April 24, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Sarah Evans
The first type of writing conference regret typically hits shortly after the event begins.
You’ve just walked out of your first breakout session, one that you picked after poring over the descriptions and presenter bios to decide which one was right for you. In the hallway, you bump into attendees who went to a different session — one you’d considered but eventually rejected — and all of them are buzzing about how amazing their presenter was, how their notebooks are filled with words of inspiration, how the whole conference was worth it for just that one talk.
You sigh, because even though the session you picked was quite good, it never seems to live up to the mythic-level one you didn’t attend.
This happened to me last May at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers asked us to choose our first session months in advance of the event, and I wavered between my top two picks: “Structure for Long-Form Nonfiction” and “What Do I Write About?”
I picked the first, a session that offered a solid nuts and bolts lesson, specific tools and devices we could try with longer works. Among other things, the session leader analyzed the techniques Jeannette Walls used in the opening of her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” advocating that we start our story, like Walls, “close to the peak of action, right before a defining moment” — before leaving that scene and going somewhere else in the story for a while. The result: you make the reader want to ride along to find out how that opening scene will conclude.
“I already know this,” I thought at first — I had used this technique for years in my magazine writing. But as I continued jotting notes, a question nagged at me: Why wasn’t I also using this technique for my memoir-in-progress? I wrote in the margin of my notebook, “Open memoir with me meeting Mom at 7-11 after the funeral.” Minutes later, I walked out of the talk satisfied that I’d gleaned several potential ideas to play with when I got home.
Then I ran into the people who had gone to the other session. They talked about how inspiring it was, how the session leader had given them all these great nuggets of wisdom to remember and reflect upon, adages like, “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning.”
Regret rushed in. I appreciated the nuts and bolts, but also hungered for those motivating tidbits to remind me why I was a writer. I definitely encountered some later in the conference, but as I flew home afterward, part of me still wondered what else I might have missed.
Those precious post-conference days are when you may encounter another form of conference regret: wasting your inspiration. You come home with your brain and your notebook brimming with ideas and notes, and then … you do nothing with them. If you’re like me — a writer who also works a pays-the-bills job while raising a young family — it’s easy to return to that former life of not always writing, of pushing it aside until later when you’re less busy and less tired (which never happens). You have high hopes for what you’re going to do with your conference inspiration, and then you leave that notebook closed on your desk.
This time around, the new idea about how to open my memoir just wouldn’t leave me. I thought about it throughout the conference and on the plane ride home. It continued to taunt me as I attended office meetings and wiped runny noses. So within a week of returning to Oregon, I sat down and wrote. I only wrote about a page and a half, but I could tell it was the best I’d written in a while. When friends asked me about the conference, I told them how I’d written this new prologue for the book I hoped to finish someday, and how jazzed I was about the new direction. They smiled and nodded — most of them weren’t writers, so they didn’t understand the import of this development. Inside, I rejoiced that for once I hadn’t completely squandered the weekend.
I wish I could say that prologue turned into a regular routine where new chapters poured out of me every week. Instead, my kids and my regular life stepped back in and I’ve actually written very little of my memoir since then. But just getting that prologue onto the page was a game-changer. It led to me digging out old chapters to revisit with my writing group, thinking about the structure of my memoir often, and feeling reinvigorated about returning to the project.
Months later, I entered the prologue into the Oregon Writers Colony Writing Contest, and it won third prize for nonfiction first chapter. Take that, conference regret.
So the next time I come out of a session and hear the other attendees gushing about their presenter, I will smile, but I will not feel regret. I got what I needed out of the day, and that is what conferences are all about. And the next time I leave a conference, I’ll try harder to write something immediately after, even if it’s brief. It’s better than nothing, and it could signal a new beginning.
I didn’t even get to the third type of conference regret: when you meet that famous writer you admire and you blabber on or say something stupid. If you figure out how to defeat that one, let me know.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who is working (sometimes) on a memoir about her teenage years as a punk-rocker in small-town Texas. She is a graduate of the MFA in writing program at Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.
April 12, 2017 § 36 Comments
By Shawna Kenney
First thought, best thought; revise, revise, revise. Write first thing in the morning when the mind is alert; write at night and never while sober. Do it alone, in an office with the door closed, surrounded by books; write in coffee shops, surrounded by stimulating characters and conversation. Use traditional quotation marks and capitalization Unless You Are a ‘Genius.’ Journal in longhand; always type fast. Sentences longer than three or four lines are unacceptable and tedious, unless you are William Faulkner, William Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, David Foster Wallace or one of those other people who can get away with it. Short is good.
