On the Writing Craft: When Watercolors Become Words

September 21, 2018 § 1 Comment

KephartArtIn her craft essay in Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Beth Kephart considers the ways that another artist’s work—her husband’s painting and photographs, to be specific—helped her see more clearly and further into her own writing. She explains the ways another’s art can inform how the writer sees what her words are trying to describe and then can better describe.

Here is an excerpt from the essay:

You don’t have to live with an artist to experience the shattering of another artist’s vision. You only have to want the dialogue. You have to want to take the work of others as seriously as you take your own, value others as you value yourself, give time to extensions and tangents. You have to allow for different possibilities. You have to look for and then absorb that song, that canvas, that garden as if it were the thing you made, or the thing you might have made, or the thing that might teach you about what you are making. Five minutes. Five sentences. Find your true story in a perfect stranger’s art.

Read the entire essay in our new issue.

On Elevator Pitches, Persistence, and Reclaiming the Recovery Story

September 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Tessa pictureBy Tessa Torgeson

This is the way I dreamed an editor’s reaction to my book’s elevator pitch:

  • A butler instantly appears holding a scroll chiseled with my contract, including a generous monetary advance.
  • An old-fashioned ink and quill materialize so I can sign the coveted contract.
  • A skywriter writes my name over a packed stadium. Preferably a true Nirvana reunion show because my book single-handedly brings Kurt Cobain back to life!
  • My name in flashing lights on a marquee.
  • My book on the shelves of ______ (Insert local chain book retailer here. My small North Dakota city didn’t have independent booksellers).

This is a bit of an exaggeration, of course. I know that writers are not rock stars and long ago shed the romantic notions of my unicorn-emblazoned girlhood diary. But I had high hopes.

This is the way it actually happened:

  • not according to plan.

A recent writing workshop I attended offered a chance to meet with editors in the second week, I buzzed with excitement at the prospect. I was buoyed by the past week at the workshop surrounded by peers, visiting writers, and workshop leaders who were equally passionate about creative nonfiction.

In opening remarks to the session, the editor said that he preferred written proposals because they allowed for complexity, nuance, and depth. I understood his point, but still ached to share. I knew that the verbal pitch is all bones, no meat. I hope vegans can excuse me for the meat metaphor, but the beauty of an idea often lies in the tenderness, the fat, and the juicy center.

Despite his hesitations, the editor kindly agreed to listen to our verbal pitches and acknowledged the difficulty of chiseling an entire book down to a 90-second verbal pitch.

Because I was nervous, my pitch was short and I omitted key points. I told him that my memoir is an exploration of heroin addiction and recovery from my first-person perspective.   

The editor’s shoulders slumped, his jaw slackened, his eyes turned dull. What he said next is still  singed into my brain: “The market is flooded with those kinds of memoirs. How is your book different?”

I knew that he was trying to help me polish and sharpen my proposal, but I felt flatlined, discouraged. I elaborated about what made my book unique. Most recovery memoirs focus on the 12-Steps Alcoholics Anonymous perspective, but I focus on nontraditional recovery with a controversial opiate replacement medication called Suboxone.  I also include reportage about nontraditional recovery communities in Minnesota.

A few more of the female class members delivered their pitches. Then a male workshop member delivered his tentative pitch, explaining that he didn’t like writing about his own life. He was planning instead to write about his sister’s experiences as a heroin addict.

The editor’s spine straightened. He made eye contact. “That’s fascinating! It sounds so French…The opiate epidemic is definitely a timely topic.”

When the editor asked if we had comments or questions, I summoned the courage to respond.  “I’m not trying to attack my fellow workshopper’s topic because there is value in different perspectives, but I feel sort of dismissed. I don’t understand why a man’s pitch speculating about his sister’s heroin addiction from her perspective would be more appealing than a woman’s first-person perspective with a similar experience?”

