March 25, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Lynette Benton
As a writer, I’m required to rise above the hubbub, metaphorically position myself high on a stage, and blare out news of my existence on social media. Agents and publishers have abandoned the role of market maker, so I’m forced to develop my own markets, audiences, and followers.
My social media platform of choice is Twitter, mostly because it’s easy to use and limits you to messages of no more than 280 characters. So I must say what I want to say succinctly, a good exercise for anyone, especially a writer. Twitter has often been good to me, sending warm writerly contacts and enthusiastic editing clients my way. Through others I’ve met on Twitter I’ve been invited to submit essays and articles for publication, which helps, theoretically at least, develop an audience for my book-length projects, should I try to publish them.
However, as a medium, Twitter can feel as full of cliques as a junior high school—populated with impenetrable inner circles that make it hard to even identify the individual in-groups with any certainty. It’s like trying to penetrate some snippy gang’s turf. For some time, I circled around the periphery of what might be bad online neighborhoods the same way I’d avoid a reunion of beer swilling bikers. And I wondered if in any case I should try to fit in, whatever “fit in” means in that parallel universe known as Cyberspace. Shouldn’t writers occupy the role of outsiders, observers—at least to some extent?
When I began using social media in around 2008, it seemed as if the way writers did business in Cyberspace had a whiff of seediness about it, like making clandestine contact with strangers in a fog-laced alley after dark. The fact that those strangers were largely compatriots in my line of work only made the contacts seem more suspect somehow. Why did it feel so foreign, so dicey, even demeaning? Maybe because as a group, writers often prefer to hang out with those we cherish and who appear to cherish us in return.
Sometimes I was bored by the whole notion of Twitter and the interactions I saw taking place on it; other times I was downright afraid of it. Since in Cyberspace, everything’s recorded, one way and another, I had a sense of eternally being watched by silent onlookers who were judging and perhaps mocking my stumbling early efforts. Was I trespassing? Overstepping murky boundaries? Flouting rules? There was no way to gauge the appropriateness of my overtures or anticipate others’ reactions. I’d seen what I considered innocent efforts by some on Twitter rebuffed. My own wrist was slapped by a group manager on a professional networking site; he thought I was shilling when I posted an announcement of an upcoming class offered by a large writing organization. I emailed him privately and explained that I had no connection of any kind with that organization. Then I turned around and slapped a different group manager’s wrist for his acerbic tweet (worthy of Simon Cowell, formerly of the TV show, American Idol) about why others weren’t succeeding, as he had, in their attempts to get their writing seen by New York publishing houses. But I hope I did my slapping gently. I suggested (privately) that people would find his message more palatable if he proffered suggestions, rather than accusations.
As a writer, I want to communicate, and the Internet is supposed to be a mechanism for that, but many times I don’t know exactly how or even quite why I’m speaking to strangers in Cyberspace. It might be to buy editing or proofreading services from one another, but back in 2008, when had I ever bought services from people I didn’t know and nobody I knew knew?
Some who write about writing ask you to, “follow” them on Twitter. When you go to their Twitter page you find they have say, 6,000 followers, while they themselves follow less than a tenth that many. (This is particularly true of literary agents.) So I can read their tweets, but they don’t want to read mine. I decline those invitations. I’m interested in two-way discussions, not lectures. Weren’t these new media supposed to be interactive? Weren’t they meant to foster conversation? My efforts in Cyberspace sometimes felt as old school as magazine or newspaper writing. With those media, writers didn’t expect a response or reverberation. We just shot our words out into the paper fray and went back to our work. Now, in this interactive era, words again often seem to fly past people, seldom landing for any length of time on their laptops or the devices in their pockets.
