September 13, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Ashley Stimpson
In a few weeks, my first book will be released. It has been a two-and-a-half-year journey to get here, though I could point to any paragraph in the manuscript and tell you when it was drafted and in which room of my house, so indelible was every moment along the way.
This book has changed my life. When people ask what I do for a living, this book has given me permission to say—at last and unequivocally—that I am a writer. This book has given me confidence to propose and take on projects that I would have previously dismissed as beyond my depth. This book has refined my skills as a storyteller and reaffirmed that I am one.
This book will not have my name on it.
My experience as a ghostwriter has been tremendously positive. The anonymity of the project eased my impostor syndrome (I was literally an impostor, so nothing to stress about there) assuaged my worry about its critics (who will never know I wrote it) and provided the financial safety net I needed to make the transition into a full-time freelance career. In fact, the only part of the entire process that filled me with ambivalence was learning the author had set out to work on her acknowledgements page. For the many months of our collaboration, my dominant feeling about the opportunity was one of gratitude—until it was time to say thanks.
I wanted my own acknowledgements page, dammit. Because while I agreed to be a ghost, to disappear into the ether once the writing was finished, the very real people who supported me during the process—the ones who are now pre-ordering on Amazon and sending sweet texts as reviews trickle in—shouldn’t also be relegated to the netherworld of contract’s-end. They should be celebrated and thanked and, well, acknowledged.
Without further ado: this ghostwriter’s acknowledgements page:
–To my ghostmother, who proofread the galley like my name was on it and will remain forever enraged that it is not. You’ve heard of pics-or-it-didn’t-happen? My mom has invented title-page-or-it-doesn’t-count.
–To all those ghostuberdrivers, ghostbartenders, and ghostneighbors who just nodded along politely as I sussed out how to explain what exactly I was working on. (I’m writing a book. Not my own book. I mean, a memoir. Not my memoir—it’s someone else’s memoir. Okay, it’s about this woman…)
–To my ghostpartner, who read draft after draft and came to care about this story as if it were his—er—my own. Want to find out if someone loves you, like love-loves you? Ask them to read the same pages for the third time this week.
–To the project’s ghostagent, who patiently answered all my tedious questions about the process as she was patiently answering identical questions from her actual client. I’ve learned that agents are bang-up editors, expert schedulers and killer PR reps all rolled up into one impossibly cheerful email.
–And, finally, to my ghostdogs, who were always up for a walk when I couldn’t face another blank page and who love me for the purest reason of all—my dexterity with the peanut butter jar.
–Of course, I would be remiss to not thank the author, who, when she could have killed them, instead adopted so many of my darlings, and who will now be responsible for them in perpetuity.
Mark Twain said “to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.” I can vouch for that. My first book will never belong to just me, but my joy (and my gratitude) is exponential.
Ashley Stimpson is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Longreads, Atlas Obscura, Johns Hopkins Magazine and a number of literary journals. Read some of it at www.ashleystimpson.com.
September 11, 2019 § 16 Comments
By Diane Reukauf
I am not of the speed-dating generation (and feel lucky in that), but I am intrigued to see that the annual day-long Barrelhouse Conference, Conversations and Connections, in Arlington VA, includes Speed Dating with Editors.
I’d like a chance to meet even briefly with an editor, a professional who can read fast and speedily tell me what my work needs and where to submit it. The rules warn of a strictly-enforced ten minutes with an editor who will spend some of those minutes reading my writing, so I choose two short, related nonfiction pieces from a larger work.
A ticket for the event was included with my registration fee, but attendees can buy additional tickets for $5. I buy a second ticket, a chance for a second opinion. Waiting for my turn in the long line with other writers, I feel some anxiety, although not the kind of anxiety my younger self would have experienced in a real dating situation: Do I look good? Did I wear the right thing? Is my hair too frizzy? No, I today am worried about being inarticulate in responding to an editor’s questions. I am worried that I will come across as too immature to be speed-dating nonfiction editors.
When it’s my turn, I walk across the wide gym floor to the young editor assigned to me. I sit across the table from him, hand over my pages, and feel awkward while he reads my words. When he finally looks up, he asks a few questions, encourages me to cut some lines, and identifies two sections that he says have “power.” He asks if I can envision writing a series of brief scenes like those. “I see a collection of short pieces,” he says.
“That’s exactly what I have in mind,” I tell him. Perfect, I think.
I leave the gym and immediately walk to the back of the now even longer line with my second ticket. When I sit down with the next editor I do not feel awkward. I feel like a speed-dating pro. This woman reads quickly and is encouraging. She asks me where I am going with my story, what I want to say in the larger telling. She makes concrete recommendations to expand and link the scenes. “Can you see how that would improve things?” she asks.
“Yes, I think so,” I say with only slight hesitation.
