March 18, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Brenda Ridley
Assuming that you are up and about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could view this period of social distancing as an unexpected gift to your writing life. That’s the attitude I’ve adopted as I decide how to use my time while exiled from my job for two weeks.
Last week, Pennsylvania’s governor ordered schools state-wide closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The small independent school where I double as admissions coordinator and office manager complied. While the risk to our students of COVID-19 exposure is probably low, we could not in good conscience remain open while 99% of the schools in Philadelphia shut down. Ours is a very small school but, luckily, one with digital resources that teachers can use for online instruction. Most of my work time is spent on the phone, making sure that teachers have the resources they need, the office runs smoothly, and performing first aid in the absence of a school nurse. I have some online tools that I can use, but only a couple projects that I think I can finish at home. That leaves some open time periods during the day that I don’t usually have for writing. Here is my plan for writing while quarantined with some suggestions that you might find helpful:
1) Keep a schedule. It is so tempting to sleep in when you get up before six o’clock every weekday morning and now don’t have to. But if you don’t set up a schedule for the week, you’ll wonder where the time went and why that essay you started three months ago still isn’t finished. I’ll set my alarm for 7 a.m. and plan to start writing at 9, after exercise, breakfast, and kitty time. I have better focus in the morning, but you should create a schedule that works for you; just schedule your writing time no matter what.
2) Limit socializing. Life as I’ve known it has temporarily shifted. Everything is closed: my yoga studio, the public library, my writing group is on hiatus, even my church is practicing social distancing. Of course you can call, text, or email friends and family, but don’t do it all day. Your pen or keyboard needs you to propel it. Block out a social hour or two when you can catch up and commiserate with everyone each day.
3) Reconnect with your partner, your kids, or your pets. I rush out of the house early on workdays and don’t usually come home until almost six. I see the kitties briefly when I feed them breakfast, but there’s no time for cuddles and chatfests. My partner is still asleep when I leave. While my schedule is more flexible I can carve out some time for canoodling when I’m not drifting off to sleep and muttering incoherently. Imagine the boost some quality time can give to our relationships.
4) Eat well and rest. I enjoy cooking but don’t like to spend all day at it. When home for the day I usually prep dinner early so that at dinner time there is less to do. Doing most of the work early in the day makes it more likely that you’ll eat better instead of grabbing fast food or ordering a pizza. And set a reasonable bedtime that ensures you get enough sleep. A poorly-fed, sleep-deprived writer might produce something, but is it something you really want others to read?
5) Get outdoors at least every other day. There is plenty of evidence that walking outdoors, forest bathing, hiking and other activities make you feel better. My attitude improves considerably when I’ve returned from a brisk walk.
6) Turn off your television. Too much news is not a good thing, and a lot of conjecture by pundits and talk show hosts isn’t news. All of the chatter about COVID-19 is increasing people’s anxiety. If you must know what’s happening with the virus on a daily basis, choose one reliable news source and limit yourself to 30 minutes of “information” per day. Your nervous system will thank you.
7) Put your writing house in order. I know I have two weeks before I return to work or am told to stay at home a little longer. I’m a writing newbie and don’t have tons of projects to work on, but I have at least three essays I’ve not been able to finish. My modest goal is to finish at least one of them and to develop a strategy for completing the other two. If I stick to the schedule I’ve set for myself, I think I can accomplish what I’ve set out to do.
8) Read. No need to say more.
9) Stay open and flexible. COVID-19 has made a fast and furious impact on everyone I know, even though none of my friends or family members have contracted it. All of the twists and turns science is taking in order to get a handle on this virus require us to think about how what we do impacts someone else. Stay flexible enough to shift with the tide of events and follow the lead of experts who know what they are talking about.