Write with an ideal reader in mind; fuck the audience. Never show anyone an early draft; find a workshop for feedback. Write to please everyone; quit workshop and hire an editor. Take classes to improve; don’t go to college—you’ll lose your voice. Don’t send work out until it’s ready; submit early and often—it’ll never be perfect. Find a guru. Trust yourself. Kill your darlings. Study the masters and steal their attributes, but never plagiarize—even from yourself.
Don’t write a memoir until you’re ninety; write a memoir while you’re young and events are still fresh; write many memoirs. Write about what’s eating you; eat while you write, or write on an empty stomach. When writing nonfiction, recreate scenes you don’t fully remember; only use facts and information that is verifiable. Show your family your work; never share what you’ve written with those you’ve written about—you are the ultimate authority on your life.
Get a big desk. Keep a notebook in your pocket. Write for two consecutive hours each day. Sneak writing in on 15-minute breaks. Take long naps. Get up early and write before everyone else is awake; stay up late and write when everyone is in bed. Write on napkins, grocery receipts, scrap paper, on your phone or computer, or only in a Moleskin. Write in pen. Always write in pencil first. Special writing software makes you more organized and gets you published faster. Write to get paid. Never expect money for your writing. Value your skills and charge what you’re worth. People who write for money are hacks. People who make money writing are lucky. Say this writing mantra every day: I am my own mantra. Never call yourself a writer until someone else does. Feel free to call yourself a writer, as long as you are writing. Fiction is thinly-veiled memoir. Memoir is mostly fiction. Poetry is useless. Poets are crazy blessed saints. Deep down, we all want to be poets.
Make an outline, then tear up the map and feel your way through. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there. All art is a process of discovery. Write what you know. Write to figure out what you don’t know. Write for your dead mother, your sweet pup, your unborn baby, or the ancestors you never knew. Write for yourself. Don’t write unless you can write the right way. Just write.
Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers and co-author of the forthcoming Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
April 5, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Pete Candler
Last week I received a very odd email from a notable Quarterly Magazine, in which the new Executive Director pre-warned me that I would soon receive a rejection notice for a submission I made to the journal over two years ago, which submission I withdrew in December. Here is my response:
My name is XXXXX…
…and I am writing you as the new Executive Director at XXXXX Quarterly.
Hey, congratulations! So is this your first email as Executive Director? I’m sure it’s going to be great!
I know it’s been quite some time since you’ve received word from us about your Quarterly submission…
Oh, that! I was starting to wonder about you guys. I assumed you went belly-up, or maybe there was a grease fire or something. That was—what? —December 2014? Thanks for assuming I’m still alive at this point, though!
…and I want to apologize for that. Our staff is quite small and…
No, don’t sweat it! I am sure y’all have been insanely busy—
…the Quarterly was on a long (too long!) hiatus.
A long hiatus, huh? Where’d you go? Mar-a-Lago? I hear that place is kind of hard to stay away from. And with a hiatus program like that, can I come work for you? Because I really like not working with as few other people as possible.
I am excited to announce that we sent our 49th issue to press…
Forty-ninth! Wow, congrats, y’all! Are you still writing each one out by hand?
…and subscribers will receive their copy in the next six weeks.
That is so great. I am so happy for them!
We’ll also reopen our submissions very, very soon!
[whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In”]
Please note that you will soon receive a rejection notice for your former submission.
Oh. Well that’s a new one. Never had a pre-rejection notice before. That’s so sweet. Most journals only let you down you one time. But you’ve given me the opportunity to experience rejection twice! You guys—always bucking convention!
To be honest, it’s been so long since I submitted the thing you’re referring to that I’m not even sure what you’re referring to. I’m not even the same person I was when I sent that to you. I have had another kid since then. But don’t worry about it—I don’t think I sent you a birth announcement.
Oh, and by the by—I withdrew the submission after two years. I’m sorry if I was a little hasty! The kid is talking now, though!
We highly encourage you to resubmit in April if you are still interested.
Why wouldn’t I be interested? I’ve waited this long, what’s a few more years of my life?
One thing, though: could I give you the contact information for my attorney, in the event that I am deceased by the time I hear back from you if I decide to resubmit? She is handling all of my posthumous publications.