She tells me that she can envision the fuller story and explains that what I am writing is ideally suited for a single long-form nonfiction piece. Hmm.
A collection of discrete, short scenes or one integrated long-form piece? I leave that session and immediately head to the registration desk where I buy a third ticket. I want one more opinion, a tie-breaker. I feel a rush as I hand over my five-dollar bill and am given another speed-dating pass, convinced I have in my hand a winning ticket. I get back in line, wondering if this is what it feels like to be in a Las Vegas casino.
I look forward to the third professional who will settle the issue and tell me for sure what I should do. This editor makes marks on my pages as he reads. He notes the same two “powerful” passages as the first editor, and then he asks if I consider the two linked pieces to be two individual chapters.
“Yes, I do.”
“They’re awfully short,” he says.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s intentional.”
He explains that he hates that style. “I just hate it!” he repeats with some passion. “But you should ignore me,” he says. “That’s simply a personal preference, a stylistic thing.”
He then asks useful questions about my story and leads me to more fully describe scenes. “Write that down!” he says a few times. We talk about other parts of the story and he has ideas for expanding those sections. He is clear about his vision. He tells me he sees this narrative as a traditional book, a collection of long chapters. Again, Hmm.
As I leave the room after that last encounter, I feel a speed-dating buzz. Instead of feeling disappointed because I haven’t been shown the one sure path to publication, I feel grateful that three editors paid attention to my writing. I also feel energized, ready to take on the task of crafting my work into a collection of longer, more fully-developed chapters.
Or possibly a single long-form piece.
Or maybe a series of short scenes.
Hard to know. Harder still to know what a fourth editor might tell me! Here’s the thing, though. I have been reminded of something I know but routinely forget. Editors can disagree about what makes for a good read. Whatever format I eventually choose, it will likely not suit the majority of editors out there, but it might have a shot at appealing to one of them. I’m okay with that. It’s enough to keep me going for now.
Diane Reukauf is co-author of The Father Book: Pregnancy and Beyond and Commonsense Breastfeeding, and her essays have appeared in print versions of Skirt! Magazine, Parenting and online at Women on Writing. She has conducted expressive writing sessions for pediatric oncology nurses at a cancer center and for international students at a community college. After a considerable hiatus, she has returned to her own writing and is currently working on a collection of pieces about loss and grief.
September 10, 2019 § 9 Comments
Anne Lamott’s maxim is some of the most-quoted writing advice in the memoirist world. Followed closely by: Write the book first, worry about hurt feelings later.
That doesn’t stop us from worrying our way through the first—or even final—draft.
If I write about my mom hitting me, can she sue me?
If I tell that secret, will anyone talk to me at the family reunion?
My sister told me I better not write anything about her…what if I change her name?
Yesterday on the Brevity Blog, Lisa Sellge wrote about sharing her finished manuscript with people in it, the hedging and self-protection writers do within that process. But even before the final draft, many writers fear a family explosion, resentment, or even legal action.
We can’t control how our loved (or unloved!) ones will react. We can only be as truthful as we can, allowing ourselves the distance to write from analysis as well as from emotion, showing why other people behaved as they did, as best we can tell from hindsight. It’s our choice to brace for anger from a parent or sibling, or practice verbal judo with a smooth, “I can see how the story would be different from your perspective. Let me know when you write about it.”
What if they threaten to sue? In the USA, you can sue anyone for any damn reason you want. Even if you signed a release, even a big scary release with ACCEPT ALL RISKS FOR INJURY AND/OR DEATH on it. In most American jurisdictions, no-one can sign away their right to sue. Releases provide evidence that a suit is baseless, because the signer accepted responsibility, but they don’t stop anyone from filing paperwork and demanding their day in court.
So why aren’t alcoholic parents and pedophilic religious leaders stampeding into court to bankrupt and destroy the fragile writers telling their own stories?
It’s expensive and time-consuming to pursue a civil case, and they aren’t easy to win without a phalanx of top-notch attorneys laying out extensive documentation of the kind most non-memoirists rarely preserve. Unless the suit is against an insurance company with the potential for a huge payout (as in medical malpractice, accident and wrongful-death cases), lawyers rarely take civil cases without an up-front retainer.
Say your poorly-behaving former spouse has five figures to spare and a sense of vengeance strong enough to waste every dime. First, they must lawyer-shop until they hear, “Sure, you’re not crazy at all and I’d love to take on a hard-to-prove case against someone with no money.” The lawyer must then find a judge who doesn’t laugh them out of court and agrees to consider your spouse’s hurt feelings.
If the suit actually makes it to court, the person you wrote about must prove three things:
- You lied
- You lied on purpose to hurt them
- Your story hurt them in terms of hard cash or public reputation
- The truth is always a defense against libel. Police reports. Affidavits from your friends. Photos or videos. Your convincing presence on the witness stand.