Even with well over seven thousand followers on Twitter and the seven thousand I follow, it can be lonely out there. It feels as if I should bundle myself up in something soft and soothing for these forays into the icy alternate universe. I’m tempted to do what a friend of mine, disgusted with the Internet back when it was regularly called the information highway, threatened: pull over into the breakdown lane with a quiet cup of coffee. Though I’ve made some friends on Twitter, even met a couple of them in person, not one of my close friends, writers or not, is active on that site. I sorely miss their presence there.
Despite the time I’ve spent applying the guidelines laid down by Internet sages, whose Twitter and blog followers number in the hundreds of thousands, the outcomes I aim at—being in touch with people interested in memoir and personal essays or in the writing advice on my blog—appear to hang in dubious suspension, just out of reach. Do those who succeed possess a formula they’re not sharing with the rest of us, like people who copy out a recipe you requested but “accidentally” leave out a crucial step or ingredient in the cooking process?
Whenever writers friend me in an online community, I usually accept—unless they write fantasy, horror, romance or some combination of those wildly popular genres I’ve never been moved by, even in my youth. After I accept an invitation to connect, I’m tentative, uncertain how to proceed. Whose turn is it to send a message? If it’s mine, what should I say? What is expected of me? And remind me, why are we connecting in the first place?
But I know the answer to that last question. I’m exposing myself in this alien dimension to locate and nurture a potentially paying public, as required by agents and publishers. But wouldn’t it be a happier circumstance for all of us if we were connecting for the same reason we sally forth in our real lives: to find ourselves welcomed by a small band of sympathetic souls?
Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families. Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her essay, “Chasing Dragons,” is included in the 2018 anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton
March 14, 2019 § 11 Comments
As the name suggests, Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is faaaaaaaancy. There was an author lounge with a buffet of cute little snacks, swanky hotel meeting rooms, professional A/V services, and an army of volunteers shepherding writers to panels and readings. (Emerging from freight elevators to dodge carts of petits fours and deconstructed salads wheeled through industrial grey corridors by white-clad chefs: rock star!)
The arts scene in Dubai is two-faceted:
- A scrappy group of expats beg, borrow and/or pay exorbitant rent for space to hold an artistic event.
- Someone royal loves a particular art form and throws money at it until the dream happens.
It’s astonishing to be in a country where someone with immense money and power is deeply interested in literature, and a large government-owned corporation sponsors a ten-day festival devoted to books. The festival is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, The Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. His Highness is an author himself, and his books appear prominently in bookstores across the United Arab Emirates.
This was my first festival devoted more to readers than writers, and it’s almost three festivals at once. Their Youth Program brings busloads of students onsite for big-deal children’s authors like Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi), and a fringe of student performances, as well as sending authors into schools. Adult readers enjoy literary lions, writers of books-you’ll-definitely-find-in-the-airport, and local authors presenting panels, readings and workshops. Finally, Arabic-language writers draw a fervent audience of Arabic readers. Panels were simultaneously translated—everyone wore headphones, each panelist spoke their most comfortable language, and we all heard our preferred listening language. (Individual live translators handled both Arabic-English and English-Arabic for the same panel—I was in awe!)
Over 400 million people speak Arabic, and Arabic culture holds a strong oral tradition and love of poetry. Surprisingly, there’s no giant publishing industry catering to all these potential readers, and a stream of festival events focused on building the Arabic book pipeline. I moderated a panel on contracts, with a hybrid publisher, a traditional publisher and an attorney from the Emirates Publishers Association, and the sense was that right now publishers set the terms, but there’s a move towards educating authors on their rights, particularly foreign-language sales and digital/audio platforms.
A panel on literary agents featured Dubai’s sole agent alongside UK agents from Susan Mears Literary Agency, and the audience was happy to discover that writers don’t pay agent fees; the agents get their cut from selling your book. The panel also suggested that agents here build an ethics code similar to the Association of Authors’ Representatives in the USA or Britain’s Association of Authors’ Agents.
Writing workshops included all-day manuscript-focused intensives and shorter talks on dramatic structure, social media and authorial voice. I found the ones I attended to be clear, basic information great for the audience of budding writers.
