The Evolution of a Title

June 24, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Barbara Ferraro

Ever google ‘how to title a book?’ From YouTube videos to master classes, title generators to ten-step plans, there’s plenty of online help. Build on a theme or phrase from the story. Use a character’s name or memorable setting. Pull keywords from a hat, two by two, till you find a pair that sings. Lots of free advice but no easy answers. Which leads me to believe: maybe the book chooses the title.

Twenty years ago, I began writing memoir as an antidote to my dysfunctional Sicilian in-laws. The well of inspiration was vast and deep. Gloomy, troubled scenes about family secrets, my husband’s hush hush adoption, a conspiracy to hide the truth, and a script straight out of The Sopranos flowed from my fingertips to the page in a total brain purge. The saga was dark and disturbing—but oh, so shallow.

Did I mention the curse? Malocchio, or Evil Eye. From the Italian mal, meaning bad, and occhio, meaning eye. Bad luck cast upon you by an evil person—usually someone close. Rooted in spite or envy.

Evil Eye, the first working title,captured the mood of my early rant. But titles are placeholders, like my father’s second wife, which thankfully don’t last forever.

What is the story about?

As my anger eased and writing improved, this one-dimensional tirade morphed from flat and bitter to multilayered and rich. And a funny thing happened. A handful of objects kept sneaking into the scenes. Vintage slot machine straight out of the Untouchables; beat up suitcase stashed in a musty basement for fifty years; silver spoons hidden from the Nazis in the mountains of Norway; a stack of wartime love letters from the South Pacific. Ordinary objects with extraordinary personal significance. Objects too personal, too painful to touch. Objects that felt like characters on the page.

Ordinary Objects screamed at me in capital letters as the natural second title. It was perfect. Perfect, until the objects started squawking. They had different opinions, different voices, and two completely different points of view. I watched in awe as a second thread emerged from the scuffle, poking up here, weaving through there, to form a more complex story than I ever could have imagined. But as the writing evolved, this title also fell short.

What is the story about?

On the umpteenth revision, a pivotal sound bite buzzed on the page like a neon sign. ‘Blood of my children,’ four words spoken at the aha moment that braided the intertwining threads together. Then it clicked. Two people—my husband and me—with different histories, searching for the same answers: who am I, why am I here. Two people whose separate identities merged in our children. Knowing ourselves so they could know themselves. Bloodline, ancestry, heritage. This book was their unvarnished family tree. Blood of My Children elbowed its way to the title page, where it stayed for quite some time.

Too bad it sounded like a crime story. I loved it, I hated it, I wanted it to be The One. It captured the essence of the narrative but sent the wrong message. I had taken the writing as far as I could. I tucked the project away and moved forward.

Months later, alone in my office, the manuscript whispered from its hiding place in the bottom desk drawer: hey dummy, what’s left when everyone dies?

Wait. What?

The memoir that lived in my mind, on my laptop, in a drawer, inside my heart for two decades had its own timeline. Shit happened, people died, but what did any of it mean. The story marinated, I ruminated. Time and distance sharpened the focus as I learned to listen to the writing. Which brings me here.

When the noise and chaos, anger and pain, sadness and longing of thirty years finally faded to a whisper, what was left was love. Love is more powerful than family dysfunction, war, and even death.

So simple. What’s Left When Everyone Dies.

That’s the one.  

___

A third generation Chicagoan, Barbara Ferraro is a married mother of two fine adults, interior designer, and foodie who appreciates a nice glass of Chardonnay—very cold.

3 Things Your First Pages Must Have

June 23, 2022 § 16 Comments

For an agent, publisher or reader to keep going, your first pages must:

1) establish the main problem or quest

2) make us want to spend time with the protagonist (not the same as liking them)

3) teach us the rules/theme of the book we’re entering.

I’ve read a lot of book beginnings this week, between submissions for today’s webinar, in which Jane Friedman and I will analyze queries and first pages, and finding examples of published books to talk about. Some of what I’m noticing: unpublished manuscripts—even “final” drafts—start with backstory. Or setting up relationships. Or giving a sense of mood, or bringing the reader into the setting. Or establishing exactly why the protagonist might develop a goal…later.