- If you accidentally didn’t tell the truth, that’s still not actionable. A plaintiff has to prove you lied on purpose or were very careless, not just that you were mistaken or have a different opinion. Memoir is inherently our opinion; it’s also worth adding caveats like “As I remember it…” or “what it felt like was…”
- Damages are meted out based on actual, provable harm. By portraying people’s behavior in interpersonal relations rather than their ability to do their job, you are unlikely to damage their finances or their reputation enough for a judge to believe they need redress. You can say your doctor cheated at golf; criticizing his medical ability could do him financial harm and he’s likely to have records to prove it.
Our final protection against being sued?
Most of us aren’t worth suing. We don’t have enough assets for a long-shot winner to take. In most jurisdictions, a lawsuit can’t take your homestead. Your homeowner’s insurance is unlikely to cover libel, so your angry relative won’t be suing them. Generally, if you have enough money to be worth suing, you can already afford your own excellent lawyer to tell you all this. If you don’t have that kind of cash, it’s almost never worth the time and money for the plaintiff or their attorney.
I am not a lawyer. This is emotional, rather than legal, advice. But emotional fallout from a published memoir is far more likely than legal action. Instead of fearing a suit, spend that time being as honest as you can on the page, letting other people’s actions show who they are and being clear about what you remember and what’s a best-guess. Read Tara Westover’s Educated to see how she honors competing stories while insisting on her own truth.
Threatening to sue is easy. Actually suing—winning—and collecting damages is pretty darn hard. Be fair, be kind, write the best book you can that tells your own true story. If someone threatens to sue, smile gently. Tell them, “I can see you feel really passionate about getting your story out there. I hope you write a book.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her travel-adventure postcards at TinyLetter.
September 6, 2019 § 35 Comments
By Mary Sojourner
No, I don’t want to read the manuscript of your novel, memoir, musings as a favor and comment on it. No, I won’t give you a few writing tips. No, I won’t blurb your self-published book. No, I don’t want to talk on the phone with you about your book. No, you can’t buy me a coffee so we can chat about your book. You are too late.
I have been a working writer for thirty-four years. I wasn’t able to start my serious writing work till I was forty-five because I was the divorced mother (and full support) of three kids. I chose to not go into academic work because I saw what was happening to good writers trapped in hours and hours, then days and days of reading student writing, good writers who were underpaid and over-worked as faculty, good writers whose words died in that airless atmosphere of low pay and high demands.
I finally gave in two years ago, thanks to the exclusive nature of contemporary publishing, and applied to the local university and local college to teach creative writing. I was told that I don’t have an appropriate degree, despite a resume that includes eight nationally published books, years as an NPR commentator, hundreds of op eds and magazine articles, being featured at national academic writing conferences – and serving as Distinguished Writer in Residence for an Arizona university.
So, no, you who are looking for a volunteer mentor, I won’t work for free. I have done just that for at least thirty years, in the spirit of kinship, in the belief that we needed to help each other, in the spirit of revolutionary literary community principles. Now? I give to my writing.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the short story collections, The Talker and Delicate; three novels: Sisters of the Dream , Going Through Ghosts and 29; the essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest; and two memoirs, She Bets Her Life and Solace. She has written op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network.
September 3, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Boon
Back in February of this year, The New York Times “The Shift” section published an article in which the author, Kevin Roose, found that he couldn’t watch full-length movies or have long uninterrupted conversations because he couldn’t stop looking at and playing with his cell phone. This then obviously required that he go through a complex, therapeutic process to redefine his relationship with his device.
He signed up for a 30-day program to eliminate bad phone habits. He put an elastic band around his phone as a tactile reminder of how many times he picked it up in a day. He had to answer three questions before he could unlock it: “What for? Why now? What else?” He locked it in a safe at night (yes, like a gun) and let it charge. He even got into pottery!
His article is another in a long list of the “smartphones are bad for you” trope. And I have to say, I’ve been on that bandwagon for a while now—my husband and I share a smartphone but only use it when one of us is out of the house.
My go-to, prim response has always been: why not read a book instead?
I’ve been praised for reading a book in public, by a woman who startled me out of a book about urban coyotes and scared me a bit with her multicolored tights and 60-year-old dyed purple-white hair, offset by her black leather jacket and knee-high boots. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just nodded and thanked her before she hustled away.
I’m always reading. I read when I’m waiting—for the dentist, the doctor, the knee surgeon—though I’m not so adventurous as my sister, who has read while walking or cycling.