Please do expect a wait time of 4-6 weeks while we get back up to speed.
4-6 weeks? Did you mean to type “weeks”? Is that lunar weeks? Or like Book of Genesis weeks?
Thank you so much for your interest in XXXX Quarterly! I hope to hear more from you soon.
You bet! But just in case you don’t, rest assured that my silence is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the journal.
Oh hey! That was fast. I was just in the middle of writing you too! Two years of absolute silence from you all and then two emails in twenty-one minutes! I’m starting to feel a special bond with you, XXXXX.
Because so many have already asked…
… please allow me to clarify: The impending rejection is merely an administrative necessity to re-open submissions and allow those still interested to submit again (or submit a newer piece) in April.
Well why didn’t you just say so? Not that I understand the term “administrative necessity,” me being an artist and all. But do continue!
It is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the piece.
Uh huh. I liked it better when you were bucking convention and pre-breaking up with me. But this line sounds familiar.
I do apologize if that was unclear. Please feel free to ask more questions. We’re deeply interested in reading your work!
How deep is your love?
Pete Candler’s scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler
March 27, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
I recently published an essay, “A Stranger At the Door,” on the Op/Ed page of the Chicago Tribune. And after reading it in its printed form, already irrevocably out there in the world – literally in black and white – I wanted to revise it. I really, really wanted to revise it. In fact, I wanted to rewrite the whole damn thing. But it was too late. The Chicago Tribune editorial policy (as I’m sure is the editorial policy of any traditional publication) is that authors are not allowed to change or comment on their own work once it is published.
As my editor replied to me in an email, “We don’t run letters by authors critiquing their own work.” Of course they don’t! Just think of all the confusion that might take place if this were allowed to happen.
“Oh, wait a minute, I just thought of something else I wanted to add in the third paragraph…” Or, “I really don’t think I hit the right tone, and I’d like to hand in this revised version.” The nature of an editor’s job, after all, is to move forward with the current, not drown in the undertow.
When you think about it, if we were allowed to revise our work after it was already published, then it might be in a constant state of revision. Might never really be done. Which sounds like another circle of hell.
Nevertheless. I still had this urge. In thirty years of writing commentary pieces and “slice-of-life” essays, and newspaper columns I have never had this response to one of my own pieces of writing. I always say what I have to say and move on.
Oddly, with this essay, as soon as I hit the “Send” tab I felt I might have done better. Might have gone deeper. The gist of my essay was that I had opened my front door to a stranger one night when I was alone, and how that small experience of doing so had made me question my mixed feelings about that small act. About whether I had been stupid to open my door, and whether I thought I might ever do so again. (Comments by readers let me know in no uncertain terms that opening a door to a stranger was about the dumbest thing in the world one could do.)
And it wasn’t that I wanted to write a response to these readers who were commenting on my essay. I actually wanted to rewrite my essay, because suddenly it seemed to me that I had taken a topic that was quite weighty and serious, and made it sound “lite” and quite smugly Pollyana-ish. What a great person I am to let a stranger into my home – twice no less!
What had made me uncomfortable was that, after reading my own words in print, I saw how easy it had been to blithely expound on how great I was to open my door to a stranger, from the comfort of my quiet, safe suburban home. Where the crime rate is low, and where our residents, as altruistic as most are – are able to do so in relative safety.
In this time of building walls, and not letting strangers in our metaphorical doors, I felt I did this topic a serious disservice. What was a feel-good moment for me personally did not warrant my own essayistic pat on the back. So, when I say I wanted a do-over, I guess I wanted to chance to frame the story in a new way.
Of course, 99.99% of the reading public is never going to read my essay. So I’m not even sure why it matters to me that I should have done better. Maybe one reason is that, even now, after decades of writing and publishing essays, I realized that I am still learning my craft. And that, always, words do matter.
Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications. She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.
March 1, 2017 § 3 Comments
Part two of Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige’s consideration of place, grief, and the river as metaphor, talking with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. [Part One can be found here]:
PAIGE: There’s a powerful depiction of sexual assault in the book. The scene struck me most for its brevity and omissions, for what did and didn’t make the page. Can you talk about how you approached writing the scene and why? Can you describe your decisions about what to include and what not to include, and how you came to approach the moment tonally?