Published books start with action.

As I read sample queries, I looked up books that authors listed as comps. Books they aspire to be like; books they hope to be shelved next to. Time after time, the main problem or quest was established in the first paragraph. In memoirs:  

Cheryl Strayed loses a hiking boot and tells us what she’s set out to do and why it’s such an unlikely quest. Why is she doing it? Read on…

Jeannette Walls sees her mother digging through a sidewalk garbage can, and keeps going. Why doesn’t she stop? Read on…

Suleika Jaouad starts itching. What’s wrong with her? Read on…

Some genres have first-pages conventions. I looked at middle grade books, all written in first person, all starting in the middle of a scene that summarizes the whole problem of the book. I looked at young adult books, all establishing a strong-voiced narrator about to enter a new situation they’re dreading/anticipating. Can an author do something unconventional? Sure! But they’ve got to pull it off beautifully, and they’ve got to do it on purpose, not because they didn’t carefully examine other books in their genre.

For your own pages, skip the backstory (and any big world-building chunks). Let the reader figure it out from how the protagonist interacts with the world. This includes relationships. When you find yourself writing, “I leaned against my husband Paolo, and we watched our daughter Jane,” pick either the relationship or the name. The reader can figure out the name from dialogue, or the relationship from behavior. Keep place references casual. Not, “I pulled into the gravel driveway of our two-story mock Tudor that my wife Bobbie and I bought twelve years before,” but “pulled into the driveway,” or “got home.” Don’t lay out a floor plan or a family tree—get the reader into the story. Work in details as the narrator interacts with the setting while pursuing their main action.

What makes a protagonist someone we want to spend time with? Voice is a big reason. For memoirs, tell your story like you’re telling a friend, but better. As if you’re relating that cocktail-party story you’ve told before—genuine, but a little more polished.

You’ve probably also heard of “Saving the Cat”. This concept, named by Blake Snyder, means establishing the humanity of the character we’re going to spend time with. Maybe they literally save a cat from a tree before heading into the bar for a pre-recovery binge. Maybe they show a small kindness. I love this moment from the first pages of Free Lunch, middle-grade autofiction from Rex Ogle. The young narrator has just fought with his mother in the supermarket parking lot, upset about the family’s poverty. Then:

I pull a shopping cart from the pen. One of the wheels is wonky and spins left and right instead of rolling straight. I consider putting it back, getting a new one, but then I feel bad for it. It’s not the cart’s fault it’s messed up.

It’s a beautiful moment of saving the cat, and a remarkable craft moment—we love the narrator because the narrator feels compassion. For a shopping cart. In a sentence that also states a primary theme of the book—it’s not my fault I’m messed up.

Finally, your first pages must teach the “rules” of the book. What’s the tone? What genre are we entering? How will this story be told?

Kiese Laymon’s Heavy opens rhythmically, urgently—he’s going to tell a personal story that’s hard to tell, and he has to keep going before losing the nerve. This book will be voice-driven, the reader learns. Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black opens with a dryly funny author’s note. The reader learns that this book will be self-referential, and the format is part of the story. Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts opens with references to Wittgenstein and anal sex. The reader is either 100% in for this smart, visceral journey, or they’re going to put the book down before page two. By giving your reader a sense of the rules, they are already leaning in, meeting you on the page, anticipating what comes next.

Take a look at the published books you’d be thrilled to share a shelf with. What do those pages do? Are the quest, voice, rules and theme clearly established? Does the book start with an action? What, specifically, makes you want to spend time with the narrator? Then look at your own pages—are you doing the same things? If you’re choosing not to, what else have you done that’s just as strong or stronger?

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to hear these concepts discussed in more detail, plus pages and queries analysis, please join her and Jane Friedman today (or on the replay!) for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected?

Sprachgefühl: Finding the Perfect Word

June 17, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Christine Yount Jones

To develop sprachgefühl, Charles Johnson, in his book The Way of the Writer, recommends that writers read the dictionary one hour a day to develop a robust vocabulary from which to choose.

One hour a day!?

The dictionary!?

The parts of speech and etymology sections too? Does an audiobook version count? Is there an audiobook for the dictionary?

I digress.