Many UAE writers are expats from India, Europe and North America, and a concern for all was book vetting by the government. One British writer mentioned the difficulty of observing cultural mores that aren’t a formal list, and non-Emiratis often don’t know what may be offensive. His middle-grade book included a girl daydreaming in her bathtub, a setting that had to be changed for publication in his Arabic country of residence.
Other high-priority topics included translation (Who pays for it? Who does the actual translation? How do you know it’s any good?) and distribution. Self-publishers and publishing companies alike face a huge hurdle in the UAE in that there is no unified sales-tracking system. In the USA and 9 other countries, BookScan compiles point-of-sale data. Here, booksellers must be individually billed for money owed the publisher—a paperwork challenge to say the least.
Fascinating to me as an American is the fast-track publishing process. Most Arabic books receive little or no editing from the publisher; many aren’t edited beyond the author reading their own work. While this means a book can be on the shelves mere weeks after submission, it also leads to errors and omissions. Sometimes, a translator told me ruefully, “I spend hours figuring out a paragraph, finally contact the author, and it turns out a typo changed the meaning.” On an editing panel, my fellow speakers seemed mixed on the value of editing versus speed, some saying they only publish the most polished manuscripts submitted, but authors in the audience were eager to find out how, why, and whom to contact for editing.
Festival organizers have seen in these issues a unique opportunity to help shape the book industry in the region. The Emirates Literature Foundation is actively planning year-round workshops, courses, and development opportunities for the emergence of a robust, ethical, and wide-ranging UAE publishing industry. As a festival guest, it was a fantastic opportunity to see this initiative beginning—and the crustless sandwiches and mini-desserts were pretty fabulous, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her next Rebirth Your Book full-manuscript retreat will be October 13-20 in Tuscany.
March 7, 2019 § 53 Comments
by Sandra Ebejer
Ever since publicly declaring myself a Writer, I’ve had well-meaning friends and family express interest in my work. This is a far cry from the days of yore, when no one in my orbit understood what I, then a nonprofit grant writer, did for a living.
But once I began publishing my creative work online, suddenly it clicked: Oh, she’s a Writer. Cool. To the uninitiated, the title “Writer” conjures images of successful novelists — the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world — who publish at breakneck pace, giving the impression that all it takes to pen a bestseller is a few free hours and a laptop. So, naturally, people are intrigued.
The nice thing about the Writer title is that, for the first time in my life, people want to talk to me about my work. The unfortunate thing about the Writer title is that, well, people want to talk to me about my work. Like most writers, I’m introverted and not particularly fond of talking about myself, so questions about my writing make me uncomfortable. I smile and offer up some terse response, though my internal monologue offers a glimpse into how I’d really like to reply.
The question: “How’s the writing going?”
What I say: “It’s fine.”
What I’d like to say: “Well, today I spent 45 minutes watching cat videos on YouTube because the personal essay I’m trying to write isn’t coming together and it’s easier to ignore the work than accept the fact that I might just be a hack. I took a break to get a snack and while eating, I read a story in a Pushcart Prize collection that was so moving it made my chest ache and I sobbed from the realization that I will never, ever write a piece so well-crafted. After that, I went back to my desk and stared at my essay for a while, wondering if maybe giving up my grant writing job wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve made, and then just before my son arrived home from school, I churned out a listicle of silly writing memes for my blog. I feel pretty overwhelmed and terrified most of the time but otherwise, you know, it’s fine.”
The question: “What are you writing right now?”
What I say: “Oh, I have a few things I’m juggling. Nothing I want to discuss in detail just yet.”
What I’d like to say: “Everything and nothing. I have drafts of numerous essays, blogs, and short stories saved on my hard drive. I have an excel document with hundreds of ideas and a long list of places where I’d like to submit my work, but I suffer from an overwhelming case of impostor syndrome so very little is shared with the world. I’m nearly done with one piece that might be okay once it goes through a couple dozen revisions, so I’m guessing it’ll be ready to submit to literary journals in six months or so, and then who knows if it’ll ever actually be accepted.”