10) Finally, breathe and write; breathe and write some more. I came to writing as a late bloomer but quickly found it to be a practice that I can pour almost any emotion into. Some of those scribbles are just for me, not an audience, but writing helps me to clarify my thoughts and emotions so that I can get the junk out of the way and focus on what I want to say. So, breathe and write your way through if you’re quarantined. Appreciate the gift you’ve been given.
Brenda Ridley is a Philadelphia writer who is always looking for ways to fit writing around her job and other obligations. This essay is her first submission for publication.
March 13, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Mary J. Breen
I teach memoir classes with seniors. People who hear about these classes are forever telling me how much they approve. “Writing is such good therapy!” they say, one after another. But is it useful to call it therapy? I don’t think so, and I think it’s time we stopped.
My students tell me they want to write their memoirs for many reasons. Often they want them to be gifts for their children and grandchildren; sometimes they want to honour someone now dead, and sometimes they want to give voice to people whose stories haven’t been heard. Some people want the opportunity of taking a good look back at their lives. I’ve never had anyone say they were there because they thought memoir writing would be therapeutic. They’re there to write.
And they’re right. The focus of a memoir class is supposed to be the telling and the writing of true stories—not judging the lives people have led. Keeping discussion away from psychoanalyzing keeps the focus on the page where it belongs.
Therapy is what we need when something needs to be fixed; physical therapy, for example, might help regain the use of a broken wrist; family therapy might bring a family together again. I don’t think we should suggest to our students that they are broken and need fixing in any way.
Framing memoir writing as therapy suggests students should be looking for problematic topics to be addressed. I want my students to feel free to explore and write about—or not—whatever they choose. There is no question that catharsis can result from thinking about and writing about difficult events, but catharsis isn’t a daily occurrence for any memoir writer. I don’t want students to feel disappointed when their writing doesn’t feel “therapeutic” or “therapeutic” enough. Expecting therapeutic change, for example, may be unrealistic for someone writing about the many ways she and her big sister had such a hard time getting along, or for the writer describing a relationship with a neighbour who showed him never-ending love and acceptance while he grew up in a difficult family. These are perfectly good topics for a memoir. I don’t want students or teachers waiting for the “therapeutic” moments, and rejecting those that are not.
In my teaching experience, many people—especially older people—do not want to delve deeply into the painful parts of their pasts. I’ve often heard students say they want to remember the good not the bad, and as a teacher, I don’t think it’s my role to challenge this. This is especially important because some memories are so painful that they should not be recalled without care, and certainly not in front of a class. I remember asking a student if she was going to write about what happened to her as a small child in Germany during World War 2. She looked at me with alarm and simply said, “Oh, but I can’t.” When I saw the fear in her eyes, I realized how deep this old pain was, and I saw that pushing her in any way would have been very wrong. I have since learned that returning to memories of extreme trauma can lead to re-traumatizing—a painful reliving or even re-inhabiting of a terrible situation and the trauma that came with it. Few teachers would be adept at dealing with this.
Therapy suggests an intervention by expert professionals whose viewpoint is, by definition, outside the client. Referring to memoir writing as “therapy” moves the expertise away from the writer and into the hands of those who are on the outside looking in. Of course, experts can sometimes perceive things about us that we’re unaware of, but I want the writer to be firmly established as the authority in his/her life. I want decisions about what matters and what doesn’t to remain with the writer.
Older people are bombarded with advice about what we need—exercise programs, proper diet, vitamins, medical tests—in order to enjoy “healthy aging,” and I’m unwilling to lump memoir writing in with these prescribed behaviours. Like music and yoga and spending time with grandkids, memoir writing can be interesting and useful and fun, but it doesn’t need to be viewed as one of the approved ways to grow old correctly.