I didn’t want to burn bridges or sound ungrateful for the opportunity to be at this writing and publishing institute. The directors, visiting writers, and my peers were all gracious, inspiring, talented, and passionate. Yet I felt the urge to speak.

I’ve noticed that literary publications are quick to dismiss first-person addiction and recovery stories, assuming they are riddled with tropes and narcissism, and are overly confessional. These publications seem more likely to accept essays that examine addiction from a removed, distant, and objective perspective. I understand and appreciate the value of journalism and have read many impressive fact-based essays on this topic. Yet I particularly value reading essays that blend first-person with reportage because the writers truly understand and grasp the subject.

The editor responded in an apologetic manner and showed more interest in my book by asking more questions, which I appreciated. When I got home, I posted a status on Facebook about how dismissals by folks like the editor, while perhaps unintentional, are sexist. I also looked at the list of books published by the editor’s house and it was dominated by male authors.

There is a stigma linked to addiction, resulting in people often being more compassionate toward those with other illnesses. When someone dies of a heroin overdose, I’ve seen comments like this on social media: “survival of the fittest, it’s their fault.” People somehow feel free to make such cruel and thoughtless statements, treating addiction like a choice. I never chose to be an addict, but I do choose to tell my story.

After my Facebook post, my peers and the workshop director sent me words of support and even thanked me for speaking out. It lifted my spirits. I try not to be overly dependent on social media for validation, but I do lean on it for support because writing about addiction is hard. Thankfully, there are many fantastic trail-blazing writers who have fought this stigma and written kick-ass memoirs and essays. Some of my favorite include Melissa Febos, Lidia Yuknavitch, Porochista Khakpour, Maia Szalavitz, Elissa Washuta, Amy Dresner, Marya Hornbacher, Chelsey Clammer, and Nick Flynn.

This experience made me realize that we write not for money, name recognition, sky writers, or flashing lights. We write to fight the stigma, to let others know they’re not alone.

I no longer imagine my name lit up on a marquee. Instead, I see myself connected to a glowing string of lights with other writers who are shining, illuminating the once shadowy, taboo subjects of addiction.

Tessa Torgeson is a collector of words, polka-dot stuff, general awkwardness, and (bad) habits in Minnesota. Her writing has recently appeared in The Fix, The Star Tribune, Manifest Station, and other places. Embracing alternative recovery, she is currently writing a book that weaves memoir and reportage about addiction, recovery, harm reduction, and being a Midwest spinster from her non-traditional perspective. If you want to hop on the feelings train, follow her on twitter @tessa_tito


Still Waiting for That Contract: On Being a “Real” Writer

September 5, 2018 § 11 Comments

By Jessica Ribera


Photo by Rex Trantor

I grew up in the ballet world. It’s a scary place, but there’s lots of dancing and make-up. From age seven to seventeen, everything was beautiful at the ballet. Even though I worked myself to the bone and bore a lot of stress, my ballet life was the wind beneath my tiny little swan arms. By nineteen, I was poised to finally get a contract from a real ballet company.

My fellow trainees and I were consumed with getting a contract. We all had been dancing with a professional ballet company for a couple of years; we even did the same roles that corps de ballet members performed. We ate, slept, and breathed professional ballet, but until we were offered contracts, we would not feel like we had “made it.” A contract meant you were a working dancer, someone with a salary and benefits. The contract confirmed that you indeed had become a ballet dancer when you grew up.

I endured a terrible stage accident at exactly the wrong moment in my budding career. My young body changed forever, and I became a woman who couldn’t possibly get a contract anywhere. I couldn’t be the version of myself I’d spent years becoming and experienced the whole thing as a death. The resulting devastation and loneliness dimmed the light in my heart. I gave up on leading a life on stage, the life of an artist, the life I had always wanted. I committed to a policy of practicality and went to business school. Through all that time, I was writing. I journaled and made visual art to help myself cope with all the changing, but I kept those things private.

