November 7, 2019 § 4 Comments
I thought I’d misheard the number when the Consul General of the United States mentioned the attendance of the eleven-day Sharjah International Book Fair in his welcome speech at the American Authors Reception. The same number showed up on Wikipedia—I figured maybe it was inflated for PR purposes.
“Where would they all park?” asked my agent.
Then I read the program. Almost 2000 exhibitors are here—publishers, distributors, government culture agencies, bookstores. (If you’ve been to the annual AWP Conference, they have around 500 exhibitors. So multiply that overwhelm by 4.) Admission is free. There’s a Comic Station, a Cookery Corner, and a Social Media Station, a weird blue cube in which I talked to a deeply attentive audience about writing for social media. The main lobby outside was so crowd-loud I needed a handheld mic in what was functionally a closed room. Today’s Women in Publishing Summit is expected to have nearly 300 people, including yours truly.
The entire publishing industries of the Middle East and North Africa are here; two full days are devoted to international rights sales. The region includes 411 million people; it’s not a stretch to imagine six-tenths of a percent of them work in publishing or government agencies promoting their national literary tradition. Throw in India (at least 80 Indian publishers are here) and you’re selecting bookstore owners, editors and readers from another 1.3 billion people. And they don’t need to park—most of them flew here and Uber-ed to the convention center. Many of the locals have drivers.
On the exhibit floor, there were books in Arabic, English, Hindi, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. A local chain bookstore displayed new books at 40% off. A historic publisher from the UK displayed priceless engraved first editions in glass cases. Here, Borders still lives and they’ve got a booth. There are names I’ve heard: Anita Nair, Steve Harvey, Orhan Pamuk, Bernice McFadden, Amitabh Bachchan, Macmillan, Amazon, the American Library Association. Vikram Seth explained to a hall packed with schoolchildren that he’d have written more books if he stopped playing Candy Crush.
There are a lot more names I haven’t heard, Arabic, Indian and Persian authors packing the auditorium, their book-signing lines snaking through the cavernous main hall. Then again, I hadn’t heard of Sharjah until I moved to Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is actually seven independent units—I’d call them city-states if they weren’t plopped in the middle of spacious desert, but the principle is the same. Everyone’s heard of Dubai and most people know Abu Dhabi. There’s also Ras al Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al Quain, and Sharjah. Sharjah is next-door to Dubai, it’s 100% dry (no alcohol or rain), and it loves books.
UNESCO named Sharjah the World Book Capital for 2019, recognizing “the best city program aimed at promoting books.” The Book Fair is under the patronage of the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. The Sheikh (who holds doctorates in History and Political Geography) not only opened the Book Fair and hung out (or whatever one calls casual royal interaction), he welcomed the American authors at a reception at the US Consul General’s house.
Can you imagine the highest government official in your home country not only making time for the big cultural event photo op, but sticking around to enjoy the scene, then heading over to a house party to personally welcome another country’s visiting authors? (Maybe if you’re Icelandic.)
This gives me hope in the world. That even in an absolute monarchy, in a region of the world where human rights as we conceive them in the West are not a particularly high priority, even in a place where a lot of women write books because it’s a socially acceptable activity when you live with your parents until you get married and something’s gotta fill that time, there is a love of literature so profound that high society, top officials, royalty, Nobel laureates and movie stars have all showed up to celebrate it.
It also gives me hope that keynote speaker Steve Harvey earned a negative review for his “outdated views about family and the roles of men and women” in local paper The National. Free speech is not a right in the UAE. Newspaper stories are approved, and people with power are condoning that statement. Books published locally go through a three-permit process, including submitting one’s manuscript for government approval—but plenty of books published elsewhere are distributed in the Emirates. We all know words can change the world, bring communities together and cross international borders. Honoring literature is honoring ideas, and it’s moving to watch that happen here.
November 4, 2019 § 24 Comments
By Felicia Schneiderhan
In my junior year of college, I took refuge in a basement indie bookstore in Evanston, Illinois. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life when I found The Writer’s Desk, a slim book of photos by Jill Krementz. There was E.B. White at a typewriter in a barn overlooking water, there was Rita Dove at a podium, pen in hand. The writers briefly described how they worked; Eudora Welty wanted a full day with no interruptions, Phillip Roth didn’t want to discuss stopping for lunch. I spent hours studying it (rather than writing), and made my decision: I would write!