Last fall I had to go to the hospital every morning for a week to get IV treatment for cellulitis, an illness that caused my face to bloat up like a puffer fish and made me almost too exhausted to move. During that time, I managed to finish Penelope Lively’s “Life in the Garden.” It helped take my mind off the treatment: I could hide in my corner chair in the busy ER and immerse myself in a book for an hour while the antibiotics did their work. I only had plants and my garden on my mind.
I read at night, to calm myself down before sleep—when I start reading the same paragraph over again, I know it’s time to turn off the light. I read at the dining room table: each morning, a few pages of Lorraine Harrison’s Latin for Gardeners, a history of early botanists. I recall one particular vignette about botanist David Douglas, who died at the early age of 35 because he had bad eyesight and fell into an animal trap. My favourite part of the story is that his faithful dog sat beside the trap, waiting for his master to emerge.
It’s easy to see reading as a virtue in our smartphone-obsessed world. As author Emma Rathbone has written in The New Yorker, “[before the internet]…you’d walk outside and squint at the sky, just you in your body, not tethered to any network, adrift by yourself in a world of strangers in the sunlight.” Well-known writers like Nicholas Carr, Matthew B. Crawford, and Michael Harris have all talked about the perils of using smartphones, particularly when it comes to thinking clearly. One of my close friends said he felt as though he couldn’t focus on books anymore because of his online time.
But someone reading a book and someone focused on their smartphone are both distanced from the world and from their immediate reality. The difference is that while we know the person with the book is reading, we have no idea what the person on the phone is doing. They might also be reading: an e-book, or the newspaper. They may be doing a crossword or playing Scrabble. Or they may just be playing Candy Crush.
They may even be writing.
Consider Behrouz Boochani, a detained asylum seeker who won the Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia’s biggest literary award, for No Friend But the Mountains, which he wrote one text message at a time from within Australia’s Manus Island offshore detention centre, then sent to an interpreter. “I survived through my artworks, through my journalism work,” he says in an interview.
Or Esmé Weijung Wang who, suffering from chronic Lyme disease and mental illness, wrote a book using her iPhone. She writes, “I often can’t sit upright, which makes using a desktop or laptop exhausting and unsustainable, if not impossible. What I do have is an iPhone, though…I’m currently writing this while lying on my side in bed, tapping the words out with my index finger, because the iPhone 6 is light enough to hold with my other hand.”
Clearly, we can’t automatically assume that reading a book is more virtuous than using a smartphone, as much as I’d like to. Smartphones aren’t the devil but they’re also not the be-all end-all. They’re somewhere in between, in the space where we decide how we incorporate them into our daily lives.
I don’t use a smartphone regularly but I do have a tablet, and I have built a literary life through the people I’ve met online: I read e-copies of book galleys; I do weekly check-ins with my writing buddy on Slack. I chat about books, society, community, and climate change, all via social media.
I’m not going to stop my tablet use, though I try to use it consciously. And I’ll definitely keep reading. In fact, I’ve just bought myself a new shoulder bag so that it’s easier to carry a book along with my keys and wallet. But I think it will also fit a smartphone—should I choose to be distracted by its clarion call.
Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.
August 22, 2019 § 8 Comments
Ever wondered how to get into McSweeney’s, the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs, the Belladonna, Slackjaw, or another prestigious humor site? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard—write something very funny, make sure it fits the venue’s tone, send it in.
Step one tends to trip us up. How can you write funny, on demand?
Writing comedy is a learned skill. Yes, some writers start with more talent than others, but it’s not talent that makes an essay hilarious. Humor comes from a great premise (that you thought up after discarding 50 similar-but-not-as-good ideas), a specific point of view (that took a couple of drafts to get to) and tight, focused writing with careful word choices (that took another few drafts to whittle out of the initial bloated, semi-funny word glob).
Here’s a chance to learn the skill, and maybe win some money and/or publish your own comedy writing.
Slackjaw, Medium’s most-read humor publication (90,000+ followers), wants to support humor writers—and aspiring humor writers—everywhere, with their first Humor Writing Challenge.
Most writing contests are set-it-and-forget-it. Send in your work and hope for the best. This one’s different. Participants in the contest will be pitching ideas (so they can choose the best/funniest one to write), getting peer feedback, and re-writing. An online community will provide support and direction to contestants. Even if you don’t have a burning desire to write comedy, this process can introduce you to collaborative idea development, and how to solicit and implement editorial ideas in your own work. Plus, you’ll have deadlines to generate some specific assignments, and motivation to rewrite and sharpen your work.
The judges panel includes comedy writers for The Onion, Comedy Central, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, etc, and there’s $2000 in cash prizes. Finalists will have their work considered for (paid) publication on Medium, too.
If you want to publish humor writing, or you need a kickstart on your autumn writing plan with a fun, supportive environment, consider signing up for Slackjaw’s Humor Writing Challenge.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference this weekend, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram for choice bits of conference writing advice.