Suddenly, ten years had passed, then fifteen. Eventually, I learned to have some compassion for that young self, and I accepted what happened. I’m able to say now that I am a dancer who doesn’t dance but writes instead. Dancing feels very far away, but I have resurrected the dancing self I buried under grief and denial and made her a part of me again. Now that I am a whole self once more, I have been able to form new dreams and to muster the courage to chase them. I wrote a book about it all and loved the manuscript.


Photo by Elisabeth Haggard

I once again found myself hoping for a contract. The dancer in me was trained to wait for external validation. In the ballet world, if a director or choreographer doesn’t like you, see you as useful, then you may as well be invisible (a lesson I learned when suddenly my body didn’t work right anymore). Writing has forced me to challenge the norms I internalized as a young ballet hopeful. When I look back, the days I spent dancing before I ever had hope of a professional contract are some of the best days of my life. All those times on stage dancing shoulder to shoulder with the pros, all that work, all the joy that filled me night after night strengthen me now to be thankful for whatever moment I am living. Who cares if I have a contract? (Well, I do. But I’m working on it, so stick with me here…) I am writing now. I’m doing the work, and I have a lot of pages that bring me pride and joy.

I happened to make a contact in the publishing world without trying, and when I reached out to him for advice, he requested my manuscript. Three days later he emailed me to say that he would love to publish my work and could send a contract right over. It was almost too easy. Chasing that ballet contract that I never acquired set me up to expect a struggle. Other advisors and my own ambition said, “Don’t just go with the first thing. What if you could get something better, a bigger deal?” For a couple of months, I queried. I did market research and wondered over how much time to spend building my “platform.” I quit loving the process.

Last week, I thought of all those pre-contract dancing days, and how I wish I had enjoyed them more rather than waiting for my “real” dancing life to begin, waiting for the powers that be to give me credit for what I already was doing. So I decided to accept the contract offer from the small press editor who understands me and my project. Saying “yes” to what is in front of me has ignited my spirit, and I’m more prolific than ever. The moment that I put pen to paper and sign this contract will be a major, culminating moment for me and that young dancer I once was. But, I have only been able to value it so greatly because I learned to just enjoy doing the work.

Jessica Ribera moved alone at seventeen from Texas to Seattle to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now her days are spent re-imagining the artistic life she always wanted while her four wild children egg her on. Jessica’s first book, a memoir of artistic life, death, and resurrection, will be available from White Blackbird Books in 2019. Follow jeskybera on Instagram, Twitter, and Jeskybera.com.

Smoke Rises in Seattle

August 24, 2018 § 14 Comments

IMG_2086By Nancy Schatz Alton

Last night I walked through the smoke, face mask on. I walked through the smoke with my friend of 30 years. I walked through the smoke through a neighborhood transformed by money. I didn’t think about gentrification, that word I learned at college. Instead I thought about how I didn’t know where I was because the buildings reached so much higher than they did 18 years ago when I first moved to this neighborhood. The smoke from the fires surrounding our region disorient me. The new buildings disorient me. My friend is my compass, my remember when, my person who knows what it’s like to be pissed at the world yet she continues to walk through it with conviction and love.

Last night we were walking through the neighborhood to go to a book launch. At the book launch I realized my writerly jealously has lowered so much lately. Still I wondered what it would have been like to believe I could be a writer back when I was at college. It took so much effort to show up at my poetry writing class, to read my poems out loud. To hear my poetry professor tell me things I wasn’t ready to hear. I remember hanging on to my dislike of him because sometimes he didn’t show up to class. Still he is the reason I live in Seattle. He told us how all we need to remake our lives is a one-way train ticket. You can move where no one knows your name and remake yourself. He’s the voice I heard that propelled me to this city that has now been transformed by wealth. Back then, I moved with my $1500 and made a new life. I saved up that money working as an assistant manager at a bookstore. When I moved to my new city I applied at every writing job I could find until I had an office manager job at a city magazine. The same week I accepted that job I turned down an unpaid internship at a feminist press. I needed a paycheck.