I needed a writer’s tools and bought a desk for $30. It seems exorbitant to me now, to buy an old cruddy desk for $30 in 1996. The drawers are heavy, the leg opening narrow and too low to fit my legs comfortably. I covered the top in green contact paper. It remains there to this day.
Two years later when I enrolled in an MFA program, I set up the desk in my Chicago courtyard apartment, overlooking a nest filled with baby squirrels and teenagers running drugs on the street below. I set a bookshelf beside the desk, a philodendron cascading over it. I photographed the desk and taped the developed photo into the back of The Writers’ Desk. It was official; I was a writer.
The desk became a repository of paper.
Instead, I wrote in workshop circles, on el trains, at bars beside glasses of wine or whiskey. I wrote in bed or at the kitchen counter. I sat at the desk only when I needed to enter my notes into the desktop computer. And when I got a laptop, I didn’t need to go to the desk at all.
I visited another writer in her studio. Her desk was a white piece of plywood stretched over cinder blocks, before a window, surrounded by neatly arranged shelves of books, the clean straight lines of everything, the stool she sat atop to write, where she actually did write, and I thought I should be more like her, I should get my own studio, I should get a boyfriend who would build me a desk.
Instead, I married a man who lived on a boat and moved on board with him. I gave away all my furniture, putting it piece by piece into the alley, each item taken before I returned with the next one. But the desk – the one item I never used – I put into storage. I couldn’t give it away; it might mean I was no longer a writer.
For three years I wrote on the fly bridge, the aft cabin deck, the forward cabin V-berth, the galley table. I wrote in cafes or libraries, because at that time being around people when I wrote did not bother me.
We moved to land in northern Minnesota, our U-Haul terrifically small; the desk was our only furniture.
Ten years and three kids later, the desk still stands in my house. I still do not write at it. I have added to my writing spot repertoire:
- The floors of my children’s rooms
- My minivan, parked at the lake, the forest, parking lots, street corners, while I sit among lost Legos, discarded wrappers, fruit snacks and M&Ms which would be eaten should they be found.
- The garage, the backyard shed, the basement.
- The bathroom floor.
- Our closet.
I wonder sometimes if I would be better served by getting the perfect desk. But after two decades working as a writer, I no longer believe I need the perfect environment to evoke the deities of creativity. The spigot is always open, though the quality of the inspiration is debatable. I write everywhere – and why wouldn’t I? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in the cockpit. Maybe instead of the perfect desk, I’m ready to give up its heavy weight altogether, now that I know the life of the writer is more about flying.
Felicia Schneiderhan’s memoir Newlyweds Afloat (Breakaway Books, 2015) details the three years she lived aboard a boat in downtown Chicago. Her essays and short stories appear in magazines and journals including Real Simple, Parents, the Great Lakes Review, Sport Literate, Hypertext, and Literary Mama. She is currently working on a novel, supported in part by a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship.
October 28, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Jessica Ribera
Memoir writing is intense. I’ve taken the very hardest things that ever happened to me, dissected them, and laid them out on the surgical tray for everyone to see. No one forced me (well, I do feel that there was some spiritual prompting, but that’s different); I’ve done it with purpose.
I’ve done it so that I and my children will always remember the important ways I came to be who and how I am as their mom. I’ve done it to get the attention of a world that hurt me. I’ve done it, as my dedication says, for “young children with big ideas doing hard work.” And I’ve done it to give other people permission to do it too, to search and share from their hearts, to throw off shame and fear of worthlessness.
It’s bold, and I fear that I’m stepping into a role, grasping some right to empower others that no one ever said was mine. But maybe Someone did? Maybe the burning need to show and tell, maybe “a way with words,” maybe a romantic heart all add up to be a passport to step into other people’s thoughts and give them new language. So gutsy. So scary. Hopefully not so stupid.
I have read through this book so many times that I am often sick of it. All the editing and spelling checks, agonizing over word choice, choosing epigraphs, looking up rules can be tiresome. I grew somewhat numb to the content over the last few months. Then today, my editor sent me the typeset version to check and comb through.