Sprachgefühl. It’s a nice German word with its impossible umlaut nowhere on my keyboard. So I copy/paste it from the internet. At first glance, sprachgefühl seems to mean the sprocket is full, but no, Nancy Friedman writes on her blog that “sprachgefühl means, literally, ‘a feeling for language’ – sprach is related to English ‘speech,’ and fühl to ‘feel.’”

To which Dan, her one commenter, writes, “Sprachgefühl. Great word. I love it.

Fun to say; a nice phlegmy, guttural ‘Sprach,’ and a lip and tongue-twisting umlaut in ‘fühl.’ It sounds like a Sid Caesar-type German word. It sounds like what it means.”

Good one, Dan.

Johnson contends that writers need sprachgefühl because it’s a sensitivity or feel for “the exactly correct word for a thought or experience.” Could he mean that sprachgefühl helps a writer find the antediluvian word that most likely leaves poor readers scrambling to dictionaries to figure out what the heck that obscure word means?

Is this communication? Or writers trying to impress one another with their fustian vocabulary?

Recently in a writer’s group, two words in a peer’s narrative fiction stumped me. After stopping to look up ecdysis and peripatetic, I commented by asking if she wanted her dear reader to stop reading this early and look up these words.

Then I hit the online dictionary (so I could look smarter than I am). Was there something wrong with me that I didn’t already know these words? Maybe everyone but me reads the dictionary for an hour each day? Maybe people already know what ecdysis and peripatetic mean and I was showing my ignorance?

I deleted the comment.

Years ago, I learned that words have no power or purpose if they’re not understood. Home from college for a weekend, I sat with my mother after breakfast in what had once been my grandmother’s kitchen. My mother, who had graduated from high school, had worked as a bank teller most of her adult life and in a few years would go back to school to become a nurse. She is no numpty.

I can’t recall what we talked about exactly, but I was a sophomore in college, so it must have been quite heady. My mother stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Chris, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

I sat there slack jawed.

“If people don’t understand what you’re saying, you’re not communicating,” she said.

I had no idea that college had given me a Backpfeifengesicht* but she was right. My mother’s wisdom has stuck with me through decades of writing and editing.

So I ask the question again: Should we as writers push the dear reader to know words like ecdysis (the process of shedding the old skin) and peripatetic (traveling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short periods)?

Would my writer friend’s dear reader be better served if she chose a more common word for ecdysis? Say, a state of escape, shedding, stripping away, taking off, or undressing? I have to admit that once I looked up the word, it felt like ecdysis definitely had the essence of sprachgefühl. My friend had effectively compared the character’s peripatetic life to that of a snake shedding its skin.

But peripatetic? Be honest. Would you have to look it up or is it just me? Instead of peripatetic to refer to her character having lived in sixteen different places in her lifetime, why not use nomadic, vagabondish, vagranty? Oh, I hear it now. Maybe that’s why.

We must ask: By finding the word that satisfies our sprachgefühl, must we look for the most pretentious word we can find? As an example, if one were writing about “any complex instrument or mechanism for a particular purpose” such as a vehicle, rowing machine, or bra, why not use doodad, thingamajig, or whatchamacallit instead of apparatus? Perhaps apparatus is too difficult a word for some; who’s to know? Would the more simple words clearly communicate to the dear reader? Or should the writer use her sprachgefühl to find a word the dear reader has never heard–nor will ever use–simply so the dear reader understands that the writer is nonpareil?

Today, while scrolling a thesaurus site (sprachgefühls Bible), I found the word gubbins that the Brits use for apparatus. Yes, why not use gubbins, which means gadgets or gadgetry? That will take the dear reader straight to the dictionary to find that gubbins also means “a foolish or futile person.”

“You silly gubbins.”

There are ways of impressing readers without confounding them. Kurt Vonnegut’s apt advice was to pity the readers. He wrote, “Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify–whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”

 “Sprachgefühl is an important quality for a dictionary editor,” according to Frederick Mish, the late editor-in-chief at Merriam Webster. A dictionary editor! For today’s writers, though, sprachgefühl should take us to the simplest and clearest word rather than making the reader feel like a gubbin.

