vered and Jennifer Lang

Part One: Creating Community by Megan Vered

Megan VeredI open the link to our scheduled Monday evening meeting and, one by one, mini faces appear in virtual boxes. How happy I am to see the women from my weekly writer’s group! We’ve been meeting in my home for the past two years and during that time have written about everything from first kisses to heart heavy losses. Within five minutes of being online together I sense the disconnect. We are an intimate ensemble that, under normal circumstances, huddles around my dining room table drinking ginger tea and eating lovingly assembled snacks, while listening to the sound of each other’s fingers on the keyboards. I look at their strained faces in the gallery view and it occurs to me—traditional prompt writing may only contribute to the feeling of isolation we are all experiencing. I wonder how I might add a personal touch to our now depersonalized gatherings, and it comes to me. “Let’s change things up this week. How about, rather than writing separately, we work together on a collective document based on the same prompt?” I feel their bodies relax. They are all on board.

It takes us a few weeks to polish the process that now looks like this: at the end of each two-hour session, I give a prompt. Person #1 responds and emails her response to Person #2. Person #2 responds to a theme or a phrase in Person #1’s writing and emails her response to Person #3. This continues until the final person has responded. I am cced on each version and collate a master document. Each week, we take turns being Person #1.

My spontaneous tag-you’re-it relay offers no road map, so we’ve had some false starts. Person #1 held up the flow by sitting on the prompt for too long. Person #3 forwarded to the wrong person. I reassure the group—we are not seeking perfection but safety.

The following Monday, I email everyone the assembled document. We do a read through without comments, each writer reading her own words out loud. We then do a second more critical read through. Each reader tells us what it was about the previous writer’s piece that motivated her. And then begins the fun: noticing, questioning, encouraging, word-shifting, deepening, reframing. Working on one document as a group in real time has brought us even closer and is improving everybody’s grasp of first person writing.

In the past month we’ve explored the topic of reckoning during these unprecedented times, how our experience of home has shifted, and this week we are writing desperation humor based on being cooped up. What has changed for them? They have shifted from being solitary writers to becoming a writer’s collective. What has changed for me? I have a new identity in the group as fellow writer who receives feedback on her work, just like the rest of them. And, in the process, I’ve become a bad ass pandemic prompt queen.

Part Two: Crossing Boundaries by Jennifer Lang

Lang 2020I beamed at the two dozen plus people popping up in tic-tac-toe boxes across my screen. A handful of my writing students in Israel. A couple of handfuls of my writing friends from my greater grad school community in the U.S. And a handful of writers from my friend Megan’s classes and community in my native northern California.

When I first approached her with my idea to co-lead a free workshop, on Zoom, she immediately accepted. The idea was we invite students and fellow writers, as well as our mates from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Despite the 7,422 miles and 10-hour time difference between us, Megan and I volleyed WhatsApps and emails, both of us brimming with ideas, until finalizing the details. She came up with Stepping Through to the Other Side: A Virtual Writing Workshop; I scheduled the session and created the event; we blasted it on Facebook. That first meeting, late March, after group introductions, Megan and I each offered a prompt and women from across the globe wrote together in silence. At the 10-minutes left ZOOM warning, I messaged her, and we decided to forgo reading, wrap up, and gauge future interest: thumbs up, nods, un-muted yesses.

Ever since Megan and I started teaching in our opposite corners of the world after graduation, we have often shared prompts, methodologies and resources. In this new, unmapped territory, where I wanted to write but couldn’t focus and wondered why anyone would care about my memoir in progress, Megan was my perfect partner. At our second session, we listened to those who volunteered to read for three minutes and ended with a prompt for the next meeting. And so on and so on. Every Wednesday, we alternate leading the session and offer a mutually-agreed-upon prompt at the end to work on for the following week. As the weeks pass and we get to know and trust each other more, our stories are becoming more vulnerable and intimate as we tackle subjects like isolation, loss, rediscovered joys, simple pleasures. We see each other wiping eyes during readings. We clap. We send messages in the chat box with words of encouragement or calls for submissions.

A month in, Megan and I have named our group Writers Near & Far. We’re fluid with faces coming and going and no limits on numbers. The only rule is to keep your heart open, to feel safe in the space. During these uncertain times, as we hunker down and turn inward in a way that even feels intense for a memoir writer, maybe listening to each other read and creating connection is just what we need.
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Megan Vered is an essayist whose first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the fantasia of her youth. Her work has been published or is forthcoming  in the San Francisco Chronicle, Silk Road Review, and the Coachella Review, among others. Megan holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and West Highland White Terrier in Marin County, California, where she serves on the board of Heyday Books and leads writing workshops.

Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives and writes in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, the Brevity blog, and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites.

** If you would like to contact the authors or join a writers’ group, please email meganvered@gmail.com or jennifer@langonline.com for details.

How to Bypass Writer Burnout in the World of Social Media

April 20, 2020 § 4 Comments

Sweta_Headshot_BrevityBy Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Social media is incredible; it introduces us to writing opportunities, communities, retreats, residencies, prizes, scholarships, and so much more. It helps us connect and communicate with people around the world. It orchestrates new friendships. Social media dissipates geographic boundaries and makes the writing life less isolated. But, like most things in life, social media too comes with its complications.

Research tells us that excessive and compulsive social media usage is linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem amongst other health issues. If we don’t learn to take care of ourselves, pause every now and then, and stop refreshing our feeds constantly, burn out is inevitable.

  1. Take a deep breath: While Facebook live and webinars and Zoom meetings make it easier for us to RSVP and “attend” more events because we aren’t limited by geographic location and timings, they can also take a toll on us. Sleeping at odd hours, skipping meals, not getting enough movement, and jumping from one event to another because there are no commute constrictions can have its own consequences. Fact: It’s important to pause. It’s good to take breaks in between. It’s imperative to exercise and eat right. And, it’s perfectly fine to not attend anything once in a while. When you make the time to recharge yourself, you get back to your writing life, writing community, and creativity with vigor and appreciation, you have so much more to give to your tribe.
  2. Redefine boundaries: Social media has made access to information seamless. It makes life more alluring. You see pictures of your friends at book launches, literary gatherings, and book clubs, and if you perceive exclusion, it can have negative impact on your mental health. Then there is the fear of missing out (FOMO) and tendency of over-booking your calendar to not feeling adept because everyone else around you seems to be doing better—courtesy of social media posts. Develop a healthy relationship with social media. Don’t check social media posts at least two hours prior to going to bed. Don’t log on to social networks first thing in the morning. Maybe schedule your social media posts or you use an app that compels you to take breaks? Consider having an editorial calendar in place to plan content ahead of time and allot specific time of the day to use social media. Whatever you do, do not forget to add a nourishing distance between yourself and social media. Sometimes, we need to build boundaries to protect us from our own thoughts and actions.
  3. Figure out your why: Social media can be addictive, and it can create a want for instant gratification. Figure out why you are on social media—what your goals and expectations are from it. You don’t have to be on every social networking channel just because others are on there. Figure out, which social media network makes most sense to you and allocate time wisely. Reality is that the more time you spend on social media, the more you start to seek personal validation through your social media engagement. So, if you share an update/post something about your new writing, book, interview, essay, award, struggles, wins….and don’t get “enough” likes or comments or emojis on your post right away, you might find yourself refreshing the feed obsessively. Then the inner voice gets loud and leads you on the path to self-deprecatory reflections: People don’t like my writing. People don’t like me anymore. People aren’t happy for my success. They don’t think I am relatable, witty, or intelligent. I don’t matter. My words don’t make a difference. No one will read my work. My career is over. The writers mind can be filled with insecurities, doubts, and self-loathing. We tend to make up fearful stories in our head.
  4. Find your community: While it’s important to feel that you aren’t alone, it’s equally important to know that there are different kinds of writers and paths available for your writing career. That said, not everyone will be a good match for you even if though they might be the best human being to have walked this planet. For example, if you are a writer with a day job who is feeling anxious about their commitment to the craft and publishing, talking to a full-time writer who has much more flexibility in their schedule and can afford to spend hours online to research options and opportunities, might put you in a more vulnerable space. Talk to those who can relate to your situation. Find those in the same position as you in life and build a community.
  5. Embrace tech timeouts: Have you noticed…on some days, you sit down to write with full intention…and then you make the mistake of opening Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or Pinterest on your phone? And there starts the world of mindless scrolling and thumb impressions. On a good day, aside from wasting productive hours, you might not be deeply impacted. But we all have bad days where we doubt our writing, our voice, and our capabilities. On a day like that, it’s easy to assume that everyone in the world has a better life than you. Because social media constantly exposes us to idealized versions of other people’s lives, we assume everyone is more successful than us. Fact: Everyone is struggling in their own ways. People only show those aspects of their lives that they want the world to believe. Intentionally disconnecting from social media can give you untainted perspective.