The question: “Have you been published?”
What I say: “I post my work on Medium.com and my own website, and I have a piece coming out in Boston Globe Magazine in the spring.”
What I’d like to say: “I have a piece coming out in The Boston Globe, which is really exciting because it’s a publication my friends and family have actually heard of, though I don’t anticipate having additional work published anytime soon because that one Globe piece was clearly a total fluke. I’ve since tried writing for similar columns in The New York Times and other outlets, but my pieces are all terrible. I mean, who am I kidding? I’ll be lucky if I get a story in an unknown, soon-to-be-shuttered literary journal. That is, if I ever finish writing something, amirite? Have I mentioned I have impostor syndrome?”
The question: “How would you describe your writing? Any authors you can compare it to?”
What I say: “Well, a friend described my fiction as ‘slice of life with a dark edge,’ which I think sums it up nicely.”
What I’d like to say: “Oh, I don’t know. Unfinished? Look, I’m doing all I can to write decent stories in various formats. Please don’t ask me to compare my work to that of critically-acclaimed authors you’ve read in some book club. That’s just embarrassing, especially for the critically-acclaimed authors.”
The question: “Where do you get your ideas?”
What I say: “Just from day-to-day life.”
What I’d like to say: “Most ideas come to me when I’m unable to jot them down. It’s usually right as I’m drifting off to sleep that the most incredible narrative forms in my head and by the time I wake the next day, it’s long gone. When I try to consciously think of ideas, nothing happens. At all. Literally. You know how Homer Simpson gets dancing monkeys in his head when Marge is talking to him about something important? That’s me, trying to come up with plausible story lines.”
The question: “Are you able to make a decent living as a writer?”
What I say: “You know, that kind of thing takes time, so right now I’m just focusing my efforts on building an audience and working on my craft.”
What I’d like to say: “No. No, I’m not. Thanks for pointing that out. Can you pass the vodka?”
I’m hoping that as time passes, I’ll learn to accept that these well-meaning (albeit uncomfortable) questions are just another aspect of my fledgling writing career. But for now, my inner voice continues to rant as force a smile, a few polite replies, and subtly change the topic.
Sandra Ebejer is a writer living in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work has appeared in numerous publications on Medium and will be published in The Boston Globe in March 2019. Read more of her work at www.sandraebejer.com.
March 1, 2019 § 9 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
For the past six months, I have been going through different doors of hell when it comes to my health. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I would make it alive. For almost five months, I couldn’t read or write for the most part—the fear of not being to write, ever, was right at the same level as my fear of not being able to survive. But I am here, and today I am writing this article. Such is the power of the human mind and body.
Life happens suddenly and mostly when we aren’t planning it. Towards end of summer 2018, I went from winning an award and organizing a book tour for my novel Louisiana Catch to hiking 12 miles to suddenly ending up in the ER. And this is when I eat right, exercise daily, meditate, teach yoga, say gratitude, and lead an overall mindful life. One could argue that what’s the point of living a healthy and balanced lifestyle if you are going to end up in the hospital fighting for your life. Fair enough. Here is my counter-argument: I came back from the dead and my body is healing because I have made it a point to prioritize my physical and emotional health. I went from not being able to open the front door to our apartment to taking the subway last week. Even my family physician as well as the surgeon were shocked (in a good way) that I wasn’t depressed despite everything I have been through. I always remind them (to not jinx it) that none of this is per chance. Yoga has taught me that if I can’t change my situation, I better learn to alter my attitude. I attribute my journey of healing and recovery and staying mentally strong and re-establishing my relationship with creativity to the six things below:
Make the right food choices: How you eat is as important for your overall health as what you eat. It’s easy to get distracted with a plethora of information and diet trends out there. And if you are a foodie like me, things get even more confusing. Should I eat gluten? Leave gluten? What about dairy and grains? Is Keto good? How is it different from Paleo? If you have a health issue, that’s different; otherwise, listen to your body since it holds the ultimate wisdom. Pay attention to how foods react with your body. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel emotionally. Revisit the food intelligence your grandma shared. We are all busy…I know…so keep it simple. But pay attention to what you put inside your body. For instance, avoid caffeine and alcohol and other stimulants close to bedtime as they can interfere with your sleep cycle. Avoid eating heavy and spicy meals late at night.