I’m not saying that writing can’t be “therapeutic.” There is no question that writing can take us deeper into what we know and who we are and have always been. It can illuminate things and let us examine parts of our past we hadn’t known were there. Some say that writing their memoirs was how they reclaimed their past. Others even say it saved their lives. Writing about our past can help us figure out our motivations and our fears, and it can give us a stronger sense of ourselves. It can also help us live more easily with what hurt us. If these things are “therapeutic,” then great. Even so, I prefer to talk about memoir writing as a chance to revisit your life, to start accepting yourself, warts and all—to look back and to look forward. The results can be a new and helpful perspective on who you are and who you want to be. Memoir writing is often enjoyable, interesting, illustrative, and even transformative. As memoir teachers, we have the privilege of helping people examine their lives—in whichever way they want. We are not therapists. We are teachers-cheerleaders-guides-coaches-listeners-witnesses, and I think this role is very important just as it is.
Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines, and she has written two books about women’s health. She has taught creative non-fiction and memoir courses for the past 15 years.
March 6, 2020 § 18 Comments
By Cindy Sams
A long teaching day nears its end when a buzz from the phone in my pocket grabs my attention. A covert glance at the screen reveals a text message from my MFA writing mentor at Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA.
She announces, simply, “Congratulations!!!”
What did I do?
Attached to the text is a link that made my 60-year-old-self rear up and pay attention– an announcement from The New Southern Fugitives, an online literary zine in Atlanta which recently published one of my essays. There’s a nifty picture there of a man pushing a cart … a man … pushing a cart … OHMYGOD … The Pushcart Prize.
“Congratulations 2020 Pushcart Prize Nominees!” Six names follow the announcement, including that of my mentor, Anjali Enjeti. At the bottom of the list, in small print, sits my name. Mine. The name of a first semester creative writing grad student who was thrilled just to be published so quickly. The name of a former newspaper reporter turned high school theater teacher who returned to writing after her fella died and her chicklet flew the nest.
The name of a woman who entered her sixth decade in late 2019 with a bang. I’ve waited my whole life to write creatively. Delayed through marriage and childbirth and work and divorce and illness and surgery and death. And now, at the cusp of retirement, opportunity beckons. Time seems to have shoved itself into a corner to give me space in which to write. Poems. Short stories. Memoir. This ol’ gal is on fire with it all. Even more so since news of the Pushcart nomination came along, a turn I never expected to happen, much less this soon.
In truth, I applied to Reinhardt’s MFA program for the Fall 2019 term with no real expectation that I’d be accepted. Not because of age, but from fear that lack of recent writing would hold me back. I cobbled together a collection of stories I’d written for The Macon Telegraph during my career there, accompanied by a new essay I wrote for my submission packet. That piece, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” stems from the gift of a wooden cutting board carved in the shape of the Lonestar State. I’ve never used the board, but The New Southern Fugitives paid me $100 to publish the essay – then they nominated it for a Pushcart prize.
I’m mighty impressed with myself, but just how big a deal is that nomination? Depends upon whom you ask.
As any good reporter would do, I turned to the wisdom of the Interweb to find out. Some literary pundits contend that the Pushcart ain’t no big thing. Thousands upon thousands of writers are nominated, so stop listing it on your CV. In an “Open Letter to Pushcart Nominated Folks,” author John Matthew Fox stakes this claim: “But to people who know what a Pushcart Nomination means, it looks desperate. Especially when you don’t list what journal gave you the nomination. Because we know it’s not Tin House, it’s more like Podunk journal run by an MFA fail from his parent’s basement in Arkansas.”
Others take an enlightened view that’s more to my liking.
“A Pushcart nomination is a solid credential so you’ve got bragging rights,” said Gray Stewart, a Georgia novelist and one of my RU professors.
Let’s be frank. Accolades matter. Even at my age. Especially at my age. I don’t have six decades ahead of me to develop my skills. Never mind that never will I now be heralded as an up-and-coming young writer. There’s enough attention paid to talented young people and so little given to those of us who taste success at a later point.
Funny that all of this occurred around the same time a piece by Lorrie Moore popped up on the assignment list for one of my MFA classes. Moore’s essay, “How to Become A Writer” blew up my brain with its parallels to my own life. The questions Moore raises in her work are those I ask myself frequently now.