Social media is powerful. Try to use it mindfully, not reactively. While it’s important to be an active member of the writing community and support your fellow writers, it is equally important to take care of your emotional, physical, and mental health. Information overload can overwhelm us for the wrong reasons. There is a tipping point for each one of us, after which we end up on the road to burnout.

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” ~ Christopher K. Germer

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Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe.

On Translation: An Interview with Wenguang Huang (Part Two)

April 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

WenguangWenguang Huang has worked as a teacher, public relations specialist, literary translator, reporter, memoir writer, and more. In part two of the interview, he talks with Brevity Associate Editor Victoria Buitron about how his creative nonfiction and literary translations are intertwined and offers advice to memoir writers. Read part one of the interview here.

You came to mind during my last MFA residency because a poet who translates from Portuguese into English was invited, and she said she would never translate poems without access to the writer. What’s your stance on that?

I totally agree. Before I accept a translation assignment, I always propose certain conditions or rules. My first rule is that the writer has to value my work as a translator. When possible, I always try to meet with the author or at least talk with the person on the phone. In this way, I can gauge if he or she is easy to work with. Otherwise, you put so much of your life into it, and the author might not even appreciate it. Sometimes, when we’re given an opportunity to translate a book that we truly like, or to work with a famous writer who can greatly enrich our resume, we tend to ignore our incompatible personalities or working styles. From my own experience, such collaboration always ends up badly. The whole process could be miserable for both the author and the translator. I’ve been there and done that. At times, I think writers—when somebody translates their work and they’re not the translators themselves—they don’t appreciate our work or give us enough credit.

Secondly, I always request direct access to the author when I run into questions during my translation. In this way, we can save time and avoid unnecessary misinterpretation. Also, because of the cultural differences, one cannot simply translate something word for word. In many instances, the translator has to work with the author to do some adaptations, such as adding some background information and adjusting the narrative structures. The author certainly has to be willing to make the changes.

I know your trajectory into translating and writing is very unique, but what suggestions would you provide to someone that is interested in becoming a literary translator?

I think you need to be a writer first or at least receive training in creative writing in order to be a good literary translator. Oftentimes there’s a misconception both by writers and the general public. They say “oh, he speaks Portuguese very well,” and they think if you speak the language very well you’ll be a good translator, which is not the case at all. Translation is not just about knowing the language very well. It involves recreating a piece of literary writing in a different language. In my case, I don’t have any training in creative writing, but I was trained as an English-language journalist and have written for various newspapers and magazines for many years. My journalistic experiences have taught me how to tell a good story.

After I read your memoir, I began reading Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Xianhui Yang and translated by you. Both your own stories and the translations you’ve worked on have to do with China’s history and the Cultural Revolution. Could you share what draws you to this topic?

I was drawn to nonfiction works by independent writers such as Liao Yiwu and Yang Xianhui because they have truthfully documented ordinary people’s lives under Communism, and chronicled the brutalities of the totalitarian rule under Mao.

As China is now emerging as a world economic powerhouse, the Communist leadership has tightened its ideological control by systematically whitewashing history and using the powerful state-controlled media to brainwash its citizens.  Nowadays, if you ask a young person born after the 1980s about the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Rightist Movement, or the student pro-democracy protest movement of 1989, it’s highly likely that he or she hardly knows anything. You can’t get a lot from the internet in China because of the censorship.

In other words, I consider my translation as a feeble attempt to preserve history and to help Westerners understand China.

Preserving memory is really important.  At present, people in China are obsessed with .  The government encourages people to forget the past and move on. My point is, if you don’t confront the past, you’ll never get over it. You can never move on without facing your past. It will come back to haunt it.

What is one of the toughest aspects of translating from Chinese to English?

One of the difficulties I have encountered is the narrative structure.  Many Chinese writers do not follow a linear line and their storytelling can be winding and go in circles. As a result, Western readers might find them hard to follow. To me, this has presented a huge challenge. In 2005, when I first submitted my translation to a magazine, an editor turned it down because he said the narrative was not straightforward. This was a great lesson for me, so I decided to reconsider my strategy. Instead of just being the translator, I also became the editor. I consulted with the author and we reorganized some of the contents to make sure that the story line is what English readers are accustomed to.  By doing this, translators also run the risk of altering the original and stepping into the area of adaptation, rather than translation. So, it’s a fine line.