Cultivate a daily meditation practice: Meditation is a writer’s best friend. It can change both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control. Meditation can calm the nerves, lower anxiety, alleviate stress, protect your energy, offer perspective, create stronger focus, help better connect with your creativity, formulate newer ideas, and teach you about acceptance. Bruce Lee explains meditation beautifully, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Soothe away stress: Think about what happens to our body when we’re stressed or anxious. It reduces the immunity and turns our body into a host of diseases. The heart rate increases as our mind races. A combination of the above affects the quality of our thoughts. Stress activates areas of the brain that make us more alert. It also elevates production of hormones, including cortisol, that interfere with and disrupt normal sleep-wake cycles. One can reduce stress and anxiety through meditation, yoga and, sometimes, chamomile tea.
Power of positive thinking: Our mind is always occupied by thoughts and they influence our every action. Can you imagine how much we limit ourselves in every aspect of our lives if we give negative thoughts too much power? We don’t write that book because we think our work is too unimportant and nobody would want it. We don’t send in our essay or story or poem to any publications because we assume rejection in return. We don’t live the life of our dreams because our negative thoughts have decided for us that we aren’t worth it. We don’t take care of our health because we believe we are too weak to push our limits and will never feel better. So, do you see how we become our thoughts?
This doesn’t mean that we pretend all is well and there is sunshine everywhere. It just means that we fight our inner demons—the ones that nudge us about our failures and fears and insecurities and end—with our positive thoughts. For every negative thought that emerges, we respond to it with a positive thought. Say your gratitude for the good in your life. I promise, it makes the most arduous of days bearable.
Exercise with joy: Not everyone wants to run a marathon. Not everyone cares about doing a headstand or showing up to a Barre class or a CrossFit session. Good news: you don’t have to. Find out what works for you. It could be walking or running with a buddy or climbing stairs or some other form of physical activity. But exercise with joy because it can help with your brain health and memory. Exercise can improve the quality of your sleep and energy levels. Overall, it can make you feel happier. Yes, as writers, we don’t need to dwell in darkness and depression to be creative because that kind of mindset is both dangerous and unproductive.
Get your sleep on: There is a stereotype about writers and poets (maybe, creative professionals overall) that we all need the silence of the dead night to be at our creative best. Bouncing off of walls as we carry our sleep-deprived bodies through deadlines, it’s romanticized. Not all of us are night owns. If anything, research shows that night owls might have to deal with health consequences of their lifestyle. Research shows that messing around with your sleep cycle can disrupt hormonal balance in the body. It can birth pessimistic thoughts. Research shows that “night owls are nearly twice as likely as early risers to have a psychological disorder and 30 percent more likely to have diabetes. Their risk for respiratory disease was 23 percent higher and for gastrointestinal disease 22 percent higher.”
Move your body: As writers, we sit for extended periods of time. Refilling cups of chai and coffee. Looking out the window, talking to our characters, mulling over ideas, doing research on our laptops, and reading through piles of books. While the coziness of this arrangement might sound good, research showsthat too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Set an alarm and get up from your seat. Do some stretches or neck and shoulder rotation or get a drink of water. Whatever it takes, move.