She’s crafted this piece in the guise of a Self-Help Writing Guru, I suppose, yet there are such deep truths here. Some of them describe me quite accurately. So much so that I wonder if Moore’s posing under a pseudonym and is really my long-dead Great Aunt Inez, who advised me to become a bank teller or telephone operator as a life-long career. That I could not then and cannot now count back change has no bearing on the matter.
Did Moore eavesdrop on my life?
“Somehow, you end up writing again,” she posits. “Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.”
I don’t know what it takes for anyone else to become a writer. Perhaps, as Moore suggests, there is no one-size-fits-all method, and each writer must find his or her own way. Whatever it takes, I’m going to cross that bridge and learn to take myself and my efforts seriously. Stop equivocating about my work. Recognize its value regardless of its reception.
After all, I am Pushcart nominee. More than that, I’m a writer now.
Cindy Sams is a teacher and writer in Macon, GA, a hub of soul food and soul music in the New Deep South. A graduate of Wesleyan College, she holds an MA in Theater from Regent University, and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. When not teaching and writing, she directs high school plays and musicals and breaks into random show tunes in shopping mall parking lots. Her work has appeared in The Chaffey Review, Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, and The New Southern Fugitives, which nominated her for a 2020 Pushcart Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
March 5, 2020 § 7 Comments
You may have heard from a beginning writer, “What if an agent steals my idea?” Or “What if a publisher prints my book and sells it without paying me?” Or “What if someone pirates my e-book?”
You may yourself have wondered, why is it customary not to copyright one’s work before beginning the submission process? Isn’t registering with the Library of Congress protection for writers? Doesn’t that little circle-c scare off plagiarists and pirates?
In fact, putting the copyright symbol on a manuscript submitted to an agent or publisher is the mark of an amateur. While an agent isn’t going to turn down a fantastic book because the author jumped the gun on copyright, it is a tiny indicator that “This author may have misconceptions about the publishing industry and I will have to educate them as well as trying to sell their book. They will need more of my time than a savvier author might.”
In North America and Europe (and most other countries), all artistic work is copyrighted from the moment it’s created in a fixed form. When you write it in a notebook, or type it into a Word doc, you establish ownership of your creation. What registering copyright does is allow you to sue for damages. Until your work is actually published (at which point copyright will be registered with the publisher’s help, or by you as an indie author), or unless you are an author at the Stephen-King-Nora-Roberts level, there aren’t many damages to sue for.
Actual piracy—copy-pasting and repackaging the text of a book and selling it as your own—happens rarely. It happens primarily in China, India and Egypt, markets with avid readers and low per-capita incomes. Foreign pirates do not care about your registered copyright, and you will not be able to find and sue them. If you discover a photocopy of your novel in a Cairo souk, your best bet is to figure out how to reach those fans and sell them something else (or at least get an Amazon review!). In North America, most piracy happens with textbooks and in category romance, and pirated copies show up after the book is published. If you’re writing one of those genres, by all means do more research, and learn how to file a copyright infringement claim with Amazon. But for memoirists and most fiction writers, our enemy will be not piracy but obscurity.
What if someone in my writing group steals my idea?
Remember that party you went to, and that person came up and said, “I have a great idea for a book! You write it and we’ll split the money!” Remember how ridiculous it was that they had absolutely no conception that writing a book is difficult and time-consuming and puking out ideas is the easy part?
It’s not possible to copyright an idea, and ideas are rarely original. Execution is what matters. The level of labor, time and expense needed to rewrite someone else’s book is unlikely to be taken on by anyone good enough to actually do it. (with the notable exceptions of Shakespeare and Stephen Sondheim). Writers able to skillfully repurpose the plot of a stolen manuscript already have their own books to try and sell, and usually, their pride.
What if I query an agent and they take my idea and give it to another writer?