I could spend my whole life wondering what if. What if I believed in my writing enough to apply to and go to grad school in my 20s? What if I had instead worked at the feminist press? What ifs are good for conversation, but at a certain age this conversation grows tiresome. And there is so much to love about where I am now. Where I am now is sitting at a reading where the author introduces me to someone who is in their late 20s. Because she is now freelancing full time thanks to a job lay-off. How do you freelance, she asks? She marvels that I have freelanced for 16 years and I downplay it, saying it fits my motherly life and the work just keeps showing up and I work part time. Ah, she is right though, I should marvel at myself. I encourage her to keep applying to jobs she wants even if she thinks she won’t get them. She is rising. Keep going, I say.

And then I am walking through the smoky neighborhood with a mask on next to my friend of 30 years. We are raging against the machine of society as we walk, our cadence familiar and practiced. I slip in the fact that my writerly envy is disappearing after much work. I’m on a path. I keep walking. Through the smoke. I am always arriving, and I write more words to keep me going.

Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of two holistic health care guides, The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When she’s not meeting deadlines or teaching writing, she writes poetry and essays and works on her memoir about her daughter’s learning journey. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two teen daughters and one Havanese dogs. Read her blog.

#ShareYourRejection: I Received 330 Writing Rejections in One Year, and I’m So Happy About It

August 17, 2018 § 13 Comments

jay vera summerBy Jay Vera Summer

When I first began submitting to online literary magazines seven years ago, I had no idea how the process worked. I felt nervous and intimidated, and it took all of my courage to send something out. I’d submit to one publication, wait, think about the submission literally every day, and then feel dejected and possibly cry when I received a rejection weeks or months later.

Each time I saw a rejection in my inbox, I took it personally. I’d wonder if my writing was trash, if I should give up writing completely. It’d take me a few weeks to rebuild my confidence, then start the process all over, submitting my story or essay to another lit mag, then waiting. If three lit mags rejected something, I abandoned it, figuring the editors knew better than I did.

As some of you have probably guessed, I didn’t get anything published this way.

Later, I met published writers through writing workshops and eventually, an MFA program. Initially, I was surprised to hear people I admired and considered successful talk about their rejections. When a woman who’d won a Pushcart Prize told me she always sent out her pieces until they were either accepted or rejected at least fifty times, I realized I needed  to adjust my perspective on my own work and not give up so easily.

In the world of writing, rejection is not failure. It is a necessary part of professional growth and the road to publication. Although at first I still felt the raw sting of each rejection, I began to submit more widely and frequently after learning many accomplished writers viewed their rejections with pride. I tried to mimic them and take my rejection letters as a badge of honor, an initiation of sorts. Instead of taking a rejection as proof I’m not good enough, I decided my ability to withstand rejection was proof that the label “writer” truly belongs to me.

After becoming a literary magazine editor myself (of Saw Palm, weirderary, and now, Chronically Lit), I learned first-hand that lit mags editors often reject work they consider good. Sometimes a piece is high-quality, but doesn’t fit the aesthetic or theme of that particular issue or publication. Sometimes one editor really wants a piece, but another overrules them. Sometimes everyone at a lit mag likes a piece, but they decide it’s too similar to something else they’ve already accepted.

The bottom line is, a rejection isn’t necessarily a value judgment of the work in question, even if it feels like it.

Last year, I decided to get over my fear of rejection once and for all. I was graduating with my MFA and realized I had over a dozen short pieces I liked from my three years in the program. I began a big push, submitting these pieces widely, determined not to stop until each piece had either been accepted, or rejected at least fifty times. I submitted pieces to multiple outlets simultaneously (but only to publications I’d read and knew were appropriate, of course–submitting to publications that aren’t a good fit is a waste of both writers’ and editors’ time).