The second tough thing for me is the translation of Chinese idioms or proverbs, which imbue Chinese writings and conversations with local flavor. They’re so vivid and cultural-specific that it is very hard to translate. Sometimes, when I do find an English equivalent, the flavor of the original writing is lost. For example, I once encountered a Chinese phrase “An ugly toad is lusting after the flesh of a swan,” which describes a man who pursues a beautiful and intellectually superior woman.  I initially translated it as “ask for the moon.” As you can see, the translation has lost the vividness and vulgarity. What is the solution? I just do a direct translation. Of course, in cases where a proverb has a story behind it, that’s a bit hard.

Can you discuss any works of translation or a book that you’re currently working on?

I have just finished translating “1566,” a Chinese bestseller that revolves around a series of fictional events that unfolded during the last five years of Emperor Jiajing’s reign in the 16th Century. The book, a page turner, offers an unflinching look into the brutal power struggles inside the imperial court, and the deceitful alliances between politics and business.The book was adapted into a popular TV series in China and the public see it as a parody on current Chinese politics.

In addition to translations, I’m also working on an autographical novel, which is based on a murder story that I had heard of long ago. The story depicts the dramatic political and cultural transformation in the aftermath of Mao’s death in 1976. In a way, it’s a sequel to my memoir.

What do you recommend to people who want to dive into memoir writing? 

My first advice to people who think they have a great story to tell is to find time and write it. After my memoir came out, I’ve met a lot of people who have shared their incredible family stories with me and asked how to go about writing them. I always tell people to stop talking about their ideas and get them down in writing. Jot down whatever comes to you mind. There’s no need to worry about the logic or the narrative structure. Once you have a first draft – no matter how bad it is, in this way it becomes real and more productive. If you don’t write it down, you end up talking about it for ten years and it’s simply an idea.

The process of memoir writing, especially the initial stage can be arduous because it brings up all your old memories and repressed feelings. When I first started, I had problems sleeping at night. For about a month, I would go to bed at six in the morning. The writing dragged me back to my past. A lot of the memories are quite unpleasant. There are a lot of regrets.  Sometimes, the feelings were so intense that it felt like I couldn’t even breathe. The process forces you to face your past honestly.  Look back, it’s really a self-healing process.

Once you go through this self-examination stage and get a draft down, you should step back for a few weeks. Then, you can gradually improve on your first draft, restructure it, delete or add more stories. Often times, your second draft might be completely different from the first draft but it gets you going.

For those who are not sure if you can find an agent or publisher for your memoir, I would recommend that you pick segments of what you have written and turn them into short personal essays. Send them to a newspaper or magazine. If the essay is about your parents, submit to a magazine during Mother’s Day or Father’s day, when the publications always need good stories. Getting it published will give you the attention and the confidence you need.

Lastly, get a real job first and do your memoir writing or translation in your spare time. That’s just my experience.

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Wenguang Huang, a Chicago-based journalist, writer and translator, is the author of The Little Red Guard,  a memoir that chronicles his growing up in central China during the 1970s and reveals his family striving to fulfill a grandmother’s last wish during a period of rapid societal change. The book was a Washington Post Best of 2012 pick. In 2014, he co-authored A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel with Ho Pin. The book chronicles the fall of Bo Xilai and depicts the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Huang started introducing contemporary Chinese writers to the West in 2004, when he translated Chinese writer Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up. His other translations include Liao Yiwu’s God is Red and For a Song and One Hundred Songs and Xianhui’s Women from Shanghai. Huang is the recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Award and his translations and journalistic writings have  appeared in Fortune.com, the New York Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, and Chicago Public Radio.

Brevity’s Associate Editor, Victoria Buitron, graduated from Hunter College CUNY with a degree in translation and interpretation. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.

On Translation: An Interview with Wenguang Huang

April 6, 2020 § 1 Comment

Wenguang Huang is the translator of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu and Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Yan Xianhui. In 2012, he published the memoir The Little Red Guard, which revolves around growing up in China and the lifetime reverberations of being selected by his father to guard his grandmother’s coffin.

Brevity’s Associate Editor, Victoria Buitron, who graduated from Hunter College CUNY with a degree in translation and interpretation, talks to Huang about the art of translation and how he became a memoirist.

This interview has been edited and condensed, and will appear in two installments.

The Little Red GuardIn The Little Red Guard, you describe the different jobs you ventured into, including journalism. Could you discuss more about the path that led you to become a translator and memoirist?