My words, but more than that, my life, my capital “S” Story shone at me from my screen, looking like a book, something to be kept, to be shared, to be alive long after I die. I read for a while and saw it fresh: the story of a girl I learned to love. I felt so very proud of myself, the girl who had to live through all the crap before she could write about it, and I wept. I think about all the people I’ve fallen in love with, all the mothers, sisters, and friends I’ve clutched to my heart, writers of random books. I used to read the antique books my mom had out as decoration. I love to grab a used book I’ve never heard of from the Goodwill or bookstore shelf. Oh, how I hope to be someone’s sister-friend, to surprise them with how well I know them someday when I’m dead.
This process is hard. To be successful as an artist, you have to trust your instincts, try things that other people are too embarrassed to do, and make the offensive claim to the right to create. There’s an old ghost of a voice in my head that says, “Such a show-off. You should feel guilty for thinking so highly of yourself. How dare you tell the rest of us what to think.” I have to give myself some credit for these fears; even this year I’ve been called self-obsessed, navel-gazing. It felt so terrible; if that’s what I’m being by trying to be a writer, I’d honestly rather die (but not really because I figure my children would prefer a selfish bitch mother to no mother at all!).
So I fight the voices inside and the ones outside. I know the risk I’m taking. Some readers feel like cliffs. Sharing my words, my life is risky. It’s a jump off a bridge, and I won’t know until after I jump whether I’m headed into warm, Hawaiian waters or spiky stones. I might be hurt. I already have been. But not every time. Some of my advanced readers have let me fall into the bubble bath of their validation, their receptivity, their gratitude.
Writing cannot be about what other people think, and I fought through the whole writing process to listen carefully for my own small voice. But, now that the book is coming out, the first thing I have to do is try to get other people to think about it! I have to self-promote, to guess at how to curry favor and build platform while also staying committed to who I am. I have to humbly ask for blurbs and reviews. My ambitions yell, “the sky’s the limit!” while my budget and time constraints say, “oh, would you please calm down.”
But I’m loving it. Seeing these pages with their chapter headings and breaks, with my name and ISBN number feels like a miracle. “Launch” is the right word. I feel all the excitement and fear of a pilgrim voyager, eager to see the other side of the ocean.
Jessica Ribera‘s first book, The Almost Dancer, will be available this November from White Blackbird Books. Other work has appeared on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, Red Tricycle, The Brevity Blog, Fathom Magazine, and her own blog, jeskybera.com. She’d like to be a comedian someday.
October 16, 2019 § 21 Comments
By Alice Tallmadge
At first, you barely notice the drop-off. You still check your personal email a dozen times an hour, just in case someone has weighed in. You pull up your website email daily and hover over Facebook, counting likes. You track your Amazon page more than once a week, hoping for one more 5-star review.
Yes, there’s not quite the input there was a couple of months ago, when your pub date loomed, your on-line essay showed up on Huff Po, and your photo appeared above the fold of the Sunday paper’s arts section. You got used to the kudos from supporters, the notes from strangers. The flurry was so unexpected you didn’t have time to stand back and consider how ephemeral it would be. If you had, you would have told yourself of course it won’t last. But you didn’t. Instead you learned to swim, even enjoy, those new waters. Although nerve-wracking at first—a face-to-face confrontation with an angry reader, an email rant from another, the first radio interview—you came to relish being tossed from wave to wave, having to gather your words, respond to questions, to share with others the arduous process of birthing your book.
But months pass and you finally get it. Your FB messages and website email dry up. Local book clubs no longer seek you out. The number of Amazon reviews doesn’t budge. Book sales flat-line. No more emails from grateful strangers or appreciative friends show up in your inbox. The cheering has indeed stopped.
Your friends stop asking how the book is doing, and ask about your next project. But your writing mind is as empty as a flat pocket. You can’t imagine writing another paragraph, ever. You say are taking a break. And you do. You look around your yard and realize tiny suckers have grown into veritable trees while you were fact-checking your manuscript, filling out tipsheets and tracking down chapter notes. The fence along one side of the yard leans like a warped wall. A prickly plague of blackberries covers half your backyard. The lower limbs of the front yard pine have gone yellow and vestigial.