During this year of intense submitting, I received twelve acceptances. To earn those twelve acceptances, I had to sustain 330 rejections. Yes, three-hundred-thirty. That’s roughly 28 rejections for each acceptance, almost one rejection a day for an entire year. And I am so happy about it. I’m not only happy because of the acceptances, though of course, that feels nice. I’m happy because I finally understand and can handle the process. I finally believe in my work.

If the timid, insecure writer I was seven years ago could see me now, she would be so proud.

Jay Vera Summer is a writer and college writing instructor living in Florida. Her work may be found in The Hawai’i Review, The Conium Review, Proximity, Luna Luna Magazine, and more. She is Editor in Chief of the online literary magazine Chronically Lit. Find her at jayverasummer.com or @jayverasummer on twitter.


I Wish I Wanted That Carpet

August 7, 2018 § 10 Comments

I got sucked into a carpet shop last night. Wandering the old medina in the center of Tunis, my husband and I came across the clerk who’d checked us into the hotel, now on his day off. He’d love to show us a handicraft exhibit! Right here in the souk! Only one day! Closing in an hour!

We let him shepherd us down alleys and through hallways lined with shops closed for prayer time. It’s a little sketchy, but he’s from our hotel, and there’s two of us. He takes us to a souvenir store built into a former palace, and the shop owner escorts us through shelves of turquoise jewelry and caftans and mini-mosaics. We go up more stairs, and outside there’s a reasonable view of the roofs of Tunis and a terrace covered in fantastically painted tiles. The colors and patterns are some of the most beautiful decorative work I’ve ever seen. Absolutely worth getting dragged to the back of the souk. Going back downstairs, we turn left instead of right, into a room full of rugs. The “exhibit” is a carpet showroom.

Tea is brought. The merchandise turns out to be lovely, authentic, government-certified to be exportable, and reasonably priced. Still quite expensive, but $750 for a large handmade Berber, beautifully designed in 100% wool, is not bad if you’re a person who buys really nice home decor (I’m not).

We’ve considered a carpet before. It would be a nice souvenir of our years in the Middle East, something we’d own forever, something hard to get somewhere else, something not touristy and awful. So we consider the carpets here.

After half an hour, we are genuinely interested. But after another half hour, the blue ones we like are too large for the room in our house that would suit a blue carpet. The green ones are too small for the room that could host a green carpet. I don’t want a white one—one juice spill and we’re screwed. That pattern is great but not that color. That color is great but those embroidered lozenges are a little busy. But the shopkeeper and his three assistants have worked so hard to sell us these carpets, and they are truly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that with a starting price of $750 (“Includes shipping! If you take it with you, we give already 20% off!”) I could walk out of here with a $400 rug.

The mint tea is strong and sweet, and my husband and I discuss our budget in rapid-fire undertones. Everyone in Tunis has a minimum of three languages, but speaking very quickly gives a little privacy. We are now firmly in the market for a gorgeous rug.

Just not one of these.

I am truly sad to walk away from the beauty of this traditional craft. I am impressed and moved by the care and effort that have gone into 20,000 hand-tied knots per square meter. The price and time are right, but I do not have a suitable space in my home for any of these particular carpets. We thank the shopkeeper profusely. We elude the guy from our hotel (who wants to take us to a perfume shop next) by saying we’re late for dinner, and lunge randomly into a dark passageway because we are so embarrassed and sad we had to say no, even though saying ‘no’ was the right choice. Let the carpet find a home where it will sparkle with beauty instead of clashing with my walls. With someone who loves that exact pattern and color, who also appreciates the workmanship and investment of the craftswomen who made them.

When we finally reach a well-lit and charming area of the market, I turn to my husband and say, “Those rugs were so lovely and I wish we had the right place to really show one off. Let’s keep an eye out for another one?”

He says, “I really hoped we’d want one of them.”

“Me too,” I say. “You know how yesterday I was trying to explain what it’s like rejecting essays, how there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not the perfect match? That’s exactly what it feels like. I wish writers knew that.”