* Backpfeifengesichta face that’s badly in need of a fist

___

Christine Yount Jones writes non-fiction and fiction after a career in publishing–both print and digital. She has published 14 books and hundreds of articles. She is currently working on a memoir, collection of short stories, and an MFA from Lindenwood University. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, Teddy the dog, numerous deer and a few bears. She can be found at https://www.christineyountjones.com/

Deconstructing Didion

June 7, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

We may risk being disappointed by meeting someone we admire, but if that someone inspired us to become who we are now, don’t they merit a closer look no matter what we’ll find?

This was my thinking after Joan Didion died. She was among a small handful of women writers who inspired me to study personal narratives. Like Joan, I began my writing career as a journalist and was drawn to the ‘I’ after writing a monthly newspaper column that ultimately became an essay collection. In my essay and memoir writing workshops, I always include at least one Didion essay on our reading list—oh the many ways readers respond to “Goodbye to All That”!

But with her death, I felt she deserved a deeper dive.

So I took the plunge.

I’ve been rereading her essays, devouring what’s been written about her, rewatched “The Center Will Not Hold,” and revisited her interviews.

Didion was an innovator. In the 1960s, she boldly brought herself into her reporting in what was later dubbed the new journalism movement along with Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer. The idea was to let readers know who was guiding them and where the writer’s lens was located. She was an early adopter of flash cuts and quick scene changes separated by white space in what would become known as a collage structure. Didion was known for punctuating her prose with a great many proper nouns and observing her subject (s) without joining them.

In “Goodbye to All That,” she writes

To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has always spent several hundred Saturdays at F.A.O. Schwarz being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. 

She was also a stylist. In “Why I Write,” she wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” In that same essay, she added, “…images do shimmer for me.”

In the opening of the Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion shimmers indeed:

The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.

In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller points out her mastery in that passage:

There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher . . . haunted . . . Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.

As for what she did it all for, she famously wrote that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” And she has been—and will likely continue to be—imitated for decades.

But digging around into her work and life also reveals contradictions. 

Didion confessed in interviews that though she saw herself as an outside observer much of the time, she didn’t always understand what she was seeing. Her essays have been critiqued for leaving the reader without a sense of the meaning of what she was reporting.

There was also finger wagging at her inspiring young reporters to do less reporting and more opining. But at the same time, she was lauded for allowing the vulnerability of the writer to be more transparent.

Some have called her work romantic individualism. Others say she held an unsentimental gaze.

So, you might ask: What is the merit in taking apart the work of a beloved writer?

The value is in acknowledging that our writerly heroes are not larger-than-life, cardboard cutouts. Didion was a human being with a pen in her hand whose “most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.”

As it turned out, my deep dive into Didion’s words did not disappoint. Her voice on the page was authentic.

Besides her body of work and the beauty of her craft, there’s much to learn from Didion’s journey away from words, too. She brought her life, her own baggage, to the page, a reminder that in spite of her literary status, she was made of flesh and bone.

Ellen Blum Barish will be teaching a virtual one-day workshop on “Deconstructing Didion” at Story Studio Chicago on June 29.

Ellen Blum Barish’s essays have been published in Tablet, Lilith, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio.. Her memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) was published in 2021 and she is author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.

Six Ways to Add Humor to Your Writing

June 2, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Interested in strengthening your funny bone?

Whether you want to write a short conceptual humor piece, infuse a serious essay with moments of humor, or just send an impressively funny text, these reliable techniques can get you started.

The Rule of Three

This popular comedic device is based on the idea that words and ideas are funnier in threes. The first two ideas set up a pattern; the third idea deviates from the pattern in a way that surprises and delights the reader. One way to do this is making the first two items in the list relatively serious or straightforward, then breaking the tone with a sillier third item.

From Phoebe Robinson’s Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: 

Being from the Midwest and attending a private Catholic prep school, even though I’m not religious, meant a lot of things—having a sense of humility, caring about the greater good, eating at Wahlburgers more often than I care to admit to…

The silliness and unexpectedness of the third idea are supported by the setup of the first two ideas. 

Hyperbole

Heightening is critical to humor writing, and especially funny when describing internal thoughts and emotions. Especially when they are embarrassing.