Nothing is more important than your health. If you nurture your mind and body, they nourish your creativity. To quote Jim Rohn, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”
Sweta Srivastava Vikram featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is a best-selling and award-winning author of 12 books, social issues warrior, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative and healthier lives. Louisiana Catch (Modern History Press 2018) is her debut U.S. novel and won the “Voices of the Year” award. She lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of violence and trauma. You can find her here: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta).
February 22, 2019 § 23 Comments
by Jan Priddy
In his 1943 novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner blames the life struggles of Bo Mason on the drag of his responsibilities for his wife and children. Without them, Bo might have become a great man.
Can anyone expect to make a life in the arts while simultaneously supporting themselves and a family?
The short answer is: probably not.
Through my undergrad years at the University of Washington, I won scholarships, but mostly I worked at least eighteen hours a week, thirty hours when I could get them. I lived at home and then in absolute squalor. It was a long while ago, and both minimum wages and tuition were lower, but even in the 1970s and 80s people graduated with debt or had parents able to pay support them. I expected to become a full-time artist.
Early on, I was advised to marry money. Instead, I found a day job.
My first post-college job was teaching visual arts part-time at the second-lowest-paying school in the State of Washington. At that time, my husband and I were both working, both pursuing personal goals. When we left Seattle to live in my great grand-aunt’s house, our plan was to start a family. My husband was the primary breadwinner when our children were first born, and I was the primary breadwinner for a long time after that. My husband and I always worked.
John Gardner, in one of his books about writing, warns the would-be writer against choosing to teach as a means of support and especially warns not to teach writing. Creative energy and teaching energy come from the same place, he wrote, and it is better to choose a mindless day job as a means of support. I recall reading that advice and knowing he was right. But I did it anyway. I became a high school English teacher, and I could not go back and change that, because teaching is also the reason I turned from visual arts to writing. I became a writer because I was teaching writing.
Teaching is exhausting and meaningful and interesting work. I never had the time I thought I would outside my obligations as a teacher—time for my art. That fabled “three months in the summer.” There was no leisure time early on as a visual artist teaching Art, and certainly not later as a mother teaching English. I went to graduate school and worked those ten summer weeks. It was hard, but our sons earned college degrees with modest debt (theirs, ours not-so modest), and we had frugal habits. We live in a beautiful place we could never afford to buy, but if we’d stayed in Seattle in the house we could afford, we would likely have been better off financially as employment opportunities were better. We might not have had children. We made choices. We raised our children.
Most of the full-time writers I know have or had a spouse who supported them—both men and women—or some other means of financial support. Most recognize they are lucky. Some others demonstrate little understanding of my struggle to stay afloat without outside help or a trust fund. I have worked with writers who have never worked, or never needed to work for pay.
A visual artist visited me after the birth of my first child, a friend from college who asked, “How does it feel to have given it all up?” The assumption was that as a mother, I had abandoned my goals as an artist. I was still in my twenties and I cried for days after that friend drove away.
Years later, in conversation with a writer friend, I complained about the challenge of finding free time, genuinely free time as a mother. My friend said, “We make sacrifices for our art, if it matters to us.” That person had a private income, and I resented the reproach.
I have always believed that I could accomplish a great deal, that I could not have everything I wanted, but a lot even if I could not have it all at once.
My MFA was something I had promised myself for after our sons graduated from college. I kept that promise. I had been writing seriously for years—whole novels and hundreds of stories—before I began the program at the age of 52. Perhaps it was already too late to accomplish what I might have had I jettisoned marriage and children, had I the leisure or financial support to be a full-time creator in my younger years. I developed habits of hurry and compromise and that impact my work even now. Perhaps my publications came too late for a “career.” Well, of course it is too late. Too late to have a first book by age 40 as I might have. If things were different. In another life.
We all make choices. I was not born with money, and I did not marry it or inherit it. I chose to have children, and I chose a creatively taxing occupation to support myself. We all have regrets, but living and working here and marrying the man I love and raising my children are not among my regrets.