 When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1990, I studied journalism with a focus on Congressional politics. I was determined to be a real American, to think like an American, and to assimilate. After graduation, I worked as a PR manager for an international agribusiness company. I hardly had the opportunity to speak any Chinese. After a while, even though Chinese was my native language, I became really rusty. When I occasionally talked to my family members, they thought I had undergone brain surgery because I couldn’t even finish a coherent Chinese sentence without switching to English words. But I was kind of proud of the fact that as a foreigner, I wrote English press releases targeting the American audience, and I composed speeches for American business executives. About four or five years later, I started to feel lost, and began to question if it was truly possible or wise to be cut off from my Chinese heritage. I thought that perhaps I should do something that would both connect to my Chinese background and relate to an American audience.

In 1995, there was an opportunity for me to work as a researcher for The New York Times in Beijing. I went back to China for about two years, and during that time I traveled extensively in the country and became reacquainted with my roots. When it got too tough to be a journalist because of the political climate there, I returned to the U.S., and once again worked in Public Relations. The experience in China prompted me to write about my native country for an American audience. So, I became a freelancer and began focusing on Chinese culture and politics for publications such as The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor and Chicago Tribune.

One day in early 2000, I heard a radio program about a Chinese poet and writer, Liao Yiwu. He was jailed for four years for writing a poem in 1989 to condemn the Chinese government’s crackdown on the student protest movement. Upon his release, he became homeless. As he wandered the street as a musician, he met many interesting characters, such as a gambler, a professional mourner, a human smuggler, and a public toilet manager. He interviewed them and collected their stories in a book, called Corpse Walker.

His stories intrigued me. He reminded me of Studs Terkel, whose writing had inspired me back when I was in school. I decided to translate Liao Yiwu’s book, which I believed would help Western readers understand the real China. I contacted Yiwu in China through a friend and obtained his permission on the phone.

When I first started this project, I had no idea whether I was going to get his stories published or not.  At the recommendation of a friend, I applied for the PEN Translation Fund Grant. I submitted some samples, but didn’t get the award. But Esther Allen, a prominent translator and educator, read Liao Yiwu’s stories. She liked them so much that she recommended my translations to Philip Gourevitch at The Paris Review. Philip took the extraordinary step of publishing three of the interviews in his magazine. It was a great feeling to see my first translation in print, especially in this very prestigious magazine. Esther and Philip ushered me into the world of translation. While working as a corporate PR person during the day, I started to translate Chinese books at night or during the weekends. Fortunately, my translations have been picked up by major publishing houses.

WenguangHow has translating influenced your own stories?

Translating books about the tumultuous lives of ordinary people living under Communism in China triggered a lot of my own childhood memories and it gave me the confidence to write my own book. For years, I had thought of writing a story about my grandmother who played an important role in my upbringing.  I used to tell my friends about how my father had bought a coffin as a birthday gift for my grandmother, who was still alive, and that I slept next to the coffin for years. They were often shocked and encouraged me to write my story. But I didn’t feel that I was ready to turn the story into a book.

In 2009, when the financial crisis hit, I lost my day job. The severance package enabled me to take a one-year hiatus. Rather than looking for another job, I decided that it was time to write my memoir.

Oh, wow, so you wrote the memoir within that year?

I finished the writing in seven months. Writing was relatively easy. The hardest part was to organize the stories. The book dredged up lots of old memories. I needed to find a common thread and string them together to weave a compelling narrative. I had lots of sleepless nights.  In fact, my first draft was in the form of a long personal essay about my grandma. I sent it to The Paris Review, which fortunately published it. I have received tremendous feedback and I felt very encouraged.  So, with the help of an editor, I expanded the essay into a book.

While writing the memoir, I came to realize that a translator and a writer have two completely different processes. I don’t know whether you have a similar experience.  When I try to multi-task and do translation in the morning and writings in the afternoon, I find it very hard to transition from one to another. I have to stop a translation for two or three days until my mindset completely changes, and then I can start writing again.

Oh yes, it’s kind of like changing gears in a car but it doesn’t happen as quickly… Like you said, I feel like I need my brain to rest a little bit, and then I have to change gears to something else.

I’m glad you feel the same because sometimes I wondered if it was just me. When I work on a translation, my mind tends to get into the passive mode because somebody else has already created it and my job is to recreate it in a different language. Whereas in writing, you start from scratch. That’s why when I translate a book, I tend to go all the way until I’ve finished a few chapters. If a writing project comes up, I have to stop my translation and spend a few days reading before I can write my own story.