PALM: I didn’t want the narrative to become about that particular violence, but instead wanted the incident to appear in the book as one link in a chain of violence, wherein accumulation would be more powerful than individual acts. Because that was my experience: a slow boil of not-quite-right exposures to violence in a culture where such experiences were not questioned, had no language with which to be questioned. The sexual assault didn’t fit my then understanding of what rape was. It didn’t fit anywhere and so I tucked it away along with everything else, but my body remembered, the way a body remembers what’s been done to it at unexpected times. My mind remembered it more spatially, in flashes. Emotionally, I was numb. So I wanted to write it the same way—emotionless, just the quick flash of bodies in space. That window I looked out of, what a body too big to move feels like. A sensation that said wait—what just happened? is what I wanted to convey to the reader because that was how it felt. The scene focuses on how the experience connects to where it happened, too—the window’s symbolic meaning transforming from excitement and promise to pain and escape. That inextricable linking of place and experience at the book’s heart.
PAIGE: Here, I want to present a few sections of text to show how you seed certain ideas and to show the spectacular weaving you do so deftly and deeply—different modes of writing, others’ writing both scholarly and literary, various epistemological primers, and of course, your own musings and felt experiences.
On the first page, in the first chapter called “Map of Home,” you write, “Where did one town start and the other end? Was there an unnamed part between the two that was up for grabs? I wanted to conquer that yellow land and write myself all over it: this part, this swath of land right here, belongs to a girl.”
Later, after having left Indiana for Vermont, and regarding efforts for you and your husband Mike to claim your own place/ identity, you write about the “One Square Inch” project and about your own search for silence, the silence you find in the mountains:
I believe I fear actual silence—the far edge of quietude. In Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Total Eclipse,’ she describes leaving the site of an eclipse viewing before it is over because the experience is too all-consuming. She plunges into a meditation on existence, barely emerging before the eclipse’s shadow sweeps her under and away for good: ‘It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold had risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the Strata again.’ Silence strikes me as a kind of total eclipse, and this lawn of Frost’s may be just as risky. It could overtake me if I let it. Pure silence, pure freedom, would somehow reveal me to myself too starkly, too soon. The lighting would be wrong, the picture unsettling, distorted further than I expected in every direction. I want only to see a little bit more at a time, to mine very carefully through the layers of sediment below my feet. To lose water by drops and not by gushes. To fly and return. I want some sense of clarity about the buried alluvial beds, to hold as precious goods the names of its materials, to walk across them and experience the malleability of the middle, before it’s pressed so hard from above and below that it metalizes. (197-198)
Both of these passages illustrate not only of the artistry of the book, but also, its larger themes—especially the searching the narrator undertakes and the friction she seems to crave between safety and risk, between self-determination and self-immolation, between a desire for something-ness and nothingness. The narrator is drawn to risk—to the “far edges” in many instances, most notably in her relationship with Corey, which is both completely natural and somehow also taboo; he is just a boy and she just a girl, but he is also a convict, and she a writer, a mom, a wife. There are so many triumphs of this book, but one I especially admire is your navigation of larger cultural tropes, the way you push into and through, and ultimately beyond, the ready-made clichés of bad boy and good girl, for example. The twin portraits that anchor the book– both you and Corey—are utterly human and empathetic and raw and whole. What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with Corey—and perhaps your relationships with danger and desire while writing this? What did you learn, ultimately, about the thorny business of being a girl, then woman, in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America?
PALM: My relationship with Corey allowed me to do that rare thing—openly consider the alternate routes my life might have taken. It taught me a great deal about compassion and forgiveness and the confounding paradoxes of being human. It also taught me that I can’t predict where I’ll find support, or a friend, or something true about the world or myself. Being a girl, then woman, in the rural Midwest in my particular family very much asked me to do and be what was expected of me, which had a pretty narrow definition. All the attendant clichés. Be smart, but cross your legs at the ankle. Have opinions, but only if they’re like ours. Go to college, but marry the nice guy with the good job. Mind your manners, don’t speak up. A kind of half-assed, half-informed feminism that rendered much of what felt natural to me—those edges toward the fringe, that desire to engage with the questions or longings in the back of my head fraught with tension and discord. Just being me became an act of rebellion. In some ways, decisions about what to do with my life, my body, my mind, were hardly decisions at all but a fulfilling of other people’s expectations, I now realize. The truest thing about being female–in the life I’ve had–is everyone has a different idea about what that ought to look like and you’re constantly preserving or negotiating yourself in situations in which your being female is a factor in how you’re treated or thought of. And worst of all, sometimes that can get uncomfortable and even unsafe. What I say to myself now, as a mantra, is I’m not at your disposal. Not my kindness, not my smile, not my compliance, not my time, not my body. I decide when to offer these things now. And I no longer value other people’s ideas of how I should act or who I should love or what kind of mother I should be and so forth. As for edges, Dillard’s scene in “Total Eclipse”—getting out of dodge before the total darkness overtakes her—is how I feel when I look at pictures of Earth, or think of the galaxy, or even in fleeting moments of human freedom that I happen to find on the fringe. There’s a danger in that darkness, in the shucking away of every manmade thing, but a thrilling pureness too.