He says, “Tell them about the carpets.”


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She highly recommends Tunisia. Keep up with her adventures by joining the (free, occasional) I Do Words TinyLetter.

Don’t Buy Your Dream

July 27, 2018 § 10 Comments

Like this, but the cheeseburgers are your trust in the literary community

You may have seen Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent investigation of Anna March in the L.A. Times. March, as she was most recently known, ripped off writers by selling phony coaching/editing packages, offers to read their work and connect them with agents, and expensive writing retreats that didn’t happen.

March branded herself an intersectional feminist, sensitive to issues of race, class and LGBTQ concerns as well as gender, and also supportive of victims of trauma. She positioned herself as a connection between worlds: the published and unpublished, the successful and the hopeful.

Anna March crossed my path in a Facebook group for women memoirists. As a moderator, I messaged Anna a few times asking her to stop posting frequent, pushy ads for her services. I told her once privately, “Honestly, you might sell more coaching if you sounded a little less urgent/needy.” Finally, myself and the other moderator made a new ad policy: no more than once every two weeks. I ended up counting days for Anna. But I still tagged her in discussions about writing coaches.

Anna conned writers who took her at face value. But the literary world is all about face value. You are who you know; you are where you’ve published. Waving the “published in Modern Love” flag creates instant cred. Speak at enough conferences and you’re an expert. We’re told to overcome imposter syndrome, trumpet our own accomplishments, sell ourselves for the best price we can get.

We’re also told to invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for others so one day they’ll read for us; or hire an editor to tell us how to fix our work.

After the revelations of Anna March’s literary grifting, Roxane Gay tweeted:

and talked about learning to write (read the whole thread, it’s great):

Guys, look… there are good and great writing coaches out there, but… you do not need a writing coach. You don’t need an MFA. You do need to write and read a lot. Feedback CAN help you improve as a writer. There are virtual and real writing groups out there

Even when I was a young writer who did not know shit about shit, who did not know that you could get a degree in writing, I did not pay someone to read my writing. I just wrote, constantly. And I am not special. This is how most writers develop.

She’s right. You don’t ever have to pay anyone to read your work. I say this as a professional editor, as a writing coach who has helped people write better and get published, and charged them money for those services. But that’s not ever required.

You’re not on the outside of some magic literary community because you’re broke, or a parent, or can’t get time off. Writing’s just plain lonely. You do it by yourself. No matter how many conferences or mentors or writing buddies you have to sit down with, in the end it is you and the page. You and the story. You and the words.

It feels lonely because it is.

It feels hard because it is.

It feels like it takes forever because it does.

There is no way to get better at writing besides sitting down and doing it.

Can it help to hire someone or go to a workshop or take a class? Absolutely. It helps to have accountability and assignments and exercises. It helps to have an outside eye, whether you pay them or trade manuscripts. It helps to feel like someone is listening. It helps to bounce ideas around with someone whose creative instincts you trust.

You can protect yourself:

  • Get a sample edit and references. If you’re in a Facebooks writers’ group, ask who’s worked with this person. Usually people who feel good post publicly and people who know something shady will message you.
  • ONLY pay through PayPal’s “goods and services” option (not “friends and family”) or with a credit card. Don’t pay a lump sum; start with a couple of sessions, or a deposit or percentage.
  • Insist on accountability from people you pay. Missed deadlines should have a definite reschedule and a reason. Missed meetings should be promptly rescheduled. If you sign up for a writing workshop, email the hotel and ask about the rooms before you purchase travel.

Does it help to spend money on your writing career? Sure. But it helps like a personal trainer helps you get fit. If you’re focused and ready to work, money can help you over some speedbumps. But if you’re focused and ready to work, you can get over them alone, too.

No amount of money replaces your own hard work. Don’t try to buy your dream. You don’t have to. You can’t. But you can make it happen for free, one word at a time.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. 

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