Legitimate agents receive far too many submissions already—if they like your idea but want a different take or another writing style, chances are very good they have already received another submission doing exactly that. They may well sell a book that sounds a lot like yours; they almost certainly didn’t need to steal it.
What if a publisher steals my book?
Legitimate publishers don’t make enough money off books from debut authors to bother stealing a debut book. Just like agents, they already got six versions of that story, and they picked the one they liked best. Even scam publishers don’t make money by stealing books—they profit by charging authors to publish. If they steal your book, who’s going to pay them?
Do your research. As you go through the submissions process, this reputable webpage from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America covers common scams (including specific, named agencies and publishers to watch out for) and Victoria Strauss has guidelines to finding a legit agent. I strongly recommend reading the archives of Writer Beware Blog for common scams and shady practices, as well as names of predatory publishers and fake agents.
Our greatest protection as unpublished writers is that nobody wants to steal our work. Yes, that sounds a little sad. But just as “worth publishing” is not “worth stealing,” so too does “not worth stealing” not mean “worthless.” Our second greatest protection is our own voice. What makes our work worth an agent’s time, a publisher’s investment, and a reader’s money, is what we bring to the page, beyond an idea or even a particular plot. West Side Story “stole” Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet “stole” Romeus and Juliet. But the transformation of ideas from one author to another resulted each time in something unique…and words so distinct, they are impossible to steal.
February 28, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Cherone Duggan
Books that should have been blogs. Blogs that should have been tweets. Tweets that should have been thoughts. Waffle-fed and fluff-padded, bloated prose waddles around every section of the written world. As does the well-worn writing advice to slim down our copy to skeletal leanness.
“Omit needless words,”
“Show don’t tell,”
“Less is more,”
“Kill your darlings,”
“Brevity is brilliance.”
Excellent advice, in theory. But rarely practiced. Because writers are economic creatures who respond to incentives. Money and attention are our sugar and fat.
From gold stars for effort for longer answers in our single-digit years, to mandatory 10-page minimums for college papers, our education system uses word count as a proxy for intellectual complexity. Length is easier to measure than merit. It’s more objective and it takes less effort to grade. And, the more serious and senior your degree, the longer your papers had to be.
Rewards for wordiness don’t end with formal schooling. As workers, the plumping incentives continue. Most desk jobs involve writing of some sort and few people are ever fired for producing fatter wads of work. Submitting padded reports and sending puffy emails help us show our bosses that we deserve our paychecks for putting in our hours and hitting our keyboards.
Professional writers are also rewarded by the word. Authors get more attention for novels than novellas. Freelancers get more money for long articles than short ones. Professors get tenure for publishing more than their peers. And copywriters get more job security for constantly churning out copy rather than finishing one project a week.
The resulting overwhelm of long-winded emails, hollow books, and deep-blog-buried online recipes isn’t surprising.
We reap what we reward. If writers are rewarded for length, we’re going to continue to ramble. And no amount of sage writing advice to trim our fat is going to change that until we change our incentive systems to match.
Yes, the current incentive system surfaces some beauties; Dickens’ rambling descriptions and thick-bound novels were born from a serialized publication format where he was paid by the word.
But most of the rest of us probably shouldn’t be.
Cherone Duggan is a User Experience Writer who designs micro-content. She’s from the Irish midlands and she lives near San Francisco. Find her on Twitter: @cheroneduggan
February 27, 2020 § 6 Comments
Finding out a literary journal’s taste is easy. Their website says right up front whether they want edgy flash fiction, genre-crossing lyric essays or formal poems. If they accept work via Submittable, their own website, or paper mail with a SASE. It’s easy to buy copies or subscribe to see if our work is “a good fit.” Easy to donate to support their mission.
What’s often harder to find: Do they pay?