PAIGE: Vivan Gornick’s landmark craft book, The Situation and The Story, distinguishes the situation, the events of the narrative, from the story, “the thing one has come to say.” I don’t quite want to ask what you think your story is (though you’re welcome to answer!) for fear of sounding like an agent who has trapped you in an elevator, but I do wonder if there’s one place in the book that you would identify as especially emblematic of your story—that thing you came to say? If you had to star or circle just one section—perhaps a scene or a series of paragraphs or one metaphor or thread that runs through the book—what would that moment be?
PALM: There’s a paragraph early in the book, page 20, that begins, “Like rivers, people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” That paragraph anchors the river as metaphor and holds every truth about this book. It contains the meanings behind the different narrative events selected to tell the story: the pull of the past on the present, the bittersweet experience of leaving and returning home, the power of nature’s natural course nurture’s fight against it, the tug of our public selves on our private selves, the impact a single person or event can have on the course of a life. It holds all of that, as the banks of a river might hold water, and more.
PAIGE: : In the process of revision or editing, can you describe a particular challenge—whether in terms of craft or in terms of steeling yourself emotionally for the task? And what did you learn from dealing with the challenge?
PALM: Right away we decided to restructure the book chronologically and add focus to my relationship with Corey, which was originally a more minor thread. A cohesive narrative arc was stitched across what were originally self-contained essays, and then the book shifted into memoir territory. So, adding anecdotes and memories to essays where they weren’t already organically occurring was a challenge. There was, for me, risk in implying that my whole life could be defined by this person. Which of course isn’t true. Yes, I thought of him and considered reaching out over the years, but the book could easily suggest, by virtue of its balance of inclusion and exclusion of experiences, that I was perhaps obsessed with him or dwelling constantly on the past. I am an obsessive thinker, but I didn’t want to be boxed in by that. I came to terms with this risk by reframing my idea of how modern memoir handles time and subject matter: it’s not one’s whole life, told blow by blow. There are a hundred ways to tell the stories of a single life. This isn’t the only version I get to tell. It’s one version. It’s my thoughts about a certain series of events.
PAIGE: Here’s an obligatory memoir question: what has the response been from those people who are subjects in the book and/ or from your hometown? Has any of the response surprised you? And how and in what ways did you consider your subjects and how they might react as you were writing?
PALM: I thought my family would be less accepting, but they’ve been wonderful, supportive champions. I suppose that was the biggest surprise. Corey has been gracious, and is proud of me. For him, it matters that someone remembered him as having good qualities, not just as a monster. It’s encouraged him to do good works from prison, in the small ways that he can. Most other folks have been enthusiastic and some have told me they’re glad someone else saw life in this small town the way they did. Only a few have complained vocally about how certain people or aspects of the area are portrayed. A few people were put off by my depiction of rural Indiana—they feel it doesn’t represent their experience—the 4H clubs, the fairs, the values of their rural Midwest while others said it is spot on. Many folks have had a privileged experienced of Indiana. And I think it’s a mistake to privilege that experience over another. I didn’t set out to write what is already known. I intended to portray the fringe—those are my people. And let me tell you—there are far more troubling scenes in Indiana than all this. I wanted to bring as much humanity to my portrayal of place and of the people in this book as I could while still preserving its difficult truths. The earlier drafts were tinged with attitude. As I drafted, the attitude fell away and the nuggets of human complexity remained. I suppose my biggest worry about its reception was that no one would understand my compassion for a person who is rather indefensible. Not a single person has failed to see that. It gives me great hope for this world.
PAIGE: What are you working on now, and how does it draw from and/ or depart from the work you did in Riverine?