One day you walk into the back shed and the chaotic interior stops you cold—where did this mess come from? You spend hours culling, tossing and sweeping. It’s dusty labor, but therapeutic. You find the leak in the roof, the source of the nasty smell (cat pee on black plastic), the box of party lights you thought you had thrown out.
You do all this work with gusto, but your mind clatters away. You comb through your decisions, what you didn’t do, what you wished you had done, what you wish someone had told you, whether you should do more, and what that should be. The dust covers your arms, legs and face like a second skin.
In the 18 months since your pub date, one writing friend polishes off a long essay and three short stories. Another announces she found a publisher for her chapbook. Another says she expects her book will be done by December. Another says her manuscript is being considered by a university press. You are honestly delighted for all of them, but as they talk you feel formless and drifty. You talk about your growing brush pile, how tough it’s been to find someone to trim your trees, how you need to re-seal your backyard deck.
One day you run into a former yoga teacher, a young woman who looks frail but is rooted as an old oak, and has gathered far more wisdom than her years belie. She tells you she closed her studio, then stopped teaching classes. Now she works at a farm stand, which she loves because, she says, it brings her close to the earth.
“Sometimes you just have to let it all go, to get to the next step,” she tells me, her eyes a dancing sea of blue. “It’s tough because that’s who you’ve been for all those years, and it’s like, ‘without that, who am I now?’ But still, you just have to let it all go.” She spreads her long arms like a heron either about to take flight, or about to land.
You gather up your six ears of corn and a fat red pepper. You wave good-bye. You go home and make corn chowder and pick the last of the blackberries. You don’t wonder where you are on the spectrum – whether you’ve let it all go, or are at the beginning, or somewhere between the two. But you feel at peace. A few days later, you sit down, and begin to write.
Alice Tallmadge has been a journalist and essayist for three decades. Her memoir, Now I Can See the Moon: A Story of a Social Panic, False Memories, and a Life Cut Short was published in 2018 by She Writes Press. Her essays and stories have appeared in the Oregonian, Portland Magazine, Forest Magazine, Oregon Humanities, the Register- Guard, Oregon Quarterly, The New York Times and on Huffington Post. She is currently a grant-writer, free-lance editor, and committed cheerleader for first-time authors. Find her at www.alicetallmadge.com.
October 8, 2019 § 5 Comments
Query letters. A necessary evil towards the great good of publication. A hoop to jump through towards representation; a lure to draw in the publisher perfect for our story.
Some lucky authors have essays go viral, build enormous social media platforms, or have NYT-bestselling cousins willing to refer us to their own agent. Most of us undertake the slog, often querying a hundred or more agents and revising our query and the manuscript itself many times along the way.
There are some terrific querying resources out there, notably Query Shark, which focuses on fiction but teaches powerful query-letter lessons for writers in all genres. Jane Friedman’s website has information on memoir and narrative nonfiction queries. Absolute Write’s forums are a place for honest chat about specific agencies. QueryTracker helps us chart our progress. Manuscript Wish List shows us which agents might be right for our book. And here at Brevity, we shared suggestions for the actual process of preparing and submitting to agents.
But it is generally more difficult to learn best practices for memoir, rather than fiction, queries—and Brevity is here to help.
That’s where you come in.
Podcast host Allison K Williams will discuss memoir queries with Janet, using some examples from Brevity readers & podcast listeners. We’ll assess your clarity and style, how you cover the standard query-letter elements, and talk about what you might do differently (or are already doing well!) to increase your chances of representation.
If you’d like to send in your query for a shot at having it discussed on-air, please paste it into an email, followed by your first two manuscript pages (also pasted), to brevitymagpodcast at gmail.com. Deadline for consideration is October 20th. We won’t use author names on the air, but we will be reading all or part of the query letters chosen, so only submit if you’re willing to have your words read on the podcast, please.
Querying can be overwhelming, intimidating, and depressing. But you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to do it without guidance. Help is out there—and it’s coming to your ears.
Brevity Podcast Host Allison K Williams, and Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will also be leading a retreat in Costa Rica in May 2020.