Read PART TWO of this Interview
____

Wenguang Huang, a Chicago-based journalist, writer and translator, is the author of The Little Red Guard,  a memoir that chronicles his growing up in central China during the 1970s and reveals his family striving to fulfill a grandmother’s last wish during a period of rapid societal change. The book was a Washington Post Best of 2012 pick. In 2014, he co-authored A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel with Ho Pin. The book chronicles the fall of Bo Xilai and depicts the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Huang started introducing contemporary Chinese writers to the West in 2004, when he translated Chinese writer Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up. His other translations include Liao Yiwu’s God is Red and For a Song and One Hundred Songs and Xianhui’s Women from Shanghai. Huang is the recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Award and his translations and journalistic writings have  appeared in Fortune.com, the New York Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, and Chicago Public Radio.

How To Generate Content

March 19, 2020 § 27 Comments

“Start a blog!” agents say. “Write a newsletter!” announce publishers. “You’ll build readership and be more attractive to agents and publishers!”

But what the heck do you put in it? Hey, I got rejected again by the same magazine?

Yes.

Absolutely.

(I do.)

The daily grind of your writing life is indeed fodder for bulletins every week or two. More than once a week gets annoying; less than once a month and people forget who you are and unsubscribe. Try to share your work the same time and day, so that people have a subconscious expectation of reading you, say, Tuesday mornings.

I have to write something every week? What if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

And a blog post or email newsletter is not a lengthy, many-drafted essay. In fact, the best content is:

Brief,

Personal, and

Useful

Be brief.

Chances are you’re not the only thing they’re reading that day. They want to be provoked, or made to laugh, or learn something, briefly.

Newsletters max out around 600 words; under 300 is better. Blog posts’ sweet spot is 600-800 words. Ideally, write the amount you can write, polish, and post in 60 minutes or less. At first, that may be 200-300 words. Once you get a rhythm down, you’ll be able to get closer to your target—or turn out shorter pieces in less time.

Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Get personal.

Whatever you do, make it yours.

Blogger Penelope Trunk‘s break-out fame came from live-tweeting her miscarriage during a business meeting, shattering the image of work-life balance. She personally attacked a guy on Twitter who criticized her parenting, and “I Hate David Dellifield. The One From Ada, Ohio” is still one of the most popular posts on her site. Some days, I read Penelope and think, “She’s a loon!” Other days I think, “Wow, I’m glad she’s brave enough to write this.” I’m not showing up to her blog for pure information, I’m reading because I’m fascinated by her.

If your news today is, “I got rejected by the same magazine again,” write that. Write about how you made 100 copies of the rejection, folded paper airplanes, wrote “Never give up!” on the wings, and flew them into the playground from the elementary school roof. Or how you dreamed about doing that. Or how you added another hatchmark on the bare plaster of your crumbling bathroom wall, how every day you sit on the toilet and count rejections like a prisoner counting days. No matter which of those is closest to your own experience, someone reading will gasp in shock and recognition and say, “Me too!” And then they will read you again next week.

Be truly useful.

I was speaking with another retreat leader (If you’re an academic working on breaking through writing blocks, check out Inkwell Retreats, this woman is ah-mazing). We discussed how conference speaking, online courses, and blog posts could intrigue and connect with potential retreat guests. The big question: How much should we “give away”? If people could take a video course at home, or read a craft blog for free, would they still come to an expensive retreat or day-long workshop?

What I (rather indelicately) said: People watch porn for different reasons than they hire a sex worker. “In-person and focused on me” and “conference session” and “watching a video at home” are all different experiences.

Give away the secret recipe. Genuine interest in the well-being of your readers means sharing truly useful, specific information. The more you show you care about your readers, the more engaging you become. Karmically, this is an excellent thing. Cravenly, generosity makes you look powerful. That person has so many resources she can just give them away! Passing on information shows you as connected; a visible part of the writing world.

Trust that there is enough: Enough money, enough readers, enough students, enough to go around. Re-posting a prime contest or sharing a submission opportunity doesn’t lessen your own chances. Instead, it builds your authority as a source. (Check out Erika Dreifus’s excellent newsletters full of writing opportunities.)

Generating content is not an immediate return. Musician Amanda Palmer (artistic nudity at link may be NSFW) did a lot of free YouTube concerts before running the first million-dollar Kickstarter. Cheryl Strayed wrote a lot of Dear Sugar columns for free before Wild broke out.

Blogs and newsletters make us our own gatekeepers. We slowly build our reputations and our readership. Start small. Take on only as much commitment as you can regularly deliver. Respond to comments. Engage with all four of your readers—they’ll bring friends.

Stay brief. Get personal. Be useful.

Share.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. She offers travel stories and writing tips on Instagram.

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