Stegner blamed the wife and children for his character’s failures. Stegner, who borrowed liberally from the memoirs and journals of wives and mothers in more than one of his novels, can stuff it. So can Ray Carver, another man who off-loaded the burden of wife and children.
I might have done what they did. Anyone might have planned better or at least differently. I might have chosen writing as an undergraduate goal rather than turning to it twenty years later. I might have ridden that flying wish-horse.
That is not what I chose. Writing is what I do. It is not all that I am.
Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Pushcart nomination, MFA, and publication in journals such as Brevity Magazine, CALYX, The Humanist, Liminal Stories, North American Review, and nonfiction anthologies on running and race. She is still struggling with a utopian science fiction story and nonfiction structured like a sonnet.
February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By L. Roger Owens
Opening the box of ten free author copies, then holding the book, feeling the weight of its 70,000 words, of it 186 pages, being surprised by my name on the front cover, which I knew would be there, and by my photograph on the back, which I didn’t—it all feels like a miracle. Where did you come from?
The sense of the miraculous deepens as I reread words I wrote. I know these words slid out of my mind, down my arm, and slipped from the tip of my pen onto the page. But I don’t remember how the words got into my mind—this turn of phrase, this rambling sentence, this metaphor—even though the name on the cover should be proof enough that I conjured them.
That is, I feel alienated from the spiritual memoir I wrote. I struggle to imagine how it came to be, which invites a sense of dread: If I can’t conceive how it is that I wrote this book, then isn’t it possible that I won’t be able to write another?
If its birth was a miracle, what guarantees it can happen again?
In the face of this fear, there’s only one choice—attend to reality, force myself to recall some of the signposts on the journey from idea to book, signposts that remind me it wasn’t just a felicitous conjoining of miracle and serendipity that produced this book. Agency and intention were at work as well—mine.
I let an idea stick. That was a choice. I have lots of ideas, and they flutter away as fast as they appear. But I let this idea stick. I wrote it down the evening I had it. I explored it the next day in my morning pages. I turned the seed of an idea into sentences and paragraphs and pages. These were acts over which I had some control. Certainly, I can again let an idea with energy linger, show it some hospitality, nurture it.
That part wasn’t luck.
I sent up test balloons. When the book arrives in a box on your doorstep, it gives the impression it simply appeared fully formed, Athena from Zeus’s head. But my investigation of reality tells me that’s not true. I wrote shorter pieces along the way. I let other people read them (I received invaluable feedback from a group of writers at the Collegeville Institute). I submitted a portion of the book as an essay to the journal Rock & Sling, which published it. In each case, these test balloons were greeted with encouraging feedback that helped me improve the writing and beckoned me to keep at it.
Holding portions of the work to the light of day wasn’t a fluke. It’s something I can do again.
I continued to hone my craft. I didn’t begin the book knowing how to write it. I’d never written a book like this before. The form was new to me—forty short chapters, each a kind of personal essay, but which together needed to maintain a narrative arc. I had much to learn. So I took an online course through the journal Creative Nonfiction called “Spiritual Writing” while I was midway through badlands of writing the book. The assigned readings inspired and challenged me (Could I attempt the kind of density of description characteristic of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work? I wondered). The feedback from the instructor showed me that I needed to prioritize the reader’s experience and taught me how.
It eases my mind to know that, when I begin my next project, I don’t need to have it figured out before I start. I can learn as I go.
I kept my hand moving. This is what I learned from Natalie Goldberg in the first creative writing course I took twenty-one years ago, her most important rule for writing—keep the hand moving. From my first notes, scribbled in orange ink in a Moleskin journal on November 27, 2015—“But I had another good idea today …”—to final revisions sent to my editor three years later, I kept the tip of the pen scratching across the page. That was the only way those 70,000 words showed up (along with the 10,000 that didn’t make the cut).
If I was the one moving the pen, then it can happen again.