In comedian Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You, she describes the difficulties of making friends as an adult:

“I’m gonna friend you on Facebook!” I blurted at the back of her red shirt and mom jeans, feeling my bones weaken and my arteries calcifying as I aged forty years in one second.

Did Irby actually age 40 years all at once? Of course not. But the description matches the writer’s feelings in the moment, not her literal physical experience. The hyperbolic description lets the reader experience the cringe factor with Irby—and recall an embarrassing moment of their own. 

Funny/Weird/Specific Details 

A lot of writing can be punched up by using specific words and details. Hard consonant sounds are often funnier (eating with a spork is funnier than eating with a spoon) and specific quirky details can often lead to laughs. 

In Wow, No Thank You, Irby also writes:

And I hear you — how could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s Internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

Just writing “restaurant” wouldn’t have had the same funny specificity as “mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Describing something with a specific detail works well, especially if it paints a funny image in your reader’s mind.

Funny Comparisons

Simile and metaphor are often used in serious writing and those same devices can be used for comedic effect. Funny comparisons can be unexpected or relatable (or both). They can pull a reader into a scene, provide imagery, or reference anything from pop culture to obscure moments in history.  

In comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat:

I explained what it was like having a fourth kid very simply: imagine you are drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.

In The New Yorker, humorist David Sedaris describes his sister’s perfume as,

A combination of five different scents, none of which is flowery or particularly sweet, it leaves her smelling like a strange cookie, maybe one with pencil shavings in it.

Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is a gold mine of funny comparisons. She describes her singing voice:

I could hold a tune, but only the way you hold a stranger’s cat: not closely and not long (not to mention the strange yowling noises).

End on a Joke

How many times have you heard “save the best for last”? This is especially true for humor writing. Formatting choices can make a reader skim over a joke or pause to belly laugh. As much as possible, put the best part of the joke at the end of the sentence/paragraph/essay. Building to the funniest part is a great way to engage (and surprise) the reader. And what is humor without surprise?

Author Courtney Maum builds up to a joke in this essay about publishing a first book:

You know that people are entitled to read books you haven’t written because you’ve been reading those other books your entire life…. You’re aware of this. You’re just not sure why your friend’s mommy blog post about perfect gift ideas for 2-year-olds didn’t include a link to your first novel is all.

Analyze Comedic Pieces

Find a piece that you find funny and take a highlighter to it. Examine the spots that make you laugh. What techniques did the writer use? Was there a specific funny word choice or a humorous aside or commentary? 

Looking at the underlying techniques in a piece can help you create your own humorous writing. You can also notice these devices in other types of comedy, like stand-up or sitcoms. And we promise—absorbing any kind of humor absolutely counts as writing time.

Julie Vick has written humor for New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Real Simple; and most importantly, one of her tweets once appeared in In Touch Weekly. She is the author of the humorous advice book for introverted parents, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) and is an English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Read more of her work at julievick.com

Sarah Garfinkel’s writing has been featured in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, where she is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column. She has taught writing at Harvard University and Columbia University. She also leads humor writing workshops for teens and adults. Read more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

Revising a Tiny Love Story

May 26, 2022 § Leave a comment

In Brevity’s newest issue, Lori Tucker-Sullivan talks about revision, feedback, and how much is too much when taking the advice of editors or other writers. What do we owe ourselves as writers, through revision? Is it right or wrong to release our control of our own words?

Here is an excerpt:

… crafting a one hundred-word piece for The New York Times’ Modern Love Tiny Love Stories. It was a demanding exercise to tell a story that took place twenty years earlier about a letter written by my husband now also gone many years. There was the letter’s content, my response, new grief, old pain, so much to delve into within such a minimal word count. Once finished, I became attached. This piece was therapy, release, discipline, and acceptance, perfectly wrapped in exactly one hundred words.

You can read Tucker-Sullivan’s full essay, and see how her Tiny Love Story changed across drafts, in Brevity‘s Craft Section.

Consider the Platypus

May 25, 2022 § 2 Comments

In Brevity‘s recent May issue, Randon Billings Noble examines the “daringness” of the lyric essay, how it relies on intuition more than exposition, image more than narration, and question more than answer.