Why so coy, journals? If you’re a contributor/reader-supported market, own it. If you offer a $10 honorarium, own it. But when literary publications avoid giving this information up front, they are—however unintentionally—contributing to the idea that writers’ work is valueless. That we should be glad just to be in print. That questioning the availability of cash compensation is somehow indelicate.
Some magazines do confront payment head on:
Literary Mama is not currently a paying market. We are all volunteers: editors, writers, visual artists, and editorial assistants. With the publication of each issue, we make a concerted effort to promote the work of our contributors via Facebook, Twitter, and our newsletter.
Others dodge even direct questions:
Thanks so much for your inquiry. The details of author compensation will be communicated directly with the [Redacted] anthology’s accepted authors.
Really? Because when I apply for a position, I’d like to know if I’m volunteering. Don’t get me wrong—volunteering is great. Finding a cause you care about enough to donate time and energy feels terrific. But charities let us choose.
It’s not wrong not to pay. As I wrote here two weeks ago, writers need “stuff”—prestige, resume credit, the experience of working with an editor. Some magazines pay on principle; some find an honorarium increases submissions. Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore writes:
Well, it is only recently—about [five] years back—that we were able to land in a financial position where we could pay writers, so in some ways it still feels like we are bragging. But it does feel good to be offering payment, as small as it is ($45 per flash essay).
We are an online-only journal, so having payments to authors has helped to lend us legitimacy…I think online journals are generally more respected now, but it wasn’t always so.
I wouldn’t say there was a radical shift in quality once we began to pay, but I have noticed a small but measurable uptick… Some authors who did not previously submit are starting to show up in our inbox.
Another literary journal editor had a different experience:
We aim to showcase emerging artists’ work while making sure they are compensated fairly, and that is what we’re striving for as we work hard to build a business model that allows us to do that.
…what we’re offering at this time is the opportunity of publication and ongoing promotion of their work to our community. We’re also not engaging in any kind of commercial exploitation of the artists’ work. The magazine is freely available and we do not have any advertising revenue, and all of our editors are volunteering their time and expertise…we haven’t seen anyone ask outright if we are going to pay them. In our experience most people just submit hoping to be published.
We’ve been fortunate to receive a good amount of submissions of great quality, despite not mentioning any compensation policy.
One might argue that “making sure they are compensated fairly” is at odds with “not mentioning any compensation policy.” Since that interview, the journal has gone dark; lacking a budget to pay authors can be a sign of other challenges.
Every journal has the right to choose their payment policy. Maybe they want to pay in the future; maybe it will always be for publication credit or literary community. But when a magazine elides compensation policy or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern. It becomes another subtle signpost: You shouldn’t be in this for the money. Not actively sharing the information suggests we shouldn’t care. As if wanting to know about pay is money-grubbing or besmirching the purity of literature.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a ‘literary’ writer—to want to be paid. Before “amateur” meant “unskilled,” it meant “one pursuing an occupation for the love of doing it.” Artists often move between amateur and professional work, choosing some projects for cash, others for prestige or creative challenges
I love writing. I love it a lot. And I would write whether I got paid or not. But I can’t light my home with the warm glow of achievement, and making writing my job lets me spend more time improving my work. For many writers, whether or not a journal pays is a primary consideration. Even in the small dollar amounts associated with literary publication, payment feels good.
Resume credits are valuable. Publication is valuable. Some non-paying magazines are prestigious journals that authors are proud to be a part of. Some are entry-level markets where publication alone is still genuinely a reward for emerging writers. But all of them need to be open about whether they are asking us to work for free.
We regret we are unable to offer an honorarium.
Contributors receive two copies of the issue in which they appear.
Sometimes we’re writing for money. Sometimes we aren’t. Journal editors, please give us the dignity of trusting our choice—and the honesty of making your policy clear.
*A version of this piece originally appeared on The Review Review, which appears to be changing ownership and updating their website.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner‘s blog, and on radio programs The Moth and Snap Judgement. Some of them paid her.