PALM: I’m working on two new manuscripts—an essay collection and a novel. The essay collection springs from the final chapter of Riverine in that it looks more closely at how I continue to shape my idea of family, and contemplate the utility of the nuclear family in our modern era—its shifting purposes, its commercialization, and so forth. It’s not as narratively focused on my personal life as Riverine, though, and instead draws on political and social and historical and environmental contexts here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The novel deals with that core human truth of our not ever being able to really know another person, but it looks at it through the lens of how our internet habits distort our relationships and our legacies of self. I confess that I’ve found it very difficult to write since the election, since the ongoing trauma occurring in Aleppo. It’s hard to find a reason to prioritize one’s own stories or thoughts with so much else that requires our attention and our energy and our care. Still, art is necessary. Still, the smaller wrinkles in the vast cloth of human experience are worth ironing out.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com
February 23, 2017 § 33 Comments
By Annie L. Scholl
I’m not sure how I got the message that I had to write every day to be a “real” writer, but I’ll blame it on Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way. I read it when it came out in 1992. Cameron suggests a daily practice of “Morning Pages:” Three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing you do first thing in the morning.
To be fair, Cameron makes it clear that your Morning Pages don’t have to be “high art.” You can rant, write your shopping list over and over, whatever you want. She does insist, though, that you fill three pages—every day.
I did Morning Pages religiously—for about a week-and-a-half. Over the years, I’ve tried again and again. Although the daily practice of Morning Pages didn’t stick, the idea that I had to write every day to be successful did. After all, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White and Maya Angelou did.
To actually write daily, I knew I had to do it first thing in the morning, before the day got away from me. But to write “at first light,” as Hemingway did, actually requires getting your ass out of bed at first light.
Only one problem with that: I didn’t want to.
Now and then, though, I willed myself out of bed at the crack of dawn. With hands on the keyboard or pen in hand, words mostly landed on the page. “This is easy!” I’d think. “I’ll do this again tomorrow!”
But like the promises I made to myself about getting on the treadmill, “tomorrow” never consistently came.
That year I attended a memoir-writing workshop in Colorado with author Abigail Thomas. After that workshop, I was on fire. Fueled by the workshop and a writing group that grew out of it, I wrote nearly every day—until 2016. One day of not writing turned into another and another—and then I was out of the routine.
Nine months into 2016, my writing software gave me the cold, hard facts: I had worked on my manuscript exactly seven times.
That little voice—the one that said I had to write daily—was now screaming at me. But instead of believing it, I decided to question it: Was it really true that I had to write daily to be a successful writer?
Writers like Khaled Hosseini say yes. In a 2012 interview with Noah Charney in The Daily Beast, the international best-selling author of The Kite Runner said: “To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.”
Cue the self-flogging.
One especially grumbly not-writing day, I reached out to author Beth Kephart, who I’d studied memoir writing with last fall.
“Annie, I go months and months without writing,” the award-winning author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir told me. “And so when I do write, it all feels brand new—again.”
Kephart said she has never had the time to write daily.
“What I believe in is the power of holding one scene or moment in your head for a long time, before writing. I believe in urgency—that urgency must fuel the process and the page.”
To hell, she said, with writing an hour a day. “Go with fervor once a week or once a month, or whatever your life yields.”
Buoyed by Kephart’s response, I contacted Abigail Thomas, whose writing workshop had fueled my five-year, near-daily writing practice.
Do you write every day, I asked?
“Not unless I’m already engaged in something, then I write all the time,” said Thomas, whose most recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, was published in 2015 by Scribner.
“Mostly I’ve no self-discipline unless I’m already in gear. Then it’s all I do,” she said. “It has nothing to do with discipline then. It’s a hunger.”
Bar Scott, author of the memoir The Present Giver, said she only writes daily “when I’m writing something that I’m on fire about and that my whole body needs and wants to express.”
“When I get like that, whether I’m writing a song, a book or a blog, I write non-stop,” she said.
But most days, Scott doesn’t feel like writing. So she doesn’t.
Kephart’s good friend, author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, doesn’t write daily or weekly either.
“I wish I did,” said Rizzuto, whose memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. But instead, she said, “writing comes in waves—in and out.”
Still, Rizzuto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont and conducts writing workshops, recommends her students engage in daily writing practice.
“When you write every day, you do capture more of those stray ideas that are waiting to be used, and you avoid the fear—writer’s block is fear after all—that you can’t write, that you won’t be able to write ever again, or at least not anything as good as what you have written.”