“But despite all this looseness,” she writes, “the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle).”

Noble sees in the lyric essay a mammal of sorts, but

one that lays eggs; semiaquatic, living in both water and on land; and venomous, a trait that belongs mostly to reptiles and insects. It will run away if on land—its gait that of a furry alligator—or swim off in the undulating way of beavers. Either way it can threaten you with a poisoned spur before it ripples off.

Noble goes on to classify four common forms of the lyric essay—flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab—and examines the inner workings of each.

You can read the full essay here in Brevity’s Craft Section.

Towards a Daily Writing Practice: A Credo

May 23, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Karen Babine

I don’t believe in inspiration anymore.

I believe in compulsion.

I believe in friction. I believe in the energy of phrases pulled from a stranger’s conversation, of ideas that don’t quite match their contexts, a belief in being so aware that you stand next to Alexander Smith and become the world’s amanuensis because you have no choice.

I believe the world is an interesting place.

I believe in doing the work of being a writer, the work of studying at the page of masters to learn their brush strokes, how to mix that particular color of blue. I remember a conversation with the fiction writer Will Weaver and asking him if he had a writing schedule, and he said he did, that he wrote every day, because it would be a shame if the Angel of Fiction showed up and he wasn’t there. We may enjoy it, we may hate it, but what gets us to the page is the compulsion to translate what we see, what we think, what we imagine onto a page that is not suited for such tellings. We never see the iceberg of work that goes into a writer’s sentence, but we know it is there.

            Pianists play scales, basketball players shoot free throws, and writers write.

Once, I heard a talk by a scholar of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and this man had combed through archives for the drafts of Heaney’s poem “Punishment.” He went through the changes Heaney had made, not just small-scale word-level changes, but structural changes, stanza changes, scything whole swathes, and planting new ones. And then, on the thirteenth draft, Heaney changed the entire poem into a sonnet, shifting his phrasing into iambic pentameter, confining himself to a rhyme scheme, tightening his fingers around those fourteen lines. Just to see what would happen. In the next draft, the sonnet had given way back to quatrains, where it stayed. But the point is that Seamus Heaney, one we might assume knew what he was doing, still did the dirty work of being a writer. He did not believe in magic, in poetry coming to him. He had to dig for it.

I believe in a writing practice. By that, I mean considering writing in the same mode as yoga practice: it is not something to be achieved. It is to be pursued. With practice, we are able to move our bodies and our pens in new directions not possible yesterday. Writing is a muscle, not magic, after all. If I think of writing as an embodied practice, the movement of my pen on paper, the click of my fingers on a keyboard, how tired my hand is when I’m out of practice, then I’m in a mindset of how my body is in the world is how my body is in the world and that is a place to write from. Because of this, I have long used Julia Cameron’s Writer’s Backpack, which consists of Morning Pages, Walks, and Artist Dates. I have come to believe in starting a day with what is most important to me. If I wait for inspiration, if I wait for a block of several hours to write, there will always be something else to do. If I start the day with writing, I will have always done the work of being a writer before the grocery shopping or lawn mowing or teaching. Because Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks are part of an active writing practice, the work of putting a writer’s body into the world, practicing looking and seeing before we put it on the page, we are doing what I consider the most important work of being a writer: writers are always writing; they are not always typing. For some, Morning Pages might look like 2am Pages, or fitting the work of the mind onto the page in the way that fits best.

I believe in the work of writing, of the writer priming the pump, so that the well is never dry. I believe in carrying a notebook and collecting observations, phrases, angles of light, the shift of air currents and what in the world is that smell??, and I believe that each writing project will create its own process. I believe in leaning into the writerly urge to collect notebooks, to let them stack on the shelf in pristine order, and I believe in that little internal tug that might be fear as I pull one out and put it to use. I believe in this paper-bag-brown Moleskine and I believe in the cheap pen which somehow leads to lovelier handwriting than the expensive pen next to it, because the drag of this pen against this paper is an alchemical combination that feels right.