Other ingredients went into creating the book as well: chats with my wife and children, feedback from friends, a sanity-saving conversation with my English professor brother as I despaired over editorial changes.
Along with, no doubt, a dash of miracle and a pinch of luck.
But mostly choices I made and can make again—like getting my butt in a chair, a pen in my hand, and words on a page.
Roger Owens is the author of the spiritual memoir Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife, along with three other books. He teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
February 14, 2019 § 20 Comments
I scroll through Bumble, left-swiping men who haven’t bothered to write their “About” sections. My fingers itch to fix profiles, the adolescent: “Fun Guy 4 U” and “Kiss U in my Dreams.” I want to copyedit: Your “U” is lonely, it’s missing it’s “YO.” But Bumble won’t let me make corrections. I can’t even change my mind. A left-swipe permanently removes a profile from my bank of possible matches. After weeks of committed swiping, I haven’t seen one profile that mentions anything even vaguely literary. Apparently my future partners are mud-splattered men crossing Triathlon finish lines or standing on piers cradling enormous fish or dressed as if to enter the Tour de France. I’m also frequently introduced to mustachioed men in leather chaps who pose confidently next to Harleys. If they love to read or do anything that isn’t drenched in machismo, it’s not part of their public persona.
The truth is I secretly hoped to meet my soul mate at a literary event, but men are rare at the writers’ conferences, book fairs, and craft workshops I’ve attended. The few I met were either already in a relationship or far too young for me. Online dating seemed promising. Men always expressed lots of interest in meeting, although minutes after discovering that I spend my free time reading and writing, it was clear we didn’t click. “Sitting is the new smoking,” one man told me. I stood up, but only to leave. “I’ll never kick the habit,” I replied, wondering whether it was time to give up my dream of sharing a literary life with a man and just look for a nice guy.
I’m about to left swipe on the next profile because he’s five inches shorter than me. But his face—middle-aged with a charming impish grin and grey hair—have I seen it on a book jacket? His profile says he will only date women in his zip code. Job title: literary agent.
While I sprawled in bed at night scrolling through dating profiles with my Labrador snoring beside me, most days were spent hunched over my laptop researching literary agents and sending queries. For more than 22 years, I’ve written a relationship advice column for an alternative weekly newspaper and my experiences coaching the broken-hearted inspired a book proposal. Along the way I’ve developed a strong dislike for the practice of describing a literary business partnership as if it’s a modern romance. We “speed date” with agents at writers’ conferences or hope that our email is “The One” that attracts an agent. It’s no wonder writers often think of books as precious babies rather than products.
That said, finding an agent on Bumble would be a heck of a “meet cute” story.
I stared at his face again and my memory cracked open: He once taught a nonfiction book proposal class that nearly convinced me to give up on becoming a published author.
“I wouldn’t sign any writer who had fewer Twitter followers than I have,” he told our class.
Shoulders slumped around the table. I raised my hand. “How many followers do you have?”
“Five thousand,” he said.
We all groaned.
That night after class I searched popular literary Twitter accounts and discovered many had hundreds, even thousands of fake followers, the kind that can be bulk purchased for less than a coffee date. The fakes were easy to spot: automated retweets; no interaction with other users; a low number of followers (or none at all) themselves; thousands of tweets; no bio; and no photo or an obviously strange one. I was surprised that engagement—the measure of the number of comments, shares or likes—wasn’t more important that followers. Bots don’t buy books.
I reread the agent’s profile, my index finger poised above my cell phone’s screen, tempted to make a pitch.
Left swipe. I live outside of his zip code. In dating or in the book business, it’s important to follow an agent’s guidelines.
Joey Garcia is the founder of The Belize Writers’ Conference and the author of When Your Heart Breaks, It’s Opening to Love: Healing and finding love after an affair, heartbreak or divorce. Her poems and short stories have been published in Calyx, The Caribbean Writer, and are forthcoming from POUi.