Rizzuto nails what’s been my greatest fear: That if I don’t write every day, the words won’t come when I do sit down. But I’ve learned over the past several months of non-daily writing practice that the words actually do show up. Especially if I don’t chase them down.
Annie Scholl is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Huffington Post, Unity Magazine, Daily Word, and unity.org. A native Iowan who graduated from the University of Iowa, she moved to North Carolina in 2013 with her wife, Michelle. Annie is finishing her first memoir. She blogs at www.anniescholl.com.
February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments
By William Dameron
I resigned myself to rejection several weeks before the email from The New York Times editor landed in my mailbox. This was the fourth essay in as many years I had submitted to the popular Modern Love column. The “Thanks, but no thanks,” email always arrived punctually at the six week mark. But this email came a day or two after twelve weeks. When I read the salutation, Dear William Dameron, my heart sank. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the inevitable rejection. I am interested in your essay.
I stopped breathing.
For many memoir writers, a byline in the Modern Love column is the holy grail of publication. Book deals have been struck based on those 1,500 words and the odds of being published in the column are slim. Out of 7,000 submissions annually, only 52 are accepted, less than one percent. But this one finally took and I was going to give birth to my beautiful newborn essay!
I have an unexpected opening soon and want to be assured that your family is OK with publication. Are they?
“Ok” seemed like a vague term. What exactly was his definition? I thought about my daughters’ role in the essay. In it they chat on the telephone and sleep through my goodbye. They had minor roles; sure, they would be ok with that.
What about the handful of other people in this essay: my childhood neighbor, the college girlfriend, the guy in the bar from more than thirty years ago and the man from Match.com? They were just cameos; no problems there. My mother? She was a little trickier, but I could easily edit those two sentences.
And then I considered my ex-wife.
Here is the thing about writing memoir; you can’t just scratch the surface and expect readers to care. You have to dig deep and expose the fault lines. You must jump into the abyss and then somehow claw your way back to the top. No one makes that trip alone. Sometimes we work together, often we fight each other for a toehold and sometimes we stand on each other’s shoulders. But sometimes, we let go. And this was an essay about letting go.
For the past three years I have been getting up at 5 a.m. to write a book-length memoir. Each morning I think of Anne Lamott’s quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And another one that sticks with me is Joyce Maynard’s quote: “Write as if you were an orphan.”
This essay was not vengeful. Neither was it a tribute. It was truthful and there were two paragraphs regarding my ex-wife that had never been revealed to the public. Those two paragraphs held the others together like a keystone. Without them, everything else crumbled.
I sent the essay to my ex-wife with a note explaining how our story was so important and that revealing yourself, warts and all, was incredibly liberating. Her response? “I can’t believe you even wrote those two paragraphs about me. They need to be removed immediately.” But I didn’t remove them. I modified them and sent the changes back to the editor who was quick with his own reply.
With essays like this, you can’t be coy or evasive or you lose credibility. With the change, you’re making readers fill in the gaps, to speculate, to fumble around. It’s like in trying to walk a tightrope you end up falling off both sides.
I had a sickening feeling in my gut that felt like falling. Falling back into the abyss where I had braided together 75,000 words that lay coiled like a rope on the cavern floor. They would never see the light of day.
Yes, we own everything that happened to us, but do we own everything that happened to others which in turn affected what happened to us? When can we claim someone else’s secret as germane to telling our own? While Lamott’s directive “Tell your stories,” seems clear, reality is not.
I have shared my most intimate secrets with complete strangers in writer’s workshops and received accolades for dubious life choices I have made. “Oh you abused steroids? What a perfect metaphor. You have to include that!” Through the process of writing about my life, I have become inured to the pain and hardships. But I had not allowed others to process what happened to them because of what happened to me.
I took a deep breath, crafted an email to the editor and told him that the two paragraphs must be removed. If the essay fell apart, then I had to accept the consequences.
Four days, three hours and twelve minutes later, I received an email from the editor, certain that it would be “Thanks, but no thanks.”
We’re going to run the essay short and I’ll use the space to promote our college essay contest.
When I re-read the essay I realized it didn’t fall apart, but it had shifted focus and in turn, so did I. This was an essay about love after all and so I needed to show it.
Every morning I wake up early and tell my stories. Yes, I will always write as if I am an orphan, but when I publish them, I’ll remember that I am not.