I believe in the practice of being in the world, my body in the world, and my pen in the world. What I learned on the last project will not help me on the next one, but what I’m learning for the one I have not yet written is that by the time this book tells me what it wants to be, I’ll have everything I need, contained in that notebook. I won’t be starting from scratch, because I’ve done the work.

I broadly interpret Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks (sometimes it’s walking through a farmer’s market or the produce section at the grocery store with a writer’s eye, not just a cook’s) and it’s a good reminder that space is not neutral and the writer’s presence in a space is not neutral either. I believe in the attention of staring at a shelf of dishes you don’t need at the thrift store and letting your mind and sarcasm play against the colors, the ring of crystal you absolutely don’t need, but take home anyway because it’s beautiful. Your mind at work disrupts air currents, molecules, and that is a good place to start writing. Best not to pretend otherwise. Otherwise it’s like the old joke about the guy who prays please, God, help me win the lottery! over and over and finally God yells, “Then buy a ticket!”
___

Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Waxwing, and Terrain.org, and has twice been listed as a Notable in Best American Essays. Her nonfiction craft essays have appeared in Brevity and LitHub, and are forthcoming in the Writer’s Chronicle and CRAFT, She teaches at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

In Praise of One Beat Words

May 18, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Linda Button

Here’s to one beat words. Short and sweet and quick. Hot in your mouth, fast to say, they leap from tongue to brain in a flash. They amp up your tone and add salt to your prose. And by one beat words I mean short.

Short words are honed to work fast. Why? Most hail from the harsh north, where each breath is hard won. Blunt like chipped tools. Tough to make it through dark, cold nights. Not like the tongues from the warm south, born of sun filled days, where time stretched out with ease, no rush! and each sound led us down a long, slow path that seemed to have no end.

Words from the north cut to the chase. (A phrase, by the way, from the first days of film, where they meant “cut to the good stuff)”.

My folks, spawn of a long line of hicks, spoke in grunts. Dogs were mutts. You swam in the crick. Fixed the ruf. Each word shot from my dad’s mouth. We paid close heed. We ducked and did what he said. “Git here.” “Go on.”

Then, I was wooed by a posh school. They did not teach me to write well. They loved such long words. Lots of them. Scores. Tomes. Why use three words when you could use twelve? Fill the page, they pressed us. We purged our guts, plied words from our word gods, stuffed our work to awe our profs. Big blocks of text. No white space. No sense of dire. All was flat. We thought that made us sound, not just smart, cool.

But

where

were

our

crisp

bold

thoughts?

Lost in veils. We had draped them in fluff. Masked and dressed for show.

I learned how to write when I got my dream job in, well, we called it the boob tube. The boob tube. Fourth grade zone. True. We learned to keep it short to reach the most folks. Our goal: keep them glued. “How much time do you have? Wait, wait, don’t go! Stay here. Look, here’s a new fun thing we just found for you. Try this. Try that. Stay with us.”

We wrote scripts for the ear, not the eye. That taught me to be blunt, like my dad. Hack off the dreck. Cut to the core. Clean up your prose. Trim the split ends. We carved each plea to one beat. We got to the point. We caught them in our trap.

Wow, I thought. I can say less and mean more.

Try this

Fill a page with your tale. The whole side. Then, take each word: the four beat, three beat even and, yes, the two beat words. Find a way to say the same thing with one beat. See how you forge a clear stone path of thoughts to the end. See how they change the pace, how the quick steps fuel what you mean.

Our brains eat short words like fast food. That makes sense. Short takes less space. Each word drops in, plunk.

Then, when the time feels right, slip them one glorious note.

Glo-ri-ous. Mmmmm. Stands out, right?

Choose your words with care. Hone them. Make them punch through.

And, please, keep it short. And glorious.

In this blog I have used just one beat words. Tell me, did it work, or am I full of bunk?

_____

Linda Button spent 20 years running an award-winning agency and romping across six continents to speak on creativity and writing. Her essays on relationships have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love  and Boston Magazine. She completed the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street and is working on a memoir about marriage, madness, and how martial arts saved her. https://lindabutton.works

Some Thoughts on Writing Hermit Crab Essays

May 9, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Laurie Easter

During a recent AWP conference panel on the lyric essay, Angie Chuang, Heidi Czerwiec, Sayantani Dasgupta, and I read excerpts of our essays appearing in Randon Billing Noble’s A Harp in the Stars anthology and talked about how we came to our forms. My essay, “Searching for Gwen” is a hermit crab essay in the form of a word search puzzle. What follows below are the thoughts I shared on the panel:

When I first tried to write about the subject matter in “Searching for Gwen,” I did not have its form of a word search puzzle. In an attempt to come to terms with my friend’s disappearance and the likelihood she would never be found, I wrote in fits, starting and stopping over and over, throwing out what I had written to begin again, only to grow frustrated at my lack of progress and flow. The more I tried, the worse it got. Finally, I let go, thinking that maybe I would never be able to write about this friend or I would need to wait—possibly years. That’s when I got lucky: in my release of attachment to an outcome, I had a sort of light bulb moment and the idea of a word search puzzle flashed in my head. I could see it visually in my mind’s eye. It all made sense. My friend was missing; everyone was searching for her. It was a mystery needing resolution, a puzzle waiting to be solved. Not only did this form make metaphoric sense, but it also allowed for me as a writer to apply order to the content of a human experience completely out of control, both emotionally and physically.

I’m not going to tell you that all you need to do is let go and a light bulb moment will magically settle upon you as if given from a fairy godmother. But I am going to say that there are things beyond our control in terms of craft. Nobody wants to talk about this because it isn’t necessarily something that can be taught easily. I have had this type of light bulb experience twice, and both led to hermit crab essays. The word search form for “Searching for Gwen” was the second time it happened. The first time was for an essay titled “Solving My Way to Grandma” which is in the form of a crossword puzzle (and appears in the anthology The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms as well as my essay collection All the Leavings).

At the inception of “Solving My Way to Grandma,” I did not have the content for the essay in mind but simply a drive to write an essay in a unique form. So I started playing around. I used the constraint of acronyms to write an essay that was total crap and never completed. But what that exercise did was it opened up my brain to possibilities. By using a very particular constraint and having absolutely no attachment to the outcome, knowing I was simply playing around and nothing might come of my time and effort, something in my brain opened up creatively and the idea of a crossword puzzle essay presented itself. I still didn’t know what I was going to write about, but I trusted my subconscious. It had come up with the idea; I figured it would also deliver the content.

I know, I know, it sounds woo-woo, right? But you know what? It worked! I sat down with absolutely no idea what I was going to write about, but I thought, okay, I’m just going to write and whatever comes—great! And I was pleasantly surprised by the content that arose. The topic—becoming a grandmother for the first time in my forties—was an issue I had been struggling with, so it was no surprise that that’s what came out. Later, when the idea for the word search puzzle came to me, my first thought actually was, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that before?” Because after utilizing the crossword puzzle form in the previous essay, a word search puzzle form to write about my missing friend seemed downright obvious once I thought of it. Somewhere in my subconscious, the idea must have lingered, waiting to be released, triggered by the relational quality of puzzle solving, but I had to do the work of letting it out.

I’m making it sound easy, right? So what is the work involved? If you want to write a hermit crab essay, five things are essential:

  • Experimentation and play are key to the process. No idea is too weird. No form off the table. Let your creativity flow without preconceived notions or developing judgments.
  • Release all attachment to the outcome and have a willingness to fail. Not all forms work. Some may not merge seamlessly with its content. This is okay. Remember what Albert Einstein said: “Failure is success in progress.”  Keep at it. Try again.   
  • Trust your intuition/subconscious mind. It knows more than you do.
  • Hermit crab essays require a mix of control and lack of control. The form is a way to apply order to the chaos, but it is necessary to release control to find the form and then allow that constraint to do its work. 
  • Finally, above all else, have fun! One of the joys of writing hermit crab essays is that it’s fun to play with form. Even if the subject matter is intense—as in my essay “Searching for Gwen”—playing with form brings levity to the writing, both for you the writer and the reader.

___

Laurie Easter is the author of All the Leavings (Oregon State University Press). Her essays have appeared in Brevity, SweetLit, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, and Pithead Chapel, among others. She lives off the grid in Southern Oregon. Follow her on twitter @EasterLaurie and laurieeaster.com.   

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